WASHINGTON — Francis Collins did not take off his pants.
To the contrary, he could sense something wasn’t quite right — perhaps immediately, when his heavyset and dubiously bearded interviewer, sitting in a motorized scooter, began by asking: “Why are big agriculture putting chemicals into our food to make people transgender?”
The man — who calls himself Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D. — was referring to trans fats.
But Ruddick was not the far-right, conspiracy-peddling citizen reporter he seemed to be. Nor was Ruddick, as he had pitched himself to Collins, a journalist from a Showtime special hoping the country’s foremost biomedical researcher would explain, to a science novice, what goes on at the National Institutes of Health.
Collins, the NIH director, instead had become the latest public figure to fall victim to the pranks of Sacha Baron Cohen, a comedian who, as part of his new show “Who Is America?” has managed to convince a sitting member of Congress to endorse a program to arm toddlers for self-defense and a Georgia state lawmaker to bare his buttocks at a hypothetical ISIS attacker.
But Collins, as the public might expect of a man known for his genial nature and even keel, was not baited into any gaffes. Instead, he politely smiled, nodded, and even lectured his way through an hour of Cohen jumping from one absurdity to the next.
On Thursday, Collins shared with reporters the experience of realizing he’d been duped — and his attempt to turn the experience into a productive one.
“Yeah, that was interesting,” Collins said. “That interview was done last November and was presented as a Showtime special where the interviewer is somebody who doesn’t know a lot about medical research, but gives you a chance to talk about the exciting things that are happening at NIH. Sounds like a plausible thing that I’d want to do.”
It was, of course, neither. This was perhaps never clearer than when Baron Cohen as Ruddick explained that, to avoid scientific bias in an experiment questioning the existence of HIV/AIDS, he had drawn blood from a man with AIDS and used the same needle to then draw his own. (How could AIDS exist, he posited, when each man’s blood looked exactly the same?)
“Whoa, wait a minute,” Collins said. “Didn’t you worry about using the same needle that had just been in his arm?”
Nonetheless, in the segment that aired, Collins — who was introduced as NIH director in a chyron that inexplicably included a Confederate flag — never broke down laughing or lost his cool.
“A few minutes into it, it was pretty clear that this was not the usual circumstance,” he said. “But I decided, just play it straight. And you saw the result. Actually, you saw three minutes of about an hour of a very interesting conversation.”
Collins said he thought about cutting that hour short, but ever the health advocate, he decided to stay the course.
“I thought, maybe there’s a public health message that could get wrapped in here. And there was a bit, about trans fats and needle sharing. So there you go.”