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Credentials Don't Change Crap-Think
Sam Harris reviews Francis Collins' book, "The Language of God, noting "that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind":

Francis Collins—physical chemist, medical geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project—has written a book entitled “The Language of God.” In it, he attempts to demonstrate that there is “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and evangelical Christianity. To say that he fails at his task does not quite get at the inadequacy of his efforts. He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes. His failure is predictable, spectacular and vile. “The Language of God” reads like a hoax text, and the knowledge that it is not a hoax should be disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States.

Most reviewers of “The Language of God” seem quite overawed by its author’s scientific credentials. This is understandable. As director of the Human Genome Project, Collins participated in one of the greatest scientific achievements in human history. His book, however, reveals that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind. Lest we think that one man can do no lasting harm to our discourse, consider the fact that the year is 2006, half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old, our president has just used his first veto to block federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research on religious grounds, and one of the foremost scientists in the land has this to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain):

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted….

God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.

...Collins describes the moment that he, as a scientist, finally became convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ:

On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains … the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.

If this account of field research seems a little thin, don’t worry—a recent profile of Collins in Time magazine offers supplementary data. Here, we learn that the waterfall was frozen in three streams, which put the good doctor in mind of the Trinity…

It is at this point that thoughts of suicide might occur to any reader who has placed undue trust in the intellectual integrity of his fellow human beings. One would hope that it would be immediately obvious to Collins that there is nothing about seeing a frozen waterfall (no matter how frozen) that offers the slightest corroboration of the doctrine of Christianity. But it was not obvious to him as he “knelt in the dewy grass,” and it is not obvious to him now. Indeed, I fear that it will not be obvious to many of his readers.

If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything. Let us say that I saw the same waterfall, and its three streams reminded me of Romulus, Remus and the She-wolf, the mythical founders of Rome. How reasonable would it be for me to know, from that moment forward, that Italy would one day win the World Cup? This epiphany, while perfectly psychotic, would actually put me on firmer ground than Collins—because Italy did win the World Cup. Collins’ alpine conversion would be a ludicrous non sequitur even if Jesus does return to Earth trailing clouds of glory.

Posted by aalkon at August 19, 2006 11:50 AM

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Comments

Great review.

"The Language of God" really is a placidly obnoxious read.

And Collins is unblushingly selective about his Darwin quotes too, to prove he was unambiguously "one of us".

Though I did grin at one sentence in the book which began: "Modest though my guitar skills are...".

(Oh no, I thought, not that sort of Christian!!)

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at August 19, 2006 3:57 AM

The tendency to reward credentials with authority is well-established and has some merit, in that the expert may be considered likely to be correct in his/her field - but the act is fallacious every time.

Lately, we have the ludicrous notion that movie stars have expertise in all manner of things merely because of their celebrity - and that someone is skilled and employable because they have a "college" degree.

Posted by: Radwaste at August 19, 2006 6:16 AM

> (Oh no, I thought, not that
> sort of Christian!!)

Jody is thinking of this guy:

http://tinyurl.com/j6a97

> we have the ludicrous notion
> that movie stars have
> expertise

That's the popular take, but I bet you'd agree that the truth is just that it's fun to look at people with good jawlines. People are lonely and isolated, and it's analgesic to stare at pretty faces. If ET asks Beyonce about the Middle East, people will look at the TV when she answers. They'd be watchign anyway.

Posted by: Crid at August 19, 2006 10:52 AM

Actually, I don't think a Gettier counterexample technically leaves one on firmer ground. However I did see Collins on Charlie Rose a few weeks ago and I think he's Exhibit A for the case against confronting the religious instinct with appeals to systematic analysis or empirical data. It's just too tenacious. You can do it for the record but I have a funny feeling in my toe that it's hardwired into the DNA. This is also why I suspect Ann Coulter actually believes what she says about ID.

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at August 19, 2006 11:17 AM

With respect to movie stars, I suspect people actually tend to disrespect them because of their vocation. I think the main reason journalists court their opinion is to vamp their fame for ratings, and, hopefully, shake a Paris Hiltonism or two out of the tree so we can all feel superior to people who have orders of magnitude more money, fame, power and beauty than we do.

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at August 19, 2006 11:30 AM

Although I must confess I'm pretty damned cute.

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at August 19, 2006 11:32 AM

There's something creepy about this story, too. One "surrenders" when one is beaten.

Posted by: Radwaste at August 21, 2006 2:57 AM

I haven't read Collins' book, but from things I have heard about it he doesn't appear to deal with religion in a very rigorous manner. That reflects on his understanding of philosophy and religion, but it doesn't tell you very much about how scientifically minded he is. I suppose it's possible to have a stellar scientific career while not being scientifically minded, but that doesn't seem very likely. Being a brilliant geneticist doesn't guarantee that you will be an expert philosopher. He probably isn't an expert on astrophysics either.

Posted by: Mr. Grouchypants at August 21, 2006 9:00 AM

I know that I'm being pedantic but one of the details of his conversion story really bothered me, "As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ."

If the waterfall is frozen, wouldn't it be too cold to have "dewy" grass? I would think the grass would be "frosted" and perhaps even "snow-covered" I know that here in Michigan it has to get pretty darn cold to freeze flowing water, not to mention falling water.

Posted by: zhuang at August 22, 2006 10:40 AM

Thus, a miracle. Q.E.D.

Surrender to Jesus now, Zhuang.

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at August 22, 2006 10:51 PM

Maybe it was all just a vision from God, and he actually never left his office.

Posted by: Canada at August 23, 2006 12:06 PM

Maybe it was all just a vision from God, and he actually never left his office.

Posted by: Canada at August 23, 2006 12:07 PM

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