Bye to Bloggingheads

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

Unfortunately, I won’t be appearing on Bloggingheads.tv 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 BH.tv 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 BH.tv 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 BH.tv was calling for the dialogue to be removed, we were a little perturbed at the appearance of an ID proponent so quickly after we thought we understood that the previous example had been judged a failed experiment. So more emails went back and forth, and this morning we had a conference call with Bob Wright, founder of BH.tv. To be honest, I went in expecting to exchange a few formalities and clear the air and we could all get on with our lives; but by the time it was over we agreed that we were disagreeing, and personally I didn’t want to be associated with the site any more. I don’t want to speak for anyone else; I know that Carl Zimmer was also very bothered by the whole thing, hopefully he will chime in.

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 BH.tv 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 BH.tv.

I understand that there are considerations that go beyond high-falutin’ concerns of intellectual respectability. There is a business model to consider, and one wants to maintain the viability of the enterprise while also having some sort of standards, and that can be a very difficult compromise to negotiate. Bob suggested the analogy of a TV network — would you refuse to be interviewed by a certain network until they would guarantee to never interview a creationist? (No.) But to me, the case of BH.tv is much more analogous to a particular TV show than to an entire network — it’s NOVA, not PBS, and the different dialogues are like different episodes. There is a certain common identity to things that BH.tv 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 BH.tv 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 BH.tv. 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 BH.tv 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 BH.tv will continue to put up a lot of good stuff, and that they’ll find plenty of good scientists to take my place; meanwhile, I’ll continue to argue for increasing the emphasis on good-faith discourse between respectable opponents, and mourn the prevalence of crackpots and food fights. Keep hope alive!

Update: Bob Wright has left a comment here. (See also a comment by David Killoren here.) And at some point soon, a more official BH.tv 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 BH.tv, 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
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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] cosmicvariance.com .

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