sticking a fork in bloggingheads.tv?

Respectful debates help us learn and improve the public discourse. But there's a catch. Those debates can't be so respectful that they refuse to call out abject nonsense.

flat earth with firmament

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.

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.

# science // creationists / evolution / popular science


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