What Francis Collins Changed for Christians in Science

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This week, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, announced that he would retire at the end of the year. An evangelical Christian who previously worked as the head of the Human Genome Project, Collins’ 2009 appointment still drew scorn. From a 2010 profile in the New Yorker:

Collins read in the Times that many of his colleagues in the scientific community believed that he suffered from “dementia.” Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, questioned the appointment on the ground that Collins was “an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs.” P. Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris, complained, “I don’t want American science to be represented by a clown.”

Nevertheless, Collins served under three presidential administrations. During the pandemic, Collins has spoken out a number of times in his efforts to dispel misconceptions about the virus and vaccine.

Prior to his term at the NIH, Collins was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He also wrote the best-selling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, which won a CT Book Award.

Elaine Howard Ecklund joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss Collins’s legacy in the scientific and Christian communities.

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Music by Sweeps

Quick to Listen is produced Morgan Lee and Matt Linder

The transcript is edited by Faith Ndlovu

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #283

Your books are very good especially about questions about what religious people, particularly conservative Christians think about science and what scientists think about religion including conservative evangelicals like Francis Collins. How often did Francis Collins’s name come up in your research? Did it come up more among Christians interested in science or among scientists interested in talking about religious folks?

Elaine Ecklund: Francis Collins is a prominent figure in the scientific community. He’s had many years as we know of the NIH, which is the National Institutes of Health, the largest biomedical research agency in the world. But before that, he was head of the Human Genome Project and had a major part in mapping the human genome.

He is a prominent scientist, not even just in the US but globally, but I didn’t set out to ask people what they thought about Francis Collins. My broader research initially was about what scientists in the US in different disciplines think about religion, ethics, and values and how they thought religion conflicted or didn’t with what they understand of science.

I was surprised when scientists themselves mentioned such prominent, scientific figures like Collins, often both scientists who were not themselves non-religious and scientists who were religious and specifically scientists who are committed Christians. They mentioned Francis a lot and the other scientist that they mentioned a lot is Richard Dawkins, who is the very well-known former Oxford university professor who is the author of The God Delusion.

When they talked about scientists did the religious people have a concept of folks like Francis Collins operating in the making of major breakthroughs like the human genome project, or some of the work that he had done on Cystic Fibrosis and genes and all that kind of thing. Was he prominent in Christians talking about science?

Elaine Ecklund: I wish he was more so. I did this study of scientists and what they think about religion. They knew all kinds of scientists including other famous scientists and they had a lot to say about Francis in particular and what he thinks in terms of his faith.

That led me to another interesting research question, which is, what do religious people think about science and specifically, what do Christians think about science and scientists? My colleague, Christopher Scheitle, and I set out to understand that set of questions and we did a little survey experiment. We introduced information about Francis Collins who’s a very committed Christian and we introduced information to our respondents about Richard Dawkins, who is a very committed and outspoken atheist, and champion of what some called the new atheist. We found that actually, most people didn’t know of either Francis Collins or Richard Dawkins. We were very surprised. So I thought there are people in the general public who don’t know about Richard Dawkins or Francis Collins.

But another layer of findings was that when they did get information about these two and their backgrounds and particularly their views on religion, the general public thought that Dawkins was much more typical than Collins. So they thought Dawkins is what they see as a typical scientist, a very committed outspoken atheist, and Collins is fairly atypical and further yet when they were introduced with information about Collins, they then were a bit less likely to see a conflict between religions and science. So most people don’t know about these famous scientists, most people who when they do hear about them, think Dawkins is more typical, but Collins does have some power in helping people see less of a conflict between science and religion.

Ted Olsen: Learning about Dawkins doesn’t change people’s perception of the relationship between science and religion and that’s largely because people maybe have a slightly negative view of the religion and science relationship but talking about Collins does say I guess that there is more collaboration possible with religion and science. Is that right?

Elaine Ecklund: Exactly. This is something that has a lot of public input, potentially, especially both in the science and the faith community. The public trust in science is really important and we see that with the vaccine and some of my research has shown that it’s not so much that the public doesn’t trust science it’s that they don’t trust scientists as a people group. They think that they might not share the same values that the general public does and especially religious people and particularly evangelical Christians are especially hesitant about trust and scientists.

My colleagues and I started thinking, how could you start to solve that? Maybe based on these Collins findings, if there are scientists we share an identity with, where we’re both Christians and I’m a scientist and you’re not, maybe because we share that Christian identity, you will be likely to trust what I have to say scientifically.

So I started thinking about the possibility of using these social science findings to do some more intervention work within particular kinds of faith communities.

When someone becomes a star or a celebrity scientist, does that necessarily reflect on how mainstream they are within the scientific community themselves?

Elaine Ecklund: With relationship to Collins in my first study of scientists, attitudes towards religion, when Collins was brought up without me even priming people or asking them directly about him, he was brought up mostly in a neutral or positive light.

He’s done amazing scientific work, but he also has this Christian personal private thing on the side. So the sort of independence model of seeing the science and faith relationship. I may think he’s kind of kooky personally, but I’m fine with his scientific work, I respect him. Or people thought that Collins was able to relate to a piece of the general public, the religious general public that other scientists were not and they were kind of pleased by that so were grateful for someone out there like Collins who relates to them when they could not. When Richard Dawkins was brought up, his scientific work was also very much respected by other scientists as far as I could tell but some scientists, even atheist scientists themselves wondered about Dawkins’…

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