Monday, 3 August 2009

Andrew Brown trolling on his own blog

For somebody who claims to be bored by ya-boo discussions between believers and atheists, Andrew Brown is remarkably keen on stirring them up. His latest effort Sam Harris and Francis Collins is a bash at Sam Harris' NYT article expressing reservations about Collins' nomination as head of the NIH.

Most of what AB says is unworthy of the dignity of any reply, so I'm not going to even bother making any attempt at it. Most of the article is based on quote mining and taking out of context, and as an experienced journalist AB ought to have higher professional standards than that.

But there is one point he makes in the comments which I think is worth highlighting. In response to ChrisWhite3's comment that "surely a scientist who refuses to change his stance in light of fresh evidence is a fairly poor scientist?", AB responds as follows.
Your point would have force if belief in God were a scientific hypothesis. But it isn't. So there's no reason for scientific evidence to affect it.
Let me see if I understand this. Francis Collins is talking as a scientist, explaining how his scientific knowledge has increased his belief in the existence of God, moreover of the existence of a God who intervenes in the universe in miraculous ways, for instance by giving humans souls once their brains had evolved to the point of being able to receive them, or by fine-tuning the universal constants in order to design a universe capable of supporting life. And this not not a matter for scientific enquiry?

Pull the other one! Of course science can investigate such questions using scientific methods.

Now, you can say if you choose "I don't care what the evidence is, I believe that God exists and that Jesus rose from the dead to save me." If Francis Collins had said words to this effect, then I don't think anybody would have thought twice about it - people (even scientists) believe all sorts of irrational things, and by clearly saying he wasn't basing his belief on evidence, it would be equally clear that he wasn't speaking in his professional capacity as a scientist. We're all allowed a private life.

But Collins isn't doing that - he's trying to offer a scientific justification for belief in God. In other words Collins himself is making God a scientific hypothesis. I think that in fact he is correct to do so. Whether God exists, what evidence there is for it, and what sorts of miracles he does if he does exist is a perfectly justifiable line of scientific enquiry.

But Collins seems to be wanting to have his cake & eat it - he is claiming a scientific justification for belief in God, but avoids stating the alternative naturalistic explanations (and they most certainly do exist) for the phenomena he claims to persuade him of the existence of God. In doing so, he is committing the scientific sin of cherry-picking evidence.

That is a serious cause for concern in somebody who is being proposed for a senior scientific management post in charge of billions of dollars of scientific funding. It isn't that he believes in God, but rather that in doing so he is prepared to act unscientifically while talking as a scientist. Big no-no.


  1. Hello jonathan, enjoying reading your blog.

    From the little that I know about Andrew Brown, I get the feeling that he thinks that Gould was right and Dawkins was/is wrong about pretty much everything, hence his hostility towards Dawkins or anything close to his views.

    Has he even been asked about NOMA?

  2. nice blog you got going here.

    I have been watching Andrew Brown for quite some time now, he posted a blog there (last week on the Guardian) where he accuses Sam Harris of Advocating torture - i got fed up and posted several long replies under Karmapolice which got a lot of support- everyone knows he is not to be trusted- why do the Guardian let him away with this.

    I wont be taking Andrew Brown seriously anymore. When i was writing by blog, i discovered that he won the Templeton prize- nough said.

  3. Oh, i have just seen who posts this stuff,

    Mr John West- Hows it going?, i think we had words a while back - cant remember what on.

    I had learned a little more about epistemology since then.

    take it easy

  4. Hi Michael
    I don't doubt we have discussed something or other on CiF if you recall doing so.

    I read through the relevant parts of The End of Faith, and reached much the same conclusions that you did as you describe on your blog.

    Sam Harris was doing what philosophers do, following a line of reasoning to its logical conclusion and seeing where it leads. If somebody quotes the intermediate stages of the argument and not the final conclusions, they can engage in some serious misrepresentation. And this is what AB has done. It is either stupidity or malice, and I don't want to judge as to which of the two is more likely.

    The quote mining is certainly habitual. By the way, he also committed the logical fallacy of claiming in effect that Harris's views on torture disqualify him from being right about Francis Collins.