Bloggingheads and the Old Challenges of New Tools

Two years ago I was invited me to participate in a weird but cool experiment. The author Robert Wright had set up an online talk show of sorts called Bloggingheads. Two people with something interesting to say–economists, political scientists, human rights workers, seasoned journalists, and others–would pick a topic. They would talk on the phone while filming themselves and then upload the recordings. Others could then watch them hold forth.

I loved the inventiveness of the format. I loved how a conversation could be embedded in any other site. I loved the way people would just talk for an hour rather than squeeze their points down to meaningless sound bites. And so even though it was just a volunteer gig, I dove in. It was took a while for me to get used to the medium–staring into the glass eye of a camera and pretending it was a human head just doesn’t come naturally to me. And crackly cell phone connections didn’t help. But on the best of occasions it was fun. It let me expand what I used to do only on the printed page. I had interesting talks with all sorts of interesting people, such as Craig Venter, Neil Shubin, and my brother.

But now my experiment’s over. This post is an explanation of why, and how this turn of events has gotten me thinking about the future of science in new media.

Last month Bloggingheads posted a talk between Paul Nelson, a creationist, and Ronald Numbers, a historian of science. They even put the talk on a Saturday, which they set aside for science. (Hence the name Science Saturday.)

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?

The answers I got were various and murky. It had been a failed experiment, I was told, although I couldn’t figure out what a success would have looked like. I was also told the whole thing didn’t really matter, since young Earth creationism is so far beyond the pale that it doesn’t pose a threat of being taken seriously. Of course, surveys show that actually a lot of Americans are young Earth creationists. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that it didn’t matter. I couldn’t figure out why Bloggingheads would bother with him, when the world of credible and interesting science is so wide.

I was assured that this would never happen again, so I decided to continue recording talks for Bloggingheads. And then it did happen again.

Last week the linguist John McWhorter spoke to Michael Behe. Behe, like Paul Nelson, is part of the Discovery Institute, your ultimate destination for Intelligent Design–a k a the progeny of creationism. So now Bloggingheads had two people from the Discovery Institute on in the space of a few weeks. Behe has written a couple books on intelligent design, in which he makes various claims about what evolution can’t do. He tells us it can’t produce complex biology; it can’t even account for drug resistance in the past few decades in malaria parasites. So the great Intelligent Designer who shall not speak his/her/its name must be responsible.

Behe has published his arguments in non-academic books–the sort I write. He does not have a trail of peer-reviewed papers to back it up. The closest he’s got is a single paper on a computer model he published  five years ago, which doesn’t even mention intelligent design. What’s more, it was promptly and effectively rebutted by the evolutionary biologist Michael Lynch for making all sorts of unwarranted assumptions about biology. The paper has been virtually uncited since. In other words, Behe has not opened up a new field in which other scientists have published lots of new research.

Instead, biologists point out basic errors in Behe’s description of evolution. Reviewing his latest book in Science, University of Wisconsin evolutionary biologist Sean Carroll wrote, “Behe relies on invalid assertions about how genes and proteins evolve and how proteins interact, and he completely ignores a huge amount of experimental data that directly contradicts his faulty premises.”

McWhorter, however, decided to have Behe on and tell him what an important book he had written.

I lodged another complaint, and got more various and murky answers. It was produced by someone else on a weekday rather than Saturday, so it didn’t count. McWhorter didn’t think the talk would go the way it did, I was told, and so he had it taken down.

I thought that was bad decision, too. But now the conversation has been put back up. You can read more about all this over at Cosmic Variance, home of Sean Carroll–the Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll, who also did Bloggingheads.

As you can see from Carroll’s post, he was not happy with things either. So he and I talked to Robert Wright and other Bloggingheads people today. I had expected that I’d get a clear sense of what had happened over the past month at Bloggingheads, and what sort of plan would be put in place to avoid it happening again. I imagined some kind of editorial oversight of the sort that exists at the places where I regularly write about science. I didn’t get it.

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.

I’ve written this post mainly just to put my decision in words. It may matter to very few people, and if most readers of the Loom have skipped this post to await some juicy science, I understand entirely. But the arc of this two-year experiment has got me thinking a bit about where the public discussion of science is going these days.

We have some wonderful new tools to tinker with, to build funky new devices. We can build communities in which lots of people can write, talk, read, and listen to discussions of science. And we can even expand those communities through linking and embedding and other kinds of mental infections.

These tools may look pretty and shiny, but they don’t really have any sort of new spirit built into them. We use them as we see fit. The problems that have made me part ways with Bloggingheads (and Carroll too) aren’t very different from the problems that science has long had in op-ed pages in newspapers. There have been some excellent essays about science in op-ed sections, but the fact is that they can also be very unhealthy for even the most basic facts in science.

A far more extreme example of old spirits and new tools is the Huffington Post. It has been celebrated as the future of journalism. But it’s a dumping ground for New Age quackery–the same quackery that Arianna Huffington was pushing long before she started her eponymous site.

I’m still going to play with the new tools that come my way. But I am going to think a lot more about the spirit in which those tools are being used.

Update: Robert Wright has left a comment, where he responds to my post. He claims that both I and Sean misrepresented our phone call with him. We didn’t. Note that in his comment he refers to a policy he laid out a year ago. He doesn’t say what that policy is. I’ll add a more detailed (some might say tedious) response to the end of his.