Bye to Bloggingheads

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.

This entry was posted in Internet, Personal. Bookmark the permalink.

138 Responses to Bye to Bloggingheads

  1. Brando says:

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

  2. The skepTick says:

    Just out of curiosity, would your feelings be different if Francis Collins was on bh.tv?

  3. Sean says:

    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.”

  4. Victorb says:

    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 😛

  5. ARJ says:

    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.

  6. 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.

  7. DG says:

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

  8. Kitty'sBitch says:

    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.

  9. 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 BH.tv towards the “religion is compatible with science” viewpoint.

  10. Tom Levenson says:

    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.

  11. Is religion compatible with science?

  12. 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, BH.tv is already getting Templeton money, one does have to wonder…

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

  13. Jason says:

    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 BHs.com to lose your input. I hope somebody there realizes that trading your insight for ID crackpots is a major bone up.

  14. Giotis says:

    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.

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

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

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

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  16. Nick says:

    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 Bloggingheads.tv 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.

  17. David Killoren says:

    As Sean mentions in the post, I work for Bloggingheads.tv (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.

    David

  18. NewEnglandBob says:

    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. BH.tv is tarnished with unprincipled people like Behe and the nonsense coming from Robert Wright. Jerry Coyne summed him up correctly.

  19. Sean says:

    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 BH.tv-boss hat, and the two roles are pretty distinct.

  20. FTS says:

    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..

  21. trond says:

    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.

  22. TKS says:

    “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.

  23. anon says:

    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.

  24. Michael Kingsford Gray says:

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

    NO!

  25. AemJeff says:

    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.

    -AemJeff