Steven Pinker on Francis Collins

Four years and four days ago to this date, Steven Pinker publicly opposed the nomination of Francis Collins to head the NIH. Let’s take a look at how Pinker rationalized his position.

Pinker wrote:

I have serious misgivings about Francis Collins being appointed director of NIH. It’s not that I think that there should be a religious litmus test for public science administrators, or that being a devout Christian is a disqualification. But in Collins’s case, it is not a matter of private belief, but public advocacy.

Pinker speaks out both sides of his mouth. He tells us there should be no religious litmus test, but then proceeds to impose one. According to Pinker, religious people should only be allowed to serve as public science administrators as long as they keep their religious views in the closet. This is clearly a litmus test.

Pinker: For example, I see science as not just cures for diseases and better gadgets but an ideal for how to think about the most important issues facing us as humans– in particular, the ideal that we should seek truth through reason and evidence and not through superstition, dogma, and personal revelation.

Okay, we should hold Pinker to this posturing. He needs to seek truth through reason and evidence and not through prejudice, bigotry, and stereotypes. So let’s see if Pinker is a man willing to practice what he preaches. Pinker comes up with four reasons to oppose Collins.

Reason Number One: Collins has said that he came to accept the Trinity, and the truth that Jesus is the son of God, when he was hiking and came upon a beautiful triple waterfall. Now, the idea that nature contains private coded messages from a supernatural being to an individual person is the antithesis of the scientific (indeed, rational) mindset. It is primitive, shamanistic, superstitious. The point of the scientific revolution was to do away with such animistic thinking.

Collins is guilty of becoming a Christian through personal religious experience. For Pinker, this is a reason to oppose his nomination. I guess Collins was supposed to become a Christian as the result of scientific experimentation, although not a single atheist can point to the experiment that led them to conclude God does not exist. Of course, at this point, Pinker has abandoned reason and is relying on a primitive form of scientism. There is not a single person alive whose views are all rooted in “scientific thinking.” For example, as I noted previously, if we are all supposed to behave as scientists when interacting with reality, for starters, we all need to become apolitical. So is Pinker apolitical? I doubt it.

So why does Pinker cherry pick religious belief as something that is contrary to scientific thinking? I propose that his oh-so-selective criticism is rooted in prejudice and bigotry, a hypothesis that makes sense in light of his support for New Atheism. This would mean he is NOT seeking truth through reason and evidence. And that means he does NOT practice what he preaches. Instead, because of his bigotry, he opposed Collins nomination and then used his reason simply to rationalize his own anti-scientific approach to reality (bigotry is an anti-scientific approach).

Reason Number Two: This is not just autobiographical. Collins, in his book, eggs on fellow evangelical Christians in their anti-scientific beliefs. He tells them that they are “right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible” and to “the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.” Granted, he is not a young-earth or intelligent-design creationist. But he has stated that God interacts with creation, in particular, that he designed the evolutionary process to ensure that human intelligence, morality, and Judaeo-Christian religious belief would evolve.

I see no evidence that Collins “eggs on” Christians in their “anti-scientific” beliefs. Of course, I have not read Collins’ book. In fact, has Pinker read Collins’ book? A truly scientific approach would make every effort to represent any opposing position as accurately and strongly as it can. As such, a scientific approach would involve reading Collins’ book before telling others what it said. Yet this paragraph reads like an attack on a straw man position propped up by quote-mining and thus there is no evidence Pinker has read the book. And that would be inexcusable.

Nevertheless, the bottom line is this – neither quote-mine qualifies as “anti-scientific.” To hold fast to the belief that we should not sin and to resist the misguided metaphysics of atheistic materialism is not anti-science. Furthermore, a belief that God has somehow designed evolution is also not anti-scientific. Such a belief can exist as a metaphysical perspective that exists outside of science. So Pinker fails to support his contention.

Reason Number Three: That is far more than just expressing an opinion. That is advocacy, which gives incalculable encouragement the forces that have been hostile to science for the past eight years. And this is not just a theoretical fear: a number of right-wing, religious apologists (e.g., Dennis Praeger, in his debate with o Sam Harris) used Collins as a stick to beat secularists: “Here is a famous scientist who takes an interventionist God and the Bible seriously; who are you to contradict him?” This is going to be multiplied if Collins becomes an even more prominent face of science.

First of all, Pinker is confused. Collins is not trying to give “incalculable encouragement the forces that have been hostile to science for the past eight years.” He is doing just the opposite in trying to get many of “the forces” to recognize that evolution is compatible with Christianity. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Pinker is relying on stereotypes.

Second, that “right-wing, religious apologists” might cite him as a “famous scientist who takes an interventionist God and the Bible seriously” is hardly a good reason to oppose Collins’ nomination. After all, it balances the misleading rhetoric of “left-wing, atheist apologists” who preach endlessly that science and religion are incompatible. As a member of the New Atheist Movement, Pinker comes off as an activist who is whining because Collins makes it harder for Pinker to spread his anti-religious memes.

Third, since it has been four years since Pinker issued his warning that “this is going to be multiplied if Collins becomes an even more prominent face of science,” has the scientist, who postures as if he represents reason and evidence, ever lifted a finger to test his prediction? I can find no such testing.

In fact, if you do a google trends search for “Francis Collins,” Pinker flubbed it. There is indeed a spike of interest in 2009, most of which comes from the news of the appointment itself and the controversy the Gnu atheists tried to stir up with their propaganda. But since then, it is clear there has been no multiplied interest in citing Collins. Pinker is yet another New Atheist who preaches about the need to test claims, but is unwilling to test his own claims.

Reason Number Four: Also, the human mind and brain constitute one of the frontiers of biomedical science. Cutting-edge research treats intelligence, morality, and religious belief as products of evolution and neuroscience. The idea that there is divine design and teleology behind these functions, on the basis of Iron Age and medieval dogma, is antithetical to this vibrant research area. How will Collins preside over the allocation of research priorities if he believes in ““the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted”?

At this point, Pinker has crossed the line and publicly smeared the character of Collins. There was never any evidence to think Collins would undercut or thwart neuroscience research and to suggest otherwise is just playing dirty. What’s worse is that this prediction was made four years ago, and Pinker, the scientist who postures as if he represents reason and evidence has never lifted a finger to test his prediction. That’s probably because, as I have shown, the evidence contradicts his personal attack:
Egg on their Faces

Summary: Steven Pinker misleads people into thinking he is not imposing an anti-religious litmus test on Collins and that he is merely advocating we seek truth based on reason and evidence. Yet it is clear Pinker was trying to impose a litmus test on Collins and that his views were not rooted in reason and evidence. His first justification was nothing more than prejudice propped up with scientism. His second justification was stereotype propped up with quote-mining. His third justification was nothing more than a subjective complaint that stemmed from his own activist views. His fourth justification was nothing more than fear-mongering that entailed a smear against Collins. What’s most interesting is that his third and fourth justification included testable claims and Pinker has shown no interest in testing his claims for over FOUR YEARS. In fact, four years worth of data show us that Pinker’s fear-mongering and personal attacks had and have no empirical support. They also show that Pinker was being dishonest and hypocritical in wanting people to “seek truth through reason and evidence.”

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4 Responses to Steven Pinker on Francis Collins

  1. Bilbo says:

    Good points, Mike.

  2. The Deuce says:

    I’ll just reiterate about Steven Pinker what I said about Jerry Coyne. What he says about intelligence, morality, and religious belief must apply to such notions as “truth” and “laws of logic.” Like Coyne, his worldview is incompatible with the very existence of objective truth, and of our ability to seek it through reason from evidence, and like Coyne, he argues accordingly.

    He talks of “seeking truth through reason and evidence” not because he actually does that, or because he wants other people to do it, but because he thinks that *talking about* doing it helps him push his narrative by sounding impressive.

  3. Al_de_Baran says:

    Pinker is a nauseating hypocrite. He not only has a personal agenda (hooray for Science, Reason, and the Enlightenment), but clearly has no inkling of the purely emotional, dare I say irrational, basis that underlies his attachment to his views.

    Have you seen his latest piece in The New Republic, where he attacks the notion of Scientism? I hope that you decide to reply to it.

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