We don't mean to keep pounding at Francis, who is a good and honorable person and an effective manager of major scientific enterprises. But we feel that science is misrepresented by misstatement and overstatement, and that this has policy as well as scientific consequences. If we say something out of proportion, nobody will care, and no money will shift pockets as a result. But we don't lead the NIH (or edit a magazine like Nature). So, when Dr Collins lets loose with his Barnumology, we have to react. Otherwise, too many people simply accept, then repeat, then build into their work, the same statements. We've seen this again and again, even in science, in the way pronouncements laden with vested interests become quickly adopted (dare we mention GWAS here?).
Not too many years ago Dr Collins was quoted as predicting 'silver bullets' to cure all sorts of ailments, and that they would be around more or less at this time -- 2010. That was when he was Director of the Genome Institute, and the Hustler in Chief for their budgets. Now that he's Director of all of NIH, and wanting to steer our Ship of Health basically in the genomics direction, he's hyperbolizing in even more grandiose ways.
In his recent book The Language of Life, he says “There is no other scientific enterprise that humankind has mounted in an organized way that compares to this. I am sure that history will look back on this in a hundred years and say, ‘This was the most significant thing humankind has tried to do scientifically.'"
Once the genome was sequenced, Collins directed his enthusiasm toward the medical “revolution”—his term—that would result.
We do genetics and genomics every day, using the results of work he sponsored. It has been and clearly will continue to be important, and remarkable. But we wonder whether anyone takes even a millisecond to think about such statements, much less to call him on them. In a few milliseconds of our own, we wondered why and how the following would be judged to be of lesser impact. So, what about:
1. A modest development of human knowledge and technology that allowed our species to multiply a million fold in not too many generations? It’s called ‘agriculture.’
2. The discovery that the universe was controlled by inferrable laws? It’s called Galileo, Newton, and Copernicus and the development of modern physics with all that has influenced of our way of life.
3. The discovery of entirely unknown human inhabited planetary lands? It’s called the Age of Sail, and due to organized policies and navigation technologies, led to transformative colonization and world trade. Thank that for the bananas you had for breakfast and the spices you'll use on dinner.
4. The discovery of ways to nearly entirely wipe out diseases that affect extremely large numbers, if not the majority, of people for thousands of years? It’s called microbiology and antibiotics, and Pasteur made confrontation of infectious disease a major part of government.
5. The discovery of how everything (even including genes!) works. It’s called chemistry.
6. The discovery of ways to have portable power. It’s called the age of petroleum.
7. The discoveries of ways for rapid mass movement. It’s called internal combustion engines.
8. The discovery of ways for rapid miniscule movement. It’s called electronics and has totally transformed life in less than a century, including the internet and computing on which Francis Collins makes his pronouncements.
We could go on. But the point is to continue to resist the self-interested promotion with hyperbole that is not justified, especially when it’s designed to pry resources from your pocket to satisfy someone else’s interests or vision, that he can’t simply pay for out of his own pocket if he wants to do it.
If you want to rate the improvements in technology by how many people it has helped, or how it’s transformed human society, genetics is pretty far down the list. High up on that list would be water purification techniques. Or even window screens that keep out mosquitoes.
And then, of course, there are other areas of human life that could be helped with a bit of investment. They’re called the arts. They help cure the spirit, at least as important as curing the body.