Friday, August 28, 2009

Francis Collins and his God – but no, not more of that New Atheist stuff…
[Well, not really. This is the pre-edited version of my latest column for Prospect.]

The unanimous praise for President Obama’s scientific appointments is faltering. When in January he offered the position of surgeon general to the ‘media doctor’ Sanjay Gupta of CNN, many considered it a lightweight choice. In the event Gupta declined, and Obama’s new nominee, Alabama community physician Regina Benjamin, has raised no eyebrows.

But the nomination of Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health, the US biomedical research organization, is more controversial. At face value, Collins looks an obvious choice: former leader of the Human Genome Project, he has a proven track record of large-scale management, and commands respect from peers by remaining scientifically active rather than becoming a pen-pushing adminstrator. Geneticist Eric Lander has called him ‘a superb choice for an NIH director’, while others praise him as a ‘scientist’s scientist.’

So what’s the problem? In a nutshell, Collins’ 2006 book The Language of God. He is outspoken, even evangelical, about his Christian faith. Even that might not have been a problem if Collins had not appeared to equivocate about ‘old-time religion’ issues such as the interpretation of the Fall and the possibility of divine intervention in evolution. Some scientists are troubled by what one can find on such issues on the website of the BioLogos Foundation, established by Collins to reconcile science and religion.

Collins will step down from BioLogos before taking up his new role, and some of his colleagues offer reassurances that they have never seen his scientific judgement clouded by his religious beliefs. But with the crippling religious opposition to stem-cell science in researchers’ minds, this may not be enough to dispel concern. Collins has become a figure of almost obsessive loathing among the ‘New Atheist’ scientists seeking to combat the religiosity of American life.

Biologist P.Z. Myers of the University of Minnesota, whose Pharyngula blog is a flagship of New Atheism, calls Collins’ BioLogos ‘an embarrassment of poor reasoning and silly Christian apologetics’ and worries that ‘he will use his position to act as a propagandist for Christianity.’ Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker calls Collins ‘an advocate of profoundly anti-science beliefs.’

But Myers offers what might be in the end a more compelling reason to question Collins’ appointment: ‘he represents a very narrow, gene-jockey style of research, which… often exhibits a worrisome lack of understanding of the big picture of biology.’ He’s not alone in fearing that Collins’ enthusiasm for ‘big science’ – especially genomic stamp-collecting – will leach funding from smaller but more intellectually guided areas, such as environmental and systems biology. Collins will initially have plenty of cash to spread around – the NIH was granted a one-off sum of $10.4 bn as an economic stimulus until September 2010 – but things will get leaner, and it will take boldness and vision to find space for innovation rather than more safe but dull genome-crunching.


It’s disconcerting astronomers almost to the point of embarrassment that a scar the size of the Earth has turned up unexpectedly on Jupiter. The dark ‘bruise’ in the giant planet’s dense atmosphere is evidence of some gigantic impact, presumably an asteroid or comet. The last time this happened, in 1994, it was widely anticipated and supplied a cosmic fireworks display both exhilarating and sobering: the fragmented comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 ploughed into the planet, leaving a trail of scars each of Armageddon proportions. But this wasn’t exactly a case of ‘there but for the grace of God’, so much as a reminder of Jupiter’s role as our guardian angel. The strong gravitational tug of the gas giant is thought to suck up many lumps of wandering debris that would otherwise pose a threat to Earth. Some researchers even think that the existence of a big brother to mop up impactors could be a condition of habitability for Earth-like planets around other stars.

All the same, we’d like to see such events coming. But no one foresaw the dark smudge in Jupiter’s south polar region until it was spotted by an amateur astronomer in Australia on 19 July. Word spread almost at once, and within less than a day two large infrared telescopes in Hawaii had seen the same spot, glowing brightly with sunlight reflected by the material thrown up through the jovian atmosphere.

We still don’t know what caused it, however. It could have been a faint icy comet, or a rocky asteroid. Jupiter also acquires blotches from storms, but none tends to look like this. It’s going to be tough now to figure out how big the impacting body was, or how much energy was released, especially as Jupiter’s winds will soon wipe away the traces. The similar ‘holes’ left by Shoemaker-Levy 9 were probably made by fragments several hundred metres wide: on Earth, that wouldn’t wipe us out, but it would make an almighty bang.


Has anyone visited the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics recently? It’s well worth it: led by some heavyweight astrophysicists, it hosts seminars for specialists every Friday, as well as regular public talks and outreach events open to all. But you won’t get there by air, road or rail, because MICA exists nowhere on Earth. It is the first professional research organization to be based exclusively in virtual reality, in Second Life. The potential of virtual worlds to bring together scientists for meetings and conferences without leaving their desks has been much heralded. But MICA takes that more seriously than most. Its seminars happen in a pleasant, wooded outdoor amphitheatre looking conspicuously like the Californian coast. It has to be said that the audience is rather better looking than it tends to be in reality too.

1 comment:

JimmyGiro said...

Is 'new atheism' just 'old Trotskyism' in Pied Piper clothes?

If I were the tyrannical kind - which thank the lawd I'm not sir - the kind of tyrant I would be, would be a bigoted tyrant.

I'm curious that as the main TV companies are vigorously dumbing down the science programmes, they give carte blanc to the new atheists presentations; indeed the best science seems to happen on Richard Dawkins' programmes.

Now if you're into conspiracy - and hundreds of professional spin-doctors employed by New Labour can't be imaginary (or idle) - then consider: who benefits from new atheism if not the 'political class'?

As long as 'bright' people are chasing vicars around the tea party lawn, they are not testing our government and its policies.

Our new world of ever extreme politics is being unchallenged by the people that the old Trotskyites feared most: the scientists. The new politics has effectively destroyed science in our schools by making it intellectually irrelevant; and the old school scientists are busy on the wild goose chase of new atheism, until father time eradicates their elitism forever.

The Pied Pipers of Millbank, and their international cohorts, must be laughing down their collective sleeves.

Why do I think new atheism maybe a political conspiracy? Richard Dawkins said that his publisher delayed his book project on "the God Delusion" due to political considerations. This maybe good economic strategy, but it is political nevertheless.

Richard Dawkins, BBC interview

And Richard bemoans that atheism is considered strident; would he comment that the new political class is busy making criticism against 'precious' members of society, an illegal pursuit, bigotry dressed in the acceptable garb of "hate speech"?

If the new atheists go into righteous apoplectic rage at the thought of children being given Bibles in school; where is their outrage regarding children being given lessons of mediocrity, so as to fit in the new political template of inclusivity?

Atheism isn't wrong; but I put it to the 'new atheists', that they are being used - distracted from the real battle - by the tyranny of the 'new political class'.

Which is more dangerous to children and school science: the vicar and his Bible; or the educational psychologist and her Ritalin?