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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.”

Francis Collins on Who is America
Sacha Baron Cohen’s show “Who is America?” offered Collins’ name and title in a bar that inexplicably included a Confederate flag. Screen capture via Showtime

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.”

  • You probably would not. Unlike Dr Collins I actually ask people where they got a stupid idea. I may not ask it that way, but I would try to challenge some of the stupidity. While I think that Baron Cohen’s hi-jinks are easily detectable, there has been too much patronizing, and nodding to stupid and dangerous ideas. A lot of people have died to to these stupid theories about AIDS.
    Collins ignored repeated non factual comments about “Entitlement Programs” at his Hearing, giving them credibility. Collins proved in that Sacha Baron Cohen stunt, that he will give the same calculated response to the ridiculous anti science nonsense that the administration and the industries are peddling. He is not going to rock the boat, he will go along to get along.

    Sacha and I would be a hoot! I am one of his biggest fans!

  • 1. Seems like Sacha has no qualms about wasting the time of a man who is attempting to deal with really complicated issues in an ethical and straight forward way.
    2. Seems like Sacha maybe unaware of his self-serving exploitation of ignorant people. Humiliating individuals for entertainment is really not okay.

    • In principle points # 1 and 2 are mostly correct.
      1. AIDS and public health in general entail complex ethical and other problems. However, Cohen’s aim is to produce a popular viable TV/cable program along the lines of his previous film and TV offerings (Ali G, Borat etc) arguably characterized as “entertainment/comedy/satire”. In that respect Cohen has been quite “successful” (Academy Award nomination and other accolades). With respect to the topic of squandering time, it depends on whose time and what counts as a waste.
      2. I highly doubt Cohen is unaware of whom he is interviewing, and what is going on- overarching message & aims. After all, Cohen graduated with high honors from Cambridge University in History- no small achievement. Humiliation of another person, in general, is improper -particularly when done as a show of power & dominance. Another name for exposing hypocrisy and pretense, might be called “satire” or even “irony”, such that when delivered, in effect, humiliates. It might be instructive to view Cohen’s work in the same vein as J Swift’s “Modest Proposal”or “Tale of a Tub”. But even in that comparison one could argue Cohen prevails, since Swift barely graduated from Trinity College, BA, and did so only after “special grace”.

    • 1. Does Cohen wish to produce entertaining/comedy/satire which in turn educates and illuminates? I think not. I think the underlying motive more likely, because he features himself so dominantly in his work, is to create meaning and acceptance for himself.
      2. Your equating academic success in an elite institution with the ability to analyze complex issues that involve multiple competing interests and continue to move a body of knowledge forward is a stretch.
      Writing that reveals hypocrisy with in a system is a very different art process compared to interviewing, with duplicitous intent, an individual in a professional position, rigorously editing footage, and producing a three-minute cartoon. This fosters the continued low-ball polarizing dialogue that seems to be so lucrative in popular media.

    • In response to Dr Sharp, the Facts, Science and number of dead people, did not make much of a difference. The administration that appointed Collins, has made it very clear, that it is fine to cater to alternative belief systems, when dealing with infectious diseases, or really any public health issue, including contagious diseases. All that is left is absurdity, and stupid stunts like Cohen’s. I see a real “Ethical” problem here is the people who believe in magical thinking as people die. Do you really need a History lesson? We are in dark times in this country, where certain people’s alleged religious beliefs are an excuse to allow others to suffer and die. I wonder how many people will get infected this year, because people have absurd beliefs. We really better hope that nothing worse or even more contagious comes along. The ignorance and denial, is deadly. The same level of denial is being applied to hospital acquired infections, Ebola, and even STDS. A lot of devoutly religious people catch those things too. Microbes and Viruses don’t care about our beliefs!

  • Sounds that ALL these people that this doucebag plays, is in on the whole game. Cz if you got these high power ppl and highly intelligent people doing these intereviews, but know the whole fake, why embarrass yourself? It take ALL your credibility of a person away and makes you a puppet. Just so you can be on television. Join the Kardashin clan. Television whores.

  • Someone on reddit said this: “I’d love to see the whole interview. It would be a great example of how to deal with crazy.”

    That’s an excellent suggestion. I would love to have a look at that joust.

    • Collins got where is is by smiling and nodding??

      No, he got to where he is by, among other things, obtaining a PhD in Physical Chemistry from Yale, an MD from UNC Chapel Hill, co-discovering the cystic fibrosis gene and leading the Human Genome Project

    • Unlike you people I watched the Hearing. There were Doctors and smart people in Nazi Germany who went along with the program, and agreed with the Nazis too. Collins allowed a lot of partisan nonsense to go unchecked, giving the appearance of credibility to it all. Collins was to enamored with the prestige of his new position, to correct anyone present.

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