The American Academy of Nursing (AAN) has released a statement saying that it “applauds President Obama’s nomination of Francis S. Collins, MD, MPH, for Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).”
But now it appears there’s a controversy brewing around Collins, a scientist who just happened to direct the Human Genome Project—how far it might progress is hard to say, but witness the distinctly unscholarly tone of an article at a Web site called Scholarly Kitchen. The author draws upon frank statements Collins has made about his religious beliefs as an evangelical Christian in order to impugn, through innuendo and inference—aided by some typically brilliant rhetorical sleight of hand from no less a celebrity scientist than Steven Pinker—Collins’s very claim to objectivity. How dangerous is Collins, you might ask? Here’s a quote from Collins used to suggest he’s not to be trusted:
Science is not particularly effective — in fact, it’s rather ineffective — in making commentary about the supernatural world. Both worlds, for me, are quite real and quite important.
Hmm. Pretty scary stuff. As I read, I hoped to learn exactly how Collins had undermined scientific objectivity (for example, by acting on behalf of the Bush administration in redacting vast portions of studies unfavorable to a political agenda), but saw not the slightest bit of concrete evidence that Collins has ever let his religious beliefs color his scientific objectivity or affect his practice.
What, for example, does Collins believe about using embryonic stem cells for research? Here’s a blog entry of someone affiliated with the magazine Christianity Today. As far as I can tell from the interview excerpts quoted, such as the one below, Collins comes down pretty squarely on the side of going ahead and allowing the use of embryonic stem cells:
There are hundreds of thousands of those embryos currently frozen away in in vitro fertilization clinics. And it is absolutely unrealistic to imagine that anything will happen to those other than they’re eventually getting discarded. So as much as I think human embryos deserve moral status, it is hard to see why it’s more ethical to throw them away than to take some that are destined for discarding and do something that might help somebody.
It’s not that he doesn’t have qualms. But it seems that for Collins, science and the potential for alleviation of human suffering trump moral or religious absolutism and blind adherence to the sanctity of life issue.
As far as assuming that all Christians think the same on any one issue, that’s like saying all Jews or Muslims think the same on a specific issue. It’s absurd, ill informed, dated, and plays right into the hands of fundamentalists rather than strengthening alliances between ethical, thoughtful people of every sort. Seems to me that Collins’s extracurricular efforts to help certain religious people see they don’t have to hold science hostage to religion—that the two can coexist and even complement each other—can only be beneficial in a culture like ours, whether you agree with his beliefs or not. If further scrutiny proves me wrong, so be it. But let’s judge him by his deeds, not our fears.