The Blogginheads.tv Controversy

Since the bloggingheads “diavlog” with David Dobbs and me was the first science-oriented installment to come out (more or less) since the repudiation of Bloggingheads.tv by Carl Zimmer and Sean Carrol, and now Phil Plait and PZ Myers, I think I should say something about why I did it and what I think about the whole thing.

I want to start out by saying that my remarks are provisional. I will not tolerate sophistic mumbo jumbo in the comments. Instead, I employ what my Lese friend JM used to tell me as as staring point: “I’ve got an idea or two for you. If you don’t like them, just give them back.”

In other words, this is all subject to revision, and I’m not trying to make strong philosophical statements here. I’m just parsing out the situation. My questions are more important than my words.

First, my story. I was asked some time ago to do a bloggingheads, and interest was expressed by both Bloggingheads.tv and the Scienceblogs.com editor. So, over a period of time, I was in low level conversation with those two entities, as well as two potential people to do a bloggingheads with. This was casual, “what-if”-like, a maybe-do-this, maybe-do-that sort of conversation. At one point I was asked to think of a Sbling to do a bloggingheads with, and the first and only person who came to mind at that moment was David Dobbs, mostly because I was just finishing his excellent book, and thought this would be a great topic.

So, I contacted David and lucky for me he was into it, and within a few days we had it all arranged. It was during this process that Carl Zimmer’s post came out. David and I immediately communicated about this (in fact, it was David who brought Carl’s post to my attention), and my version of our communication is that while we were both concerned about creationists and stuff, we also felt that we were already in the process of producing this, Bloggingheads.tv was hoping to use it in a particular time slot, and thus, pulling out would be a pain and a disappointment. Actually, it would be breaking a promise. So, making a strong statement about something can be a pain and a disappointment and maybe should be, but at the same time, there is a difference between not engaging in something you might do and breaking a promise to do something. So we went ahead, and I feel fairly comfortable with that decision because, after all, it is not like bloggingheads.tv is killing a puppy every six hours and we had to do something RIGHT NOW.

David Dobbs can certainly correct, modify, or add to this rough characterization as he likes. The total amount of communication between us regarding this issue actually amounted to fewer words than in the above paragraph.

Having said that, I want to make a couple of comments about Carl, Sean and Phil. They have pulled out of involvement with blogginheads from different staring points. Carl was early involved and apparently helped make it what it is today (presumably only the good parts and not the bad parts). Phil was merely involved as a person who did one, but he is a Big Giant Blogger so that give him Patron Saint status if he stays involved like it or not. Perhaps Sean is somewhere in between. All three of these individuals are pulling out because they have strong feelings about creationism and about giving creationism any kind of credibility, and they feel that when blogginheads recently, and about a year ago, had creationists on without a critical attack on the creationist, that this was wrong. (Also, having the creationists on the “science” part of Blogginheads.tv was a special form of screw-up.)

For my part, I agree that this was wrong. I watched the Robert Wright/George Johnson post-game analysis. (Blogginheads.tv is Robert Wright’s show). I have to say: The down side of bloggingheads is that they are an hour long. That is often not enough time to really cover a topic. In the case of this topic, it was about a half hour too long! But whatever…

One possible conclusion that could come of all this is the following: Bloggingheads.tv is practically a mouthpiece for creationism. Yes it is true that the creationists only get on Blogginheads once every year or so, but that would be like NOVA producing one or two pro-creationist one hour long specials every decade. Unacceptable and outrageous. Robert Wright and his whole team need to be driving into the swamp.

Another possible conclusion is that Blogginheads.tv is run like a half baked lemonade stand, and thus does not serve well in protecting the high standards of decision making and management that the rest of the blogosphere adheres to. They need to be punished for their inefficacious behavior. Drive them at least in the general direction of the swamp and they will surely blunder into the mire on their own. But if new management or editorial practices are demonstrated, make nice and start once again using Bloggingheads.tv as a mouthpiece for rationality and science.

Yet another possible conclusion is that the creationists have done an admirable job at getting Carl Zimmer, Sean Carrol, Phil Plait, and PZ Myers, four of the most widely heard and widely loved (or hated, depending) voices of science and of anti-creationism, to commit to never using this popular venue. Now, if the creationists can do this with, say, Public TV and some of the major news outlets, they have it made. It won’t be long after that they will be able to drive all of us into the swamp.

I am concerned that this last possibility is what actually did happen (though I do not for a moment think that this was planned by the creationists!). I agree that bloggingheads screwed up royally. I’ll even state that I’m annoyed at Wright’s agnostic approach to creationism (see the above mentioned post-game analysis). But if I judged all outlets on the purity of the atheism and skepticism of the management, I’d have to crawl up in a ball and hibernate. Read the commentaries by Zimmer and Carrol. You will come away from them very annoyed at bloggingheads.

In fact, I happen to agree with what the two of them say, and I agree with their conclusion, of stepping aside from bloggingheads. Somehow, I am managing to hold these two very different thoughts in my head at the same time: They should not walk away from bloggingheads. They should walk away from bloggingheads. Both make sense.

The fact that both of these thoughts make sense is probably because there is a third possibility linking them. Well, not any more, they’ve committed themselves now, but there WAS a third possibility: They could have expressed their concerns privately, had a private conversation with the bloggingheads people, and worked something out. That would have led to a very public display of concern, but with a different outcome.

If you read the commentaries I cite, you’ll find that this conversation did actually happen, but apparently it did not go well. In other words, we may owe the abandonment of Bloggingheads.tv by these critically important and very big-time voices not to what Blogginheads did (though they did something and it was bad) or to the desire by Zimmer and Carrol to promote rationality (though they do, and very effectively) but rather to the breakdown of the socio-cultural-politico-communicative aspect of this event. Maybe Wright just didn’t give them what they wanted. Maybe they just didn’t hear what he was saying. I don’t know.

There is a tendency on the internet to move quickly from suspicion to the execution of sentence with insufficient due process in between. This is not necessarily a big deal, because the internet is not actually a criminal justice system or world court. But if you look at the cited critiques of bloggingheads and the comments on them, it appears that for the most part the entire on-line world of rational pro-evolution writers and readers has simply written off Blogginheads.tv, which is effectively the same thing as killing it. Or almost killing it….

Blogginheads does a lot more than science, or at least so it seems. If Carl/Sean/Phil/PZ and everyone else writes Bloggingheads off, and all their followers follow, that outlet is not going to dry up and blow away. It might, instead, become a mouthpiece for the set of people talking about evolution that does not include the strict rationalists just named. That could be very bad.

One conclusion that we could draw from this is the following: It is OK to walk away from bloggingheads as long as we provide the neck shot before we leave. You can’t just wound it and leave. You have to either totally kill it, or tame it. And if you kill it you better come up with your own replacement. And Carl, Sean, Phil and PZ: If you are all linked to the replacement for bloggingheads.tv, be prepared for some to claim that this was all a big plot!

Will I ever do another Bloggingheads? I don’t know. The other person I was hoping to do one with is a prominent individual in the Creationism-Evolution ‘debate.’ I don’t at this point know what that person will conclude about this episode (though we are in touch). If we did one, we would want to do it on an ongoing controversy related to creationism. Hey, maybe we could talk about the Blogginheads Controversy!?!?

Should I do it? Or should I join in the fray and help drive Blogginheads.tv into the swamp?

Comments

  1. #1 Kitty'sBitch
    September 7, 2009

    Perhaps a Bloggingheads with Jerry Coyne discussing Wrights new book? I consider the book to also be a factor here.
    I think we’re all a little paranoid about the subject of creationism, and rightly so.
    Perhaps a series of bloggingheads features can be done discussing creationist disinformation? Falacy Fridays, to be followed by REAL science Saturdays.

  2. #2 osmium
    September 7, 2009

    Dear Greg,

    I am a young scientist on the professor track; I am also a longtime bloggingheads viewer. I disagree strongly with the decisions of Sean, Carl, PZ, and Phil to break with BhTV. While the Behe episode is bad, I believe it is less harmful than some people (e.g. the aforementioned) think. As a group, scientists have a responsibility to engage and participate in things like BhTV. I believe the cultural perception of science in America is far more important than the sideshow-like “creationism” non-debate. When scientists pack up their toys and go home because there was one speck of dust among millions (this stupid Behe diavlog) that annoys them, it is a public relation disaster. If you ask me, the guys backing out on BhTV over creationism are doing their part (unintentionally) to make sure all the graduate students are Chinese and Indian for another generation, and that Americans will continue to go off and become whatever it is they become where they don’t have to worry about science.

    Please stay.
    Sincerely,
    Josh Gallaway

  3. #3 Carl Zimmer
    September 7, 2009

    Hi Greg–I just wanted to clarify that I’m not trying to kill anyone. (Although I do like that phrase “neck shot”–I’ll have to use that some time.) I’m simply making a judgment about Bloggingheads that I make about other outlets, as a writer. I have to decide whether my standards and their standards agree–not just about evolution, but about science in general.

    It’s never a simple process–there are certainly magazines that I have written for that have from time to time run articles that I thought were irresponsible. I don’t automatically stop working with them, but if they cross a line, then I have to walk away.

    In the case of Bloggingheads, the two creationist appearance caused me a lot of concern, but if there had been some new standard put in place that would make ensure something like them wouldn’t happen again, I could see still being involved. But after checking in with Bloggingheads, I didn’t get the feeling that such standards would be put in place. Part of the problem is that Bloggingheads is not like a magazine, with editors who can formulate editorial policies. It’s more open-ended, and comes down to Robert Wright’s own views about what works on his site and what doesn’t.

    That being said, I might well turn out to be wrong, and from now on they’ll only have high-caliber science discussions like the one between you and Dobbs. I hope I am wrong! But since I don’t have the help of a crystal ball, I’ve decided to part ways.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    September 7, 2009

    Carl, thanks for the comment. As I said, I support your decision, but I do think the whole thing is kind of a tragedy. (But no puppies were killed, so it is not that bad.)

    Not only is this not an entity with an editorial review board, as you point out, but it is also not an open entity like YouTube. It is interesting to note that part of the problem in at least one instance was R.W. being away. (Not to fault the staff too much here …. they were trying to do the right thing.) Wright notes in his diavlog that his misake was not making a more clear philosophical statement. But that may not have worked anyway. The ‘fault’ as it were may really be one of not having a sufficiently a) controlled yet somehow b) acephalus review process.

    I don’t think bloggingheads needs to be like a magazine or like YouTube, but it could be different than it is in some way, with a model that allows for mistakes to be few, but when they happen, signals of progress rather than something else less helpful.

    In fact, here’s a model: Bloggingheads.tv should subcontract a science show to Discover.com, and another one to Scienceblogs.com. That way, everyone would be happy. Or dirven crazy. Either way, it would be interesting.

  5. #5 Screechy Monkey
    September 7, 2009

    “the breakdown of the socio-cultural-politico-communicative aspect of this event. Maybe Wright just didn’t give them what they wanted. Maybe they just didn’t hear what he was saying. I don’t know.”

    I know Wright, in his diavlogue with George Johnson, tries to do a mea culpa in which he blames his poor diplomacy during the conference call with Carl and Sean. But that all smacks a little too much of the old “if only I had expressed myself better, you would agree with me” routine.

    As Carl’s comment above illustrates, the fundamental problem is that Wright didn’t feel comfortable making any assurances or promises about what would or would not appear on BH.tv in the future (which is an understandable position), and Carl and Sean didn’t feel comfortable trusting in the editorial judgment of BH.tv which — even after these recent fiascos — still just amounts to “whatever Bob thinks is ok, or whatever Bob’s staff approves without his knowledge.” And I certainly can’t blame them for that.

    “It might, instead, become a mouthpiece for the set of people talking about evolution that does not include the strict rationalists just named. That could be very bad.”

    But here’s the problem: Bob Wright insists that, although he won’t make any promises, he doesn’t contemplate having any creationists on again unless (1) it’s to debate theology, not science; or (2) it’s a debate with Dawkins. So the only reason to fear the “creationist mouthpiece” scenario is if Bob Wright cannot be trusted. And if Wright can’t be trusted, then what assurance do Carl et al have that their continued appearances on Science Saturday will prevent a future Behe-McWhorter incident?

    Personally, I subscribe to the “half baked lemonade stand” theory in your post. And I see no sign that this is changing.

  6. #6 a science blogger
    September 7, 2009

    I like the idea of sharing the responsibility for running the lemonade stand with outside entities like Discover or Scienceblogs.

  7. #7 AdamK
    September 7, 2009

    Luke-warm lemonade? Yucch.

  8. #8 NewEnglandBob
    September 7, 2009

    Sometimes the lemonade tastes like very sour lemons.

  9. #9 Lou FCD
    September 7, 2009

    I’m with the walkers on this one. Bob Wright flushed the credibility of Bh, and I wouldn’t want to be involved with it anymore either.

    He might have salvaged the site’s credibility in the aforementioned private conversation, but instead chose the Dembskian notpology route.

    Wash your hands and move on.

  10. #10 mk
    September 7, 2009

    It might, instead, become a mouthpiece for the set of people talking about evolution that does not include the strict rationalists just named. That could be very bad.

    Well, that certainly would say a lot about Mr. Wright, wouldn’t it?

    Carl, Sean, Phil, PZ and Greg Fish are dead on right about this. Wright had ample opportunity to allay everyone’s concern… he couldn’t do it. A phone call, a couple comments at their blogs, a blogginheadTV segment of his own, a follow-up commentary and he just couldn’t do it. This is his fault, start to finish.

    I say… “neck shot”.

  11. #11 Stephanie Z
    September 7, 2009

    mk, as Greg pointed out, “neck shot” is easy to say, but how do you recommend it be done? Bloggingheads is not just the science content, and they won’t shut down the science just because you say you want it dead.

  12. #12 mk
    September 7, 2009

    Stephanie,

    I was really just using Greg’s hyperbolic language as a way to encourage him to bail on the whole enterprise. He did ask, after all. You’ll note, I did put the phrase in quotes.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    September 7, 2009

    Well, although it has now and then been claimed that I’ve produced hyperbole (I have no idea where that comes from) I actually do mean neck shot. If all the top science bloggy new media people totally walk away, that will not kill bloggingheads. So, it will exist but without this upper echelon of committed rational minded people who take no prisoners on creationism. That means you’ve got a beast.

    Tame it or kill it may be the only alternatives. Although the more I think about it the more I like my idea of bloggingheads farming out a couple of science shows to spread the editorial side of things a bit more. Somewhere between taming it and giving it a nice big pasture to roam in. Not be put out to. To roam in.

  14. #14 Screechy Monkey
    September 7, 2009

    But Greg, what would be involved in “taming it”?

    The problem wasn’t that Carl et al were being invited to confront pseudoscientists (whether creationists or other varieties). If they were to rescind their boycott and return to BH.tv, there is absolutely no guarantee that they will get a chance to do so in the future. Instead, they may find that one week Science Saturday is Phil Plait and Carl Zimmer discussing serious science, and the next week it’s Crackpot Joe vs. Wide-Eyed Sycophant. Which is precisely the scenario they’re concerned about: that the “real science” segments they do lends credibility to the pseudoscientists who might appear in the future.

    Actually, I should note that it’s not their only concern: I think Sean in particular is of the “don’t give the crackpots a platform” view. But my point is that we don’t even get to that issue. The choice on the table isn’t “abandon BH.tv to the crackpots or stay and confront them,” it’s “stop lending your credibility to BH.tv, or stay and trust them not to abuse it.”

  15. #15 The Science Pundit
    September 7, 2009

    The farming out idea is a good one. If SEED and/or Discover were to take editorial control of Science Saturdays, that would almost certainly bring Sean, Carl, Phil, and PZ back into the fold (in fact, I think the hive overlords would probably want that assurance as part of the deal). It would be a “win-win” for BhTV, Bob Wright, the hives, Carl, Sean, etc. The only downside I can see is that interesting science bloggers and journalists who aren’t associated with the new overlords might have it even tougher getting face time on BhTV (as SEED and Discover would obviously be interested in promoting their own people).

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    September 7, 2009

    But Greg, what would be involved in “taming it”?

    By that, I mean finding a way that bloggingheads.tv satisfies what those complaining are concerned with and also continues to do a good job.

    I don’t think it is too much to ask that a serious science show (and by this I mean the specifically science tracts on bloggingheads.tv) has the kind of consistent editorial control (not rule based knee jerk automaton control, but thoughtful editorial control) so that CP JOe and WE Sycophant are not ever going to be on, and by “never” I mean as often as Ira Flatow ends up interviewing someone who turns out to be some kind of nut (which has been twice in the time I’ve been listening to that show).

    I happen to agree with those (including you, I think) who are saying that bloggingheads is not a place to confront the crackpots. They just shouldn’t be there to begin with.

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    September 7, 2009

    The only downside I can see is that interesting science bloggers and journalists who aren’t associated with the new overlords might have it even tougher getting face time on BhTV (as SEED and Discover would obviously be interested in promoting their own people).

    This is why I’m actually suggesting something modest like once a month for each Borg. This would not be ALL of the BhTV science content, just part of it, and that would set a kind of standard and make everyone feel good. Also, while I don’t think there should be “rules” made to guide this, there could be an expectation that Sb and D.com will typically pair one of their own with one from the outside, or simply organize those outside, pretty much every time. There could be a blog “sponsor” for each show. So, for instance, Carl suggests to the editorial folks “Let’s have these two do it” … they agree, and Carl selects those two folks, there is a bit of conversation about what it will be about, Carl promotes it on his blog, and they do it. NEither of the disemnbodied heads would necessarily be a Discover.com blogger.

  18. #18 Phil Plait
    September 7, 2009

    I see a lot of hand wringing in this, but it’s really pretty simple, as I wrote on my blog. Twice, BHTV gave a sympathetic voice to creationists. I won’t associate with a group that’s done that. If BH wants to cop to a mea culpa that would be great, and I might reconsider, but there are a lot of other venues out there too and I can be choosy if I want or need to be. I am not trying to destroy BH (even if I could) nor stop others from doing it. I’m giving my own personal view, and I’m comfortable with it.

  19. #19 Phil Plait
    September 7, 2009

    I see a lot of hand wringing in this, but it’s really pretty simple, as I wrote on my blog. Twice, BHTV gave a sympathetic voice to creationists. I won’t associate with a group that’s done that. If BH wants to cop to a mea culpa that would be great, and I might reconsider, but there are a lot of other venues out there too and I can be choosy if I want or need to be. I am not trying to destroy BH (even if I could) nor stop others from doing it. I’m giving my own personal view, and I’m comfortable with it.

  20. #20 Michael
    September 7, 2009

    I think the idea of farming out the science segment of BH would be great — alas the odds of it happening are very low and have been lowered by the 4 pullouts.

    Not that the pullouts were a bad decision but still, it takes the idea closer to being a pipe dream.

  21. #21 Wyatt
    September 7, 2009

    I think it is incorrect to think that “the cream of the crop” has walked out. All due respect to Zimmer and Plait and all, the total number of bloggingheads they would ever do is small and they are a small number of fish in a very large ever growing pond. Its probably good for them to move along and others take their place.

  22. #22 Rex
    September 7, 2009

    This would be a tempest in a teapot if there were two or three, or even one, other media outlet like Bloggingheads.

  23. #23 Paul
    September 7, 2009

    Twice, BHTV gave a sympathetic voice to creationists. I won’t associate with a group that’s done that.

    This does not make any sense. They gave a space for creationists to have a voice. They did not sympathize or give them a voice.

    It sounds to me like Wright is trying to avoid simple minded rule-based behavior, but the Big Time Bloggingheads (PZ and all) are demanding it.

  24. #24 Eric Robinson
    September 8, 2009

    This does not make any sense. They gave a space for creationists to have a voice. They did not sympathize or give them a voice.

    That’s a pretty fine line you’re trying to draw there. However, even if we were to assume such a line could be drawn, it still doesn’t address Phil’s point: The problem is equivalence. By hosting respectable scientists and then hosting crackpots, BhTV just gives more credence to the crackpots, and hurts the reputations of the scientists. It’s because of this that they are right to demand at least one “simple minded” rule: no crackpots.

  25. #25 Greg Laden
    September 8, 2009

    Eric: I don’t know what Paul was getting at, but I don’t necessarily agree that “no crackpots” is a simple rule. Well, the rule is simple but the line is not.

  26. #26 mk
    September 8, 2009

    I’m not sure about the word crackpot, but I do think that Robert Wright’s wanting to have a straight-up Creationist and/or IDist come on to “debate” you or PZ or Dawkins is a bad idea. Others certainly disagree, but Paul (above) is right in my estimation. It tarnishes the scientist and it adds lustre to the Creationist. It’s one thing for PZ or Coyne to take pot shots periodically from their personal blogs, but to give them a respectable platform from which they can spew their idiocy… I cringe at that idea.

  27. #27 Greg Laden
    September 8, 2009

    I don’t think one can fault an outlet for having a straight-up debate between PZ and Behe (for instance). That is actually an unassailable decision as long as it is done with both parties willingly involved (as opposed to kidnapping them and forcing them to do it). Of course, it is very unlikely to happen for a number of reasons.

    Let me be clear: I’m NOT saying that it would be a GOOD idea. I’m just saying that you could not get mad at the management for trying to pull that off. Or, of you are the sort hat would walk away from and thence disdain an outlet for doing something stupid, then you are probably also the sort that yells at servers in restaurants, so when we have lunch together some day let’s do it at the drive through!

    I think the core of the problem that Carl/Sean/Phil/PZ have (and I agree with them) is having a full fledged (or even half baked) creationist on the show as though thy were not a whacko is giving them legitimacy. I have no problem with a freak-show (but it is bad programming) or a full on debate (but those never work). But the “oh, our next guess is Ken Ham, let’s here what he has to say about evolution” is not OK.

    The reason why the hard and fast rule does not work is this:

    Ken Ham
    Duane Gish
    Michael Behe
    Stephen Meyer
    Ken Miller

    This is an incomplete list, of course, and could be done much better (but this is a comment on a blog post) but imagine a list like this. Draw the line. I would draw the line between MIller and Meyer but I’d be uncomfortable with a show in which Miller (and whomever he was talking to) focused on some god of the gaps. that would be an epic failure. But others would draw the line between the ID’ers and the YEC/s How do you make a rule that works to decrease complaints when different people would draw the line in different places?

    Better to spread out the blame in who decides where to draw the line on a case by case basis.

    (Then only invite your friends to the party, of course.)

    BTW, I know people find the dominance or Robert Write (or his personality or decisions, etc.) annoying, and I personally do not go along with all of his ideas at all (not even close) but could you please name for me a media outlet that actually exists and has some success without a person/personality behind it, at lest in the first several years of its existence? From New York Times to Scienceblogs.com, it is pretty common.

  28. #28 RBH
    September 8, 2009

    Greg wrote

    I think the core of the problem that Carl/Sean/Phil/PZ have (and I agree with them) is having a full fledged (or even half baked) creationist on the show as though thy were not a whacko is giving them legitimacy.

    It’s worse than that. As I wrote on Panda’s Thumb, the ‘legitimacy’ BH.tv gave the whackos was borrowed from people who had earned it on their own — Plait, Zimmer, Carroll, and Myers. It was their credibility that BH.tv borrowed and then gave to Behe and Nelson and McWhorter (the latter for his credulous sycophancy wrt Behe).