Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer quit Bloggingheads for promoting creationism

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.

_____________________________

Note:

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.

30 Comments

  1. newenglandbob
    Posted September 1, 2009 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    I congratulated Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer on their respective blogs for their decision to leave BH.tv.

    Principles are worth keeping so that science does not get buried in opinions.

    Wright can not (arguably) be blamed for what happened without his knowledge, but he can be blamed for not controlling the issue afterwords.

    We await Jerry Coyne’s response to Wright’s reaction to Coyne’s critique of Wright’s book. (the thigh bone is connected to….)

  2. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 1, 2009 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    But you can’t pin this one on Dawkins and his atheist pals

    You underestimate the rhetorical flexibility of the opposition.

  3. Posted September 1, 2009 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Oh goddamned liars. I offered to ‘debate’ Behe right off the bat, to ‘replace’ the missing episode, and no one has said shit to me.

    Behe-Dawkins is what they want. Dawkins, a ‘worthy’ opponent for Mighty Behe! Dawkins, who coincidentally would never agree to such a thing. Anyone who knows jack about Dawkins knows he doesnt debate kooks because it gives them the veneer of legitimacy.

    Oh piss off, Wright.

    • qbsmd
      Posted September 1, 2009 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      I first saw this story on your site. I had assumed that you had modified John McWhorter’s name until I saw this post.

      • Posted September 1, 2009 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        omg I didnt notice that until you said something! ROFL!!!!

    • Posted September 1, 2009 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      ERV, I love your “Debra Morgan” approach to threads. You gotz moxy.

  4. Mike Barnes
    Posted September 1, 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    This brings back a bad memory from my childhood in the 1970s. In the UK, Uri Geller established himself from nowhere by appearing on TV with a man of science (a mathematician, I think). Unlike James Randi in the States, this UK ‘scientist’ accepted Geller’s claims as valid. That was all the break Geller needed: one credulous scientist.

    Never again, one hopes.

    • Posted September 1, 2009 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      It was John Taylor, a mathematician at King’s College, London. He wrote a book about the “Geller effect” called Superminds. He later retracted.

  5. Notorious P.A.T.
    Posted September 1, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Slightly OT but the page you linked to led me to this hilarious list:

    http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/GodProof.htm

  6. Posted September 1, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    David Albert making fun of intellectually bogus physics movies was my first intro to BH. Why, oh why must what goes up (BH) come down (TV accommodates) at 9.8 meters per second?

  7. Posted September 1, 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    To be fair, the Numbers-Nelson thing is not something that one would expect to turn out like it did, since Numbers is solidly evolutionist. Apparently he just isn’t very good at challenging the nonsense Nelson spouts off.

    This is what I wrote about McWhorter at Sean’s blogpost:

    I could maybe see a “dialog” where there’s a good takedown of Behe, because although Behe doesn’t begin to do or think science with respect to ID, science has plenty to say about Behe’s brand of deception (or stupidity, take your pick).

    Anybody dumb enough to be impressed by Behe’s hack job in Edge of Evolution has no business interviewing Behe on any science forum.

    McWhorter ought to try to explain language (with its taxonomies, partial adaptations, and vestigials) without evolution. If he can do that, then he has an excuse for thinking that evolutionary evidence could be produced “by design.” That’s what these ignoramuses always fail to do, explain the actual evidence for evolution. Behe’s so ridiculous that he accepts the evidence for evolution while denying the mechanisms whose predictions are fulfilled by genetic and fossil evidence.

    Glen Davidson

    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  8. Sili
    Posted September 1, 2009 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    What a pity. Here I was calling for more (good) linguist on BH.

    Luckily they still blog very very well over on LanguageLog.

    I hope a good alternative to BH pops up (hint hint, Seed/Discover).

  9. Wes
    Posted September 1, 2009 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Good for Carl and Sean! They shouldn’t take part in any enterprise where creationists might leach off their good names for publicity.

    I agree with Dawkins, that engaging in public “debates” with creationists is a pointless enterprise. The debate format is not appropriate for science because it is more about convincing an audience than presenting the facts. And all the results from it is that creationists get a false appearance of legitimacy.

    • Wes
      Posted September 1, 2009 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Huh. I noticed that since I have a new email, the program apparently changed my little icon thingy. Just so no one is confused, the “Wes” with the light green icon thingy is the same as the “Wes” with the dark green one…

  10. Screechy Monkey
    Posted September 1, 2009 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    The only thing that surprises me about this whole exchange is how little control Bob Wright seems to have over bh.tv. From all the jokes he and Mickey Kaus share in their diavlogs about the “vast bloggingheads empire,” I had assumed it was a pretty small operation and that Wright was very hands-on.

    Now it turns out that Wright doesn’t exercise prior control over who appears on bh.tv; the Nelson and Behe appearances were approved by two separate underlings. Ok, fine, delegation is necessary sometimes. But Wright also says that he had previously set down conditions for any Behe appearance, which were apparently disregarded.

    That’s what makes Wright’s comment on the Carroll and Zimmer blog posts so strange. Essentially, Wright’s “argument” was that the creationist appearances were “not reflective of BhTV editorial policy,” but there’s no indication of what the policy actually is, except that “offhand” he can think of two circumstances under which Behe could appear again, though there may be others he is “overlooking.”

    In other words, BH.tv’s “editorial policy” is “whatever Bob Wright decides is appropriate,” except that Wright does not, in fact, do all the decision-making, and even when he has in the past, his staff has ignored it. There’s nothing in Wright’s response to reassure Carroll, Zimmer, or anyone else that these two incidents — or something very like them — won’t happen again. Yet Wright tries to chastise Carroll and Zimmer for not adquately conveying Wright’s non-commital response in their blog posts.

    Weird.

    It’s not like this poisons the entire site for me; I’ll continue to watch the occasional bh.tv diavlog, but I’ll miss Carroll and Zimmer… and possibly some of the other science ‘heads.

  11. Ken Pidcock
    Posted September 1, 2009 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Personally, I’m angry with these guys. They are a couple of the finest public voices in science, and they’ve removed themselves from a popular forum just because it had some asses working for it and Wright couldn’t guarantee that it could never happen again. I’m sorry, this strikes me as pique.

    And I’m embarrassed for John McWhorter. I couldn’t believe that he would allow himself to played for a shill for this kind of intellectual dishonesty.

    • Screechy Monkey
      Posted September 1, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see how you can view it as pique. Zimmer and Carroll gave very clear, thoughtful discussions of the reasons for the decision. They gave Wright and the BH.tv staff an opportunity to explain themselves and plead their case.

      Ultimately Zimmer and Carroll have to be the guardians of their own reputations and consciences. If they do not wish to be associated with a site that gives a platform to creationists, that is their choice to make. They’re not under any moral obligation to appear on any particular website. Both guys will continue to speak on scientific topics from their blogs and other platforms.

  12. 386sx
    Posted September 1, 2009 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Behe-Dawkins is what they want. Dawkins, a ‘worthy’ opponent for Mighty Behe! Dawkins, who coincidentally would never agree to such a thing. Anyone who knows jack about Dawkins knows he doesnt debate kooks because it gives them the veneer of legitimacy.

    Yeah really, how come Robert Wright couldn’t imagine any other Behe pairing? The only esteem Behe has is “kook esteem” from all the other kooks.

    So Robert Wright apparently not only has highly sophisticated religious beliefs/views thingies/whatever, but he is as gullible as a guppy as well. (Wow, big surprise.)

  13. andyo
    Posted September 1, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, are you aware that your piece on TNR’s link is broken? Couldn’t be found on the site last time I checked, the best thing I could find was the google cache of the print version (the regular version only shows the first page).

  14. AdamK
    Posted September 1, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    …if Wright had promised an end to that stuff

    That would require that Wright briefly cease fence-sitting and equivocating. Never gonna happen.

  15. Ken Pidcock
    Posted September 1, 2009 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    “I don’t see how you can view it as pique. Zimmer and Carroll gave very clear, thoughtful discussions of the reasons for the decision.”

    You’re right, and that was poor judgment on my part. Their actions are fully justified. It’s just that I’m disappointed to see them leave that forum.

    Though not as disappointed as I am with McWhorter, an intellectual I’ve long admired; his TNR blog is worth the read. McWhorter must know that Behe’s misleading narrative is universally rejected in the scientific community. Since I don’t think he’s vain enough to imagine that he sees something that the rest of us can’t, it must be that he imagines some grand conspiracy to deny Behe the hearing he deserves, a perspective straight out of the DI playbook. It’s disheartening to learn that he’s placed himself in that camp.

    • Screechy Monkey
      Posted September 1, 2009 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I was shocked by McWhorter, too. He and Glenn Loury had some excellent discussions.

      There’s just a weird kind of arrogance at work in what McWhorter did. How do you read one book in a subject area that you know nothing about, and then conclude that all the experts in the field are wrong? How do you decide that you’re now competent to interview an author on such a controversial subject?

      This is the equivalent of me picking up a book by some crackpot opining that all modern linguistics is flawed, and that all the world’s languages originated from the Tower of Babel, and then conducting a fawning interview with the guy where I imply that linguists like McWhorter must be scared of his brilliance.

      I really want to hear McWhorter’s explanation for this.

      • JoshS
        Posted September 1, 2009 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

        1. Good on you, Ken Pidcock, for reconsidering. We’re all prone to making rash comments based on our initial reactions, but few of us own up to it and continue the conversation. Hats off, friend.

        2. @Screechy – I’d guess (but I could be wrong) that McWhorter’s dismally ignorant interaction with Behe has a lot to do with the with the degradation of the liberal arts as a pedagogical principle. There is such acute specialization in the sciences and humanities today – and such ridiculous territorialism – that it’s possible (and some see it as desirable) for science or humanities people to be completely ignorant of the other’s discipline. For some, it’s a perverse badge of honor.

        It used to be that a liberal arts education was about being conversant in the sciences, arts, and humanities. In a word, to be cosmopolitan, and inquisitive. That seems to have fallen away. It’s been 10 years since I had any real contact with academia, so I don’t know what has changed in the interim. But from what I remember, it was all about walling off the sciences from the humanities. The humanities people droned on about “scientism” and “essentialism,” and wore their ignorance of and disdain for the hard sciences as a merit badge on their sleeves. The hard science people similarly looked down on those who studied literature, etc. (though I have to say, I think the humanities people were the more shortsighted).

        Add to this the excessive specialization, the narrow focus on one niche, and you have a group of people unable to have even cocktail party conversation outside their walled-off disciplines. God knows I suffered from it; despite the best intentions of my advisors in college, I didn’t get one tenth of my science education at university. It took wider reading as an adult to learn what I’d missed as undergrad in the humanities.

  16. Posted September 1, 2009 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    In the end, you have to confront directly creationists like Behe et al. It is not pretty, but it needs to be done. In my little field of science, dam removal, you encounter many people who will boldly assert that if you remove a dam, the river will go dry. As nonsensical as these folks are, not confronting them on their nonsensical claims is much worse than confronting them. You just have to do it, as whacky and non-productive as it might seem to be at the moment. My attitude when engaging in such a dialogue is that, on average, I will win over at least a few people on “their side” and there is no way that anyone on “my side” is going to be swayed by whatever Behe says. So, in the end, it is always a win.

    • Screechy Monkey
      Posted September 1, 2009 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      I’m sympathetic to that point of view, though I don’t ultimately find it persuasive. But the problem here is that bh.tv didn’t even do that. There was no confrontation of Behe or Nelson; they were paired with folks who didn’t do so, and in the case of McWhorter, couldn’t have even if he’d wanted to. ERV says she’s offered to debate Behe, but bh.tv brushed that off, and Bob Wright seems to think that only Dawkins is “eminent” enough to pair with Behe.

  17. AdamK
    Posted September 2, 2009 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    This is the equivalent of me picking up a book by some crackpot opining that all modern linguistics is flawed, and that all the world’s languages originated from the Tower of Babel, and then conducting a fawning interview with the guy where I imply that linguists like McWhorter must be scared of his brilliance.

    Perfect analogy. I’d love to see McWhorter take it on (imagining a parallel-universe McWhorter who’s intellectually honest.)

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted September 2, 2009 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      I would not suggest that John McWhorter was being intellectually dishonest in that diavlog.

      I haven’t read the Edge of Evolution, but I know that, in Darwin’s Black Box, he did a good job of laying out evolutionary theory, circa 1942. If that was your only exposure, you might be impressed with what seems to be Behe’s meticulous quantitative reasoning; I suspect this was the case with McWhorter, because he never challenged the “random selection and natural selection” mantra. Which, of course, highlights how terribly irresponsible it was for bhtv to support that diavlog.

      It was careless of McWhorter to make no attempt to understand why Behe is so widely dismissed, and that may be a form of intellectual dishonesty (refusal to acknowledge what you don’t know), but I’m pretty sure he was deceived and not part of the act.

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted September 2, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        That was “random mutation and…”

  18. Screechy Monkey
    Posted September 4, 2009 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Phil Plait has joined Carroll and Zimmer.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Coyne on the controversy, here and here. He links to Phil Plait at Discovery: Bloggingheads had full-blown creationists being […]

  2. […] and atheists have stated that they will no longer frequent the bloggingheads.tv website (here and here).  Which is just silly, and shows how much they too have imbibed the spirit of […]

  3. […] le sponsoring de la Templeton Foundation pue la scienligion. Et applaudir quand des gens intègres quittent des organismes qui font la promotion du créationnisme; il n’y a aucune raison d’attirer de l’audience pour des mauvaises […]

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