Bloggingheads' business plan: Borrow credibility and then blow it.

Most have by now heard about the kerfuffle over hosting creationists. As a consequence, four of the most prominent science bloggers, physicist Sean Carroll, science writer Carl Zimmer, Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, and Pharyngula’s PZ Myers, have elected to not participate further on Bloggingheads. There are comment threads attached to each of the posts linked, with some split in the comments concerning whether the decisions to withdraw are well advised. I myself think they are well advised to withdraw, and I describe why I think that below the fold.

In addition, the Disco ‘Tute’s Bruce Chapman has weighed in, his post invoking the metaphor of the guillotine to describe Blogginghead’s fate. was founded by Robert Wright, author most recently of The Evolution of God. It features pairs of people conversing via internet video links, having conversations about various topics. (The conversations are called “diavlogs,” surely the ugliest neologism of the InterTubes age.)

The kerfuffle

Recently, Bloggingheads hosted two conversations featuring creationists. The first had Ronald Numbers, a historian of creationism, and Paul Nelson of ontogenetic depth fame, a young earth creationist, philosopher, and fellow of the Disco ‘Tute. It was called Science Saturday: Inside the Mind of a Creationist. While it was cordial in tone – Numbers and Nelson have apparently been personally acquainted for decades – Numbers did a pretty fair job of defending science and particularly methodological naturalism against Nelson’s claims. Numbers missed some opportunities, of course – in a live conversation it’s impossible to pick up on everything. In particular, Numbers gave a very bad answer to Nelson’s claim that evolutionary theory is saturated with theology, citing as evidence the responses of various recent books defending evolution, like Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. Numbers’ response was to the effect that one can’t take the statements of a few evolutionary biologists as defining the field as a whole. The appropriate response would have been, “Evolutionary biology as such is indifferent to theological issues. However, Coyne’s book is a defense of evolutionary biology against a bunch of specious arguments by theists and so is bound to have some reference to their claims.”

The only real reservation I have about the Numbers/Nelson conversation is its placement in Science Saturday. It was partly about the nature of science but there was precious little actual science in it.

The other offending Bloggingheads conversation was between John McWhorter, a linguist, and Michael Behe, a Senior Fellow of the Disco ‘Tute. In a totally clumsy series of events, that conversation was up on the site for a few days and then was removed, apparently at McWhorter’s request, and then was restored by Wright. I will say little about it except to note that McWhorter displayed a discouraging ignorance of evolutionary biology coupled with nauseating flattery of Behe. It was crap on the part of both participants.

So why quit Bloggingheads?

A variety of arguments were given by Carroll, Zimmer, Plait, and Myers, but they seemed to boil down to their not wanting to be associated with a medium/site that gave more or less uncritical exposure to proponents of a view of evolution (and science as a whole) that has been thoroughly and emphatically discredited. However, I think there’s a deeper reason for the four (and any other scientists) to disassociate themselves from such a site.

A venue like Bloggingheads has no intrinsic credibility. It must earn its credibility, borrowing from the credibility of its participants. When people like Carroll, Zimmer, Plait, and Myers participate in Bloggingheads conversations, they are loaning the site some of their own credibility built over years of professional work. The site takes on their luster and acquires an audience attracted by their participation. What those people have to decide is whether they want to continue to lend their professional credibility to a site whose editorial policy is so confused that it cannot distinguish crap from science. They have understandably concluded that they don’t wish to do so, and I applaud them for it.

This is similar to the question of whether to debate creationists: should ‘real’ scientists debate creationists in public venues? In general it’s taken to be a bad idea because merely the fact of including them on the same stage lends them credibility they have not themselves earned. I think the case is the same here. Bloggingheads borrowed the credibility of genuine scientists and spooned it over a couple of creationists who have not themselves earned it. Bloggingheads borrowed it and then wasted it.