Nurse Organization Supports Collins for NIH Directorship–Others Suggest His Religious Beliefs Make Him Dangerous

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).”

From chego101, via Flickr

From chego101, via Flickr

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.

Jacob Molyneux, AJN senior editor
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2016-11-21T13:25:36+00:00 July 13th, 2009|Nursing|3 Comments

About the Author:

Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.

3 Comments

  1. […] Molyneux, senior editor at the American Journal of Nursing, examined some of what was written about Francis at the time and looked at the then-nominee’s statements and records, including those about the use of […]

  2. jm July 13, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    Kent,

    All good points. Thanks for responding. No mockery was intended. I think it would be worthwhile to clarify the difference between actions taken by Collins as a public official working for a government agency and the expression of personal beliefs in other forums. In his case (and somewhat to my surprise, frankly), there really appears to be a difference.

    While I agree that you are doing your job by raising questions about a nominee that are better asked now rather than when it’s too late, I still found there to be a somewhat alarmist tone to your post, one that equated the expression of religious fervor in one forum with a kind of all-encompassing irrationality. I found this focus to be not fully backed up by concrete examples of actual actions taken by Collins nor fair in its representation of the tenor of his long career as a scientist.

    There are those public officials, and we’ve seen a great deal of them in recent years, who let their personal beliefs drive their public actions. We are justly wary of such people. As yet, I see nothing Collins has done in his long and public tenure working at the highest levels of science that gives me cause for concern. I cited his stated position on stem cell research as a case in point. It seemed to nicely balance scientific and ethical considerations; it seemed, dare I say it, reasonable (though no doubt there are fundamentalists who find it abhorrent).

    Perhaps, however, something will emerge as journalists look into his past in greater detail. We welcome the information. No one wants to see science subjugated to belief, or compromised by any other considerations.

    Jacob

  3. Kent Anderson July 13, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    Just some further elucidation for your readers, since you’ve impugned the tone of my post on the Scholarly Kitchen and reduced my points to mock them:

    First, the issue to me and others isn’t Collins’ beliefs per se, but his aggressive pursuit of those beliefs in the public sphere, including the founding of Biologos.org with funding from the Templeton Foundation. I’m sure most if not all scientists, government officials, and politicians hold religious views of one sort or another, but I can’t think of any who has gone as far as Collins in evangelism — writing a book tying science to religion (and vice-versa), founding a Christian web site, going on televised book tours in support of his point of view, etc.

    How unscientific are his public declarations? Imagine how you’d feel if Sonia Sotomayor claimed in her confirmation hearings that, yes, sometimes the law gets too confusing or ethereal for her to not believe that some higher being is at work outside the law, and that this unseen being will guide her in mysterious ways according to a pre-ordained plan, so she occasionally flips a coin to decide a case’s outcome, knowing that the coin will reflect the hand of this unseen and unknowable being.

    You’d pitch her out of the chamber in a heartbeat.

    Collins is essentially saying the same thing about science.

    To me, that’s a controversy worth following and discussing, which was the point of my post (and this response).

    Discussion is scholarly.

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