Thursday, July 30, 2009

Francis Collins, the New Atheists, and God

Obama’s recent nomination of Dr. Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health has spurred a bit of apprehension in the scientific community. Not for any lack of credentials–he has quite a lot of those. He is a distinguished geneticist with a PhD in physical chemistry. He has been a major contributor to genetic research for the last twenty years. He discovered the genetic markers for several diseases. He led the effort to map the human genome.

He is also an evangelical Christian.

While there are notable scientists and intellectuals who advocate the compatibility of science and religion (Brown University’s Ken Miller, for example), others scoff at the idea. They see religion and science as fundamentally contradictory, faith as something akin to a bad habit or superstition that will disappear with enough scientific training. Richard Dawkins, a biologist and outspoken atheist, claims that “science is corrosive to religion”. He is among a growing number of vocal critics of religion called the New Atheists (Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are some others), who regard religion as pervasive, obnoxious, and downright dangerous to society. So it comes as no surprise that they should have strong reservations about the Collins nomination.

Harris makes his doubts clear in this recent op-ed in the New York Times. While Harris has the habit of hastily dismissing any argument for religion–and in doing so often overlooking the complexities of the issue–he does raise several good points here. The first is about the scope of scientific inquiry. Collins has said “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence.” This is a surprisingly decisive statement for a scientist who has been pushing the bounds of knowledge about the very thing that makes us human: our DNA. And many scientists would argue that while it may not be able to answer all our questions about human nature, science can surely inform the discussion. Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, would certainly think so. In the past few years he has been investigating the origins and evolution of moral intuitions, and is one of many scientists in the fields of evolutionary biology, cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience that have been trying to accomplish exactly what Collins seems to say they can’t.

The second and perhaps more troubling notion is Collins’ complete dismissal of a morality without God. He has said:

“After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul…If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

The idea that morality becomes an illusion if it is the result of evolution is, in my view, just plain wrong. We have evolved faculties of perception, emotion, desires–none of which become less “real” when we discover that they were selected for over time. My instinctual fear in reaction to a loud noise may have evolved because it helped my ancestors escape predators, but that does not imply that I am not scared! In fact, it is precisely because of the reality of these evolved faculties that they have made a difference, and thus are still around today. Morality, if it has evolved, does not suddenly disappear.

Furthermore, the notion that God is the source of our “moral law” is troubling because it can quickly turn into (and historically has been used to support) a deeper implication: that without God we can have no morality, and by definition one must believe in God to be a good person. Frankly, this is absurd. You don’t need to look very far to find plenty of counterexamples–history provides an abundance. Empirical tests also provide support: when asked to make judgments about a series of hypothetical moral dilemmas, religious people and atheists tend to answer the same way. Religion just doesn’t seem to have any sort of monopoly on good behavior. While I doubt that Collins actually holds this extreme view, his statements could be used to support it.

So, do Collins’ beliefs matter? Given his history of scientific excellence and leadership, there is little reason to think that Collins will use his appointment to promote his beliefs, or that his religion will interfere with his ability to be an effective director. However, he is in a profoundly influential position as policymaker and spokesperson for science, and will undoubtedly face some decisions with real ethical implications. Some of the most heated bioethical debates are found particularly in his own field of biomedicine: stem cell research, genetic engineering and testing, human enhancement. He will very likely have to confront these issues in the first few years (if not months) of his appointment, and I don’t think I’m the only one uncomfortable with him letting his religious beliefs determine the morally correct course of action. It seems appropriate, then, for the scientific community to press him on how his religion will effect his decision making for the NIH.

Some further links:

A 2006 debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins.
Godless Morality
, a paper by Marc Hauser and Peter Singer

Monday, July 27, 2009

Good Design is… Invisible

> Evolution of ClearviewHwy, a typeface redesign to make US road signs more legible

Design strives towards invisibility–to present, to inform, to be used but not noticed. In other words, if design works, you’re probably not focusing on it. Instead, you’re thinking about the content of a magazine, you’re opening a door, you’re navigating your way through a museum. Oddly enough, when it comes to design, it takes a lot of work to be invisible. And without an awareness of the value of that work, design is often treated as an afterthought. Which is why I was thrilled to find this article making the case for design in a country that largely fails to appreciate its value or relevance. As Allison Arieff puts it:

“In countries like Finland, Sweden, South Korea and the Netherlands, design is a no-brainer, reflected by the impeccable elegance, usability and readability of everything in those countries from currency to airport signage. These places support strong design policies and a deep-seated understanding and engagement of the value of design by their governments. More than the U.S. they seem willing to recognize the value of design both in terms of economic competitiveness and its benefit to quality of life.”

From highway signage to political campaign typography, there are numerous examples of how great design in the US can have real, concrete consequences. A few companies like Apple and Nike also seem to appreciate the value of great design, and are doing quite well for it. But bad design is pervasive, and it ranges from merely annoying or inconvenient to downright baffling (just look what Republicans did to the Democratic health care plan). The fact is, many people fail to see the connection between design and their daily lives, and it’ll take more than a few instances to promote a culture of design awareness. But there are some signs that the culture is shifting, encouraged by a rise of local design groups and national design initiatives. The Design Industry Group of Massachusetts is bringing together a number of design industries to promote design and economic development across the state. On the national scale, the National Design Policy Initiative is working to push through an agenda of design policy proposals, including the recognition of an American Design Council. As Arieff points out, plenty of other countries have Design Councils, and these bodies act in partnership with their government to implement design policies that work towards better communications, services, and experiences. Given my passion for posters (and voting), I was also pleased to come across Design for Democracy. It’s an organization that demonstrates “the value of design by doing valuable things,” like increasing civic participation through ballot design projects and Get Out the Vote poster campaigns.

I think we can become more design aware. And once design is recognized as a priority, I think we’ll be pleased with the result. Of course, we may not notice it. With any luck, it’ll be invisible.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Particularly great stories have a tendency to make themselves relevant every now and again. My reflections over the past few days have brought me back to this one. I think it will always remain unsettling, yet powerfully illuminating.
"With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level -- but that's only Euclidian nonsense, I know that, and I can't consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that cause follows effect simply and directly, and that I know it? -- I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven't suffered simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That's a question I can't answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I've only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It's beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers' crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn't grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: 'Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.' When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, 'Thou art just, O Lord!' then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can't accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child's torturer, 'Thou art just, O Lord!' but I don't want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It's not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to 'dear, kind God'! It's not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don't want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don't want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother's heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket."

-Rebellion (
Part II Book V Chapter 4) The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Public Understanding of Science

So what do people think about science, anyway? I ran across a new survey report by the Pew Research Center which gives some insight into how the general public views science (they like it) and how their views compare to those of scientists (who see some problems). While more than 80% Americans hold scientists in high regard and believe that science has a positive effect on society, scientists point to low levels of scientific knowledge and lack of media coverage as major challenges.

Some stats worth noting:

Evolution and Climate Change: About a third of Americans reject evolution entirely (an unsettlingly large number, I think). 32% believe that humans and other living things have evolved due to natural selection, compared to 87% of scientists. There is a similar divide on climate change: about half of the public says that global warming is caused by human activity, compared to 84% of scientists.

Politics: The public approves of scientists becoming politically involved–more than 75% think that scientists should have an active role in debates on issues like stem cell research and nuclear power. 97% of scientists agree.

Religion: 95% of Americans say they believe in God or a higher power, while 41% of scientists don’t believe in either.

Scientific Knowledge: The good news is Americans seem to be aware of scientific topics that are personally relevant to their health and daily lives (91% of Americans know that aspirin can prevent heart attacks, for example). But they have trouble answering questions on basic scientific concepts (less than half of the public know that electrons are smaller than atoms).

I’ve been fascinated by the recent coverage of this survey, which has been a clear indicator of current tendencies in the presentation of science to the public (think: conflict & decline). Although the Pew survey–more than 50 pages long–has plenty of encouraging information to guide and inform a productive public discussion of science in society, reporters have focused on the negative findings of the survey: lamenting the large gap between scientists and the public on issues like climate change, the conflict between science and religious beliefs, and the general decline of American favor of science. This is not to say that the media has deliberately skewed the findings; after all, the Pew survey itself contains phrases like “wide divide” and “sharply diverge”. But consider the strikingly different tone and focus in the commentary at the end of the survey:

The good news is that opportunities abound for finding common ground on issues spanning science and society. Americans with a wide array of views, including scientists, clearly are united by the shared goal to improve human welfare by leveraging scientific advances. In the Pew Research survey of 2,533 AAAS members and 2,001 public respondents, a majority of both groups cited advances in medicine and life sciences as important achievements of science. Nearly three-fourths of public participants recognized that federal investment in basic scientific research as well as engineering and technology promises long-term societal benefits. That view persists across partisan lines, with a majority of Republicans (68%) and Democrats (80%) saying that support for basic science pays off in the long run, with comparable percentages saying the same about investments in engineering and technology.

Could it be more productive to concentrate on this shared recognition of the benefits of science, rather than continuously stress the divisions between scientists and the public?

In this post Matthew Nisbet says that it’s inappropriate (yet, sadly, predictable) for commentators to interpret and present the Pew findings using a narrative of decline. He suggests that the rhetoric of a public crisis in science could be “potentially distracting, if not harmful, to public engagement efforts.” But this narrative is nothing new. In fact, it has its roots in what Nisbet describes as a common–and, he claims, false–assumption of the scientific community that ignorance is the sole source of public distrust in science. In other words, scientists assume that if we could only get the public to learn more scientific facts, we would have a culture of public support and appreciation of science. This “deficit model” is something I want to consider in more detail later, since I have come across various arguments for and against scientific literacy as the antidote to public distrust. To be continued, then.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Ethical Dimensions of the Health Care Reform Debate

To get this whole blog thing going, here’s something to consider – two things, actually. Two very insightful articles about the ethical issues raised by the current debate on health care reform. Cohen talks about the rhetoric used by critics of the public option in the Senate health care reform bill, accusing them of being intellectually dishonest (why don’t we have a Debate Umpire to supervise public discourse?). Singer explains why avoiding any discussion of “rationing” health care for fear of sparking opposition is both unrealistic and unethical. He says that health care will inevitably be rationed in some way or another (by ability to pay, by access to advanced medical technology, etc), and we should not–and cannot afford to – forgo responsibility in making these tough decisions.

The Very First Post. Ever.

So I’m starting a blog. While I can say with a high level of certainty that this will not be a running blog (my apologies Madeleine), I can’t exactly predict what it will evolve into. For now, it's just a place for me to post thoughts, reflections, links, explanations, and ideas. Should be fun.