Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sam Harris versus Francis Collins

When interviewed for a 2006 profile in the Washington Post, Sam Harris "asked that all but the most basic biographical details be omitted from this article, even where he lives and where he studies." The profile does tell us that he was "a dropout for 11 years" during which time "he was supported financially by his mother." Eventually he managed to get a bachelors degree when he was already in his 30's. He was a frustrated writer who studied meditation, experimented with drugs, and read lots of books on philosophy. One of his meditation teachers, Sharon Salzberg, says that "Sometimes you'd want to say to him, 'What about the Yankees?' or 'Look at the leaves, they're changing color!'" But then things finally started looking up for Sam on or around September 12, 2001.

The reason I mention all this is that Harris has recently, and very publicly, questioned whether or not Francis Collins is intellectually and psychologically fit to be the next head of the National Institutes of Health. Harris is afraid that Collins' religious beliefs will cloud his thinking and/or judgement to the detriment of the future of science. You see, somewhere along the way, Sam Harris has somehow managed to convince himself that he is an expert on science, and, most especially, on how to "think like a scientist."

To his credit, Sam, at age 42, is now working on his PhD in Neuroscience. Good for him. But what was Francis Collins doing at that tender age? Was he perhaps campaigning to ban the teaching of algebra in public schools because algebra is not found in the Bible? Or maybe he was working for Pat Robertson's Presidential Campaign Committee or perhaps he was the head of the Anti-Science Studies Department at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, or something like that?

No? You say that at the age of 39 this religious nutjob, Francis Collins, was the leader of one of the teams of scientists who jointly isolated the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis? Really?!? Why, I didn't even know that cystic fibrosis was even in the Bible!

And then by age 42 Collins had also helped to isolate the genes for one form or leukemia, Huntington's disease, neurofibromatosis, and multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1. And then at 43 he was tapped to be the head of the Human Genome Project.

So how is it, then, that Sam Harris has come to consider himself as someone who is qualified to pass judgment on Francis Collins' ability to "think like a scientist"?


josef said...

This is the dictionary definition of an ad hominem attack.

Also, Harris is making an observation about Collins' philosophical position regarding the explanatory scope of faith, and Harris does indeed have a philosophy degree. In any case, what should matter is the argument itself.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Josef you are dodging the issue: should a person's religious beliefs be used as a basis for discrimination?

Harris does think so, therefore he is a vile bigot. How about you?

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Oh, and Harris finally managed to graduate from college sometime in his early 30's (he is notoriously vague about such details). By that age Collins had a PhD and an MD, had been conducting scientific research for years, had completed his residency at North Carolina Memorial Hospital and had returned to Yale (where he did his PhD) as a Fellow in Human Genetics - this is when he began to develop the pioneering techniques that would help him to isolate genes directly involved in diseases like cystic fibrosis.