Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Sad Case of Sam Harris

Sam Harris has written yet another iteration of his same-ole, same-ole argument that Francis Collins is unfit to serve as director of the National Institutes of Health. Why? Because Collins is a strong, vocal, evangelical Christian. A don’t-ask-don’t-tell Christian would be OK, so it's *cough* not about Collins being a Christian. It is about him being an uppity, arrogant, loud-mouthed, in-your-face Christian who is not a credit to his religion and doesn’t know how to keep in his place. Why someone who is open about his beliefs is not acceptable while someone who keeps them in secret is acceptable is only understood when you realize that Harris hates Christianity. When it cannot be ignored, he goes on the offensive.

It is said that northern racists don't care how far blacks make it, as long as they don’t live near them. Harris (and Coyne and Myers) are more like the southern racist who doesn’t mind living next to a black man, as long as he remembers his proper station in life.

Although making the same case he always does, this particular essay by Harris is uncharacteristically poorly written. Consider this non sequitur near the beginning:
Even religious extremists value some of the products of science—antibiotics, computers, bombs, etc.—and these seeds of inquisitiveness, we are told, can be patiently nurtured in a way that offers no insult to religious faith.
Yeah—so what? This is akin to the there are no atheists in a foxhole aphorism. It has absolutely nothing to do with Collins’s qualifications to lead the NIH.

Harris expresses, with grave concern:
Just imagine how scientific it would seem if Collins, as a devout Hindu, informed his audience that Lord Brahma had created the universe and now sleeps; Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA (in way that respects the law of karma and rebirth); and Lord Shiva will eventually destroy it in a great conflagration.
First of all this is a fallacious (and common, in this debate), good-for-the-goose, good-for-the-gander argument. It is of the form: Those damn hypocritical Christians would be apoplectic if a devout Moslem was nominated for the NIH position. Yes, some of them would—but their postulated error cannot be recycled (pre-cycled?) as a reason to argue against Collins. Sammy—you have heard the one about two wrongs not making a right? Right?

It truth, if Collins were a Hindu (to take Harris’s example) it would make not a bit of difference. As for any government job, the relevant criteria can be summarized as 1) Are you the most qualified applicant? 2) Are you permitted to work, legally, in the United States? 3) Do you currently engage or have you engaged in any disqualifying illegal activities? and 4) Are you engaged in any secret financial or personal hobbies that might render you a national security risk?

Science more or less dispenses with all criteria except number one. Science is a meritocracy, one of the few true meritocracies. What has always been relevant in science is: what is the quality of your work? and, to a lesser extent, what is the volume of your work?

On the sole count of what is actually relevant for holding a scientific position Harris, in a rare display of integrity, or more likely a calculated display of faux integrity, writes, (in what should be the entirety of his essay):
One must admit that his [Collins’s] credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist, and the former head of the Human Genome Project
You can just about detect the regret and reluctance with which Harris must concede this inconvenient fact—which he never mentions again and treats as totally incidental. He only turns his head aside and burps it out, one can speculate, for CYA purposes. I wasn’t unfair to Collins. I mentioned he was qualified. Aren’t I the even-handed one?

The rest of the Harris’s essay is devoted to Collins’s Christianity. To the Harris’s of the world, it doesn’t matter that Sonia Sotomayor is an impeccably qualified jurist, it only matters that she is proud and vocal about being a Latina.

Show, don’t tell

What about evidence? Anyone have any actual evidence that Collins’s religiosity renders him unfit to lead the NIH? Harris? Coyne? Myers? Anyone?

I have repeatedly asked, on some enormously popular websites such as Myers’s own Pharyngula, for someone, anyone, to demonstrate the science/faith incompatibility charge. The people making this claim are supposed to be scientists or at least scientifically literate. They should understand that that a hypothesis than cannot lend itself to testing is inherently unscientific. As many of you know, I proposed a test: I would provide ten peer-reviewed scientific papers, five from believers and five from unbelievers. If the charge that religion and science are incompatible is more than just words, we can posit that it should be possible to detect which papers are polluted by the author’s religion. No one has ever accepted the challenge.

The extent of the “proof” of their claim that science and religion are incompatible is summarized by this recent comment on Pharyngula:
since we've already seen examples of Collins claiming that certain phenomena, e.g. human morality, are evidence of divine intervention, it's pretty clear that his religion is interfering in his science already (Emphasis added.)
Behold the standard of proof to the New Atheists that religion and science are incompatible. It is not that that the charge can be substantiated with data, but that it is “pretty clear” to them.

Painted in a corner, refusing to acknowledge the obvious, that Collins’s beliefs are at most orthogonal but not incompatible with science, New Atheists respond with a template1:
Blah blah blah, compartmentalization, blah blah blah cognitive dissonance, blah blah blah, Collins/Miller are so pwned, blah blah blah.
That is, they rely on something that explains everything and nothing, the psychobabble term compartmentalization (it’s like breathing—who doesn’t?) and a misuse of the term cognitive dissonance2.

Collins’s Conversion Account is Foobar

Harris’s attack on Collins—like all other attacks on Collins, amount to nothing more than telling us, in so many ways, that Collins is a Christian. That pattern is: Collins is a Christian! No, I mean he is really a Christian. Did I tell you just how much of a Christian Collins is? He friggin’ writes about his Christianity! He is not embarrassed about it like he should be, why he is proud of it! Unthinkable! Absurd!

At least here Harris is, as he often is, more interesting than Coyne or Dawkins or Myers. Because Harris also questions what Collins wasn’t, writing:
How something breaks often says a lot about what it was. Collins’s claim to have been an atheist seems especially suspect
You might ask why Harris bothered mentioning this. I can tell you from experience: he can’t help himself. Atheists, at least those of the “New and Deteriorated” flavor3, seek a sort of racial purity. Like Scientologists, they deem it acceptable that you should join them but should you ever leave them it was only because you were not a True Atheist™. A corollary of this dogma is that Stalin was not an atheist, but the Archbishop of a religion: Stalinism. Mao was not an atheist, but the Pope of The First Church of Maoism.

Collins's personal epiphany—the famous waterfall story, really irks Harris. Again we see that the problem is that Collins just can’t shut-up in regards to his shortcomings. Harris writes, concerning Collins’s conversion account:
It is simply astounding that this passage [Collins’s conversion account] was written by a scientist with the intent of demonstrating the compatibility of faith and reason. While Collins argues for the rational basis of his faith, passages like this make it clear that he “decided” (his word) to believe in God for emotional reasons. And if we thought Collins’ reasoning could grow no more labile, he has since divulged that the waterfall was frozen into three streams, which put him in mind of the Holy Trinity.
Oh noes! Beauty in nature made Collins get emotional and think of God, and something he saw brought to mind the doctrine of the Trinity! Burn his scientific papers that passed peer review—burn them! He’s a witch!

This from a man (Harris) who has much in common with Shirley MacLaine (perhaps they were even married in a previous life); a man who is into Eastern Mysticism. A man who looks favorably on xenoglossy. A man who in his best seller The End of Faith wrote4:
Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reason for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical.
For him to argue that Collins’s beliefs demonstrate irrationality –why the cajones, they must be the size of Brazil.

Along the same lines Harris opines, concerning Collin’s Polkinghorne's (correction made after publication) religious writings:
... however, is that it is impossible to differentiate his writing on religion—which now fills an entire shelf of books—from an extraordinarily patient Sokal-style hoax
Actually the differentiation is trivial. Sokal submitted his delightful hoax to a post-modern journal as if it were a legitimate paper. Collins Polkinghorne does not submit his religious writings as scientific research papers to Nature. Come on Sammy—the difference, far from impossible to discern, is manifestly obvious. On the other hand, it might really be impossible to distinguish Harris’s writings on Eastern Mysticism from other eastern mystics, such as the late David Carridine.

Oh, that’s just Sammy being Sammy

Another concern about Collins is that he would be in charge of the money and might direct research funds away from uncomfortable topics. Here, in a bizarre other-worldly manner, Harris projects his own inadequacies on Collins.

He does this by comparing the case of Collins to that of Nobel Laureate James Watson, he of DNA fame, who recently lost a position because of indelicate comments on possible intellectual differences among the races. Harris writes, concerning Watson’s views:
Watson’s opinions on race are disturbing, but his underlying point was not, in principle, unscientific. There may very well be detectable differences in intelligence between races. Given the genetic consequences of a population living in isolation for tens of thousands of years it would, in fact, be very surprising if there were no differences between racial or ethnic groups waiting to be discovered. I say this not to defend Watson’s fascination with race, or to suggest that such race-focused research might be worth doing. I am merely observing that there is, at least, a possible scientific basis for his views. While Watson’s statement was obnoxious, one cannot say that his views are utterly irrational or that, by merely giving voice to them, he has repudiated the scientific worldview and declared himself immune to its further discoveries.
It takes a while to parse Harris’s mishmash. I’ll point out only the most glaring inconsistency:

Harris (not me, not Collins—Harris) argues that there may be detectable differences in intelligence among the races, and in fact that it would be "surprising" if there were no differences awaiting discovery. He then strongly suggests that he would not support such research.

Well, why not? Science is not emotional. Science is not politically correct. Restricting research into uncomfortable areas is part of the hypothetical case against Collins—e.g., that he would not support research into the evolutionary origin of human morality. If Harris thinks it would be "surprising" that there are no intellectual differences among the races, why, as a scientist, would he place such research off limits? The reason: Harris's emotions get the better of him. With Collins the charge of research bias due to emotionality is trumped up—with Harris it is demonstrable.

I have argued elsewhere that the charge that Collins would restrict funds to research areas that might challenge his faith is ludicrous. For at least four reasons the fear is unwarranted. In no particular order:
  1. To avoid the appearance of a bias--i.e., Collins might actually overcompensate. That would not be without precedent. Some scientists other than me might recognize the effect in a slightly different form: A nuclear physicist placed in charge of physics at the NSF is not necessarily a good thing for nuclear physics—there is a natural tendency to work to dispel fears of bias in the community.
  2. Because, perhaps, he fully expects a negative result. If Collins has faith that science cannot demonstrate the development human morality in purely evolutionary terms, then he has as much vested in the research as those who are confident that science can. He’ll be validated by a negative result more than by not doing the research at all. After all, as Harris likes to point out, Collins is a true believer, a zealot. As such he would not fear research into uncomfortable areas, he would welcome it, confident that it would affirm his faith. Only the weak-minded would fear that science would undermine faith—and I think we all agree than Collins is not wishy-washy.
  3. Even a positive result would not be damaging to his theology--just as evolution is incorporated via the get-out-of-jail-free card known as "theistic evolution" such as result would be understood as “the way God did it”. Collins has not asserted that any evolutionary role in morality would be contrary to his faith—but only that a solely evolutionary explanation would—which, given his belief in theistic evolution, is in fact impossible.
  4. (Most importantly and most relevantly) because he is, and has always demonstrated, the ability to perform his responsibilities professionally.
Every person in history who was placed in charge of a scientific budget had/has bias. If, hypothetically speaking, the head of the DoE strongly disliked String Theory--does that mean he'll cancel all String Theory grants? Of course not.

In reality, I suspect we (scientists, that is) all are admixtures of the truth, justice, and American-way just-the-facts-ma'am scientist and the "selfish bastard" eigenstates. Most scientists, I believe, a) want, ultimately only the truth to be propagated (scientific fraud is rare), b) support all legitimate avenues of research, including the competition and c) hope like hell, privately if not publicly, that their vested models/theories receive experimental support while the competition fails. (And the more vested you are the longer it will take for you to admit defeat, the Hoyle-Effect, indicating that irrationality is always present and yet doesn’t game the system.) Everyone wants to be a winner. Collins is no different, I suspect. Thankfully professionalism, personal integrity, the scientific method itself, and peer-review all work to keep our biases in check.

As for grants, we rely on men and women of integrity to follow established peer-review processes when evaluating proposals. Collins has given no indication (to make an understatement) in his past performance that he would not behave professionally. And of course, contrary to misinformation (again, evident in the commenters on Pharyngula and elsewhere) that his evangelical Christianity demands that he proselytize at every opportunity and thereby degrade his workplace, anyone who has any understanding of evangelical Christianity would know that that's bollocks. Christians are not commanded to evangelize 24/7 (at least not with words) but at appropriate opportunities. In fact, Christians are charged, in the most unambiguous of terms, to give honest work for their wages. (You could say that by doing so they proselytize without using words—and I wouldn’t argue the point.)

Sigh. The Bottom Line

People like Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and P.Z. Myers are bigots. Polished and educated for sure, but bigots nonetheless. In other times and in other places we have heard their vile arguments in different forms. Yes he is a qualified scientist but he is a evangelical Christian… was Yes he is a qualified scientist but he is a Jew… Or I have no objections to interracial marriage, but think of how hard it will be for the children… etc.

1 If you think I am wrong, find posts on say Pharyngula dedicated to the science/faith incompatibility and search the comments for “compartmentalization” and "cognitive dissonance".

2 Cognitive dissonance must more-or-less be self diagnosed. It is the tension caused by holding contradictory beliefs. If, like Collins, you find no contradiction between science and faith, then there is no cognitive dissonance. It does not mean, it should be obvious lest it be a nearly ubiquitous malady, when someone else holds beliefs that you believe are in conflict.

3 As opposed to the "Old and Improved" atheists. It is an intellectual comparison. Harris, Dawkins, Coyne and Myers, when it comes to intellectually supporting their atheism, are New Coke. The formidable Old Atheists, for example Bertrand Russell, are the Classic formula.

4 Which of course does not render him unfit for a scientific position. No, his downfall would (or should) rest solely on his his lack of scientific accomplishment.

UPDATE 1: One of the best Christian bloggers, Tom Gilson, also commented on Harris's article, in a response that is much more reasoned than my own.

UPDATE 2: A correction (as noted in the post) for which I must thank Raevmo, who probably trundled in via Telic Thoughts.


  1. Anonymous4:39 PM