Bye to Bloggingheads

By Sean Carroll | August 31, 2009 12:35 pm

Unfortunately, I won’t be appearing on any more. And it is unfortunate — I had some great times there, and there’s an enormous amount to like about the site. So I thought I should explain my reasons.

A few weeks ago we were a bit startled to find a “Science Saturday” episode of featuring Paul Nelson, an honest-to-God young-Earth creationist. Not really what most of us like to think of as “science.” So there were emails back and forth trying to figure out what went on. David Killoren, who is the person in charge of the Science Saturday dialogues, is an extremely reasonable guy; we had slightly different perspectives on the matter, but in the end he appreciated the discomfort of the scientists, and we agreed to classify that dialogue as a “failed experiment,” not something that would be a regular feature.

So last week we were startled once again, this time by the sight of a dialogue between John McWhorter and Michael Behe. Behe, some of you undoubtedly know, is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and chief promulgator of the idea of “irreducible complexity.” The idea is that you can just look at something and know it was “designed,” because changing any bit of it would render the thing useless — so it couldn’t have arisen via a series of incremental steps that were all individually beneficial to the purpose of the object. The classic example was a mousetrap — until someone shows how a mousetrap is, in fact, reducibly complex. Then you change your choice of classic example. Behe had his butt handed to him during his testimony at the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial over teaching intelligent design in schools; but embarrassment is not an arrow in the ID quiver, and he hasn’t been keeping quiet since then.

John McWhorter is not a biologist — he’s apparently a linguist, who writes a lot about race. In any event, the dialogue was hardly a grilling — McWhorter’s opening words are:

Michael Behe, I am so glad to meet you, and thank you for agreeing to do this. This is one of the rare times that I have initiated a Bloggingheads pairing, and it’s because I just read your book The Edge of Evolution from 2007, and I found it absolutely shattering. I mean, this is a very important book, and yet I sense, from the reputation or the reception of your book from ten-plus years ago, Darwin’s Black Box, that it may be hard to get a lot of people to understand why the book is so important.

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.

Then, to make things more bizarre, the dialogue suddenly disappeared from the site. I still have very little understanding why that happened. The reason given was that it was removed at McWhorter’s behest, because he didn’t think it represented him, Behe, or very well. I’m sure that is the reason it was removed, although I have no idea what McWhorter was thinking — either when he proposed the dialogue, or while he was doing it, or when he asked that it be taken down. Certainly none of we scientists who were disturbed that the dialogue existed in the first place ever asked that it be removed. That feeds right into the persecution complex of the creationists, who like nothing more than to complain about how they are oppressed by the system. And, on cue, Behe popped up to compare Bloggingheads to Stalinist Russia. But now the dialogue is back up again — so I suppose old comrades can be rehabilitated, after all.

But, while none of the scientists involved with 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 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.

It’s important to understand exactly what the objections are. (Again, speaking only for myself; others may object on different grounds.) It’s too easy to guess at what someone else is thinking, then argue against that, rather than work to understand where they are coming from. I tried to lay out my own thinking in the Grid of Disputation post. Namely: if has something unique and special going for it, it’s the idea that it’s not just a shouting match, or mindless entertainment. It’s a place we can go to hear people with very different perspectives talk about issues about which they may strongly disagree, but with a presumption that both people are worth listening to. If the issue at hand is one with which I’m sufficiently familiar, I can judge for myself whether I think the speakers are respectable; but if it’s not, I have to go by my experience with other dialogues on the site.

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.

Here’s the distinction I want to draw, which might admittedly be a very fine line. If someone wants to talk about ID as a socio/religio/political phenomenon worth of study by anthropologists and sociologists, that’s fine. (Presumably the right people to have that discussion are anthropologists or sociologists or historians/philosophers of science, not biochemists who have wandered into looney land.) If someone wants to talk to someone who believes in ID about something that person has respectable thoughts about, that would also be fine with me. If you want to talk to a theologian about theology, or a politician about politics, or an artist about art, the fact that such a person has ID sympathies doesn’t bother me in the least.

But if you present a discussion about the scientific merits of ID, with someone who actually believes that such merits exist — then you are wasting my time and giving up on the goal of having a worthwhile intellectual discussion. Which is fine, if that’s what you want to do. But it’s not an endeavor with which I want to be associated. At the end of our conversations, I understood that my opinions about these matters were very different from those of the powers that be at

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 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. There is a certain common identity to things that does, in a way that simply isn’t comparable to the wide portfolio of a TV network. Appearing for an hour-long dialogue creates connection with a brand in a way that being interviewed for 30 seconds on a TV news spot simply does not. If there were a TV show that wanted me on, but I had doubts about their seriousness, I would certainly decline (and I have).

And heck, we all have a business model. I’d like to sell some books, and I was really looking forward to doing a dialogue with George Johnson when my book came out — it would have been a lot of fun, and perhaps even educational. But at the end of the day, I’m in charge of defending my own integrity; life is short, and I have to focus on efforts I can get completely behind without feeling compromised.

Having said all that, I’m very happy to admit that there’s nothing cut-and-dried about any of these issues, and I have a great deal of sympathy for anyone who feels differently and wants to continue contributing to The site provides a lot of high-quality intellectual food for thought, and I wish it well into the future. These decisions are necessarily personal. A few years ago I declined an invitation to a conference sponsored by the Templeton foundation, because I didn’t want to be seen as supporting (even indirectly) their attempts to blur the lines between science and religion. But even at the time I admitted that it wasn’t an easy choice, and couldn’t blame anyone who decided to go. Subsequently, I’ve participated in a number of things — the World Science Festival, the Foundational Questions Institute, and itself — that receive money from Templeton. To me, there is a difference between taking the money directly, and having it “laundered” through an organization that I think is otherwise worthwhile. Not everyone agrees; Harry Kroto has expressed deep disappointment that I would sully myself in this manner. And that’s understandable, too; we all have to look at ourselves in the mirror each morning.

So, on we go, weaving our own uncertain ways through the briars of temptation and the unclear paths of right and wrong. Or something like that. I have no doubt that 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!

Update: Bob Wright has left a comment here. (See also a comment by David Killoren here.) And at some point soon, a more official editorial policy will appear here.

Bob is unhappy that I left out some of the points he made in our conversation, which is somewhat reflective of the fact that we were talking past each other. I was not looking for a “pledge” of anything at all. Rather, I was hoping — and completely expecting — to hear a statement somewhat along these lines: “Of course we all agree that when someone listens to a dialogue on, they have a reasonable expectation that both speakers are non-crackpots.” But I don’t think we do agree on that. I am personally not interested in interrogating crackpots to understand their motives; they get more than enough attention as it is, and I’m more interested in discussions between reasonable people. That’s why, unlike some of the commenters, I wouldn’t feel especially different if it had been an expert biologist interrogating a creationist. Different folks have different feelings about this, and that’s why it’s good that we have a big internet.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Personal
  • Brando

    Time for a variation on Blogging Heads – geared towards science?

  • The skepTick

    Just out of curiosity, would your feelings be different if Francis Collins was on

  • Sean

    If Collins were talking about genetics, or about the NIH, I’d have no objection. If he were talking about how we need to invoke supernatural forces to explain evolution, I would object.

    Likewise, I wouldn’t object to Behe being on the site, if the topic were “How to construct a viable work environment with colleagues who think you’re crazy.”

  • Victorb

    That’s a shame about John McWhorter being stumped by a skunk. He’s an excellent linguist and a great teacher. I have taken two of his linguistics courses through the Teaching Company and would recommend them to anyone interested in language. I guess just don’t take his biology course 😛

  • ARJ

    Sorry to hear you won’t be participating any more. I both respect you’re taking a principled stand, but also fear that if every scientist did the same it just leaves the playing field to those you’re objecting to in the first place. Moreover, a lot of so-called “science” blogs routinely post on cultural, political, social matters, sometimes much to my annoyance — it feels like ‘bait-and-switch’ — I go there for science discussion, but find subjective opinion/rants I can get at a jillion other blogs. So I’m not sure you can hold “bloggingheads” to a greatly more stringent criteria than science blogs in general hold themselves to, but I understand the dilemma; just hope ‘science Saturday’ doesn’t crumple as a result.

  • Jennifer Ouellette

    I think you sum up why so many of us on the science-based thinking side find these two episodes deeply troubling. I haven’t yet made up my own mind about future appearances on BHTv; I need to ponder the matter. One or two isolated incidents are forgivable, What bothers me is a sneaking suspicion that this trend is very deliberate: someone is actively deciding to feature Creationists regularly on a site that, to date, has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for interesting intellectual discourse by people whose ideas are taken seriously in their respective fields.

    This strikes me as sleazy under-handed way of exploiting the good and noble urge towards free and open communication to put across an agenda that has no scientific basis whatsoever — and has no business being talked about in a forum devoted to serious intellectual ideas. There are plenty of other places where crackpots can hawk their questionable wares. And there’s a difference between a vetting process and outright “censorship” (which I think most would agree is a Very Bad Thing — it’s just that most things that get labeled censorship these days, really aren’t). Bad ideas, like Behe’s, are not worthy of a national platform.

  • DG

    Well-reasoned and well-written. Nothing we can do but mourn the loss of what could have been, and hope something better comes up to take its place.

  • Kitty’sBitch

    I’m proud of you, not that it matters.
    We all draw our own lines in the sand. I can’t help but feel that your line was well placed.
    Many have also taken the Templeton funds, either not knowing, or not admiting to themselves what it meant in the grander theme of things.
    The world is a treacherous landscape my boy. If it helps you to look at yourself in the mirror, it’s the right choice.

  • Norwegian Shooter

    Great post, a model of how to lay out a facts-based case, describe how you came to your conclusion (not just why), show respect for the opposite side, and admit the possibilities of error and other valid viewpoints. Well done.

    John McWhorter gives a great example of the positives of specialization. From what I hear, he is a brilliant linguist, and I know he is a insightful and skilled writer. But when he wades into evolution, he – like so many others – falls flat on his face. [If you want to understand the Gates episode better – read McWhorter’s first and second, posts on it.]

    My main interest in this post is Robert Wright. As most people know, he has recently written a book. [Note to Sean – hire his publicist] He has recently taken a thrashing from Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, et al. over his deistic conclusion to his completely materialistic account of the change of Abrahamic religion over time: that this process is directed by … something. He gets very fuzzy when asked to describe this something, but basically he is saying that some force is compelling religions to encompass more and more people within their moral circles. Read this to get his full accounting.

    Sean, I am wondering if you have followed the dust-up with Wright’s book in the biology community, including accusations that he is angling for the Templeton Prize, and what your experience with Wright tells you about about whether he might be purposefully moving towards the “religion is compatible with science” viewpoint.

  • Tom Levenson

    Good for you Sean, both for the decision, and the care with which you lay out your reasons.

    I’d love to see a next generation bloggingheads analogue turn up; I can’t stand the form to the point that I’ve never been able to watch more than a minute or so of any dialogue. From where I come from, it manages to be the worst of two worlds: it’s ugly tv and it is a painfully slow, real-time-consuming way of communicating ideas even when the exchange is working at its best.

    But those are (a) entirely personal objections…de gustibus and all that… and (b) off the topic of continuing to work within an editorial framework you can no longer trust. Something better will come.

  • Scott W. Somerville

    Is religion compatible with science?

  • Charles Daney

    There’s speculation that Robert Wright is angling for a Templeton prize – worth £1,000,000, so can’t exactly blame anyone who’d prostitute self for that.

    I know, just speculation. I don’t know Wright personally, so maybe this is unfair to him. But if, as you say, is already getting Templeton money, one does have to wonder…

    The case of perhaps illustrates why taking that money is not without strings attached… (Hmmmm…. could one call that idea “string theory”?)

  • Jason

    Sean, I have to believe that with a fairly minimal amount of hardware you could do a better job with an hour interview than dueling webcams. It really is a loss for to lose your input. I hope somebody there realizes that trading your insight for ID crackpots is a major bone up.

  • Giotis

    As I understand you put pressure on BH.TV to stop hosting ID people. Unjustifiable in my opinion. People are mature enough to judge for themselves. Don’t underestimate them; they don’t need anybody to “protect” them by prohibiting their exposure to certain ideas. I want to find out myself who is serious and who isn’t and I certainly don’t need any kind of authority to decide before me for me. On the contrary, what I need to hear is arguments from all sides. You could argue that ID people are not serious for a number of reasons but don’t forbid me to listen to what they have to say. History is full of tragic stories of people with good intentions who were so sure about what is good for the public that they thought it wasn’t really necessary to ask for its opinion. We all know how dangerous this kind of thinking could be and where it could lead.

  • Glen Davidson

    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

  • Nick

    I think it’s easy to see a misguided attempt at “defeating” creationists by engaging them in logical arguments, such as the first Nelson episode, but the absurd matchmaking of the Behe episode really makes one wonder what is thinking. I’m not sure I’m at the point of boycotting but at the very least they owe an explanation of what they stand for.

  • David Killoren

    As Sean mentions in the post, I work for (but here I’m speaking only for myself). Here are my two or three cents.

    First, to Jennifer’s concern: I am confident that there is no deliberate creationism trend at BhTV. I set up the Numbers/Nelson diavlog without Sang Ngo’s knowledge. (Sang is another BhTV employee). Sang Ngo set up the McWhorter/Behe diavlog without my knowledge. Since Sang and I didn’t communicate about these two diavlogs, there isn’t much chance that any trend comprised by these two diavlogs is deliberate!

    Second I want to voice agreement with Sean about a few things. I agree that creationists and ID’ers are crackpots. I agree that these crackpots do harm (e.g. by corrupting public perception of science). I agree that appearing on a site that has featured crackpots could damage the reputation and integrity of reputable scientists, so I fully understand Sean’s choice to stay away from BhTV (although I’d be very happy if he were to reconsider).

    For the record, here’s my stab at a defense of the Numbers/Nelson diavlog: Ron Numbers is an agnostic and widely acknowledged as an expert in the history of science. Paul Nelson is a rather extreme young-earth creationist. Their diavlog lacks any kind of a forceful explanation of why Nelson’s views are unjustified. But the conversation does delve into Nelson’s thinking and the intellectual tradition of which Nelson is a part. Arguably, when you’re covering that kind of material for an educated audience, there’s no need to include a “Creationism is hooey” disclaimer. The fact that creationism is hooey is just irrelevant to the subject matter. Moreover, such a disclaimer would arguably be insulting to an audience composed of people who know quite well that creationism is hooey.

    I don’t know how convincing that defense is or should be. (I already know it doesn’t convince Sean, since I already offered it to him.) I do know that you can’t defend the McWhorter/Behe diavlog in any similar way. If the McWhorter/Behe diavlog is defensible, I don’t see how to defend it just now.

    Anyway, this is just my opinion, but I think we (BhTV) screwed up — and the origins of that screw-up lie in my ill-fated decision to put together the Numbers/Nelson diavlog. One Sean Carroll diavlog is worth any number of creationism conversations. If I could rewind and start over I’d aim to do it all differently.


  • NewEnglandBob

    Sean I congratulate you on your principled stand. I think you made a wise but difficult choice. I would like Carl Zimmer and others to take a similar stance.

    I will no longer watch bloggerhead in support of your principles. is tarnished with unprincipled people like Behe and the nonsense coming from Robert Wright. Jerry Coyne summed him up correctly.

  • Sean

    Thanks for chiming in, David. We all appreciate that it’s a tough spot.

    I haven’t really followed much of the discussion of Bob’s book, and I don’t think it’s germane to this point. As far as I can tell, he has his writer hat and his hat, and the two roles are pretty distinct.

  • FTS

    If someone publishes a lot, and hence has his name widely known out-there, is that person necessarily credible in his field?
    If someone publishes a little, and hence does not hve his name widely known out-there, is that person necessarily not credible in his field?
    Just because all biologists support the idea of Darwin’s evolution, doesn’t make another idea bad or wrong or worthless…After all, the earth was the center of the universe for long enough, and that in itself helped people uncover that this is not the case. Sometimes when you assume the opposite(the wrong), you uncover what is right…
    And just because someone is out there trying to revive a dead idea, doesn’t render this idea worthless either, because it was a part of the intellecutal evolution of thought.
    I understand why you will no longer appear on the program. You are afraid that your credibility, which is your food, is going to be questioned in the future, and from a business model point of view your action is solid and your choice to ignore any further issues in the website are understandable.
    At the end, it should be understood and probably taught to folks that, the internet and the airwaves are not the most credible sources of any information…nor are books…nor are people…Credibility is an individual’s choice and a matter of investigation and research. The problem is that people rely on other’ experts to tell them what is right and what is wrong, but there are not true experts. You can only trust yourself after having put enough effort into your own research.

    The greatest thing about Tech is that it teaches folks to not trust, but to question, and to know only after they are convinced themselves. Just ask Kip Thorne, who as a student proved and reproved everything that was thrown at him…

    So just because you say you are a specialist in GR, doesn’t make me believe you…it only serves as a guide in my own investigative journey..

  • trond

    I’ll miss Science Saturday. I suspect George and John will stop contributing too. They seemed quite upset with the first diavlog. Soon we’ll only be left with a bunch of creationists arguing with the Singularity.

  • TKS

    “But if you present a discussion about the scientific merits of ID, with someone who actually believes that such merits exist”

    Disprove that these merits DON’T exist and I’ll agree with you 100%. If you don’t disprove them, you’re taking the easy way out.

    Remember, even scientists are dismissed as crackpots at times…take Sherry Rowland and chlorofluorocarbon…no one could possibly believe that man made chemicals were destroying the ozone layer…yet today, no one refutes that.

    It’s easy to dismiss things when there are lots of scientists who agree with you riding a bandwagon that you can hop back on…it’s harder to take the narrow road and open dialogue with those you dismiss to find out if there is any merit in their theory. Without people who did this, the hole in the ozone layer would probably have killed us all eh?

    I suggest that you revisit your decision.

  • anon

    I haven’t watched the diavlog yet but I assume that Michael Behe didn’t start explaining God’s influence on the evolution of languages to John McWhorter. After all we all spoke one language until the building of the Tower of Babel.
    But, if John McWhorter, who I think is a reasonable guy, can’t come up with an evolutionary explanation for skunks then clearly there is a problem. Someone is going to have to do more work to explain evolution and the evidence for evolution. However, Sean, you might not be the right person to do this. I think you have to make a decision on which is more important: (1) proving that atheism is a better explanation of how the world works than theism or (2) proving that evolution is a better explanation than ID or creationism. You can’t, effectively, do both at the same time.

  • Michael Kingsford Gray

    Scott W. Somerville asks:
    “Is religion compatible with science?”


  • AemJeff

    I count it as a personal loss that Sean won’t be appearing on BHtv anymore.

    I don’t believe that the idea of Behe engaging in a diavlog is a bad one, by definition. I do think that pairing him with somebody without the chops, or the credentials, for a proper discussion was a huge mistake. (Allowing a Creationist to appear under the Science Saturday banner was a big mistake, too.) Regardless of whether Behe is a charlatan (he is) – there is a significant number of people who don’t think that’s the case. Shutting him out of the debate is, IMHO, a bad tactical move. However, respectable fora have to insist that he appears opposite somebody willing and able to make a coherent case from a scientific POV. If he refuses to debate on those terms, so be it.

    I’d like to think that Bloggingheads made a simple error, here. I hope that error doesn’t deprive us of the participation of first class interlocutors. I hope you change your mind , Sean.


  • PZ Myers

    Behe wouldn’t have started talking about the tower of Babel story — he’s not a biblical literalist. He accepts the idea of an old earth, and he also, to most people’s surprise, accepts the idea of common descent…with a reservation. He doesn’t believe natural processes can explain it, and presents the history of life as a succession of tweakings of various lines of descent by his undefined designer.

    His recent book is bizarre. He claims to have shown that any feature that required two or more mutations to accomplish is mathematically and biologically next to impossible, therefore, evolution could not have occurred. It ignores all the basic genetics that shows that those kinds of events happen all the time. I can understand how McWhorter would be completely unfamiliar with the biology, but Behe touts his degree everywhere, so it’s a little more incomprehensible in his case.

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  • onymous

    I’m not convinced by the argument that Bloggingheads is a place where the people are presumptively worth listening to. They’ve had Megan McArdle on, after all, or any number of other libertarian or kneejerk-contrarian “thinkers”. (Hell, they’ve had Jonah Goldberg, famed for his “very serious, thoughtful argument” that Swarthmore-educated female grade school teachers are more fascist than SS storm troopers. Saying “I are serious arguer, this are serious video” doesn’t make it so.) These people are the analogs in politics or economics of Behe, that is, those who sound serious if you don’t listen closely but are completely incoherent if you poke at all at what they’re saying. There’s still a case to be made for responding to them, namely that there are people who take them seriously, so it’s worth making coherent counterarguments that are publicly available. (I think John Holbo articulated this pretty well in responding to McArdle over at Crooked Timber recently.) It’s not clear to me why one should be more up in arms about scientific crackpots than political ones; the latter are, I think, more dangerous. (On the other hand, I know I would be up in arms if they brought on a climate-change denialist, so I guess we all have our buttons that can be pushed.)

    There’s maybe a stronger argument to be made for your view, though, which is that in science we do pretty well at keeping the crackpots marginalized, and it’s good to keep them that way. Just because crackpots are not at all marginalized in politics and economics, and thus get taken seriously on a regular basis, that’s no reason to move the discourse in science in that direction. But your “presumption that both people are worth listening to” is just transparently not the case in many of the site’s videos.

  • bjkeefe

    I’m another regular from the peanut gallery over at, and I want to echo some of the sentiments already expressed.

    Yours is a very well-reasoned essay, Sean, and you’ve obviously put a lot of thought into it. I respect your decision completely and I can’t — and don’t want to — argue against it. Nonetheless, speaking purely from self-interest, a small part of me hopes you will reconsider, maybe if cleans up its act and stays clean for, say, six months. Unless, of course, another outlet for you to have this sort of conversation presents itself. (I should have never moved away from Pasadena.) Meantime, I will miss you on Science Saturdays.

    To tell you the truth, one minute into watching the Behe/McWhorter diavlog when it first went up, I stopped it and went right to the comments section. I was about 75% of the way to announcing that I would no longer be participating in the site myself. (This would no doubt have come as a relief to many, but let’s leave that aside.) I decided instead to post a few links to some of the better critiques that I know about, concerning Behe’s books. That both helped me get over my mad and made me think that sometimes one has to stand up and make clear why a guest like Behe in the context in which he appeared is simply not acceptable. I think you took your shot with the previous creationist guest, felt your concerns weren’t being addressed, and made the call you had to make for you. I do not have the same reputation to protect as you, and my leaving (as a commenter) wouldn’t be nearly as significant a statement as your leaving, so I decided, in the end, not to walk off in a huff. Who knows what will happen next.

    Best wishes to you, of course, and I’ll still be reading CV as much as ever, so don’t be shy about promoting other appearances you’ll be making, please.

    Side note to onymous (#29): You’re absolutely right about McArdle, Pantload, et al. One difference, I would suggest, is that these people are not as generally provably wrong as Behe is. It is far easier for me to accept that gives them a platform (and just not watch them) without feeling like it reflects badly on the site as a whole than it is to accept creationism being presented as science.

    Side note to trond (#21): That comment was full of win.

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  • outeast

    I concur with those who’ve suggested that actually featuring Behe on BH would have been OK if he’d been paired with someone qualified to debate his claims with him.

    I’m still bewildered that Behe should have seduced McWhorter so completely – I’m no biologist and even I can see how completely bunk Behe’s thesis is. But if he is reaching and persuading intelligent and educated people like McWhorter, then arguably he is not so marginal and irrelevant a crank that he should automatically be sidelined.

    He claims expertise in a particular field, though, so if he was to be featured it should have been in a pairing with someone else with expertise in that field (by which I mean biology, not theology!).

  • Per

    This is a bit like the illegal combatants definition…. They’re so evil so we wont even classify them as soldiers. Or, they are so stupid so we won’t listen to their arguments, whatever they may be.

    I’m not taking sides here, but as far as I can see science people are as identified as the wacko ID / creationist people.

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  • Uncommon

    Hey Sean, might be a better use of your time to listen to the McWhorter Behe exchange rather than show your prejudice and pen long self righteous platitudes.

  • Robert Wright

    Sean, in your account of the phone conversation with me and Carl Zimmer and some BhTV staffers yesterday, I wish you’d included some key points I tried to drive home.

    Here’s what I remember telling you and Carl yesterday:
    1) Both of the diavlogs in question had been arranged without my knowledge.
    2) I would certainly not have approved both of them, and probably not either of them, had I known about them.
    3) The Behe diavlog, in particular, was blatantly at odds with guidelines I’d laid down to my staff more than a year ago in discussing the prospect of Behe appearing. Namely: Behe should only appear in conversation with someone who is truly expert in the relevant biological areas, and since most such matchups would yield a conversation unintelligible to a lay audience, it was hard to imagine a Behe pairing that would make sense.
    4) Since these two diavlogs were arranged, I have told the staffers who arranged them that in the future they should make sure to clear diavlogs of this sort with me before arranging them.

    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.

    Finally, a couple of minor points:

    (1) Some of your commenters have suggested Bloggingheads receives funding from the Templeton Foundation. It’s true that in the past we did—for a four-month series of weekly shows exploring human nature and various cosmic issues. But that’s over, and, btw, so far as I know none of those sponsored shows included any creationists or ID advocates.

    (2) [And here I switch hats from BhTV spokesperson to aggrieved author] Some of your commenters have spoken approvingly of Jerry Coyne’s review of my book The Evolution of God. IMHO, his review misrepresents my book on a fairly large scale, as I document here:

    Sean, thanks for your many past contributions to Bloggingheads. As I told you and Carl yesterday, there will always be a place for you at BhTV should you reconsider your decision. Meanwhile, I’ll be interested to see if you have anything to say in reply to this comment. Of course, the most efficient way for us to hash this out would be to get two webcams and…. Oh, wait– I forgot. Never mind.

    [Note: Much of the above replicates a comment left on Carl Zimmer’s blog.]

  • Ray Gedaly

    Sean, I agree with your decision. While I respect Mr. Wright’s comment above. it unfortunately shows that he was not doing his job to supervise and oversee content. That it happened once may be understandable; that it so quickly happened a second time is inexcusable.

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  • Lab Lemming

    PZ says:
    He claims to have shown that any feature that required two or more mutations to accomplish is mathematically and biologically next to impossible, therefore, evolution could not have occurred.

    Does this mean that only God can cause cancer?

  • Norwegian Shooter

    My point was not that Coyne et al. wrote disapprovingly about Wright’s book, but the focus of their arguments: Wright’s claim that morality is improving and especially that moral progress is teleological.

    To my knowledge, Wright has not addressed this criticism.* But he has talked at length about how his teleological process is so fuzzy, that it does not contradict any scientific view of the world. He correctly points out that his description of the change of religion over time** is completely materialistic. That’s great. But he has focused so much attention over his Afterward, which claims that the material process is guided by something.

    This kind of sophisticated claim that religion and science are compatible is exactly the type of thing that Templeton is looking for. You must know this and so people rightly bring it up because so much of the book’s publicity [really, the publicist is awesome] is focused on this issue, even though only a small, unsupported portion of the book is about it.

    * Mr. Wright, your rebuttal that Coyne described your position slightly wrong in a couple of cases certainly doesn’t count. And while you have left the URL of your rebuttal on several blog comments, there is no mention or link to it on your home page. The only public place I have seen one is on Coyne’s TNR review page. Since you are a contributor to TNR, don’t you think a more comprehensive effort, that includes a defense of your teleological argument, deserves to be published there?

    ** The book would better be titled “The Cultural Evolution of God” but I admit takes some of the snap out. But it would have been appropriate to include the cultural aspect in a subtitle, which Wright expressly didn’t want to use. This wouldn’t be a big deal, but Wright uses biological evolution and natural selection as concepts applicable to his teleological arguments. Those concepts just aren’t used correctly in Wright’s book. For cultural evolution, morality is but one meme of all the competing memes in human cultures. A natural selection paradigm wouldn’t act on just one meme, increasing or decreasing it, as the case may be. But rather it would mediate the competition between all memes existing in a culture. The use of “evolution” by Wright is more confusing than explanatory.

  • ERV

    Oh piss off, Wright.

    I offered to ‘debate’ Behe to replace the missing episode right off the bat, and no one has said shit to me. But what do I know, eh? Just study retroviral evolution, one of Behes main examples in ‘Edge’. I aint no ‘expert’ like Dawkins (who doesnt debate kooks like Behe, which you would know if you knew shit about Dawkins).


    Oh, and thanks for pulling the episode so all us EVILUTIONISTS get blamed for CENSORSHEEEP! EXPELLEDDDD!

    Thanks for the mess.


  • Andrew

    Could we please get a something between Dawkins and Behe. I would love to hear Dawkins throw his best objections at the Edge of Evolution and listen to Behe’s responses. I do realise that Dawkins is not as molecular biologist and therefore not really qualified to question Behe still Dawkins is a formidable intellect and probably the most well know adovate for atheism and evolution.

    Sean I find it amusing how much of an intellectual fascist you are. Your whole argument reads like someone who has jumped through some serious mental hoops to come up with an argument that will justify a decision already made. Basically you did not get your way so you are going to inflict as much damage as you can. Of course you have done your utmost to present it as as a sort of principled stand when really your feelings are just hurt.

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  • monad

    [cross-posted from Zimmer’s site]

    Prediction: Bob Wright spells out clearly that creationist/ID proponents will not be on BHTV, with the possible exception that they are paired with a highly articulate scholar who agrees to vigorously and pointedly challenge them WRT the particular field of study of that scholar (theology|biology|politics|law|sociology|history|etc), and furthermore, that any such pairing will be extremely rare (at most once every year or two). This will immediately be denounced by Very Very Smart science bloggers who use terms like ‘goddycoddling’ and/or curse a lot as proof that Bob Wright is secretly being paid by Templeton to promote evil, evil religion.

    OTOH, I certainly appreciate and sympathize with Carl Zimmer/ Sean Carroll/Jennifer Ouellette that at the very least, Wright hasn’t done a very good job of articulating a reasonable, clear policy. But from his comments so far (the public ones, at least), he appears to agree with Zimmer & Carroll’s points, and I’m willing to conditionally accept his explanation that he just screwed up and did a very bad job of spelling out for his staff what’s acceptable for the site and what’s not. Hopefully, there will be a clear and acceptable statement of policy later this week when he posts his promised editorial guidelines at BHTV. I’d hate for this issue to result in permanently losing all of the good dialogs about science that occur there.

  • John Farrell

    Speaking as a science writer who has had more than a little Bloggingheads.TV envy (I need to sell books, too) I admire Sean’s decision.

  • Sean

    I added a short update at the bottom of the original post.

  • Brian Mingus

    Bloggingheads is completely unnecessary. With a bit of practice and software you can create equivalent videos and post them directly to your blog.

  • monad

    I added a short update at the bottom of the original post.

    Yeah, there’s really no point in a science debate with creationists (and I doubt there’d be many, if any, takes for that, anyway). That really should be completely abandoned as a future topic, despite my earlier approval of it above. But personally, I can conceive of some discussions about squishier subjects (law, theology, etc) that might be legitimately interesting and worthwhile, as long as it took the form of serious, difficult, and pointed challenges.

    “Of course we all agree that when someone listens to a dialogue on, they have a reasonable expectation that both speakers are non-crackpots.” But I don’t think we do agree on that.

    The continued, near-weekly appearance of Ann Althouse makes me wonder too.

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  • RBH

    Lab Lemming asked

    PZ says:
    He claims to have shown that any feature that required two or more mutations to accomplish is mathematically and biologically next to impossible, therefore, evolution could not have occurred.

    Does this mean that only God can cause cancer?

    It means that Behe thinks malaria was purposefully designed to kill children:

    Here’s something to ponder long and hard: Malaria was intentionally designed. The molecular machinery with which the parasite invades red blood cells is an exquisitely purposeful arrangement of parts. C-Eve’s children died in her arms partly because an intelligent agent deliberately made malaria, or at least something very similar to it. (The Edge of Evolution, p. 237)

  • thouartgob

    from BJKEEFE:
    “To tell you the truth, one minute into watching the Behe/McWhorter diavlog when it first went up, I stopped it and went right to the comments section. I was about 75% of the way to announcing that I would no longer be participating in the site myself. (This would no doubt have come as a relief to many, but let’s leave that aside.) I decided instead to post a few links to some of the better critiques that I know about, concerning Behe’s books. That both helped me get over my mad and made me think that sometimes one has to stand up and make clear why a guest like Behe in the context in which he appeared is simply not acceptable.”

    I just came across this thread and I couldn’t spend much time watching that diavlog either. As someone who has enjoyed the links you provide on many issues I was gratified to read that the excellent links you provided in the comments section made you feel better since they made me feel better as well since they added a great deal of value to the proceedings.

    The fact that you posted those and many other links proves that you give a shit and giving a shit is a pain in the ass ( so to speak). It is inconvenient to still have the presence of mind to add something to a process even if that process isn’t going in the direction you would like or a direction that makes logical sense even. It’s a non-zero sum transaction in my opinion 😉

    Sean and Mr. Zimmer both give a shit as well and I do not quibble with their response to these mistakes in refraining from participating in a process that isn’t going in a direction that seems to make much sense at the time. Their subsequent discussion with Mr. Wright didn’t assuage their misgivings and so they are still on the outs. I understand that indulging a debate with some ID maven is a painful experience ( ID isn’t science but a debating tactic ) and that adding some value to the proceedings is difficult. Many scientists don’t bother and since it is a free country I applaud them in their decision. I appreciated Sean and Carl’s contributions to BHTV and while I will miss them I hope that whatever they’re future plans may be successful ( something along the lines of BHTV or whathaveyou ).

    For others who may be on the fence about interacting with the thorny underbrush of ignorance that resides on the other side of diavlog with and IDster I would suggest that I as a consumer of your writings gain quite a bit knowledge from your continued participation. I am not alone in this and there are plenty of people who do not regularly visit sites such as these who nonetheless gain value from it as well.

    BHTV is a bit idiosyncratic and the events of the past month or so has shown that there needs to be more transparency and stricter guidelines so that the signal stays above the noise long enough to make a point or 2. I think that this will happen and I hope that in the future these kinds of problems will not escalate to the point where people of good will won’t be speaking past each other ( as sean mentioned ) so that everyone who gives a shit can enjoy a conversation.

  • Z


    are all die-hard atheists such cry babies? what a bunch of snivelling prima donnas.

    “oh let me have a fainting spell because people expressed views that i don’t agree with”, what crap.

    I’ve been exposed to many worthy scientists through that i would not have otherwise known about. The fact that you are so deeply embedded in your little academic cocoons that you don’t see the value of educating people that might not agree with every one of you views is really sad.

    that venting aside, y’all really aught to come back and keep educating interested people with your amazing intellects, if there is a crime here, its your refusal to share your insights and ideas with as many people as possible.

    yours truly,

    Dr. Z

    p.s. sorry for the venom, but this decision is pretty incomprehensible to me.

  • bjkeefe


    Thanks very much.


    What you call being a “crybaby” many of us call “having principles and sticking to them.” As I said in the forums over at in response to a comment similar to yours:

    There is a struggle going on right now for the intellectual hearts (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron) and minds of this nation and this world, between the attitude that wants to move out of our superstitious ways and the attitude that wants to cling to religious belief as privileged above all else. Each of us draws our line in a different place. You can disagree with the location, but to belittle that the line is drawn at all is either to be unaware of the stakes associated with this struggle or it is to be a squish, where “all points of view are equally valid.” Both Sean and Carl feel the latter is an unacceptable attitude, and see the former as significant, and I agree with them.

    Your comment suggests you fail to understand that {creationism/IDiocy}-as-science is not a worthy point of view. People who have spent enough time engaging with creationists already know this.

  • Norton

    Robert Wright’s comments again show that he simply doesn’t understand the point. Wright said he’d like, for example, a Dawkins-Behe debate. Dawkins, as many other scientists concur, will not debate creationists. They shouldn’t be given room at the table of scientific discussions.

    I would expect this to be true of any publication/service that wants to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

    Does let flat Earthers debate geologists? Or does such a stupid discussion belong only in the area of biology?

    But what’s done is done.

    I think can move on from this, but not ignore the mistake. Why not have two biogists discuss this issue and the importance of evolution for understanding biology? Surely, can find two that are willing to discuss this issue to put it in the past.

  • osmium

    I am a long-time BhTV viewer, have enjoyed your diavlogs, and do wish you would reconsider. I do understand your frustration. However, I believe providing Behe with a forum does him no favors, despite what he may think.
    All the best,

  • Blake Stacey

    Brian Mingus wrote:

    Bloggingheads is completely unnecessary. With a bit of practice and software you can create equivalent videos and post them directly to your blog.

    Indeed. I was doing editing that sophisticated, the better part of a decade ago. I’m sure it’s gotten easier since then.

    Bloggingheads comes with an audience, I suppose, but then again, you can get eyeballs from Reddit.

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  • Greg

    are all die-hard atheists such cry babies? what a bunch of snivelling prima donnas.
    “oh let me have a fainting spell because people expressed views that i don’t agree with”, what crap.”
    p.s. sorry for the venom, but this decision is pretty incomprehensible to me.

    People are equal, in as much as anyone can be equal. Ideas (views), however, are not and at some point one has to acknowledge that by participating in a conversation with someone whose ideas are proven horsesh*t you are not helping but elevating that horsesh*t to the illusion respectability.

    If you aren’t going to think or speak rationally there is little point wasting breath giving you a forum to speak in. Our time is better spent making our argument to those that haven’t closed their minds to science. ID proponents have nothing to add to the conversation, they just need the conversation to continue so they are not forgotten.

    That you would find this incomprehensible is either hyperbola, or an admission of your inability to distinguish argument from discussion or science from BS.

    Good luck to you

  • boreds

    Uhm, not that I particularly want to increase their traffic, but uncommon descent has a post from Paul Nelson adding some more fuel to some kind of fire.

    David Killoren, is what he conveys of your thoughts accurate, and in context? Did you change your mind at some point about the merits of the Nelson BH?

    Sean, I tend to agree with your post, but I’m confused about your update. I think it’s somewhat reasonable for Wright to expand upon your phone conversation, whether you were talking past each other or not.

    And why put `pledge’ in scare quotes? (Oops, I’ve just done it, too.) Doesn’t what you *did* want amount to a pledge that all future BH speakers will be non-crackpots? Otherwise I’m not sure what you mean by reasonable expectation. Considering we’re talking about two incidents out of many, someone clicking randomly is unlikely to find one of them. What you (and probably me) want is a pledge that BH won’t feature crackpots, which is fine—you just didn’t get it from Wright.

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  • David Killoren


    First of all, in my time working for BhTV, I’ve sent out hundreds of thank-you emails to BhTV participants. The point of those emails is to express gratitude to people who have worked for free to give us a diavlog. The point is not to offer a thorough critique of participants’ efforts.

    But second, there’s no inconsistency here. Nelson has me saying that “this conversation is really fascinating on several levels.” That’s consistent with my current belief that setting up the diavlog was a mistake.

  • mvantony

    Sean, your beef seems to be with “non-serious ideas,” but I would have thought that as someone involved in educating nonscientists you would frequently come up against non-serious positions, and attempt to the best of your ability to dispel them and offer more serious alternatives. Isn’t that a big part of the science educator’s job description? So what’s so special about non-serious ideas concerning the existence of a personal god who causally influences the physical universe (assuming they are non-serious)? If no such god exists, then given that such a large percentage of humanity believe in such a god, isn’t humanity in very great need of public instruction on the matter? But if so, what serious pedagogical principles dictate education by isolation, ostracizing, mockery, etc? None I’m aware of. In my view the Dawkinsesque position of refusing to engage with religious believers (call them “creationists” if you must) about evolution, or science more generally, is deeply flawed. If doing so is not your cup of tea, then fine. But someone needs to do it. Consequently, it seems quite wrong for one to criticize and disassociate oneself from publications, websites, organizations, etc. that promote and encourage such interaction. Sean, please reconsider coming back to BhTV (and pass this on to Carl too).

  • mk

    In my view the Dawkinesque position of refusing to engage with religious believers (call them “creationists” if you must) about evolution, or science more generally, is deeply flawed.

    Uh… mvantony, there is a difference. Dawkins and Sean (and most of us here!) know this. That is why they don’t call all religious people “creationists.”

    Telling Sean (and Dawkins) to “call them creationists, if you must”! is obnoxious… and downright stupid. And it suggests you need to read up on some of their writings.

  • mvantony

    Telling Sean (and Dawkins) to “call them creationists, if you must”! is obnoxious… and downright stupid. And it suggests you need to read up on some of their writings.

    My apologies if I offended you or anyone else. I admit to not being up on all the distinctions between different forms of creationism, and between creationist and non-creationist religious belief in a (non-deist?) personal god. I should read up on it. But I don’t see how any of this affects my point. Sean’s example of a non-serious idea in his post was belief in an “ill-specified supernatural ‘designer’ [who] is interfering at whim with the course of evolution,” and I described the position somewhat more neutrally and generally as belief in “a personal god who causally influences the physical universe.” (I assume Sean’s inclusion of “at whim” is inessential.) It’s people who hold that position that Sean believes shouldn’t be given a platform to express it on BhTV, if I understood him correctly, and it’s those people I had in mind with my (imprecise) use of “religious believers,” and who I was arguing need to be engaged with. Whether that position is properly called ‘creationism’ or not doesn’t seem to matter, so far as I can tell.

  • Hyman Rosen

    IDers and creationists purport to believe in things which contradict widely accepted theories supported by vast amounts of evidence, without offering any credible evidence of their own. IDers and creationists do not ever accept the challenge of the evidence which contradicts their beliefs. Instead, they repeat their invalid claims in any forum which will allow them to speak. That’s why there is no point in “debating” them. A proper debate should offer the hope that either side might be correct, or at least have valid points to make.

  • Joe G

    Wouldn’t the best way to get rid of ID to expose it on venues like bhtv?

    Get someone like PZ or Abbie to interview Behe. I am sure he would agree as long as they also have to support their claims.

    It is easy actually- you refute ID by actually supporting the claims of your position!

    Not engaging IDists just makes the public wonder what you are afraid of.

  • Zimmer + Carroll = Cowards

    Just goes to show how terrified the Temple of Darwin is of having Darwood’s unscientific creation myth exposed. What a bunch of cowards.

  • mk

    As Dawkings and Steve Gould once said, they (IDists) are not interested in debating. They are interested in being on stage with people, scientists of weight. They want to be able to say, hey, I took on Dawkins! He didn’t lay a glove on me! The hopelessly religious are not swayed by reasoned debate.

    It is a no-win situation for PZ, Dawkins, et al.

    And by the way, ERV offered to go on BhTV and take on Behe. She was ignored apparently!

  • mk

    @ #70…

    Were human beings created exactly as they are about 6,000 years ago?

  • Dee

    Joe G:
    “Wouldn’t the best way to get rid of ID to expose it on venues like bhtv?
    Get someone like PZ or Abbie to interview Behe. I am sure he would agree as long as they also have to support their claims.”

    I’m sure he’d run away, just like Dembski did in Dover.

    Speaking of Dover, the trial transcripts show how Behe does when confronted by real scientists: He got his ass handed to him.

  • ERV

    JoeG: “Get someone like PZ or Abbie to interview Behe. I am sure he would agree… ”
    No, he wouldnt. Several people have offered to mediate a ‘debate’ between us over the past couple of years, and Behe has always told the moderators to f*ck off. In the meantime, Behes gotten older and dumber, the field has moved forward exponentially, and Ive learned more and more… I wasnt even in grad school when I wrote that critique of ‘Edge’.

    No, I honestly dont expect him to accept, but I did expect the BHTV crew to ask.

  • Dee

    I have this great mental image of McWhorter ripping off his rubber mask to reveal ERV facing Behe.

    Yeah, yeah, too much Scooby Doo….

  • Lab Lemming

    Hey Sean,
    Do you have a replacement outreach activity of similar scope, or will you be doing less public communication due to this decision?

  • Jeremy H.

    mvantony @67 & Joe G @ 69:

    The issue lies in framing it as science. Theological debates on their own merit are all well and good. But the mendacity lies in trying to shoehorn it into science, which is precisely what ID tries to pass itself off as, and what Behe is attempting to do. Both of the episodes of bloggingheads in question were ‘aired’ on ‘Science Saturday.’ And by having qualified scientists such as Dawkins, Carroll, Coyne, et al., debate them on an equal footing, it implies that there is some scientific merit in the ID position to which a response is needed, which there is not. And until they produce testable and falsifiable hypotheses and publish their work, which they have not done, it is not science.

    One of the issues is that the dishonest rhetorical tricks and easily-repeated soundbites used in rapid succession can catch an intellectually honest scientist off-guard, if they are not familiar with the canards. The rapid-fired disinformation can take so long to address that the creationist can end up appearing better than the scientist, as while the scientist painstakingly refutes each point, in the next response, the creationist simply ignores the refutations and moves on with more nonsense. This lends perceived credibility to their position to a lay audience.

    Eugenie Scott wrote on this issue over a decade ago:

  • Sean

    Lab Lemming, I have hopes to publish a popular book on the arrow of time.

  • Doug Watts

    I understand Sean’s issues but would offer the following caveat.

    I am not a scientist by degree but I am one by the work I do. The work I do is trying to remove dams or at least secure some sense of temporarily survivable conditions at dams for fish like Atlantic salmon, shad, eels and alewives in New England rivers so these species will not go extinct. This work requires that I am completely versed in every aspect of the life history of these fish, the impacts by dams on these fish, the entire history of human interactions with these fish, and the entire panoply of laws affecting these fish. I am always facing a phalanx of extremely well paid lawyers and consultants hired by the dam owner to refute any and every thing I say in a regulatory proceeding. In this context, peer review is a walk in the park.

    Ultimately, as in the Dover case, all disputes between science and non-science end up in court. The preferable route, as any lawyer will tell you, would be to defuse such issues before they ever get to court. Dover only got to court because scientists were busy being scientists and not able to pay close attention to what the kooks were doing. Which is entirely understandable. But Behe and his cohorts know that scientists are too busy being scientists to put out every brush fire they aspire to set. Which is why they aspire to set so many brush fires.

    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 and all the fish will die. As nonsensical as these claims are, not confronting them is much worse than confronting them. You just have to do it, as wacky and non-productive as it might seem to be at the moment. These folks have a specific goal and they intend to win. In my profession, I want to get a dam removed so I can restore a river. The victory or defeat is real and tangible. If I lose, a river dies. If I win, a river lives. This is science not-in-the-abstract. It is science with a purpose. If I don’t win my little debate with these kooks, my kids and grandkids will have to live with a dead river and wonder why I did nothing to stop it.

    My attitude when engaging in a public debate with a typical “the river will dry up” kook is that, on average, I will win over at least a few people from “their side” and there is no way that anyone on “my side” is going to be swayed by anything they say. So, in the end, just by showing up and speaking to these kooks is always a win — and it may be a very big win. The more you engage these kooks and their sycophants, the bigger the win, because most of them are deeply skeptical of this stuff to begin with. Because it makes no sense.

    Not that boycotts lack tactical negotiating value.

  • Plato

    I am sure Discovery can set up a Blogging head format quite easily to cater to it’s site menu specializations for topics as a sideline for the blogs who are participating?

    I look forward to the Arrow of Time book:)

  • mk


    Your take on all this is well taken. Though, I would suggest that what you are dealing with when faced with opposition is simple lack of knowledge about what is going on. What Sean and others are faced with is certainly that… and then some!

    The “then some” being religious convictions. That’s some seriously powerful stuff. They are not just lacking in the knowledge of evolutionary biology but they have an emotional religious stake as well. I don’t think the “win-over” rate is nearly what you think it would be in this case.

    Just some thoughts.

  • Kel

    Just goes to show how terrified the Temple of Darwin is of having Darwood’s unscientific creation myth exposed. What a bunch of cowards.

    Science is done in academia, not in public. Why isn’t Behe fighting for his ideas at academic conferences and in anonymous peer review instead of relying on appealing to the layman? Using the word coward is such projection…

  • Robert S. Porter

    So, instead of going on Bloggingheads and refuting poor arguments you quit. Well that makes sense. Seems to me that’s about as good as me refusing to appear in the New York Times because I don’t agree with their editorial stance.

  • Luke Lea

    My comment at 3quarks:

    I wish Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer would reconsider. First, because it is very damaging to And second, because the issues raised by the intelligent design controversy are too interesting to non-scientists to simply ignore.

    For example, the notion of “intelligent design” implies intentionality, a subjective state of consciousness and control. But intentionality by definition is just the sort of thing that can never be established by science no matter how long the odds of something happening by chance (long odds being what the notion of irreducible complexity really comes down to).

    Consider current cosmology, Sean Carroll’s specialty. At the present time it looks like the chance of a universe with intelligent life in it is vanishingly small, as in one in a zillion. Physicists hope one day to reduce those odds but in the meantime they do not speculate about intelligent design. For a scientist life may be a miracle — ie, an extraordinary coincidence –but it still happened by chance. All they want to do is to try to calculate the odds.

    Ideas about meaning and purpose, beauty and justice, are about subjective states of feeling. Science, by definition, limits itself to what is objective.

    Does this mean that beauty and justice, meaning and purpose are stupid, pre-scientific concepts that we could just as well do without? Of course not. They have served us well in the past and will never go away.

    Likewise for faith in the idea that there is a moral order in the universe.

    These are gut instincts and, as such, are an important part of what it means to be human. I doubt many scientists would entirely disagree.

    So I guess what I am trying to say is that it would be preferable for guys like Carroll and Zimmer to make these distinctions rather than walking away from the forum. They need to educate the public about what science is and is not.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    Sean, I have to say that I can’t tell whether your goal here is to preserve your integrity, attempt to silence further dissent, or merely to take your bat and go home. Certainly what you have done doesn’t further the cause of driving a stake through the heart of a particularly nasty idea.

    Look, it’s really unfortunate, but the simple fact is that a majority or significant plurality of Americans believe in some flavor of creationism. As a science educator, I’d think that you would view that with alarm, since creationism is a mighty fine way to turn a lot of otherwise intelligent young people away from science–biological or otherwise. (Seen one self-organizing system, seen ’em all. If you stop believing in one, you kinda have to stop believing in the others, don’t you?)

    The problem is that creationism has a bunch of nice, simple, intuitive ideas associated with it. Lots of time and energy has been spent honing the marketing messages for those ideas. Evolution is not exactly intuitive, however beautiful it is once you really get it. The only way to do away with creationism is to spend as much time refuting it as the creationists have spent marketing it.

    You can’t refute creationism by excluding its proponents, crackpots or no. You can’t refute it by waving your arms and refusing to engage in the debate, however much you wish that the debate wasn’t necessary. It **is** necessary, and the removal of your voice from this aspect of the debate is regrettable. The only way to deal with this is to give creationist proponents a nice big, fat, fair forum, with able opponents, and beat them like a drum, over and over, until the arguments are so finely honed and so accessible that popular media think that they can be fed to their audiences without causing them to change the channel.

    You’re good at this sort of thing. Distasteful though it may be, I’d hope that you’d respect creationism enough to view it as a genuine threat, and that you’d devote some amount of energy to reducing or eliminating that threat. Excluding yourself from a forum because of a whiff of something that you disapprove of sends exactly the wrong message.

  • Kel

    You can’t refute creationism by excluding its proponents, crackpots or no. You can’t refute it by waving your arms and refusing to engage in the debate, however much you wish that the debate wasn’t necessary.

    On the flip side, creationism will never be accepted by the scientific community by refusing to take part in the peer review process, by not fighting for the ideas in academia – and creationists will continue to draw the ire of scientists by subverting the scientific process in order to proselytise their beliefs.

    Why should scientists give creationists the air of legitimacy by playing in the public forum treating them as “equals”, as opposed to just dismissing the claims in the proper and popular channels? Does Behe really need to be debated just so his ideas can be defeated? Of course not. His ideas are defeated by scientists working through scientific channels and popular media without even having to face him in person. By debating, all it does it make it seem like there’s a serious disagreement.

    Creationists use the public platforms to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the layman. It’s systematically dishonest and the opposite of science. So why should scientists reward such behaviour when the creationists aren’t playing by the rules?

  • Mike Barnes


    I suggest a reading of Orwell’s essay for you, The Politics of Language (1946). Here’s why: instead of formulating your point like this :

    The problem is that creationism has a bunch of nice, simple, intuitive ideas associated with it.

    Say it as it really is:

    The problem is that creationists have a bunch of nice, simple, intuitive ideas associated with them.

    And actually, you find the answer is a good deal less straightforward.

    There may be a few die-hard creationists who change their minds if they hear more about science – though I suspect this is a vanishingly small number compared to those who will never do so.

    The truth is, as with racism and homophobia and many other insulated, ‘intuitive’ beliefs, those who believe in them simply die out over time. The next generation see these beliefs as irrelevant and increasingly bizarre (it’s occurring now among the younger Amish, who question where exactly the bible mentions hooks not zippers on clothing etc).

    Giving scientific credence to rubbish is something we in the UK got badly wrong in the 1970s. When Uri Geller first appeared, his cheap magic would have got little attention – except that a ‘scientist’ appeared on a mainstream tv show with him, said psychokinesis was a valid phenomenon, and suddenly Geller’s woo was centre stage for years and years.

    All it took was one scientist to give him that crucial break; the world has been slightly worse for it ever since. Is the rubbish spouted by creationists and theists any different? I suggest we learn from previous examples and refuse to give equal space to such garbage.

  • Marcel Kincaid

    “Diavlog the controversy!”

    No thanks. Kudos to Sean and Carl.

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  • Dee

    It is important to avoid giving the veneer of respectability to crackpot ideas like Intelligent Design Creationism. It is also important to refute such nonsense at least as publicly as it is supported. Perhaps as a complement to Science Saturday, BHTV could institute Woo Wednesday, where cranks like Behe and Dembski can make their case so long as they are willing to answer the questions of a real scientist with a background in the relevant disciplines.

    Something tells me that none of the IDCists would go for that format. They want respect but don’t want to earn it.

  • Sim

    Sean, I have a great deal of sympathy for your well-reasoned and well-written position. As one already said: if it helps you to look at yourself in the mirror, it’s the right choice.

  • R.

    Thanks for taking this stand.

  • Count Iblis

    The fundamental problem is actually a failing educational system which causes some sizeable fraction to be scientic illiterate and effectively cut off from the body of scientific knowledge which has refuted creationism.

    People like Behe are not the fundamental problem. Consider e.g. Holocaust deniers. There are quite a few of such people, but because we teach history in schools, most people are not susceptible to Neo-Nazi propaganda. Most lay persons know enough about history to see for themselves that Holocaust deniers are wrong. This would be different if we had the same attititude toward teaching history in primary and secondary school as we have about teaching science.

    The history curriculum is not determined by considering what the practical use of knowledge about history is. We don’t stop teaching history just because for most jobs you don’t need to know anything about it.We don’t say that if you want to learn about history you can study it at university. But in case of science, these are the arguments that are used to argue against science education in primary and secondary school. As a result we teach only the very elementary basics of math, physics and other sciences in high school.

  • Luke Lea

    Keep in mind the wider context of this whole controversy: how to teach the biological sciences in public schools in a society that mandates universal education. If it weren’t for that nobody would give a damn about it, or at least very few.

    Hence the real audience here is the general public. In this context to compare the advocates of intelligent design to homophobes, Holocaust deniers, and the like is downright wrong as well as tactically misguided. The argument is not between atheists and materialists vs. those who believe in God and the supernatural. It is about the limitations of science, the sorts of questions that in principle science can and cannot answer, nothing more. It is obvious that ID’ers do not understand these limitations. Unhappily it appears that a lot of scientists don’t either. Hatred and intellectual contempt have absolutely no place in this controversy.

  • Chad Orzel

    Way late, and wishy-washy, but here’s a manual TrackBack ping.

  • Sean

    Seriously, Chad, this was like two days ago. You call yourself a blogger?

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  • TheRadicalModerate

    Mike Barnes–

    There may be a few die-hard creationists who change their minds if they hear more about science – though I suspect this is a vanishingly small number compared to those who will never do so.

    The truth is, as with racism and homophobia and many other insulated, ‘intuitive’ beliefs, those who believe in them simply die out over time. The next generation see these beliefs as irrelevant and increasingly bizarre…

    That would be great if creationism were only believed by the middle aged and elderly, but this survey shows that 43% of 18 to 29 year-olds believe that “God created human beings in present form.” If you’re going to wait for them to die, you’re going to be waiting a long time.


    Why should scientists give creationists the air of legitimacy by playing in the public forum treating them as “equals”, as opposed to just dismissing the claims in the proper and popular channels? Does Behe really need to be debated just so his ideas can be defeated? Of course not.

    The problem is that this isn’t a scientific issue; it’s a political and cultural issue. It affects attitudes toward science. It affects how many kids are predisposed toward scientific careers. It affects public policy toward medical and biological research. This is a mistake that scientists make over and over and over again. You don’t win political arguments solely with reason. You win them through relentless engagement with your opponents and by slowly changing public perceptions of the issue. Every time you disengage–however high-minded your reasons or however correct your arguments–you lose.

    Creationism can’t be lent legitimacy–it already has legitimacy. It needs to be actively de-legitimized. That can’t happen when smart, authoritative people walk away from the issue.

  • Kel

    The problem is that this isn’t a scientific issue; it’s a political and cultural issue. It affects attitudes toward science.

    Again, there are better ways of going about this. Debate only serves to give a legitimate platform to those who don’t deserve it. Recently I decided to explore the issue, and it’s amazing reading about the scientists who give a take-down of everything the creationist says only to see the creationist being patted on the back for “standing up to the big bad Darwinist”. I’m not saying to abandon talking to the public, to try and sell evolution. I just don’t think it a good idea to engage them in a format that suits rhetoric over fact and gives a platform of legitimacy.

    You don’t win political arguments solely with reason. You win them through relentless engagement with your opponents and by slowly changing public perceptions of the issue. Every time you disengage–however high-minded your reasons or however correct your arguments–you lose.

    Again, I’m not advocating sitting in the ivory towers of academia and lamenting why the culture is slipping away. I’m just saying that it serves no useful purpose to debate creationists because it gives them that legitimacy. People actually see these debates as arguing over general controversies, isn’t there a problem in the US even among those who accept evolution to “teach both sides?” There aren’t two sides to this, and each time one engages in debates as equals it feeds the perception that there is equality in ideas.

    Again, I’ll state that debating is a bad format. It serves the creationist to no end, and feeds the perception that there is genuine controversy.

  • tfagan

    As I read all the previous comments I must admit that I am very naive concerning the activity of Darwinists, Evolutionists, Naturalists or whatever you call yourselves. Which is why I have trouble understanding such horrific remarks concerning any religious group in America. I still believe in the idea of live and let live. If any of you want to believe in the tooth fairy it is fine with me.

    It seems to me those of you who are scientifically capable of explaining why your theory is right and why another’s theory is wrong is a good thing. For example; Instead of making hateful remarks just explain why Dr Behe’s ideas on the number of mutations associated with malaria is wrong and explain why your ideas are more correct. Personally, I would be most interested in hearing or reading any critique of the ideas found in his book “The Edge of Evolution”. I did note that several writers tried to do a critique but were not well versed in probability and mutational science and their theories were easily found wanting.

    I would also like to hear some debate on the idea of specific, functional, informational codes found in the living cell. Most of what I read says that Darwin’s believers are unable to explain how such information, found in DNA, RNA, mRNA, tRNA, nucleotides, codons, proteins and the like, evolved into a living cell. From what evolutionary process does the information come and how did it get into the first cell.

    I have a background in engineering and mathematics as well computer programing and would find such information very interesting. In all the above comments written, there is a lot of vitriol but no helpful data. While all this may be old hat to some of you, I personally am unable to find an Evolutionary author with a reasonable explanation for its source.

    I did watch the debate with Dr Behe and enjoyed it. I really don’t understand why everyone is so upset. Is there something that most of you find fearful and I just don’t understand. You can use the debate as a tool to get your opposing scientific ideas out to the public at large. The idea that Dawkins will not engage in a debate with any scientist having an opposing point of view should be viewed for what it is. He obviously feels incompetent, incapable or is very shy. He certainly has strong opinions after writing so many books and should be proud to show people just how smart he is.

  • Doug Watts

    mk: you are correct. in debating a strictly environmental issue (like removing a dam) you are not dealing with people whose opposition is primarily driven by religious doctrine. good call.

    But by the same token, even people who are motivated by a religious doctrine are willing, at some level, to listen to differing opinions and are open to new information, new evidence, new analogies and new explanations. Deep down, even adults still have a kid in them, and that kid is curious about what makes the world tick and why.

    A good analogy might be a defense attorney facing a hostile jury. Think of yourself, the scientist or science educator, as trying to convince the jury to adopt your position that your client should be acquitted. Even if you know the jury is lopsided as hell against you, you have to give it your best shot. Your job is to find out what particular argument or analogy might create a little spark in one of them — just one.

    I know it’s unfair and not right that basic science seems to be always being put on trial — but that’s the cultural milieu we live in. Science itself is a revolutionary concept and a revolutionary mode of thinking. Just look at how savagely a lot of mid 20th century geologists fought against the “ridiculous” theory of plate tectonics (John McPhee’s book “In Suspect Terrain” describes a particularly comical encounter with an anti-plate tectonics diehard).

  • Doug Watts

    Creationism can’t be lent legitimacy–it already has legitimacy. It needs to be actively de-legitimized. That can’t happen when smart, authoritative people walk away from the issue.

    Thank you. Well said.

  • Gal E. Leo

    Do not quit. Challenge those guys at a bloggingheads duel. Science needs to be explained. If they will not [want to] understand even simple things that for you are obvious, you should do your best at explaining them; there will be others who will understand. Do not say things like “I wouldn’t even discuss with such stupid people”. Explain every tiny thing with patience, show respect to your opponent and to their supporters. Be patient, and maybe they will be the ones to quit.

  • Rilke’s Granddaughter

    Tfagn, if you cannot find excellent discussions and explanations of your questions online then you haven’t looked. It’s that simple. Try talkorigins as a good starting point.

  • Joseph Steinberg

    @ERV: I’d pay for that cage match between you and Behe. After those two bhTV diavlogs and that podcast with Karl Mamer, I don’t understand why you can’t get paid for your performances.

    Does this mean Jennifer Ouellette – someone else who should get paid for showing – judging from her comment here, won’t appear on bhTV either? Sean, Carl…Abbie…Jennifer? These two diavlogs have called into doubt any hope I have for the blogosphere. As I wrote on Zimmer’s blog, the Science Saturday diavlogs have helped me both to understand thorny methodological issues with direct bearing on my own social science research and just to define my own opinions about evolution and cosmology. And, just to see and hear people whom I admire talk so articulately and honestly about these issues is inspirational.

    How about a podcast project between the four of you?

    Thank you, Professor!

  • ERV

    Attention people bawwwing at Sean/Carl for bailing:
    1– According to The Worlds Most BESTEST communicator of science, Chris Mooney, scientists shouldnt be debating woomeisters anyway. Huurrr duuuuur.

    2– You all seem to be under the impression that woomeisters will ‘debate’ scientists in the first place. Yes, there are attention whores who will do anything to get on stage for an hour (Ive debated several for the lulz), but Dembski/Behe/et TARD have no intention of ‘debating’ any scientist. I have been *actively trying* to debate Behe for *over two years*. But he doesnt want to debate me. He wants to get his Jimmy sucked by McWhorter. Dembski? He lives in Dallas. Been to OKC tons of times. He doesnt want to debate me. He drove up to OKC to get his Jimmy sucked by Michael Ruse.

    So stop bitching at Sean/Carl for ‘running away from the problem’, when these oh-so-educational debates were never going to happen in the first place. Never. Whether Sean/Carl wanted them or not.

  • Abber

    Good for you Sean. Debating outlandish theories and wishful thinking has its place, and well moderated debates of this kind can be a useful educational tool, but in excess it is merely an impediment to human progress. I applaud you for taking a stand.

  • TheRadicalModerate


    I’m not bitching at Sean for refusing to debate. I’m not even bitching at him for implying, “You’re silly so I’m not dealing with you.” I’m bitching at him because he’s implied, “You’ve allowed other people to engage in silliness somewhere in my general vicinity, so I’m not dealing with you. Ever.” That’s a win by default for the creationists, which is of course exactly what they want.

    This has nothing to do with debate. Anybody attempting a head-to-head debate with a creationist should remember “never [to] wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.” Head-to-head debate only allows discussion of the merits of the issue, which is pointless, since this is a political question, not a scientific one. We don’t need debates. We need talking points. Really slick, quotable ones. And lots of articulate, credible people to plow them into the popular media, over and over.

  • Eyes Squared

    This is the beginning of the end result of allowing one sided entertainment “news” for the past decade like Fox News get away with this type of reporting. Things like this are given credence; those who know better don’t even try to confront the people who have “faith” with actual facts because it would do no good and those who don’t know any better think this is a credible line of thought. When society accepts stupidity as an explanation for the existence of intelligence then we are all screwed. I was born and raised in Kansas where this type of crap is accepted as more fact than 2+2=4 because no one rebukes it. Everyone is careful not to call their “faith” what it actually is… stupidity. I left Kansas because I hoped to become a part of society that knew better and to let those who don’t believe in improvement stay in their current state with zero education, zero future, and nothing but hope that the God almighty will help them with their lack of faith/intelligence/future but NOOOoooo they are pulling us all back in to their corrupt, ignorant and disrespectful world that has a mass acceptance of religion instead of a freedom from it. I’m going back to read Atlas Shrugged again and wait for those in power to provide me some “faith” in general society because I’m getting to the point where I have none left.

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  • mariana

    I wouldn’t want to verbally debate you either, ERV. Based on your blog you’re cranky, snarky, sarcastic, impatient, quick-tempered, prone to hyperbole and exaggeration (in characterizing opposing view points), easily provoked and twitchy :) (loved that ‘twitch’ and ‘TWITCH’ in the band t-shirt post…I had a similar reaction).

    This makes for entertaining reading, but if carried into the verbal arena it does not make for educational debating. You can still shred someone in a debate without any of the above even if they richly deserve it (which makes me wonder why anyone would want to debate a person who is so far looney that they do deserve all the condescencion and snarkiness that can be mustered. There’s nothing to gain from debating such a person).

    I’m sure your verbal debating attitude would be very different from your blogging attitude, but your blogging might be all they have to judge you by.

  • ERV

    Funny– Behe didnt appear overly concerned with ‘civility’ when he appeared in a theatrical film which called all scientists who disagreed with him Nazis… Though I suppose he was ultimately expelled from that movie too…

    And my blogging style didnt phase the YEC or HIV Denier Ive ‘debated’.

    So if Behe wants to take the “Im a hypocrite and run-of-the-mill loonies have more balls than me” route, I guess more power to him.

  • BluejayNYC

    I am deeply offended that you equate belief in God with being a crackpot. The vast majority of Americans believe in God. You are an elitist. You mention theology being worth discussing by theologians – why? If belief in God is so preposterous as to not be worth your time, isn’t anyone who even considers theology meaningful a crackpot as well? I feel sorry for you.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    And my blogging style didnt phase the YEC or HIV Denier Ive ‘debated’.

    Excellent typo! I suspect you meant “faze,” but the possibilities of this sentence as written are intriguing. Perhaps, through sheer rhetoric, you could cause your opponent to tunnel into some alternate reality. Or destructively interfere with himself. Oh, wait! Those pretty much happened before you debated them in the first place…

  • Eyes Squared

    I’m going to have to agree with Penn on this one and I don’t blame Sean from having the same reaction. I’ve tried walking away from theists and they keep encroaching on my freedom from their ideals… I’m done playing nice… If you believe in “something” then stay away from me.

  • jake

    Sean, how principled art thou.

  • Frode
  • feral child

    i feel like i must say something for us little people (nonscientist, nonscience journalist). i began watching saturday science on bhtv last year and became a huge fan because of the informal conversational but very informative format on a wide range of topics in science. the first program i watched was actually sean carroll and david albert in june 2008. i was instantly hooked specifically because it was so informal in comparision say to the science network. so i am very sad that sean carroll and carl zimmer have left and i suppose it won’t be long before others are gone as well. now i have no reason to get out of bed on saturday mornings thanks alot robert arrrg. perhaps you should meditate on this and find a way to fix it. and fyi robert – young people don’t actually say stuff like “don’t harsh my buzz” they just tell gullible old people stuff like that. not all scientists are equipped to effectively communicate science to the general public but i do want hear from those that can so sean if you don’t come back you will be sorely missed. and carl i loved your book microcosm but i had a tiny quibble with your dark matter in your brain article – but i will read it again because maybe i missed something. and you too will be missed.
    feral child is very sad but you know what she always says … thank god i’m an atheist eh!
    so i shall leave you with a poem i wrote…

    ode to wave function

    no-thing is truth
    and every-thing
    reveals the truth
    of no-thing

  • Jason

    Sean, I understand your need to take a principled stand, but I really do think it was a mistake on the part of the administrators, not some vast conspiracy cooked up by Bob Wright because he wants Templeton money. People have mentioned 2 diavblogs in which crackpots were allowed on. But compare that with the 100’s of episodes that have been truly serious and informative. If this is a reputation thing, isn’t your move a bit overboard? Can’t you instead state your principles and then continue educating the public?

    By the way, Robert Wright and George Johnson have a diavblog up now discussing this whole controversy.

  • Sean

    I have not announced any plans to stop engaging with the public. There are ways to do that other than by appearing on Bloggingheads! Ways that I am personally more comfortable with, but others may see things differently. I doubt those guys will suddenly find themselves bereft of content.

  • Ocean

    Hi Sean,

    I’m a commentor at BhTV and follow the science diavlogs punctually. I have enjoyed and learned from your appearances there and think very highly of you as a scientist and a a teacher.

    I understand the reasons for your decision. They have been discussed ad nauseum everywhere. I won’t engage in further discussion of the topic, but I want to say that I can’t help but to hope that you are able to work out some agreement with BhTV administrators so that you can come back and we, the audience, can continue to enjoy and learn from you.

    Additionally, I am concerned about the other scientists or science presenters who have also withdrawn and the potential that still others could do the same in the near future.

    Thank you for your contributions.

  • johnqeniac

    Hello Sean Carroll,

    I want to say that I have a great deal of respect for you and your work.

    That said, I have two problems with your hard-over position on this, which drove you to quit an interesting show and useful platform for discussion.

    First problem: From your post I have to conclude that your position on irreducible complexity (I.C.) is this: the very idea of ‘irreducible complexity’ (specifically – not ID in general, or Michael Behe’s arguments about it, or Behe’s reputation, nor its potential implications about a Creator, etc.) is scientifically and logically absurd on the face of it, in an a priori sense – independent of any evidence for or against it. I say this because (at least in these comments) your dismissal of it as an idea is based on:

    1. The specific example of a mousetrap has been disputed.
    2. Behe was made to look a fool during his testimony in Kitzmiller vs. Dover
    3. No ‘serious’ biologist ever talks about irreducible complexity.

    But these arguments do not seem to me to be sufficient to dismiss the very idea of irreducible complexity, yet you do. So any one (however willing to be convinced) who even admits to not seeing the inherent and a priori fallacy of the idea and would like to be convinced of that, is obviously a ‘crackpot’ and not worth your time. But if your goal is to engage sincere and open-minded people in conversation, this attitude seems dogmatic and counterproductive. Although I myself am highly skeptical of the idea of irreducible complexity, I do not see how it is, in and of itself, logically absurd. Yet this is the position you take. As for me, the two best arguments against irreducible complexity are 1. It seems to be an argument from personal incredulity, and 2. if I.C. is used as a way to justify a Creator then, as Dawkins has eloquently said, it seems a bizarre God who creates a fantastic mechanism for generating ever more complex machines (evolution) and then resorts to tweeking the system constantly. But neither of these arguments speak to the inherent fallacy of IC. Furthermore, I actually think that the posing of the idea of irreducible complexity has actually been productive and usefully challenging to the scientific community, because it resulted in serious thinking about the evolutionary pathways necessary to create certain types of machinery that do seem difficult to explain.

    Second problem: The idea that you would resign from further participation in a show because some other guests on the show voiced views which you find absurd seems extreme. For example, would you object to the appearance on the show of a renowned and respected theologian, who believed in a God and therefore also believed, by definition, in the general occurrence in this world of supernatural and causality-defying phenomena? And I know that you have been involved with the ‘Great Courses’ project, which discusses religion as well as science. So I see your reaction to the appearance of Behe as inconsistent. Your position seems to be that it’s fine to have conversations with religious people who absolutely believe that supernatural phenomena are rampant in this world, as long as they never seek to explain these (very real, by their accounts) phenomena in scientific terms.

    Again, personally I don’t believe in ID, nor do I find the case for IC particularly compelling. But I do not see that the very idea of IC is inherently absurd, and this seems to be the position you have taken here.

  • TPD

    johnqeniac, very good post.

    The problem is, Sean Carrol has already made up his mind, he probably thinks your a nut as well for posting that.

    Basically Sean Carrol lives in his own little fantasy world, where everything has to go his way.

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  • Robert Richards

    Dr. Carroll, I understand and respect your decision to withdraw from Bloggingheads, though I am saddened by your decision, because I have found your Bloggingheads diavlogs extremely informative, and because I believe that your Bloggingheads diavlogs have provided a very high quality of science education to a very large audience. I’ve written a proposal,, for addressing the problems you raise respecting the Bloggingheads editorial process. Thanks very much for considering this proposal.

  • maximus444

    By the way Sean your two diavlogs with David Albert about quantum mechanics etc were probably the best and most enlightening I’ve ever heard on the subject. I think the best scientific or intelectual way around this is to have a diavlog with Bob Wright and enlighten us some more.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    As a non-accomodationist atheist who has been given a platform by BHTV to argue that science and religion are not the tiniest bit compatible, I would like to announce that:

    I am willing to trust Robert Wright’s explanation of the Behe affair;
    I applaud BHTV for making a commitment to discuss controversial matters including the intersection of science and religion, while most of the world is pretending the controversy doesn’t exist;
    I accept that this noble commitment may sometimes go wrong, as in the admittedly and admitted foolish mistake of having Behe interviewed by a non-biologist who couldn’t call his BS;
    I observe that noble commitments to repeatedly discuss dangerous controversies cannot possibly be expected to go right every time;
    I put forth that people of plausibly good intentions, who have served us well in the past, should be allowed to recover from their (or their coworkers’) errors – even more than one error, so long as mistakes don’t seem to be happening systematically;
    And I announce my intention to stay on

  • johnqeniac

    @TPD – I must reiterate that I have enormous respect for Sean Carroll’s work and his ability to convey difficult ideas. And I don’t regard him as living in a fantasy world at all. Far from it. I am also sympathetic to his (as well as many others’ in the scientific community) concern about all manner of unsupported ‘theories’ being taught on equal footing with evolution. My sole proposition here is that the concept of irreducible complexity seems to me to be sufficiently subtle that it merits a serious rebuttal rather than a cursory dismissal, if only so that laypersons without rigorous knowledge of the principles of evolution, and equally important, probability and statistics, can understand why he sees it as an absurd idea. What it comes down to is a matter of the probability of a particular piece of machinery appearing in the spectrum of biological structures as the result of evolution. And probability is not something that is generally understood by either laypersons or scientists. Because the crux of the technical (as opposed to the philosophical) refutation of IC is difficult the serious treatments are hard slogging even for a scientist (e.g., Michael Lynch, ‘Simple evolutionary pathways to complex proteins’), and practically impossible for the layperson. For this reason, I would rather see Sean Carroll use his superb teaching ability to explain the technical (probabilistic) arguments against IC in terms accessible to the public rather than dismissing it preemptively. After all, this is really one of the purposes of the Bloggingheads forum – to allow experts to explain difficult ideas to the layperson.

    Just to reinforce my assertion that the very idea of IC is not a priori absurd, one has but to look at the methodology of Lynch’s commendable paper which refutes it. He uses Monte Carlo models to determine the likelihood of complex structures arising by evolution in available timescales with available numbers of organisms. This is an experimental, not a deductive, refutation, and though the results that Lynch obtains through numerical experiment support the evolutionary model, it could in principle have been the other way round. What would the response be if his numbers had proved the opposite?

    Finally, again to emphasize what I regard as an inconsistent approach to ‘engagement with ones adversaries’ by Sean Carroll, I would ask Dr. Carroll if he would truly pass up an opportunity to debate this issue (if asked) with, say, Bill O’Reilly of Fox ‘News’? Fox is nothing if it isn’t an abject shill for right wing fallacies of virtually every flavor, and yet even Dawkins appeared on his show (and endured a particularly pitiful ‘proof’ of God’s existence by O’Reilly – the interview is available at Dawkins’ website:,915,The-Video-Bill-OReilly-Interviews-Richard-Dawkins,The-OReilly-Factor-Fox-News ).

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  • Steve Richter

    What I find missing in this debate is the interests of the science audience, the common people who are interested in science and want to learn more. Behe’s “black box” book was fascinating to me. Judging by John McWhorter’s reaction and the sales of the book, many more people share this response. What was so interesting was Behe’s detailed and understandable explanations of the molecular workings of cells and microorganisms. The fact that Behe challenged the ToE by asserting that the molecular machines he describes could not have evolved in steps just peaked my interest in understanding the subject further.

    I don’t think it is right when the science elite drive great teachers like Behe from the public space. Judging from the little I have learned from repeated attempts to read science pubs like Scientific American, Discover and NY Times Science Tueday, Behe’s talents as an educator in the popular science arena are rarely encountered.

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  • MB

    Just a few quick points:
    (1) I agree with Sean completely.
    (2) It just seems… reasonable… to decide that a forum is presenting things that you disagree with so strongly, that you will not participate at all. (And reasonable to argue that this is a foolish perspective)
    (3) I APPLAUD Sean most of all for writing a reasonable and non-inflammatory comment that makes every attempt to be fair to the other people, including placing clear links to their comments. Let’s not forget that most of these decisions are announced in the form of RANTS WITH LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS. More civility = more dialogue = more understanding (if not agreement). This is good.

  • Dov Elyada

    Having fouled the way it did, science-minded people should shun, promptly and without any qualms, and leave it to “those other guys.” Let it become “their” place and let Bob Wright see the light that way. I do not share Sean’s apologetics or his encouragement, in effect, of other scientists not to follow him. A cultural war is going on and you don’t win such by civility. Stopping the western culture from sliding back into the Middle Ages and, in particular, the erosion of America’s principle of separation of state and church (for that’s what they are after, in the long run) is much too important to be fought sportingly. Let the lines of battle be drawn clearly.

    Imagine taking a sip of genuine fine cognac from a new bottle of your favourite brand and feeling the unmistakeable smack of kerosene — maybe just a tiny drop, 1 ppm, has found its way into the bottle. Would you excuse the maker on account of the 99.9999% of excellent liquor that still is in the bottle? Would you ever buy that brand again?

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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