Brad Monton, creationists’ newest favorite atheist, is upset. Carl Zimmer and Sean Carroll, upset that BloggingHeads allowed and utterly bungled an interview between conservative linguist and apparent ID sycophant John McWhorter and creationist Michael Behe, have declared that they will not participate in diavlogs at that site any more. Monton, a philosopher who thinks every critique of ID creationism but his sucks goats, thinks thats a bad idea. His defense of this claim begins rockily and then crashes into a hill and catches fire. To whit:
while I’m no expert on biology, I find Behe’s arguments interesting and worth discussing, even though I ultimately think he’s wrong. There’s are some wrong ideas that aren’t worth discussing (like the claim that the moon is made of green cheese), but I think Behe’s arguments are on the other side of the line. (And even with the moon claim, it is interesting to think about what evidence we have for the claim that the moon isn’t made of green cheese, and what the moon would look like if it were.)
Now I think the claim that the moon is made of green cheese has no particular interest, least of all in the senses Monton advances. An object the size of the moon and made of cheese could not hold together. Plus, where did all the cows come from, and how did they get to space? It doesn’t make sense, which is why nursery tales aren’t science. As The Straight Dope’s Cecil Adams notes, when that saying was initially coined in the 1500s, “Luna’s non-cheesiosity was not a matter regarding which even the rustics were in doubt.” It’s a statement meant to be obviously wrong, and inherently unworthy of discussion. That Monton still thinks there’s useful discourse to be had about how we know it’s wrong lets us calibrate his gullibility.
So the question becomes: how should those who think that they aren’t worth discussing behave? Should they intellectually distance themseves from those who think that they are worth discussing? Or should they adopt more of a live-and-let-live attitude, and recognize that it’s worthwhile for those smart people who think that the ideas are worth discussing to be able to discuss them?
The latter strikes me as the right answer. Given that some smart educated people think that they are worth discussing, those who disagree should nevertheless be happy that the ideas are being discussed.
Shorter Monton: People who think a topic is too dumb to waste time on should be glad other people are wasting time on it in their stead.
But assuming that we value the potential contributions of people who are wasting time on such ideas, asking us to be happy with their time-wasting nonsense is asking us to give up something rather important. Bloggingheads has limited bandwidth, posts a limited number of videos, and has a large impact on the broader community. Bandwidth, pageviews and other resources consumed by the Behe/McWhorter love-fest are resources taken from what might be an edifying experience not just for other scientists (who will, and can, get nothing useful from Behe), but for the general public, who will be misled about the state of science and indeed the nature of science. This is hardly free, and people who find Bloggingheads’ apparent willingness to pander to creationists troublesome are free to protest that and withdraw from that conversation.
Monton objects to Carl Zimmer’s explanation that he is withdrawing from Bloggingheads because he feels that, in discussing science, “All the participants must rely on peer-reviewed science that has direct bearing on the subject at hand, not specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty.” Monton replies:
We have to be careful about restricting discussion to what’s based on peer-reviewed science. The revolutionary ideas come first, and peer-review comes later. In my opinion, a forum like bloggingheads should be a place where the revolutionary ideas can be discussed. This means that wrong ideas will end up being discussed too, but that’s a necessary consequence of open-minded intellectual inquiry.
Saying that revolutionary ideas come first is fairly trite, and is a form of the “they mocked Einstein, too” defense. The problem is, lots of crackpot ideas also come before peer review, and the difference between revolutionary ideas and crackpot ideas is that revolutionary ideas survive peer review, and crackpottery doesn’t.
Peer review doesn’t, however, block wrong ideas. It works to weed out implausible, impractical, and unsupported claims, but the scientific process thrives by putting imperfect ideas out before a community of scholars, who then pick at it and correct it. Most current scientific knowledge is wrong, but wrong to a much lesser degree than the body of knowledge a decade ago. That’s what peer review does.
For Monton’s benefit, evading peer review lets an author do several things that are bad for public discourse. First, it lets someone repeat claims which have already been extensively rebutted. This is a common trick played by creationists, including Michael Behe. It doesn’t matter how often people present plausible evolutionary mechanisms by which supposedly irreducibly complex structures could have evolved, he’ll keep claiming evolution can’t explain those structures. Indeed, he’ll keep claiming irreducible complexity is a legitimate argument for ID after he’s been forced to concede that irreducible complexity is not presently formulated as a valid test of evolution. Never mind the oft-repeated (and oft-ignored) point that a test of known evolutionary mechanisms would still not be a meaningful test of ID.
In this sense, Behe’s claims are not merely wrong, they are egregiously, bull-headedly wrong. Peer-review (when implemented right) forces authors to confront the claims of their critics, and not just repeat fallacious claims. By evading peer review, Behe is giving himself an excuse for various forms of intellectual dishonesty, permission to degrade the public discourse.
Evading peer review doesn’t mean that authors have to be right, but they have to have at least plausible claims. Monton acknowledges that he isn’t an expert in this field, and as someone who is, I feel comfortable saying that Behe’s claims are not biologically plausible. Peer review operates as a service to people like Monton, people who could easily be swayed by what Carl Zimmer rightly calls “specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty.” Not everyone has the background to evaluate Behe’s claims, and unless Monton wants to become an expert on biochemistry, evolution, and molecular biology, he ought to rely on the peer review process to catch egregiously bad arguments, such as those advanced by Behe and other creationists.
That’s not to say he shouldn’t engage their philosophy, but until he has the biological background to detect BS on his own, he and the general public should do what scientists have done for some time now: trust the process of review by relevant experts to weed out the egregiously wrong claims from the peer reviewed literature, and treat material that skirts peer review as inherently untrustworthy.