Monday, September 07, 2009

A disturbance in the force

Well, not actually the force, but a new argument has come up in the world of Bloggingheads.tv, and since I'm a regular, if not daily, viewer of Bloggingheads, I thought I'd comment a bit.

Bloggingheads is the brainchild of Robert Wright, an author of many notable books, in which he produces dialogues between people on various political, cultural, or scientific topics. By attracting intelligent, interesting people, and by using technology that enables them to conduct these conversations from the comfort of their own homes or offices, Bob is able to produce some great dialogues. Bloggingheads is in my blogroll, and I've linked to it or discussed it here in the past.

The issue here is two recent diavlogs featuring prominent creationists without significant challenge. One was between John McWhorter, a linguist and BHTV regular, and Michael Behe, a charlatan and creationist mouthpiece best known as a propagandist who was aptly eviscerated in the federal court decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. In this diavlog, McWhorter gives Behe the warmest imaginable tongue bath, along the lines of the following:

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.


And it really doesn't get any better than that. The general tenor of the discussion is McWhorter's repeated observations that since he, a linguist, doesn't understand various aspects of biological evolution, the only possible explanation is that God did it. This is convenient for Behe, because that's basically Behe's view as well.

The other, which appeared on the Bloggingheads Science Saturday edition, was between Ronald Numbers and Paul Nelson, an honest-to-god young earth creationist. I haven't viewed the entire thing yet, but objective observers, including Bloggingheads staff, have observed that Nelson's creationism is not challenged in the diavlog.

In the aftermath of these two diavlogs a number of prominent scientists who have participated in Bloggingheads have announced that they will no longer do so, including Carl Zimmer, Sean Carroll, Phil Plait, and PZ Myers.

To their credit,, Bloggingheads has not tried to defend its decisions. Rather, Bob Wright has said that the appearance of these creationists, particularly on a Science Saturday episode, did not comply with BHTV policies.

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.


In addition, the BHTV staffer who set up one of the diavlogs has also written about it:

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).

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.


I'm not going to stop watching BHTV. There are plenty of people on BHTV that I can't stand to watch, and I just don't.

On Saturday Bob and George Johnson recorded a new Science Saturday diavlog to discuss the creationist controversy, and the comment section has over two hundred comments on that, which I commend your attention to. To Bob's credit, he takes responsibility for the system failures that led to these two grossly inappropriate diavlogs to go up, and he does set forth the standards that he will apply for someone like this in the future, so I'm hoping that this will help to improve things.

I think Bloggingheads is a great resource, and I hope that this can do what it takes to recover.

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