Bloggingheads.tv was founded (and still largely run) by Robert Wright, and was once funded by the Templeton Foundation. What does that tell you? For one thing, to expect a lot of faitheism and sympathy for religion — even on Science Saturday, where it doesn’t belong. But what I didn’t expect was sympathy for creationism. Although Bloggingheads, which features online discussions between pairs of writers, scientists, or scholars, has featured some really good stuff, it now seems to be tilting dangerously toward woo.
First there was a discussion on Science Saturday between historian of science Ronald Numbers and Discovery Institute young-earth creationist Paul Nelson — a discussion notable for oodles of mutual back-patting but a dearth of criticism of Nelson’s insane views on the age of the earth. More recently, Bloggingheads featured another amiable chat between ID creationist Michael Behe and linguist John McWhorter.
Listening to the Behe/McWhorter love-fest, physicist Sean Carroll, who runs the superb blog Cosmic Variance, had enough:
I couldn’t listen to too much after that. McWhorter goes on to explain that he doesn’t see how skunks could have evolved, and what more evidence do you need than that? (Another proof that belongs in the list, as Jeff Harvey points out: “A linguist doesn’t understand skunks. Therefore, God exists.”) Those of us who have participated in Bloggingheads dialogues before have come to expect a slightly more elevated brand of discourse than this.
Various bizarre things ensued: the LoveFest disappeared and then reappeared on the site, unconvincing reasons were given, and finally Carroll and others had a teleconference call with Robert Wright. As Carroll tells it, things did not go well:
But, while none of the scientists involved with BH.tv was calling for the dialogue to be removed, we were a little perturbed at the appearance of an ID proponent so quickly after we thought we understood that the previous example had been judged a failed experiment. So more emails went back and forth, and this morning we had a conference call with Bob Wright, founder of BH.tv. To be honest, I went in expecting to exchange a few formalities and clear the air and we could all get on with our lives; but by the time it was over we agreed that we were disagreeing, and personally I didn’t want to be associated with the site any more. I don’t want to speak for anyone else; I know that Carl Zimmer was also very bothered by the whole thing, hopefully he will chime in. .
. . .What I objected to about the creationists was that they were not worthy opponents with whom I disagree; they’re just crackpots. Go to a biology conference, read a biology journal, spend time in a biology department; nobody is arguing about the possibility that an ill-specified supernatural “designer” is interfering at whim with the course of evolution. It’s not a serious idea. It may be out there in the public sphere as an idea that garners attention — but, as we all know, that holds true for all sorts of non-serious ideas. If I’m going to spend an hour of my life listening to two people have a discussion with each other, I want some confidence that they’re both serious people. Likewise, if I’m going to spend my own time and lend my own credibility to such an enterprise, I want to believe that serious discussions between respectable interlocutors are what the site is all about.
. . . I understand that there are considerations that go beyond high-falutin’ concerns of intellectual respectability. There is a business model to consider, and one wants to maintain the viability of the enterprise while also having some sort of standards, and that can be a very difficult compromise to negotiate. Bob suggested the analogy of a TV network — would you refuse to be interviewed by a certain network until they would guarantee to never interview a creationist? (No.) But to me, the case of BH.tv is much more analogous to a particular TV show than to an entire network — it’s NOVA, not PBS, and the different dialogues are like different episodes.
And so Carroll, in a gesture I admire immensely, said farewell to Bloggingheads.tv.
I have no doubt that BH.tv will continue to put up a lot of good stuff, and that they’ll find plenty of good scientists to take my place; meanwhile, I’ll continue to argue for increasing the emphasis on good-faith discourse between respectable opponents, and mourn the prevalence of crackpots and food fights. Keep hope alive!
Business model indeed! It sounds as if Bloggingheads plans more injections of woo, creationism, and goddycoddling, for if Wright had promised an end to that stuff, I doubt that Carroll would have resigned. At any rate, Carroll’s stance is personal and nuanced, so do read his piece. He hasn’t called for anybody else to follow him in defection.
But I do. Respectable journalists like Carl Zimmer, John Horgan, and George Johnson have participated in bloggingheads.tv. I ask them to have the courage of their convictions and resign if they don’t get assurances that Bloggingheads will stop presenting woo.
. . . Just after I wrote this, I learned that Carl Zimmer has indeed pulled out:
As you can see from Carroll’s post, he was not happy with things either. So he and I talked to Robert Wright and other Bloggingheads people today. I had expected that I’d get a clear sense of what had happened over the past month at Bloggingheads, and what sort of plan would be put in place to avoid it happening again. I imagined some kind of editorial oversight of the sort that exists at the places where I regularly write about science. I didn’t get it. . .
. . .My standard for taking part in any forum about science is pretty simple. All the participants must rely on peer-reviewed science that has direct bearing on the subject at hand, not specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty. I believe standards like this one are crucial if we are to have productive discussions about the state of science and its effects on our lives.
This is not Blogginghead’s standard, at least as I understand it now. And so here we must part ways.
The loss of Carroll and Zimmer is a real blow to Bloggingheads.tv — and to science popularization in general. But you can’t pin this one on Dawkins and his atheist pals; blame it instead on the accommodationist Robert Wright.
In a comment on Carroll’s post, Robert Wright responds:
It’s true that I didn’t give you the pledge that apparently would have kept you appearing on BhTV: No more creationists or Intelligent Design folks ever on Bloggingheads. I said that, for example, I could imagine myself interrogating ID people about their theological motivation. And I said I’d welcome a Behe-Richard Dawkins debate, since Dawkins is a rare combination of expertise and accessibility. But I also said that offhand I couldn’t imagine any other Behe pairing that would work for me (though there may be possibilities I’m overlooking).
The key thing that I tried to underscore repeatedly in our phone conversation yesterday is this: The two diavlogs in question were not reflective of BhTV editorial policy, and steps have been taken to tighten the implementation of that policy so that future content will be more reflective of it. Sean, I wish that in your post you’d conveyed this to your readers, though I realize that you had a lot of other things you wanted to say.
(Read the whole comment; it’s number 37 after Carroll’s post.) And Wright also takes a lick at yours truly for my critique of his book. I’m working on a response to him now, which should be up after my trip to Alabama this week.