What's the quickest way to get scientists and serious science writers to quit coming on your show? Invite the creationists. Discover bloggers Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer explain what happened:
A few weeks ago we were a bit startled to find a “Science Saturday” episode of BH.tv featuring Paul Nelson, an honest-to-God young-Earth creationist. Not really what most of us like to think of as “science.” So there were emails back and forth trying to figure out what went on. David Killoren, who is the person in charge of the Science Saturday dialogues, is an extremely reasonable guy; we had slightly different perspectives on the matter, but in the end he appreciated the discomfort of the scientists, and we agreed to classify that dialogue as a “failed experiment,” not something that would be a regular feature.
So last week we were startled once again, this time by the sight of a dialogue between John McWhorter and Michael Behe. Behe, some of you undoubtedly know, is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and chief promulgator of the idea of “irreducible complexity...."
...we were a little perturbed at the appearance of an ID proponent so quickly after we thought we understood that the previous example had been judged a failed experiment. So more emails went back and forth, and this morning we had a conference call with Bob Wright, founder of BH.tv. To be honest, I went in expecting to exchange a few formalities and clear the air and we could all get on with our lives; but by the time it was over we agreed that we were disagreeing, and personally I didn’t want to be associated with the site any more...
If BH.tv has something unique and special going for it, it’s the idea that it’s not just a shouting match, or mindless entertainment. It’s a place we can go to hear people with very different perspectives talk about issues about which they may strongly disagree, but with a presumption that both people are worth listening to.
In my job as a science writer, I try my best to convey an accurate picture of where science is at the moment. That means I do not write about just anything. I write about research and ideas that have held up under scrutiny. Sometimes that means writing about an important new development in a line of research that has emerged from peer review. Sometimes that means writing about a fierce debate between scientists who all have made a lot of important discoveries on the topic. It doesn’t mean writing about creationism–or medical quackery, or any other non-science–in a way that implies it really has scientific merit. I have sometimes blogged about creationists, but chiefly to explain why scientists do not take them seriously.
I brought these standards from my writing to my work at Bloggingheads. So I was not happy to find a creationist holding forth there (and never even being challenged about a 6,000-year-old Earth). Did this mean that the people who run Bloggingheads consider creationism real science worth discussing–with a creationist at that?...
My standard for taking part in any forum about science is pretty simple. 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. I believe standards like this one are crucial if we are to have productive discussions about the state of science and its effects on our lives.
This is not Blogginghead’s standard, at least as I understand it now. And so here we must part ways.
Prof. Orzel at Uncertain Principles comments:
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.
Fine. But don't expect genuine scientists to lend their credibility to your Science Saturday show if you do invite such people on. The issue here is that the creation-evolution debate is not a scientific one - the science has been settled. Putting real scientists and cranks on in the same forum (even if they're not on at the same time), and calling it a science forum gives the illusion of a real scientific debate.
For some reason, in our society we place great weight on the initials Ph.D. or M.D. after your name (even when the degree is completely irrelevant to the issue at hand). A degree is no insurance against quackery. But those of us who take our credentials as a serious responsibility to be honest about the subject in which we work can't in good conscience lend them to a show that would use our professional credibility to prop up the lunatic fringe.
Tip o' the hat to Brad DeLong and 3quarksdaily.
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