The Great Bloggingheads Mess

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Carl Zimmer
    September 2, 2009

    Just a quick clarification: a young Earth creationist named Paul Nelson appeared on a Saturday show, which is supposedly for science. So there’s not a big distinct to be made about the day of the week.

  2. #2 clarification
    September 2, 2009

    More clarification: Paul Nelson was on Science Saturday. The Behe discussion was not billed under that series. And it went up on a Wednesday evening.

  3. #3 Uncle Al
    September 2, 2009

    Uncle Al has a worn silver coin inscribed 8472 BC. It was crafted by the Devil to fool us – just like the Grand Canyon, radioactive decay, and tree rings. Canthariasis and Buruli ulcer were donated by an ominobenvolent God as a test of faith. The Flintstones is a documentary.

    The Shroud of Turin – a positively curved Caucasoid face projected upon a zero curvature linen sheet without distortion or discontinuity – is a miracle.

  4. #4 Brian
    September 2, 2009

    Uncle Al: A coin inscribed 8472 BC was surely crafted by someone to fool SOMEONE! B-)

    On topic: I think a young earth creationist on a science show is MUCH worse than a “Creation Scientist” or old earth ID creationist. Neither one makes me inclined to watch the program though…

  5. #5 John Novak
    September 2, 2009

    When’s the last time you actually watched the History Channel? They’ve got their fair share of crackpots there, too. For Chrissakes, I’ve seen them put Erich von Daniken on there, and not in a position where he was immediately howled down by every respectable archaeologist in the world.

  6. #6 Russell
    September 2, 2009

    I don’t understand bloggingheads. When I’m browsing the web, which serves text and pictures very well, why would I want to see a debate, at 100 wpm, rather than read the participants blogs and articles, at 400 wpm?

  7. #7 onymous
    September 2, 2009

    as someone in Sean’s comments noted, Ann Althouse is a regular guest

    See also Jonah Goldberg. As I said in Sean’s comments, I just don’t see how “Bloggingheads is a place for presumptively reasonable to debate” is a tenable view. Your description of it as a TV network selling controversy sounds a lot more apt.

  8. #8 onymous
    September 2, 2009

    Either insert the word “people” or remove the word “to” from the above, according to taste.

  9. #9 E
    September 2, 2009

    I’m sorry, but if Ann Althouse counts as “the crazy”, then you must not get out much. Low bandwidth? Definitely. Crazy? Not so much, and certainly not in comparison to something like Powerline or the Corner.

  10. #10 Jonathan Vos Post
    September 2, 2009

    “why would I want to see a debate, at 100 wpm, rather than read the participants blogs and articles, at 400 wpm?”

    That we can read faster than we can talk is clear evidence of an Intelligent Designer who loves books and blogs?

    Just to be annoying, Noam Chomsky now divests himself of his revolutionary 1950s theory of generative grammar, which has had a profound influence on linguistics and the Cognitive Science Revolution. According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index in 1992, Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any other living scholar during the 1980–92 period, and was the eighth most-cited source. His approach to the study of language emphasizes:
    * “an innate set of linguistic principles shared by all humans” known as universal grammar,
    * “the initial state of the language learner,” and discovering
    * an “account for linguistic variation via the most general possible mechanisms.

    Now he says that humans have language because an intelligent Creator constructed us that way.

    Well, he succeeded in annoying me.

    But I’d still watch him on Bloggingheads. Why?
    * he’s already controversial for his political theories
    * he actually has something to say.

    Are the usual gang of ID frauds capable of either such claim?

  11. #11 Anon
    September 3, 2009

    Jonathan Vos Post–

    Do you have a source for the Chomsky bit? I really really really want to read it, and would be tremendously grateful!

    [/derail]

  12. #12 ScentOfViolets
    September 3, 2009

    Sean in particular doesn’t have a leg to stand on as to what counts as ‘science’. He seems to be a rather relentless pusher of this Boltzmann Brain/Multiverse nonsense. Now, for the record, I don’t think ID by whatever moniker it’s traveling under counts as ‘science’ either, and for pretty much the same sorts of reasons having to do with falsifiability etc. It’s just that this appears to be a case of ‘Let he who is without sin . . .’

    Finally, BloggingHeads recently hosted a Scott Aaronson/Elizer Yudkowski match-up. Entertaining as all get-out. But not exactly science either, and I didn’t see too many people objecting to that segment.

  13. #13 tfagan
    September 3, 2009

    I notice a number of those commenting are under the mistaken impression that Darwin’s macro-evolution is a proven scientific theory. I suppose they are still acting out the Evolution indoctrination they received as children in government schools.

    There are a few problems with the so called scientific consensus–first, there is no hard evidence of macro-evolution within the Darwinist religion or otherwise and second, the current state of our scientific knowledge in biology suggests that a necessary ingredient complex, intelligent, specified, functional information (found in DNA, RNA, mRNA, tRNA, proteins, codons, nucleotides and the like), appears to have diminished any chance for the theory of Evolution to survive serious scrutiny. There is no scientific evidence of the above complex, intelligent, specified, functional information occurring in nature by accident as would be required for the theory of Evolution to have credibility. In fact I believe most scientists would agree that such information can only come from a mind of an intelligent agent and in addition, would suggest that there is a zero probability of it occurring in nature without Intelligent intervention.

    I think most Darwinists would best stay with the ideas involved with micro-evolution ( also known as breeding or variation within a species) where you can achieve some scientific support. It is commonly known that the genes contain all the intelligent information and/or blueprints required to provide for that variation we saw with the Galapagos Island Finches. Finches with small weak beaks were unable to avail themselves of the only food available during times of drought and died off while those with strong beaks, able to take advantage of the hard to access food survived. I understand that all the beaks returned to a normal distribution once food became more plentiful.

    Consider, humans have been taking advantage of the information contained within the genes to breed domesticated animals for desired traits throughout history, Even before Darwin’s epiphany. We have several names for this activity: breeding, variation within a species, variation found in the genes, traits inherited from the parents.

    So, to make it clear, Micro-evolution (breeding or variation within a species) is accomplished using the complex, specified, functional information in the genes, that was contained in the first cell at conception supplied by the parents. That first cell then manages to build itself (without the help of a brain) into an adult human being, using only the information in that first cell plus a little food, initially supplied by the mother. Big, little, long hair, short hair all come from the genes found in the chromosomes (genes) supplied by the parents. Darwin’s macro-evolution extrapolation speculations need not apply!

    We are all well aware of the power the Darwinists / Secularists have in the scientific and educational professions, but I believe that they are on the decline and will eventually go the way of the ‘flat earth’ believers with everyone wondering how they were able to achieve such control as we view the history of current times. In the future when you hear “its not science” they will be talking about the theory of Evolution.

  14. #14 charles fisenne
    September 11, 2009

    BANG [13.7 billion years ago]An entire universe of atoms imbued with the power of E=mc squared and talented to be YOU and I today. Limited in perception we don’t think of ourselves as a combination of atoms that can think in abstractions till death reverts us to a simpler atom state. My eternal soul [mind] tells me, the Intelligent Designer allowed me a sojourn of opportunity on plant earth.