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?