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.

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138 Responses to Bye to Bloggingheads

  1. PZ Myers says:

    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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  4. onymous says:

    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.

  5. bjkeefe says:

    I’m another regular from the peanut gallery over at Bh.tv, 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 Bh.tv 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 Bh.tv 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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  7. outeast says:

    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!).

  8. Per says:

    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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  11. Uncommon says:

    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.

  12. 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: http://www.evolutionofgod.net/coyne

    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.]

  13. Ray Gedaly says:

    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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  15. Lab Lemming says:

    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?

  16. 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.

  17. ERV says:

    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).

    *rolleyes*

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

    Thanks for the mess.

    Really.

  18. Andrew says:

    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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  20. monad says:

    [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.

  21. John Farrell says:

    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.

  22. Sean says:

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

  23. Brian Mingus says:

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

  24. monad says:

    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 BH.tv, 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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