WASHINGTON — It seems like my last memory from a previous life — a life of human interaction without constant precaution. On the first day of March 2020, I was seated at lunch next to the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, who was giving his best evaluation of the trauma ahead. The COVID-19 virus was out in the public in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest. A pandemic was likely. Collins estimated that perhaps 20% of Americans would eventually be infected (it was about a third by the end of the year). Depending on the disease’s mortality rate, he said, this could result in “hundreds of thousands of deaths.” Sobering news over chicken salad.
Collins, whom I’ve known for over 20 years, and who has announced he will step down as NIH director by the end of the year, can be credited with prescience. Some of us are also inclined to see Providence at work in the matching of man and moment. The scientist who once shepherded the Human Genome Project to completion was perfectly suited to his instrumental role in the development of a coronavirus vaccine in record time with meticulous regard to safety.
Collins will be remembered in scientific history as the inspiring leader of great projects of human creativity and invention. Those who know him wonder how such energy and ambition could be combined with such gentleness of spirit. We’re accustomed to the convergence of brilliance and arrogance. In Collins, restless genius is other-centered. This is evident in his empathy and kindness toward an apprehensive cancer patient (such as me). It’s also demonstrated in a life so relentlessly committed to the human good.
Collins is a truth-seeker in the best sense — not to prove himself right, or to reveal others as wrong, but to advance human well-being and reveal the beauty at the heart of reality. At the end of his 12 years of service as director, the idea of truth is much on his mind.
Surveying the wasteland of public discourse on COVID, Collins told me: “You almost never see someone say, ‘The evidence says.’ Instead they say, ‘I believe.’ And they are comfortable that is enough.” To illustrate the consequence, he calls attention to the recent display of flags on Washington’s National Mall, symbolizing lives lost to COVID. “Seven hundred thousand white flags,” Collins said. “That’s what happens when you lose a commitment to truth.” Many of those fatalities, he added, “could have been avoided with the appropriate recognition of truth on vaccines and masks.”
For Collins — an outspoken Christian — it is especially disturbing that evangelicals are among America’s strongest bastions of vaccine resistance. There are, he said, a number of reasons for the tension between science and faith. Some of it is rooted in “old battles about origins, about the age of the Earth, the relatedness of species and the place of humans among them.” Evangelicals were often “not at ease with the conclusions of the scientific method” and became convinced that “science was driven by atheists with an agenda hostile to faith.”
These suspicions have been compounded by tribal loyalty. “It is difficult to dissent,” Collins said, “when surrounded by a community that shares a misguided view. You lose your identity.” An atmosphere of fear further entrenches wrongheaded beliefs — encouraging not only skepticism about truth but also artificial certainty about quack cures or conspiracy theories. “People anchor themselves further. They think, ‘At least I know this.’”
At issue, Collins said, is “how truth gets discovered.” Here Collins is a rigorous defender of the scientific method. “For scientists, there is a hunger to dig deeper — an assumption that nature is rational and follows laws that can be discovered.” Legitimate science has uncertainties and is subject to constant revision. “But there is such a thing as truth. Otherwise, I don’t know how to have a discussion at all.”
At the moment, Collins is urgently encouraging evangelicals to respect scientific knowledge. Over an unusual career, he has also urged scientists to accept the possibility of religious and moral truth. In his view, the “relationship between order and beauty” raises legitimate theological questions. “Why should nature follow such elegant mathematical laws? Is there an author?”
Collins suspects he will next be thinking, and writing, more about truth. In the meantime, we’re left to express admiration and gratitude for a selfless genius, a man fully alive.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.