A mild form of mental illness

480px-Francis_Collins_official_portraitIf you read the New York Times profile Monday of Dr. Francis Collins -- and based on reader e-mails, I know at least a few of you did -- than there was probably one paragraph about the evangelical Christian at the head of the National Institutes of Health that jumped out at you. This sound familiar:

First, there is the God issue. Dr. Collins believes in him. Passionately. And he preaches about his belief in churches and a best-selling book. For some presidential appointees, that might not be a problem, but many scientists view such outspoken religious commitment as a sign of mild dementia.

I guess my secular friends are right: I do need to see a doctor.

You can imagine that last word, even with the weak qualifier mild, elicited some responses. I mean, was the Times really saying that, in general, the God-fearing lacked the cognitive function to realize, like a sane person, that God doesn't exist?

No, the paper wasn't saying that. It was attributing that remark to a group that presumably includes Collins' critics and his supporters. Maybe presumably is the wrong word. How's ostensibly?

"No source for the claim just a generic 'many scientists,'" reader Aaron wrote. Really, I'm not surprised.

Being that such a quote isn't exactly the kind that a scientist who then might be looking for research funding from the NIH would want to give, I suspect that if such a statement was made, it was made on background. By a single scientist. And that's very possible. (No mentions of dementia in this somewhat sympathetic Slate piece.) Just as likely, though, is that the reporter here, Gardiner Harris, who spent the summer on the Collins-as-controversy beat, was writing with a bit too much voice.

I wouldn't be surprised to see a poll from the National Academy of Sciences supporting such a sentiment is true. But in this case it evokes this comment from Holly Hunter's character, a member of the White House press corps, in film "Broadcast News":

Another thing I can't stand is ... when White House reporters bull--- with each other after a briefing and then one of them has a theory and the other quotes it in his story as "White House" sources say ...

I never used that one, but I'm sure it goes a long way.

What about the rest of the Collins profile? It's otherwise unremarkable and fairly friendly piece. It's laced with a bit of snark, and you'll be surprised to learn that not only does Collins wear a leather jacket and ride a Harley, but he eats French toast! In general, though, except for a few critical voices you may not have heard before, there was littler here that you haven't read elsewhere before.

collinsbookSome of what the Times wrote has come to be cliche:

He drives a Harley-Davidson, wears a black leather jacket on his back and his religion on his sleeve, and plays a custom guitar with big-name rock stars.

And some was revealing about the culture at the NIH:

"I have made it clear that I have no religious agenda for the N.I.H.," he said, "and I think the vast majority of scientists have been reassured by that and have moved on."

But he said he understood that cultural considerations could play an important role, which brings up the transportation and clothing issues.

Dr. Collins's predecessor, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, drove a silver Mercedes sports car to work and wore expensive suits, and those choices -- along with a natural reserve and the unpopularity of President George W. Bush, who appointed him -- meant he was never entirely embraced by the thousands of rumpled scientists who make up the core of the health institutes' staff.

That he was a brilliant scientist and had highly developed organizational skills never won him plaudits outside of the agency's top leaders, many of whom praised Dr. Zerhouni effusively.

By contrast, Dr. Zerhouni's predecessor, Dr. Harold Varmus, rode a bicycle to work, wore khakis and was beloved.

But it was difficult to wash away that sour taste of dementia. You know what those crazy Christians say about a little yeast ...

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