Monday, 11 October 2010

Francis Collins betrays the rational basis of his profession

With a distinguished research career, and having directed the National Center for Human Genome Research and latterly the National Institutes for Health, Francis Collins is one of the most accomplished and important doctors of his generation. But that doesn't make him a good example to other doctors.

Collins is an evangelical Christian, but he's not a bigot else I doubt if Christopher Hitchens would have suffered his friendship for long. Of greater concern is that Collins has written in the Washington Post about how he's praying for Hitchens ('Praying for my friend Christopher Hitchens'). Praying for someone who believes his legacy will be to have "made a stand for those who are trying to hold reason and science against superstition", and who has requested people do not pray for him seems pretty disrespectful (that is, after all, why most Christians are participating in the 'Pray for Christopher Hitchens' day). But doing it without a shred of dignity by putting one's piety on display for the purposes of self-promotion in the pages of a national newspaper is doubly so.

In any case, Collins is the sort of apologist who finds no clash between science and religion, believing that his god is outside the normal universal terms of reference and therefore impervious to scientific investigation. (Jerry Coyne begs to differ here). In other words, so as not to fall foul of the 'God of The Gaps' (the gaps eventually yielding to scientific investigation and thus progressively squeezing the hiding places for the irrationality of faith), by a sleight of hand he's invented in his own mind a chasm rather than a gap. But to ensure that even this chasm can't be bridged by science, he's importantly declared that this chasm has only one side. And to think that Thomas Aquinas went to all that bother with natural theology.

I've alluded to various psychological research that shows how of the cognitive biases that allow intelligent doctors to believe nonsense, but it is astonishing what otherwise reasonable people can do in the service of their beliefs. Collins' acheivements cannot excuse the poor example he sets for the medical and clinical science. Don't worry about an evidence-base if it doesn't suit your purposes. Just make something up. Preferenably something that other people can't call you on.

And whilst you're there, why not take the opportunity to do a bit of proselytising by writing about it in the Washington Post?

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