k is for kerfuffle

WarpathJenLuc UPDATE: For some reason, we are being inundated by a pornographic SPAMBot this weekend. Rather than turning off comments on all posts until we can get to the bottom of this, I'm activating the CAPTCHA requirement. It's a pain, I know, but until this gets cleared up, it's necessary. Please bear with us….

I find I must emerge briefly from finishing The Damn Book — specifically, the chapter on the calculus of zombies — to comment on something that has been a hot topic of conversation in our household this past week. Some of you may have noticed the kerfuffle concerning Bloggingheads.tv, on which I have made frequent appearances, both with and without the Spousal Unit. If you missed it, here's the gist: last month, they featured a Young Earth Creationist on "Science Saturday." Science-minded people objected, and rightly so, myself included. If someone wants to cling to the belief that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and the fossil record offering direct evidence against this assertion is just some kind of cosmic joke to test our faith — well, go right ahead. There's no law against outright silliness. But don't be surprised if people laugh at you, and don't you dare call your personal belief "science." And shame on any news organization or Website that tries to pass it off as such.

Anyway, we were all assured it was a mistake — or "failed experiment" — and wouldn't happen again. Scarcely two weeks later, the site aired a diavlog between John McWhorter, a linguist, and Michael Behe, the poster child for Intelligent Design (a.k.a. "creationism in a cheap tuxedo" — probably one of those frilly powder blue numbers). *sigh* At least it wasn't on Science Saturday. McWhorter may be a brilliant linguist, but none of that was on display in the diavlog. (String theorist Jeff Harvey had the best mocking syllogism about the utter breakdown in logic: "A linguist doesn't understand skunks. Therefore god exists.")

For those who think this is an unfair assessment, McWhorter himself admitted that the diavlog didn't represent him (or Bloggingheads.tv) well, and had not gone the way he'd intended. Instead, Behe played him like a [insert musical instrument of choice here] and the whole thing ended up being one big advertisement for the repeatedly discredited theory of Intelligent Design. And yes, it's been thoroughly discredited. When someone's entire academic department feels compelled to put up a disclaimer distancing themselves from his/her "research," that's a good sign that person is on the wrong track, scientifically. It's pretty much Lesson 1 in "How To Spot a Crackpot."

There has been some serious fallout as a result of these two incidents, most notably the departure of the Spousal Unit, Carl Zimmer, and (a few days later) Phil Plait from any further participation in Bloggingheads.tv. These are not hot-headed unreasonable people; when they object to something en masse, it's a good idea to listen carefully to what they have to say. I was mostly an observer to this process, being wrapped up in book writin' and Hollywood-and-science matchmaking. But I do know that the Spousal Unit was surprised and deeply troubled by the conference call he and Carl had with BHTV overlord Bob Wright. Wright's confrontational attitude didn't help. It made the decision to depart far easier for them than it otherwise might have been. (The Spousal Unit has really enjoyed being on Bloggingheads.tv, and George Johnson is our friend.)

Today Bloggingheads.tv is clearing the air a little with a diavlog between Wright and George Johnson about the controversy. I'll give Wright props for copping to the fact that he could have handled that conference call far more diplomatically. I appreciate his assurance that there is some sort of policy — which his staff did not follow in these two instances — not to feature ID proponents like Behe on BHTV unless a qualified scientist is the person debating him. I also understand his reluctance to make a rock-hard promise about never having someone like Behe featured again, although I disagree with his reasoning. His argument seems to be that once you start caving into pressure from one "special interest group" (for lack of a better word), other people will start demanding that he ban any viewpoint they happen to find objectionable as well.

The flaw in Wright's argument is that this kerfuffle has never been about banning a particular person or point of view (although that's certainly how the ID crowd is spinning it). It's a question of quality control. In a world where the airwaves are filled with the crazed ravings of the likes of Glen Beck (someone get that guy some meds, stat!), and any jackhole can cause a ruckus at a town hall and end up on network news the next day as a "pundit," Bloggingheads.tv provides a welcome respite: people calmly debating valid ideas in science, politics, literature, philosophy or what have you. Sure, the format is crude and low-quality, and some diavlogs are more focused than others; in the end, it's the ideas that matter, and it's paving the way for whatever comes next. There's a huge difference between censorship — which I think we all find objectionable — and careful vetting of who you choose to feature on this platform. Here's the Spousal Unit's clarification of his position:

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. 

I think it's clear from what Wright says in today's diavlog that he strives to have a policy in place to maintain quality control. That system failed in these two instances. I'm glad he admits as much. But it is wrong to lump science in with, say, a particular political viewpoint. Science is not a "special interest group." In the humanities (from whence I sprang before moving in science writing, as did Carl), it's all about arguing competing viewpoints and building a strong case for one's position, but in the end, things are mostly a matter of opinion.  In science, things are demonstrably false. And once they have been demonstrated as such, it is disingenuous (if not outright dishonest) to pretend they still have any validity. Science is not a matter of opinion. We can all vote tomorrow to suspend gravity, but we'll still be gravity's bitch.

ID has had its day in court — literally! — and it's been found scientifically wanting. The science-minded community has moved on, so why waste an hour of diavlog time on a thoroughly discredited idea? It has gone the way of believing in a flat earth, or thinking the sun revolves around the earth, or believing in the luminiferous ether. It is simply not worthy of discussion in a serious public forum, except as  quirky footnote in history. You might as well debate the science of unicorns. Maybe Wright doesn't mind giving a platform to discredited ideas, but surely he can't be surprised that so many in his science-centric audience mind very much.

I pretty much agree with what the Spousal Unit and Carl said, tempered a little by Chad's points over at Uncertain Principles, and by commenters who have expressed concern that if scientists collectively abandon ship, we're pretty much ceding BHTV to the crackpots. I think it was definitely the right thing to do to call out BHTV for their "failed experiments." I appreciate Wright's willingness to engage in the debate, and admit error where he felt mistakes had been made, even though there still seems to be some confusion about what his policy actually is.

Unlike the Spousal Unit, I don't feel a strong inclination at this point to withdraw from Bloggingheads completely — although that could change, if they start debating the scientific merits of astrology or something and acting like it's a valid debate. (I know, it's like I'm an individual or something. Shocking!) It would be an empty promise anyway, since I have no time right now to participate even if the opportunity arose. But I remain uneasy in my mind, with lingering trepidation, and will be watching what happens on the site over the next few months. Maybe it's time for a new channel, in the interests of healthy competition. And it saddens me that I even have to write those words.


7 thoughts on “k is for kerfuffle”

  1. I sometimes wonder if believing things without evidence, as is the case with all religions and, well, “belief systems”, has been the greatest impediment to human knowledge through the ages. These things exist simply to control the masses, “Do what you’re told and don’t think about it”.. such control being exercised by any oik with sufficient charisma – knowledge of reality seems to be no requirement.
    We’d all be better off without them, in my opinion.

  2. I am glad that you will still be on Science Saturdays at Bloggingheads.tv. The female voice in science is needed. I copy your sessions to my daughter to encourage her.
    I don’t mind “creationism” and “intelligent design” discussed in “Philosophy Phridays”, but not on “Science Saturdays”. Similarly any discussion of the “multiverse” or “Boltzmann’s brains” should also be discussed in “Philosophy Phridays”. I nominate John Horgan to debate your “spousal unit.

  3. ID has had its day in court — literally!
    That’s a lousy standard. Evolution also lost in court, in “the trial of the century.”

  4. ” “theory of Intelligent Design”
    Surely you mean hypothesis?”
    This, I think, is the real problem with the acceptance of science in our culture. The term “theory” is misunderstood by non-science people as being an “idea” or a “guess”… while, in science, we call this (more accurately) as “scientific theory” which means it has proven itself repeatedly (otherwise it’s a hypothesis, as noted by Kevin).
    We need to get the non-science people to understand the difference, and therefore understand that when science provides a theory, it’s not just some crackpot making up things… it’s based on solid facts and has gone through at least a little proofing… it’s not a hypothesis.

  5. You know, I also think that the Intelligent Design is silly, and all such things, but what your spousal units and others did is just a politically driven exercise to intimidate people and create taboos.
    The Intelligent Design is silly but your spousal unit’s opinion that there would be no difference between the past and the future if cosmology didn’t include some special features is at least equally silly as The Intelligent Design.
    But that doesn’t mean that sensible people can ostracize every institution where your spousal units inserts his or her buttocks because there are just too many places like that. 😉 In other words, I disagree with picking this particular type of silliness as being “different” from others, and who is doing so is just an extreme partisan.
    From the viewpoint of BloggingHeads, it’s very clear that they can’t start to “ban” whole categories of people just because others find them controversial – because the whole BloggingHeads project, much like many others, *is* about the interactions of similarly different viewpoints, and by making this impossible, they would be undermining the very essence of their existence.
    So your spousal unit is just a blinded partisan who has left a project, and it will surely not be a big problem for the project.

  6. If I remember correctly, Sean wrote a piece on his blog a few years ago where he created a soap opera from a cast of characters consisting of scientists/bloggers. It was very amusing and it is nice to see that the series has been renewed for yet another season 😉

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