The New Ambassadors of Science

WEEK IN REVIEW / by Evan Lerner /

Francis Collins and Regina Benjamin are tapped, SpaceX races NASA into orbit, a Pew Poll on the public perception of science, and Microsoft releases Feynman lectures.

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Illustration: Joe Kloc

President Obama announced two long-awaited appointees this week, tapping Regina Benjamin as his surgeon general and Francis Collins as the head of the NIH. Benjamin’s appointment is notable in that she’s filling a spot left essentially vacant for almost three years, leading some to question what exactly the job entails other than writing in increasingly large fonts on the sides of cigarette boxes. But with an uphill battle ahead of President Obama in his quest to reform American health care, having an able ambassador of public health who’s been alternatively called “woman of the year” (by CBS and People magazine) and a “genius” (by the MacArthur Foundation) can only help.

This ambassadorial aspect makes Collins the more interesting—and controversial—appointment. The head of the Human Genome Project has proven his big-science chops (even if he did take silver in the race with Craig Venter), but he’s also proven his big-religion chops with his books, public pronouncements, and his newly minted BioLogos Foundation, which “represents the harmony of science and faith.”

Collins’ exemplary record when it comes to working as an administrator should make his relationship to God as relevant as his relationship to folksy Sinatra parodies about the rigors of academia. But in visiting his new website, one can’t help but be struck by the Jesus fish hanging over the foundation’s logo or quotes such as, “Miracles are possible from the perspective of a believer given that God is the creator and sustainer of all physical laws and has the ability to suspend those laws.”

Scientists should support dialog on the intersection of science and religion, if only out of respect for the plurality of beliefs out there. But when the BioLogos Foundation’s language and staff bios represent nothing but evangelical Christianity, it’s hard to muster an ecumenical spirit. 

Which makes the ongoing blogwar/circular firing squad over Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s new book, Unscientific America, all the more disappointing. The merits and demerits of a devoutly religious person running one of the nation’s chief scientific bodies is perfect fodder for a discussion of the book’s themes, but that debate has been mostly lost in a larger one over whether “New Atheists” are harming scientific literacy through their condescending attitudes towards believers. 

I reviewed Unscientific America for Seed and still feel their core argument is sound: science communicators should do more to consider their audiences’ idiosyncrasies when possible. But in light of this melee, I do wish I had been more critical of two aspects of the book.

First, if the authors’ strategy for conveying information to a hostile audience is accommodating those hostile beliefs, they fail their first test. The strident, accusatory tone of the sections dealing with PZ Myers and company—and the authors’ subsequent rebuttals to their rebuttals—clearly doesn’t predispose that part of their audience towards changing its tune. Perhaps this ongoing firestorm is a cleverly disguised object lesson of what happens when you are insufficiently accommodating?   

Second, for a book that is almost one-half footnotes, the authors often don’t show their work. If increasing scientific engagement from the public is good—issues like climate change become less politically fraught, there’s more willing to spend public funds on research, etc.—we need a better-than-anecdotal understanding of where the level of engagement is now and what the levers for changing it are. 

The Pew Research poll released at the end of last week is a mixed bag in this regard. Conducted with the help of AAAS, 84 percent of respondents had a “mostly positive” opinion of scientists, and 70 percent felt they “contributed a lot to the well being of society.” Only teachers and military members scored higher on that question (clergy members were on the lower half of the list with 40 percent). The data does suggest that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are on the right track: Most people do feel that science and religion are compatible. But those figures are hard to reconcile with the low acceptance rate of scientific findings on evolution (32 percent) or climate change (49 percent), or the fact that perceived conflicts with an individual’s religion did not strongly correlate with a lowered respect for science. For those who don’t see a conflict between their beliefs and scientific fact, is it because the former steamrolls the latter every time?

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