I sort of feel like I ought to have something to say about the recent controversy over creationists on bloggingheads.tv, which has caused Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer to renounce the whole site. If you’re too lazy to click through those links, the basic problem is that bloggingheads has twice invited creationists– sorry, cdesign proponentists– to appear on their “Science Saturday” segments in recent weeks. Sean and Carl feel that giving people from the Discovery Institute this sort of platform amounts gives them more credibility than they deserve, especially since neither of them was particularly challenged by the other participant in the conversation.
Like I said, I sort of feel like I ought to say something about this, but I really don’t have anything much to say. I can sort of see both sides of this– I absolutely agree with Sean and Carl that “Intelligent Design” is not science, has no hope of becoming science, and should not be promoted as science. I can totally understand where they’re coming from.
On the other hand, though, I think that this involves a small misunderstanding of what bloggingheads is. They’re not Science or Nature. They’re not even Discover. They’re basically a low-budget general-interest tv network, and as such, they’re in the business of selling controversy.
I mean, they do one dialogue a week on science, on Saturday. The rest of the week, they’re devoted to discussions of politics and culture. And it’s not like they shy away from promoting lunatics there– as someone in Sean’s comments noted, Ann Althouse is a regular guest, and can be counted on to bring the crazy from time to time.
So I can also understand why bloggingheads might want to have a controversial figure like Michael Behe on. Controversy brings traffic, and traffic is the whole point of the game. I can understand how perfectly reasonable intentions would lead to scheduling the dialogues in question, and I can understand why Robert Wright refuses to pledge to never again have those sorts of guests on.
I think the problem here has a lot to do with where and when the “Intelligent Design” folks were invited on. At the moment, bloggingheads does one and only one science-related dialogue per week. That means that when they put crazy people in that slot, people wanting real science are denied real science for a whole week. It magnifies the importance of what would otherwise be a minor grievance.
I guess it comes down to whether you think bloggingheads is more like the History Channel or the producers of What the Bleep Do We Know?. The producers of What the… were presenting crackpottery on an equal footing with real science, and quite deliberately using a few real scientists to lend credibility to some real nonsense.
The History Channel, on the other hand, runs a fairly good science program, in The Universe, but they also show a bunch of programs presenting absolute twaddle about UFO’s. They’re not doing this because they’re true believers (as far as I can tell), but because they’re in the business of grabbing eyeballs, and people will watch twaddle about UFO’s (I have a weakness for those shows myself– I can’t really explain the attraction, but I find them fairly amusing).
For a physicist to refuse to appear in What the Bleep… is, to my mind, perfectly reasonable, because the producers there are deliberately using real scientists to lend credibility to unreal pseudoscience. For a physicists to refuse to appear on The Universe, on the other hand, would feel a little silly, because while they do run twaddle about UFO’s, the programs are clearly separate, and not part of an agenda to promote UFO-ology. Nobody watching the UFO stuff is going to find them any more credible because Clifford Johnson appears on The Universe.
The bloggingheads mess falls somewhere in between these two. They’re like the History Channel in that they don’t have an obvious agenda to promote “Intelligent Design,” but are just trying to grab eyeballs however they can. They’ve taken a step toward What the Bleep… though, in that they ran the cdesign proponentists in the designated Science Saturday slot, and that rubs lots of people the wrong way.
I lean a little more toward the History Channel side of things, myself, but I can see where Sean and Carl are coming from.