sticking a fork in bloggingheads.tv?

September 5, 2009

What happens when you put up an hour long discussion between a Young Earth creationist and a historian of science who can’t bring himself to point out that the idea of our planet being 6,000 years old is an utter crock from both theological and scientific standpoints? People start asking what’s going on. And what happens when you follow that up with a discussion between a scientist turned whiny intelligent design theorist and an obscure linguist fawning all over his pseudoscientific work? Contributors who actually have a strong scientific education start leaving. After posting their thoughts on the subject, Carl Zimmer and Sean Carroll slammed the door on Bloggingheads.tv, and Phil Plait announced that he wouldn’t appear in future discussions.

teach the controversy

When it comes to matters of religion, politics and the arts, discussions can reconcile very different worldviews and opinions, or create a lively debate about big ideas. But in the scientific world, there’s no luxury for spouting off whatever you feel like and calling it science. If you lack the demonstrable knowledge of the field that you’re discussing, the whole dialogue becomes a meaningless exercise in rhetoric. This is why I could never really talk chemistry with a chemist or medicine with a doctor in any capacity other than as a student. I don’t have a background in those areas. Likewise, creationists have no qualifications to talk with scientists because their ideas are inherently unscientific at best and anti-scientific at worst. Might as well have an astrologer get into a debate with an astrophysicist and pretend they’re having a legitimate exchange on an equal footing.

Bloggingheads.tv’s boss, Robert Wright, has been alternatively trying to put distance between himself and the discussions in question, and defending his right to have creationists expound their points on the site. On the one hand, he says that the episodes were posted without his approval and just aren’t in line with the editorial policy. But on the other hand, Wright says that he will never ban creationists from his network and if Zimmer or Carroll can’t handle it, oh well. Here’s an excerpt from his comment on The Loom

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, 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.

Anyone else see the glaring problem here? We know the theological motivation of ID proponents very well. It’s a way of getting religion into the classroom on behalf of rich, authoritarian Christian fundamentalists willing to shell out millions to undermine the nation’s scientific education out of self-righteousness. And on practical levels, it’s a way for people like Bill Dembski to pretend that they’re revolutionary thinkers and visionaries when they’re actually woefully incompetent cranks with a combination of persecution and superiority complexes. To be honest, I’m not sure what’s there to interrogate. And really, what’s the point of debating with them anyway? In every public scientific discussion they undertake, the creationists get their rear ends handed to them with a slice of humble pie by anyone with a passing understanding of freshman biology.

As for a Dawkins vs. Behe debate, Wright can just keep on dreaming. Dawkins is a heavyweight and a major international celebrity. He doesn’t need the publicity or to debate someone who was humiliated in court when he tried to defend ID as a science. He’d be better off debating an ancient astronaut theorist because that idea at least has some shred of scientific legitimacy to it, even though the chances of it being right are a trillion to one against by a realistic, conservative estimate. Pitting someone with Dawkins’ clout and expertise against a random pseudo-intellectual from a whiny think tank in Seattle doing the dirty work of fundamentalist fat cats, is simply giving the crank unnecessary attention and letting him think he’s a lot more important than he really is.

Wright needs to think about what kind of reputation he wants his site to have in the popular science world. He could allow it to become an irrelevant laughingstock that once used to host scientists, skeptics and scientific discussions of serious merit, or he could admit a mistake and allow creationists and their fawning followers to stew in their own self-congratulatory pseudoscientific muck. It’s his call.

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  • http://anotherbloggingblog.com Abber

    Until it is accepted and understood that arguments for creationism and intelligent design have been discredited and put to bed, there will always be people who are led to believe that these ideas have legitimacy and must therefore be allowed to play in the same league as science and rational thinking. These people will exclaim injustice and pull out slogans like “teach the controversy”. By continually debating long discredited ideas like ID, it will always appear that such controversies exist. They don’t. I congratulate Carl Zimmer, Sean Carroll and Phil Plait for taking a stand against this nonsense.

  • http://hownottowinawar.wordpress.com Benjamin Nelson

    If I may say so, you seem to flit between two conclusions. The first argument is that it is unacceptable to label these crank debates as scientific, where we are concerned with demonstrating a legitimate exchange on an equal footing; that’s of course perfectly sound stuff.

    But you also want to conclude that “If you lack the demonstrable knowledge of the field that you’re discussing, the whole dialogue becomes a meaningless exercise in rhetoric”. This is, I think, a fairly standard opinion, but it is also troublesome, because it reflects lost opportunities to educate through engagement. If people don’t know the mechanics of the lies, they will be far more happy to subscribe to a NOMA-style position; and seeing how the arguments are supposed to work is one way of doing getting people on board. By contrast, if we take on an attitude where we decide to treat debates as holy rituals in which clever people show off how clever they are, as opposed to actual opportunities for mutual persuasion (attached to real costs to ensure at least some measure of seriousness), we trivialize the very idea of rational discussion and contribute to an impoverished culture. And I worry that that’s what’s going on in your post.

    Granted, there’s also the concern about passing people off as more important than they are. But it’s not obvious to me how we can weigh this concern with the former one, i.e., the trivialization of debate.

  • Greg Fish

    “This is, I think, a fairly standard opinion, but it is also troublesome, because it reflects lost opportunities to educate through engagement.”

    Engagement is a good teaching tool but the people who need to learn have to be willing to listen. Since creationism is a religious position that already decided that there is a designer and that all evidence either supports this conclusion or it’s wrong, you can’t have the kind of exchange that facilitates learning.

    For that to happen, creationists have to give up their “I’m right, those who disagree are wrong and evil” mindset and let the facts take them where they will. And this is where their religious convictions will hold them back because they’re sure that this is the way to Hell. Before we teach anyone anything, we need to consider the cultural context of the arguments we want to counter and the people making those arguments. This is what Wright says he wants to find out and what the vast majority of us already know full well.

    “… if we take on an attitude where we decide to treat debates as holy rituals in which clever people show off how clever they are, as opposed to actual opportunities for mutual persuasion [...], we trivialize the very idea of rational discussion”

    I would agree with that statement, but what you’re describing isn’t really a debate as much as it is posturing. The goal of a scientific debate should be mutual education. Both parties walk away with something new, something interesting. But that doesn’t happen in a debate about creationist fluff. It’s all the same rhetoric as it always has been. And in the case of the discussion with Behe, it was outright pandering to his blatant and lamentable pseudo-intellectualism.

    There’s also the format to consider. Bloggingheads is supposed to be something educational rather than just two people talking. What’s the educational value in giving unqualified crackpots a platform and recognition?

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  • Tim Harris

    Having got part-way through Robert Wright’s latest tome and given it up in disgust, and having read some irresponsible, dishonest and morally offensive comments by him and a henchmen of his on Andrew Sullivan’s blog and elsewhere – that the ‘New Atheists’ are really ‘neo-conservatives’, that atheists cannot be happy because they’ve got no God the Father to pat them on the head and say ‘Well done’, and that agnostics can’t be happy because they constantly oscillate between the poles of belief and unbelief – I see no reason to take the man and his silly attempts to have things in as many ways as he can seriously. What is he doing in charge of a programme that is ostensibly about science, anyway? The man is ignorant and intellectually un-serious, his works are filled with specious, question-begging attempts at argument (as are the writings of his acolyte, Jim Manzi), and he seems to be chiefly interested in that great American goal: the pursuit of the appearance of success.

  • MadScientist

    I’ve only discovered BloggingHeads earlier on in the year – and I honestly can’t say I’ve seen any worthwhile conversations. Maybe I’m just weird, but I never associated BloggingHeads with science or skepticism.

  • http://hownottowinawar.wordpress.com Benjamin Nelson

    Greg, fair points, it seems we agree in most if not all respects.

    I suppose I ask myself, “how can we help to make a culture that is like a university without walls?”, where people interact in interesting ways and are at least not engaged in theatre at the outset. These web technologies give us an opportunity to do that, assuming you can find and figure out who is an honest broker and who isn’t.

    Though of course Bloggerheads is pretty obviously a trainwreck. But as a general rule I don’t know when to say on the basis of editorial prudence, “this voice ought to be shut off in this context because we’re just upping the prestige of nonsense”. We might actually agree on that, though.

  • Greg Fish

    “I don’t know when to say on the basis of editorial prudence, ‘this voice ought to be shut off in this context because we’re just upping the prestige of nonsense.’”

    While we may disagree with creationists and have libraries worth of evidence against their arguments (and we do), we can’t just deny them the right to speak. However, we do have the right to say that we won’t engage them in philosophical debates because we think it’s pointless and we don’t want to waste our time.

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