Bloggingheads and the Old Challenges of New Tools

By Carl Zimmer | September 1, 2009 12:40 am

Two years ago I was invited me to participate in a weird but cool experiment. The author Robert Wright had set up an online talk show of sorts called Bloggingheads. Two people with something interesting to say–economists, political scientists, human rights workers, seasoned journalists, and others–would pick a topic. They would talk on the phone while filming themselves and then upload the recordings. Others could then watch them hold forth.

I loved the inventiveness of the format. I loved how a conversation could be embedded in any other site. I loved the way people would just talk for an hour rather than squeeze their points down to meaningless sound bites. And so even though it was just a volunteer gig, I dove in. It was took a while for me to get used to the medium–staring into the glass eye of a camera and pretending it was a human head just doesn’t come naturally to me. And crackly cell phone connections didn’t help. But on the best of occasions it was fun. It let me expand what I used to do only on the printed page. I had interesting talks with all sorts of interesting people, such as Craig Venter, Neil Shubin, and my brother.

But now my experiment’s over. This post is an explanation of why, and how this turn of events has gotten me thinking about the future of science in new media.

Last month Bloggingheads posted a talk between Paul Nelson, a creationist, and Ronald Numbers, a historian of science. They even put the talk on a Saturday, which they set aside for science. (Hence the name Science Saturday.)

In my job as a science writer, I try my best to convey an accurate picture of where science is at the moment. That means I do not write about just anything. I write about research and ideas that have held up under scrutiny. Sometimes that means writing about an important new development in a line of research that has emerged from peer review. Sometimes that means writing about a fierce debate between scientists who all have made a lot of important discoveries on the topic. It doesn’t mean writing about creationism–or medical quackery, or any other non-science–in a way that implies it really has scientific merit. I have sometimes blogged about creationists, but chiefly to explain why scientists do not take them seriously.

I brought these standards from my writing to my work at Bloggingheads. So I was not happy to find a creationist holding forth there (and never even being challenged about a 6,000-year-old Earth). Did this mean that the people who run Bloggingheads consider creationism real science worth discussing–with a creationist at that?

The answers I got were various and murky. It had been a failed experiment, I was told, although I couldn’t figure out what a success would have looked like. I was also told the whole thing didn’t really matter, since young Earth creationism is so far beyond the pale that it doesn’t pose a threat of being taken seriously. Of course, surveys show that actually a lot of Americans are young Earth creationists. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that it didn’t matter. I couldn’t figure out why Bloggingheads would bother with him, when the world of credible and interesting science is so wide.

I was assured that this would never happen again, so I decided to continue recording talks for Bloggingheads. And then it did happen again.

Last week the linguist John McWhorter spoke to Michael Behe. Behe, like Paul Nelson, is part of the Discovery Institute, your ultimate destination for Intelligent Design–a k a the progeny of creationism. So now Bloggingheads had two people from the Discovery Institute on in the space of a few weeks. Behe has written a couple books on intelligent design, in which he makes various claims about what evolution can’t do. He tells us it can’t produce complex biology; it can’t even account for drug resistance in the past few decades in malaria parasites. So the great Intelligent Designer who shall not speak his/her/its name must be responsible.

Behe has published his arguments in non-academic books–the sort I write. He does not have a trail of peer-reviewed papers to back it up. The closest he’s got is a single paper on a computer model he published  five years ago, which doesn’t even mention intelligent design. What’s more, it was promptly and effectively rebutted by the evolutionary biologist Michael Lynch for making all sorts of unwarranted assumptions about biology. The paper has been virtually uncited since. In other words, Behe has not opened up a new field in which other scientists have published lots of new research.

Instead, biologists point out basic errors in Behe’s description of evolution. Reviewing his latest book in Science, University of Wisconsin evolutionary biologist Sean Carroll wrote, “Behe relies on invalid assertions about how genes and proteins evolve and how proteins interact, and he completely ignores a huge amount of experimental data that directly contradicts his faulty premises.”

McWhorter, however, decided to have Behe on and tell him what an important book he had written.

I lodged another complaint, and got more various and murky answers. It was produced by someone else on a weekday rather than Saturday, so it didn’t count. McWhorter didn’t think the talk would go the way it did, I was told, and so he had it taken down.

I thought that was bad decision, too. But now the conversation has been put back up. You can read more about all this over at Cosmic Variance, home of Sean Carroll–the Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll, who also did Bloggingheads.

As you can see from Carroll’s post, he was not happy with things either. So he and I talked to Robert Wright and other Bloggingheads people today. I had expected that I’d get a clear sense of what had happened over the past month at Bloggingheads, and what sort of plan would be put in place to avoid it happening again. I imagined some kind of editorial oversight of the sort that exists at the places where I regularly write about science. I didn’t get it.

My standard for taking part in any forum about science is pretty simple. All the participants must rely on peer-reviewed science that has direct bearing on the subject at hand, not specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty. I believe standards like this one are crucial if we are to have productive discussions about the state of science and its effects on our lives.

This is not Blogginghead’s standard, at least as I understand it now. And so here we must part ways.

I’ve written this post mainly just to put my decision in words. It may matter to very few people, and if most readers of the Loom have skipped this post to await some juicy science, I understand entirely. But the arc of this two-year experiment has got me thinking a bit about where the public discussion of science is going these days.

We have some wonderful new tools to tinker with, to build funky new devices. We can build communities in which lots of people can write, talk, read, and listen to discussions of science. And we can even expand those communities through linking and embedding and other kinds of mental infections.

These tools may look pretty and shiny, but they don’t really have any sort of new spirit built into them. We use them as we see fit. The problems that have made me part ways with Bloggingheads (and Carroll too) aren’t very different from the problems that science has long had in op-ed pages in newspapers. There have been some excellent essays about science in op-ed sections, but the fact is that they can also be very unhealthy for even the most basic facts in science.

A far more extreme example of old spirits and new tools is the Huffington Post. It has been celebrated as the future of journalism. But it’s a dumping ground for New Age quackery–the same quackery that Arianna Huffington was pushing long before she started her eponymous site.

I’m still going to play with the new tools that come my way. But I am going to think a lot more about the spirit in which those tools are being used.

Update: Robert Wright has left a comment, where he responds to my post. He claims that both I and Sean misrepresented our phone call with him. We didn’t. Note that in his comment he refers to a policy he laid out a year ago. He doesn’t say what that policy is. I’ll add a more detailed (some might say tedious) response to the end of his.


Comments (73)

Links to this Post

  1. Behe’s “objectionable” interview reinstated « Open Parachute | September 1, 2009
  2. Bloggingheads and creationism « a simple prop | September 1, 2009
  3. Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer quit Bloggingheads for promoting creationism « Why Evolution Is True | September 1, 2009
  4. Principled Stands « Occluded Sun | September 1, 2009
  5. Well, that was predictable | Uncommon Descent | September 1, 2009
  6. Zimmer and Carroll say adios to Bloggingheads | Science News | September 1, 2009
  7. Zimmer and Carroll say adios to Bloggingheads | The Atheist Mind | September 1, 2009
  8. Standards for discussion and the controversy « Bradley Monton’s Blog | September 1, 2009
  9. Bloggingheads Teaches Another Controversy » The Center for Science Writings | September 2, 2009
  10. More fallout from the Behe brouhaha « American Freethought | September 2, 2009
  11. Bloggingheads’ Behe Debacle « Left Flank | September 3, 2009
  12. Collide-a-scape » Blog Archive » Collide-a-scape >> Confronting Anti-Science Views | September 3, 2009
  13. Discovery Institute: Bloggingheads Hysteria « The Sensuous Curmudgeon | September 4, 2009
  14. Bloggingheads: Capo non grata | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine | September 4, 2009
  15. Friday Quick Links – false symmetry | September 4, 2009
  16. Robert Wright Speaks… | The Loom | Discover Magazine | September 5, 2009
  17. sticking a fork in | weird things | September 6, 2009
  18. Peer Review for Bloggingheads « Droit Blog | September 7, 2009
  19. The Evolution Of A Blogginghead; Or The Ballad Of Jim And Jerry « Around The Sphere | September 9, 2009
  20. Bloggingheads Diavlog With Craig Callendar « Not Even Wrong | September 13, 2009
  21. Boycotting Bloggingheads: Reaction to an Intelligent Design debate shows limit to public discussion. | Uncommon Descent | October 15, 2009
  22. On Bloggingheads With Michael Specter | The Intersection | Discover Magazine | November 14, 2009
  23. SELF DEVELOPMENT BLOG » On Bloggingheads With Michael Specter | The Intersection | November 15, 2009
  24. Existence, Uplift, and Science News | CONTRARY BRIN | October 24, 2012
  1. Good for you Carl. I always enjoyed your conversations and those others have had, but it sounds like a sound decision to me. When you’ve got the History channel showing ghost hunters, and the Discovery channel selling advertising space to the Creation Museum, it’s getting harder to find a place with real scientific integrity.

    Glad to see it here.

  2. Mark

    I’ve watched a couple of the bloggingheads “exchanges” and while I did learn and enjoy them, they never really held me, I didn’t feel a desire or need to come back for more. I had heard of both events you listed, and they both really taint the whole concept for me. There’s not enough gain for the gems, and now it’s down to “where’s the quality control by the organizers?” As for the HuffPost, I never really trusted that.

    Thank you for your fine efforts to educate everyone.

  3. Thanks for your BH appearances — although I understand the decision and am glad there’s been fallback from yourself and Carroll, I’ll miss the talks.

    There is still plenty of good content on BH to listen to (esp UN Plaza with Matthew Lee and Mark Goldberg) but these 2 incidents have made me VERY weary of the editorial overlordship of Robert Wright.

  4. Very interesting look behind the scenes of what’s going on with Bloggingheads. I’m very suspicious of Wright, especially after his latest book, which is full of very woolly thinking and doesn’t show any real understanding of what science is all about, it seems to me. I think his mission is to fuzz up the differences between “faith” and science to the point that people can’t tell the difference.

  5. bravo, mr zimmer. Thank you for taking a stand.

  6. Dammit. I just finished commenting on Sean’s post and now I see this.

    Hope you don’t feel like sloppy seconds, but I would say the same exact things to you, Carl, as I said to Sean: This is a very well written essay, you’ve obviously thought about reasons, they’re solid and I have no interest in arguing with them anyway, and all I can say is I appreciate and support the statement you made, and selfishly, I’ll miss you on

    Ah, well, I’ll have to make do with learning from you and enjoying your work through the text channel for a while. I encourage you to post recordings of your interviews to the extent that your interviewees are comfortably with you sharing them with the unwashed. Even audio would be great if video seems like too much of a hassle. You are a great interviewer and the real-time, back and forth aspects are never quite captured in write-ups, even in transcripts.

  7. Good for you Carl.
    I suspect the root of this problem is over the definition of the word ‘science’.
    To most of the public, and probably to the blogginhead overlords, the word means something like “the collection of facts about the world”.’
    To scientists, on the other hand, ‘science’ is a description of a methodological technique.
    More specifically it means: ‘the method we use to determine whether an idea about the natural world is wrong’.
    This clash over the definition of science underlies many of the current points of contention in the science blogging community- the accomodationist debate of science/religion compatibility can only exist if you are prepared to accept the ‘science is a collection of facts’ definition.
    I suspect Robert Wright also accepts this definition and as such it is not unreasonable to have people on bloggingheads who have their own interpretation of the ‘facts.’
    To me, science is the method, and in my opinion you shouldn’t label anything as ‘science’ (science saturday, for instance) if it disregards the scientific method. Its the only way we know how to prove something is wrong.’

  8. Michael Vassar

    I think that it’s important to have real standards in deciding what methodologies to endorse, even with the limited endorsement of public engagement. I also think that it is very desirable to have journalists who set those standards as high as you do, and that in this case that calls for the decision you are making. That said, I don’t think that it’s accurate to claim that your standard is simple. Any simple standard just wouldn’t do for the job, which calls for human judgment until we are much better than we are today at translating the rules we use in our judgment accurately onto paper. “peer-reviewed science that has direct bearing on the subject at hand, not specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty” seems to me like a false dichotomy, but also like a standard that fails to be anything but a statement in belief in unspecified authorities. Do not creationists have their own peerages with their own peer reviewed publications? More importantly, wouldn’t sincerely adhering to any standard too simple to contain clauses for its own modification cut off the possibility of self correction that is the heart of this dimly perceived standard, ‘the scientific method’ that you are actually using?

    As far as I can tell, the scientific method, as an idea, has been looked at very hard and found to be very hard to find spelled out clearly yet correctly. There is something that a few cultures have and most do not which enables those few cultures to produce a much more accurate and much more rapidly progressing world-view, but while it’s not as puzzling a distinction as that between ancient markets and late 17th century capitalism, its still puzzling to me.

  9. outeast

    I applaud your decision… for a very specific reason. You have set out to defend science journalism – or what science journalism can be – on several occasions (in fact, one of your post prompted me to subscribe to Discovery Magazine).

    The most common and most egregious failings of science journalism tend to have their roots in a willingness to let integrity slide – to overextrapolate from inadequate data, to give an equal platform to bad but populist science, and so on, so one of the key requirements for science journalism to live up to the standards you set must be for those involved to insist on integrity.

    You show yourself consistent with that principle in refusing to ally yourself with a project that is willing to start making those compromises – no matter how worthwhile the project has been till now. Hopefully BH will recognize what it means to have you withdraw and reconsider their position.

  10. Surely you answer your own question here:

    Of course, surveys show that actually a lot of Americans are young Earth creationists.

    It does matter, does it not, if the republic is inhabited by young fools blinded by the poisonous unreason of fundamentalist religion?

    I can understand why you’re fed up with it yourself, and maybe bloggingheads tv isn’t the best way to sway the masses, but, what then? Maybe you should do one with this guy:

    He has some solutions.

  11. NewEnglandBob

    Bravo Carl. I applaud this decision by you and Sean.

    Outeast: Discover magazine, nothing to do with the other slimy guys.

  12. ARJ

    I enjoy the format and uniqueness of “bloggingheads” but have only watched a few episodes, including those with you or Sean (and have never seen the ‘offending’ episodes). I don’t know anything of the backchannel communication that has gone on, but hope maybe there is still some chance at resolution that might eventually bring you two back. I respect the thoughtfulness of your decisions, but hope you’re not simply opening the door to more objectionable material by leaving your time/space to someone else. “Principle” can backfire, and if it means YOUR voices not being heard by as many people, well, that’s NOT a good thing!…

  13. johnk

    The old media relies on money. The one thing you know about an old media entity, like the New York Times, is that somebody rich (or once rich) owns it. As is commonly noted, freedom of the press is really freedom of people who own the press.

    The new media relies on reputation. The cost of something like Bloggingheads is very small. Bloggingheads does not own the format, but they own the name. Strangely, although there is a lot of criticism of the new media for being irresponsible, the only thing a new media entity has going for it is its reputation. An entity like Bloggingheads has a lot more motivation for responsibility than an old media entity. And its important for people like us and Carl to hold Huffington Post and Bloggingheads to a high standard.

    But, because the cost-of-entry is small, there is good reason to hope that a better option than Bloggingheads will emerge. And, with virtuous competition, Bloggingheads may fess up and improve.

  14. Carl, I think you’ve presented yours and Sean’s conversation with me in a pretty misleading light. You write:

    As you can see from Carroll’s post, he was not happy with things either. So he and I talked to Robert Wright and other Bloggingheads people today. I had expected that I’d get a clear sense of what had happened over the past month at Bloggingheads, and what sort of plan would be put in place to avoid it happening again. I imagined some kind of editorial oversight of the sort that exists at the places where I regularly write about science. I didn’t get it.

    I told you and Sean the following:
    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.

    Do you dispute my recollection of our conversation? Or do you see it as compatible with your own description of the conversation? I certainly don’t.

    It’s true that I didn’t give you the pledge you’ve asked for: 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. Carl, am I really such a bad communicator that this didn’t come through to you? And, if it did come through to you, why you didn’t share it with your readers?

    Anyway, I’m really sorry to have lost you, Carl. You made some great contributions to Bloggingheads, and I’m happy that they’ll always be in our archives for people to see.

    Robert Wright

    Carl: I appreciate Robert leaving a comment. But my post was not misleading. Readers might want to take a look at Sean Carroll’s own post on this matter. I hadn’t spoken to Sean before we both spoke to Robert. We were both trying, on our own, to figure out what we were going to do. After the call, we wrote similar posts and came to the same conclusion about what to do. (Robert left much the same comment on Sean’s post.)

    I didn’t explain Blogginghead’s editorial policy, because I really don’t know what it is. All I can say for sure is that it doesn’t fit mine. I think that Robert’s comment actually illustrates some of the problems I for one had with Bloggingheads. He refers to BhTV’s editorial policy but never lays it out in his comment. He tells us what he could imagine, or not imagine “offhand.” That’s not a policy. As far as I can tell, extrapolating from what Robert said here and on the phone, he would be more than happy to have creationists back on, to talk to them about theology or talk about science in a “debate.” Sean and I both asked if Robert also thought astrologers or anti-vaxxers might come on too. We didn’t get a clear response. Given the fact that two creationists had been on Bloggingheads in the past month–apparently despite guidelines laid down a year ago–this was a disappointment to me.

  15. FastEddie

    Well played, Mr. Zimmer. The key point you made that resonated with me was wondering why BH would offer a platform for non-science when the world of amazing actual science was boundless. Surely, BH had not exhausted the real science topics.

    Honestly, it would not surprise me if a series of emails between BH and the Discovery Institute surfaced, perhaps promising a bag of silver.

  16. afarensis, FCD

    Perhaps, those who are interested in communicating accurate science to the public can start their own version of bloggingheads.

  17. Paco

    Thank you, immensely, for your strong defense of reason and honesty. Because that’s the real problem with the DI and creationists in general — not their beliefs in the universe being somehow directed or purposeful, but their recurrent intellectual fraud on behalf of those beliefs, and the real-world damage done through such deception.

    Reason, skepticism, honesty and vigilance against hypocrisy are not just pretty ideals, they are essential tools in building and maintaining a society that responds sanely to reality.

  18. Paco

    Reading Richard Wright’s comment, I don’t think he gets it. His supposed standard is far too fuzzy to give confidence that there won’t be repeats of pseudoscience — which is a problem that extends beyond Behe and ID alone. Your standard, that both participants should agree on relevance to peer-reviewed research as part of the ground rules, is both clear and a necessary bulwark against woo.

  19. Greg Egan summed up the nature of the scientific method best: It’s systematic honesty. As Bloggingheads will not exclude those who are systematically dishonest as part of their editorial policy, it’s clear that the site is not science-friendly.

    I appreciate your decision, Mr. Zimmer, and hope I’ll be able to see you discussing things on another site some day. Until then, I’ll have to content myself with your blog and your articles.

  20. monad

    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 and 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.

  21. johnk

    Although Mr. Wright portrays himself as far removed from the Blogginheads’ decision to promote creationists as credible scientists, his own recent work suggests that he is interested in the issue.

    His recent book (which I haven’t read) is entitled “The evolution of God”. Provocative?

    Last week he authored a NY Times Op ed entitled “A Grand Bargain over Evolution”

    The NY Times piece is, in my opinion, trivial and off the mark. The evolution of morality isn’t a tough one; try the evolution of consciousness. But its clear that his agenda is to fudge the borders of science and religion.

    We may not know the editorial policy of Bloggingheads TV, but we can guess.

  22. afarensis, FCD wrote:

    Perhaps, those who are interested in communicating accurate science to the public can start their own version of bloggingheads.

    I was thinking along similar lines. What would the process require — two webcams, a way for the participants to hear one another (Skype?), somebody who can smush the two recordings together? In the age of the Internet Archive, Google Video and Vimeo, hosting’s cheap.

  23. AverageJoe

    Run away!!!!! Run away!!!!

  24. Uncle Ebeneezer

    Hey Carl, I will certainly miss your presence on bhTv, not only because I “discovered” you there, and was inspired to write some parasite-rock, but because I think that your interviews and discussions were truly some of the high-water-marks for quality on a site that already had many (Horgan, Johnson, Carroll etc.) and you were certainly one of the stars of the Science Saturday feature. Without getting into too much details, it sounds like the Numbers & Behe appearances were a product of mis-communication or lack of oversight on the Part of Bob Wright and his staff. But I applaud and respect the principled stance that you and Sean are taking in regards to maintaining the standards for scientific discourse as much as I’ll miss having you guys doing diavlogs regularly. For what it is worth, after the Numbers diavlog (as well as some of the Templeton funded Percontations episodes), many of us loyal bhTv commenters worried about the possibility that new ventures into the more hand-wavy/crackpot arenas would prompt an exhile of what has always been the lifeblood of bhTv, namely the talent of the contributors. But I’m sure we will all continue to buy your books and read your blog. I certainly will!

    Carl: Thanks.

  25. Zimmer + Carroll = Losers

    It just goes to show how terrified the Evos are of having Darwin’s unscientific creation myth exposed. What a bunch of pantywaists…LOL!

  26. Luke Lea

    I guess the question is whether scientists should engage or ignore their opponents in the ID wars. If the goal is to educate the public and secure broad public support for the funding of science, the answer is pretty clear.

  27. Rules For

    Evolution has been understood well enough to be recognized as true for quite some time now. As Theodosius Dobzhansky (biologist & Christian) noted in 1972: “The evolution of life, and the evolutionary origin of mankind, are scientifically established as firmly and completely as any historical event not witnessed by human observers. Any concession to anti-evolutionists, suggesting that there are scientific reasons to doubt the facticity of evolution, would be propagating a plain untruth.”
    You can learn about evolution in the encyclopedia:
    or from a university:
    among many other places.
    A spoiler – it turned out that the truth is much more interesting than limited human imagination – enjoy!

  28. Jeanette Garcia

    Carl, I have watched and enjoyed most of your appearances on Blogging Heads including the last one with your brother Ben, very nerdy and very interesting stuff, loved it. I am glad you are backing away from what has become an open forum for nutters and fraudulent, pseudo scientists. Why put yourself in the same mix? My hope that other internet video avenues will open up as meeting places for serious discussions between real scholars. Of course, I continue to enjoy your blog and never miss an entry if I can help it.

  29. Wilson Fowlie

    #35 (and any other who are tempted):
    Feeding the trolls (responding to provocation that is there only to provoke) is not recommended.

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

  31. Carl,
    I hope you take this opportunity to find a way to improve on the bloggingheads format as a means of science communication and discussion. For example, the ability to show pictures or graphs.

    Then you could host it here at Discover and invite all of us on to explain to the internet how exciting science can be.

  32. John Kwok


    Am glad you and Sean Carroll opted to stand by your convictions. Unfortunately Robert Wright simply doesn’t get it, even after your conversation with him.

    Regrettably, the folks over at the Dishonesty Institute are now crowing about this:

    “How Interviewed Michael Behe, Censored Him, Changed Their Minds, and Lost Darwinist Approval”.

    That’s the headline from the lead article in their latest “issue” of Nota Bene, their agit-prop e-mail newsletter that “claims” to be “sound” journalism.

    With warm regards,


  33. I’m quite sad Carl Zimmer has decided not to appear on bhTV. I was delighted to listen to Zimmer and John Horgan, whose research on war is similar to research I’m doing in IR and Poli Sci, because it was like a crash course in topics I wished I had pursued in college. The science diavlogs helped me work out what part of “social science” I think is more important. So, I thank you, Carl.

    I thought John Horgan was a bit harsh about the decision you and Sean Carroll have reached independently. I think he missed a big point. The Discovery Institute and Michael Behe are not about the scientific project, because they’ve found their Truth. They are activists looking intentionally to sow confusion where scientists and laypeople cannot articulate their perspectives adequately. It’s one thing to be a scientist; it’s another to volunteer to be cannon fodder on a podcast, TV program, or diavlog with such cynical opportunists. Charitably, I think Horgan is too generous to these activists.

    I’m also concerned about what you report about Bob Wright’s claims about his “rules”. I hope Wright is not complicit. I argued months before for an objective poll, like the way The Economist holds its debates, for bhTV to gauge the popularity of the diavlogs to improve pairings and performances. But, it seems bhTV is compromised by some sort of editorial confusion or worse, and no polling trick will help it.

    There’s an entire underground of podcasts in the ether, Carl, so I hope you will take the tattoos and parasites where your talents can help people. It’s not preaching to the choir: there just might be some Gen Y’ers out there who will take up the sword because of you. And, there might be people like me young enough to take a science or journalism course early enough to make an impact. Maybe, too, like Abbie Smith, you will get a chance to kick some crackpot ass!

    Thank you, Mr. Zimmer!

  34. Daniel Koop


    I am one of the many disappointed about your decision and bhtv is very much poorer for it. First I want to say that Behe-McWhorter diavlog was a terrible and I didnt get past minute 2. My questions is dont you feel you have missed an opportunity in not doing a diavlog with Bob Wright publicly debating this matter? This is a very important subject and how valuable would it be to have it in the public domain? Maybe after that discussion you would still decide to leave bh tv but at least that discussion will be there for everyone to see.

    It may be undeserved but scientists have a reputation for being arrogant and thin skinned and bh TV is a possible outlet to the larger public who may hold those preconceptions. Time to dispel those myths, no?

    Carl: I don’t see how doing a diavlog with Wright would present people with anything beyond what I’ve laid out in this post. Robert will, I believe, be discussing all this with BHTV regular George Johnson on Saturday.

  35. I have a hard time understanding how an interview with someone as well known notorious as Behe could slip past editorial notice. This is not an oversight, it’s a complete editorial failure.

  36. Joseph

    Part of the article says:
    “… young Earth creationism is so far beyond the pale that it doesn’t pose a threat of being taken seriously. Of course, surveys show that actually a lot of Americans are young Earth creationists.”

    Why would so many people be young Earth creationists?

    Creationism teaches:
    that all the various kind of creatures were created as those kinds:

    Genesis 1: 25
    “God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.”

    Science observes that the created kinds of creatures reproduce:
    “according to their kinds.”

    Bacteria produce bacteria,
    dogs produce dogs,
    humans produce humans

    The Bible, creationism, and scientific evidence are in agreement:

    Creation (with variation within a created kind) … yes.
    Evolution (one kind of creature changing into another kind) … no.

  37. Daniel Koop

    No disrespect to George Johnson but it won’t be the same. He as far as I know isn’t planning to leave bh TV so how will he properly defend your position?

  38. Lasorda

    As a lay person with a cursory understanding of biology, I think I reject the sort of pseudo-science put forth by the Behe’s of the world. My vision of the natural world aligns pretty closely with the vision of the scientific community–as far as I can tell. However, this episode appears to me–an admitted layman–as a case of two sensitive divas storming offstage because they don’t like one of the members of the chorus. This certainly can’t help your cause.

  39. vanderleun

    Ah, I love the smell of religious wars in the morning.

  40. epiphanius

    I’m in the minority who would like to see Carl reconsider his decision. I am certain of the integrity of the decision, but I discovered Carl, and an awful lot about science, on BHTV and I hate to think of others potentially missing out on such discovery.

    I hope you will reconsider, Carl, though it seems a done deal. Maybe in a couple of years?

    Anyway, thanks for your generosity in appearing on bhtv. You will be missed.

  41. atp

    I have not been a subscriber to Discover magazine for several years so things may have changed, but at the time, their regular feature “Jaron’s World” regularly spoke about nonsense as if it was legitimate. If I’m not mistaken, you wrote for them during this same period. Perhaps the more important difference–nothing wrong with it if it is–is that Discover thought it was appropriate to pay you for your contributions, and bloggingheads expects you to contribute for free.

  42. I will write the same thing I wrote on Sean’s blog.

    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.

  43. Ocean

    Hi Carl,

    I’ll make this comment brief. I’m a commenter at BhTV and I love science. We have all been following the interactions between you, Sean, BhTV and others. I don’t want to comment on what the right or wrong action may be as I realize that there are many factors involved that I’m not even aware of. However, I do want you to know that we value your participation at the site very highly and that we are experiencing the consequences of this disagreement as a terrible loss. I hope that you will reconsider your decision in the future. You will certainly be welcome back.

    Thank you for your contributions,


  44. Mr. Zimmer, 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.

  45. 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 who have served us well in the past, should be allowed more chance than this 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

  46. judex

    The decision to leave BHTV, though understandable and even noble, makes no sense tactically. The aim of such forums is to inform the non-specialist public about science, which can also mean to engage it where it is most dogmatic and confused. Not to be part of such an engagement is to facilitate the very thing you want to eliminate- the vulgarization of scientific discourse. Discussion, debate–isn’t that the most effective way to expose such frauds while giving those of us who are non-specialists, who live not among scientists but among regular and mostly god-fearing folks, better tools to convince?

  47. Juno

    So, the site posts two segements you with disagree, and which they have freely admit were ill advised and didn’t meet their editorial standards, and your reply is to boycott making any more contributions? Wright argument is perfectly sound: content contributors shouldn’t be able to dictate editorial policy, and a match up between a creationist / IDer/ what have you and an eloquent and informed critic shouldn’t be ruled out, out of hand. I have zero sympathy for ID or creationism, but the correct way to combat these arguments is through open discussion and public appeal, not by bullying editorial staffs into promising you they wont ever allow their proponents on.

    Carl, I’ve enjoyed your prior contributions to BHTV. I hope you’ll reconsider this.

  48. There seems to be an interesting point here as regards acceptable editorial policies. Would it make any difference if Bloggingheads were considered a TOOL, and not a publisher or broadcaster with editorial standards? Surely you have a point when they include it under the label “science”, but then there was a historian of science arguing on the other side? Would you consider not using YouTube, which perhaps you don’t anyway, because they allow videos by creationists? Or not getting on the bus because they allow creationists on board? There are many fine lines to draw here, and while your decision is perfectly respectable, I feel that it is also questionable in the context of a medium (or tool) whose point is precisely a conversation between different viewpoints. And, yes, thumbs down on creationism!

    Carl: If Bloggingheads were a tool, then the issue might be different. But it’s not a tool. It’s not just an open site for uploading anything you want, like YouTube. There are editorial decisions being made. So therefore it’s more like a magazine.

  49. Tom

    To start, I think it’s fair to resign over repeated “slip-ups.” It speaks to integrity and the unwillingness to be cajoled or duped into believing the possibility of a creationist, let alone a YEC, having a debate with a biologist (or geologist, or paleontologist, or any field that relies on expertise in the vicinity of evolution or abiogenesis) on the merits of Evolution versus Creationism. The two don’t even play on the same field as Evolution is built on tested hypotheses, fossil record evidence, and all sorts of other data that individually are factual. Creationism is, at its roots, an idea based on the suspension of disbelief, the abhorrence of skepticism, and the reliance on articles of faith.

    Creationists often try to play “gotcha” with tangential information and attempt to discredit an entire theory based on minute items they perceive as an inconsistency (radiocarbon dating, for example). Unfortunately, the methods by which they determine such inconsistency is wholly subjective as they impart the bias upon which their entire belief is built – that of a divine creation.

    It is grossly disingenuous and an insulting slight to scientific and empirical methods to frame the two as sides of the same debate. Any scientist, or individual familiar with science, would be hard-pressed not to feel insulted when asked to cover encounters between creationists and evolutionists and then call it a scientific discussion. I applaud the authors’ ethical guidance in choosing to leave.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


See More

Collapse bottom bar