I’ve always rather liked Bloggingheads — at least the idea of it, with one-on-one discussions between interesting people. It flops in execution often, since some of the participants wouldn’t recognize reason and evidence if it walked up and slapped them in the face with a large and pungent haddock (the right-winger political discussions are unwatchable, and it’s always had this problem of giving people like Jonah Goldberg a platform), but their Science Saturday has been generally good. I don’t always agree with the people they have on, but at least they’re interesting and provocative. And Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer have been superstars of the format.
That’s changed lately. First they brought on Paul Nelson and Ron Numbers in a tawdry self-congratulation session that never addressed the Paraceratherium looming over the dialog, Nelson’s insane young earth creationism. Then most recently they brought in Michael Behe, squirrely academic front for the ID creationism movement, and again they let his inanity slide by bringing in a friendly conversationalist, the linguist John McWhorter, who fawned over Behe’s recent bad book.
What is this? Is bloggingheads to become a creationist-friendly site, where crackpots get to play talking head for a while and never risk getting their stupid ideas criticized? This is not good. If they want to bring in creationists, fine…but don’t give them a free pass on their foolishness by pairing them with people who can’t argue with the biology.
There was apparently some restlessness in the ranks of the regulars, and they had a conference call with Robert Wright, the man behind bloggingheads, which did not conclude at all satisfactorily. Now two of the best science people they had on call have declared that they will no longer be contributing.
Sean Carroll says goodbye for good reason.
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.
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.
This is good, principled action, and it’s exactly what we need to do every time some journalistic enterprise tries to generate a false equivalence between serious science and crackpottery like creationism — shut them out. Say goodbye. Let the credible sources wash their hands of them and move on.
I’m still somewhat sympathetic to the idea of bloggingheads — and David Killoren left a good comment that basically admits that they screwed up — but there has to be a commitment to good science from the top down for it to work. I’m not convinced by the replies Wright has left on those two sites that he has that goal in mind.