Monday, May 07, 2012

Why is Francis Collins doing more science than his atheist critics?

New Atheists Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, P. Z. Myers, and Sam Harris, the self-designated champions of science against religion, have severely criticized Francis Collins, the evangelical former head of the Human Genome Project and current head of the National Institutes for Health (NIH):

They publicly opposed Collin’s nomination to head the NIH by suggesting, without any evidence, that his religious faith would lead him to somehow harm the funding of scientific research. Harris has claimed that Collins “has repudiated the scientific worldview” and is “a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible.” 
... Coyne has accused Collins of being an “embarrassment to the NIH, to scientists, and, indeed, to all rational people” and an “advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs.” Myers calls him a “creationist dupe arguing against scientific theories” and “an amiable lightweight” who doesn’t know how to think like a scientist.

So says the blog Shadow to Light.

But the ironic thing is that it is the evangelical Collins who seems to have been more busy producing, like, actual science. Collins, says the blog, has produced somewhere between 384 to 483 scientific papers from 1971 to 2007. And brave defenders of science, Coyne and Co.? Only something less than 150.

Gee. Maybe if the New Atheists scientists spent a little less time posting snippy remarks on their blogs, they could be scientifically productive too.

HT: Dangerous Idea.


Art said...

Math question for Martin:

Which number is greater - the number of people who have read Collins' most highly-cited article (IDENTIFICATION OF THE CYSTIC FIBROSIS GENE - CLONING AND CHARACTERIZATION OF COMPLEMENTARY-DNA; Author(s): RIORDAN JR; ROMMENS JM; KEREM BS; et al.; SCIENCE Volume: 245 Issue: 4922 Pages: 1066-1072 Published: SEP 8 1989) or, say, The Selfish Gene?

Martin Cothran said...


So popularity is the criterion for good science?

Art said...

Contributing paradigm-changing concepts is a pretty good criterion for good science.

Here are two of Dawkins' contributions - The Selfish Gene and Climbing Mount Improbable. Maybe you can list a few of Collins' more earth-shattering scientific concepts, Martin.

It's amusing that you quote a blogger who would respond with pages of "rebuttals" and denials if Dawkins would ever write that 2+2=4.

Singring said...

Martin, once more this is a post which you would not have written if you actually knew how science publication works. Let me tell you a bit about it (I am currently in the process of publishing my first two scientific articles, so I have some experience as to what goes on).

On a biological research publication there will usually be at least two authors - the researcher who did the actual lab work (i.e. the experiemnts and the analysis and often also the writing of the manuscript) and the person who was their supervisor (i.e. the person who runs the lab the researcher works in). There may of course be multiple researchers and multiple supervisors and some large papers have dozens of authors. Now, depending on the size of the lab that a supervisor heads up, the amount of publications that will bear his name may (regardless of his actual involvement of the day-to-day research and writing of the manuscript) be very large.

So for example, Collins, as head of the huge conglomerate that was the Human genome project, will get on most if not all of the dozens or hundreds of publications that coem out of that project - even though his only role in most cases would have been administration and deligating research and maybe some manuscript vetting/writing and correction.

Someone like P.Z. Myers, who runs a comparatively small lab at only one university, will then naturally be on less publications as he has a much smaller number of researchers working and thus a smaller number of papers coming out.

So these publication figures don't really tell us how much 'actual science' any of these people have participated in - to do that we would have to compare their publication records before they headed their labs and especially the papers where they are listed as first authors (i.e. authors that have actually done research in the lab). And by the way - Harris only just completed his PhD a couple years ago - so I am not surprised he hasn't published much yet.

Of course, one needs a basic understanding of the workings of science and scientific publication to understand all this and unfortunately this seems to be in very short supply on this blog - especially considering the supposed expertise in the oh-so important field of the philosophy of science that it likes to push.

For someone who is so furious when Krauss or some other scientist takes a swipe at philosophy because they supposedly don't know what they're talking about, you participate in an awful lot of the same behaviour - some would even say it's hypocritical.

Singring said...

Oh, and P.S.:

You measure the quality of scientific publications by how many times they have been cited by other researchers and in what journals they have been published in. Dawkins has published in Nature, the highest ranking biological journal on the planet, multiple times. That is something only the very best scientists achieve. One paper in Nature is worth ten or twenty in 'lesser' journals.

Art said...

Let me tell you a bit about it (I am currently in the process of publishing my first two scientific articles, so I have some experience as to what goes on).

Congratulations, Singring.

Singring said...

Thanks, Art! It's been a long road, but I've learned a lot along the way. Peer review can be a real grind.