You are probably familiar with the Bloggingheads website. The site, founded by Robert Wright, features conversations between various bloggers, journalists and scholars on whatever issues it amuses them to talk about. The site has long featured scientists among its participants.
Two recent dialogues hurt that relationship. The first featured historian Ronald Numbers palling around with YEC Paul Nelson. Numbers seemed mostly uninclined to challenge Nelson on some of his more dubious pronouncements. Even more egregious was the dialogue between John McWhorter and Michael Behe, in which McWhorter drooled over Behe’s every word.
Among people who follow these things Robert Wright already had a poor track record, for his shabby, dishonest treatment of Daniel Dennett a while back. After conducting an interview with Dennett, Wright smugly reported that Dennett had essentially recanted a major portion of his life’s work by agreeing that there was a direction to evolution. As was clear to anyone who watched the interview, Dennett had made no such concession. Wright had simply twisted Dennett’s words.
At any rate, in repsonse to the two dialogues long-time Bloggingheads participants Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer severed their ties with the site. Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers also announced they wanted nothing more to do with it.
I did not comment at the time, since I had mixed feelings about this decision. I can certainly understand where Carroll and Zimmer are coming from. On the other hand, I think the two dialogues were simply two separate instances of poor judgment and not some larger plot to try to mainstream creationism. If it had been me I would not have made the same decision as Carroll and Zimmer. (If it happens again, though, I will reverse that view.)
Now here comes Christianity Today to revive the issue. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, they get just about everything wrong. They article opens with:
An online clearinghouse for intellectual debate has discovered the apparent boundary for its controversial conversations: Intelligent Design.
Skipping ahead a bit:
Bloggingheads editor-in-chief Robert Wright reposted the interview four days later upon discovering the incident, but Behe says that action didn’t erase what happened.
“Reposting the interview didn’t make everything better,” says Behe. “Yanking it down in the first place sent the strong message that this is a topic that can’t be discussed rationally; it is beyond the pale, and an interviewer like McWhorter risks his career if he does otherwise.”
The decision to repost the interview prompted notable scientists Carl Zimmer and Sean Carroll to publicly disassociate with the website because they believe Intelligent Design is not a serious scientific idea worthy of debate.
There is no mention anywhere in the article of the previous incident with Numbers and Nelson. Rather a large oversight, wouldn’t you say? Focusing on Behe specifically, it is ludicrous to describe his dialogue with McWhorter as a rational discussion of important ideas. It was an advertisement for Behe, plain and simple.
As virtually everyone who has commented on this has noted, there is no objection to discussing creationism or ID in a forum like Bloggingheads. The objection is to allowing creationism to go unchallenged (as in the Nelson/Numbers dialogue) or to be endorsed (as in the McWhorter/Behe dialogue). That doesn’t fit into CT’s, “We’re so put-upon!” story line, however.
The article now cites four luminaries to support their view. Here’s the first:
Some religion history experts noted the ironic adaptation of Fundamentalist techniques on the opposite side of the evolution debate. “Recently ‘the new atheists’ have been characterized, even in some of the mainstream media, as like fundamentalists in their dogmatism,” said George Marsden, a noted professor of American religious history at the University of Notre Dame. “Breaking relations with those who associate with your enemies sounds a lot like classic American fundamentalist ‘second-degree separation.’ ”
Of course, the problem is not simply that Bloggingheads “associated” with creationists. It is that they effectively endorsed creationism as a legitimate viewpoint by pairing creationists with people unwilling or unable to challenge them. Had they paired Ken Miller, say, with Michael Behe, everyone on my side of this would have popped some popcorn before sitting down to watch.
Others share similar criticisms of Intelligent Design yet disagree with such abandoning the debate. John Horgan, director of The Center of Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, does not support Intelligent Design, but neither does he want to stop the conversation. “ As long as these ideas remain influential, we need to keep arguing about them,” he said.
I agree completely. It’s just too bad Bloggingheads was not so keen on arguing about these ideas, preferring instead to make sure they went mostly unchallenged.
“If I had the money to invite Mike Behe to my university, I would, and the room would be filled. I have no trouble with presenting ideas,” said Denis Lamoureux, an evangelical professor at St. Joseph’s College in Alberta. “But it’s important to underline that the other side of the id gang, we’ve been blocked out as well.” Lamoureux says he has been fired from an evangelical college for his belief that God used evolution, and disinvited to a university lecture series for the same reason.
Kudos to Lamoureux for noting the obvious. The nation’s Christian institutions hardly have the best track record in promoting free discussion of ideas, especially on the issue of evolution.
Eastern Nazarene College professor Karl Giberson, author of Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, says it’s unfair for “scientific watchdogs” to say the Behe conversation should be suppressed. “This is not a conversation in the scientific community,” he says. “But it’s a very important conversation in American culture. Wright is under no obligation to constrain his coverage of this topic to serve the interests of the scientific community. … America is still trying to reconcile faith in God with faith in evolution.”
It would seem that, according to Giberson, scientists have no business telling Wright how to run his site, and also have no business disassociating themselves from the site when they disapprove of the decisions Wright makes. Charming.