Why I'm Staying On Bloggingheads.tv

by Eliezer Yudkowsky1 min read7th Sep 2009101 comments


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Recently, Sean Carroll, Carl Zimmer, and Phil Plait have all decided to stop appearing on BloggingHeads.TV (BHTV), and PZ Myers announced he would not appear on it in the future, after a disastrous decision to have creationist Michael Behe interviewed by the linguist and non-biologist John McWhorter, who failed to call Behe on his standard BS.

I'm hereby publicly announcing that I intend to stay on BloggingHeads.TV.

Why?  Two main reasons:

1)  Robert Wright publicly said that this was foolish, apologized for the poor editorial oversight that led to it, and says they're going to try never to do this again.  This looks sincere to me, and given that it's sincere, people really ought to be allowed more chance than this to recover from their mistakes.

2)  Bloggingheads.TV has given me a forum to debate accomodationist atheists who are insufficiently condemning of religion - for example my diavlog with Adam Frank, author of "The Constant Fire".  Adam Frank argues that, while of course we now know that God doesn't exist, nonetheless scientific wonder at the universe and its mysteries has a lot in common with the roots of religion.  And I said this was wishful thinking, historically ignorant of how religions really arose and propagated themselves, and a continuation of such theistic bad habits as thinking that things of which we are temporarily ignorant are "sacred mysteries".  And no one at BHTV complained that I was being too confrontational, or too anti-religious, or that it was unfair to have the diavlog be between two atheists.

If BHTV is willing to let me come on and (politely) kick hell out of atheists who aren't atheistic enough to suit me, then I don't believe that their unfortunate failure to have Behe interviewed by someone who could call his BS, represents any deep hidden agenda in favor of religion and against science.

Rather, I think it represents a commitment to having interesting discussions by people who intelligently disagree with each other and have something courteous to say about it - even if that discussion wanders into the fearsome death zones where science does ("does not!") clash with religion - and this commitment managed to go wrong on one or two occasions.

My friends and fellow antitheists, this is an important commitment while most of the world is continuing to pretend that there is no conflict between science and religion.  It's not surprising if that commitment goes wrong now and then.  It is not reasonable to expect that a commitment to repeatedly discuss a scary controversy will never go wrong.  It may well go wrong again despite Robert Wright's best intentions.  But unless it starts to go wrong systematically, I'm going to stay on BHTV, arguing that science and religion are not compatible.

Of course, if most other non-accomodationists jump ship from BHTV as a result of the Behe affair, then it will become a hangout for accomodationists only.  "Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs" is another reason why you should put forth at least a little effort to "Tolerate Tolerance" - to not insist that all your potential trade-partners punish the same people you've labeled defectors, exactly the way you want them punished, before you cooperate.  Yes, Behe is an enemy of science, but Wright is not; and Wright may also dislike Behe, yet not wish to implement exactly the same punishment-policy toward Behe that you advocate; and that needs to be all right, if we're all going to end up cooperating.


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I very much dislike the strategy of opposing points of view by boycotting venues that give those views voice. If such efforts succeed, they silence voices from which we might learn things. It seems a much more robust strategy to oppose points of view by arguing against them. If a view has a 90% chance of being wrong, it has a 10% chance of being right, and we lose by not letting its advocates make the best case they can. The reason to listen to those you disagree with is, you might be wrong.

5Wei_Dai11yPhysics journals don't give every crank a voice, and if one did, I'm sure professional physicists would stop subscribing and contributing to it, and some would loudly complain on their blogs. How is that any different from this situation?
2wedrifid11yIt is similar. But in which direction are you making your implied point?
3Wei_Dai11yI was speaking in support of the boycotters. Status is part of what we reward scientists with, to encourage them to make useful intellectual contributions to society. It's perfectly natural and reasonable if they don't want to see their status diluted by association with cranks/pseudoscientists, and I don't think we'd want that either. Nor do we want to reward cranks/pseudoscientists with status for making negative contributions to society. Of course when you label someone a crank or pseudoscientist, there's always a chance that you make a mistake and end up not learning something that you could have learned, but that's just a trade-off that has to be made, and I see no evidence or argument to suggest that the boycotters have set their bar too low.
2wedrifid11yI tend to agree. There is a trade off involved in accepting status games and power plays instead of reason. But the downsides don't tend to come with the dramatic boycott situations. The mistakes that lose the learning are most likely to be on the positions that are simply unrewarded and marginalized, not those that must be boycotted to prove your loyalty to Science.

I'm astounded that no one (especially in a blog devoted to rationalism) has mentioned the very obvious motivation for appearing on bloggingheads - self-promotion. Sean Carroll has already said almost everything he's qualified to say on bhtv, with the exception of promoting his upcoming book. He stands to benefit more from the attention/reputation he gains from 'taking a stand' than he does from doing nothing. He loses what? One more interview?

As EY pointed out, there is ample evidence that bhtv does not have a hidden 'religious' agenda. To say that only c... (read more)

3zaph11yI'd add that a good boycott has an end in mind. What's the point of a boycott without returning once certain conditions are met? This, in my eyes, lends more credence to the idea that this is about drama and self-promotion. It would have been much less eventful had they merely demanded that, say, Michael Shermer appear in interview dismantling creationism, or better yet, a creationist ('s arguments - of course).

Wow, I haven't seen Phil Plait's post until now. Bloggingheads "called Creationism science"? I can only guess what tortured reasoning gave rise to this claim.

But I think, Eliezer, that you're being too charitable to those who are jumping ship. Sean and Carl aren't doing so because they're anti-accomodationist, they just can't stand the thought of being within 300 internet meters of Creationists if they don't think they can leverage the situation against them. Whether this particularized form of distaste is justifiable is an interesting issue and ... (read more)

5SforSingularity11ythis is not their stated position
0Peter_Twieg11yOf course it isn't.
2Torben11yWell, do you have any evidence or convincing arguments to that effect, then?
2anonym11yPerhaps the "called Creationism science" bit is because the young earth creationist was part of the "Science Saturday" series of diavlogs. I agree that it is misleading and very poorly phrased. How about the standard of the extent to which you engage with critics using commonly accepted norms of intellectual discourse, the extent to which you update your position when unable to counter critics' counter-arguments and refutations, and the extent to which your public behavior (including the preceding 2 points and otherwise) suggests you are an intellectually honest person.
3Peter_Twieg11yIt sounds like those are reasons to avoid engaging Creationists, not BhTV in general. If this is going to expand into a point about lowering BhTV's intellectual standards like you mentioned above... then I find it odd to argue that one podcast could have such a powerful marginal effect on the enjoyment one derives from the site, unless you're using some weird criteria where your overall evaluation of BhTV is based on the least intellectual podcast it hosts at any given time. And I would be surprised if the worst podcast on BhTV by the criteria you described were Behe's - rom a lot of comments on Sean and Carl's posts, plenty of people would love to see Megan McArdle boycotted as well. I'd imagine that most people's list of "least rational" targets to successively knock off would end up looking awfully partisan (get Megan, and then Jonah Goldburg, and then that annoying Will Wilkinson!), which fuels my skepticism here. I'd submit that if a diavlog with a "ghost hunter" was uploaded, people would find it annoying but the reaction would be otherwise subdued.
2anonym11yYou asked for non-arbitrary standards for believing creationism to be the most boycott-worthy of the views represented on BhTV. I gave you a plausible answer. I don't know enough about all the BhTV participants to argue that it is actually the case, but you seemed to have difficulty in even coming up with any such potential explanation, which is why I made the suggestion. You were implying that believing creationism is the most boycott-worthy was prima facie an arbitrary, totally subjective choice. And for the record, I think Eliezer made the right decision based on what is known so far. I think that BhTV does deserve a second chance. At the same time, I am very disappointed in the intentional vagueness of the editorial policy that was posted, for the reasons I've talked about above. People find creationism more disturbing than ghost hunters because (among other reasons) creationism is making inroads in the educational system in USA, which could have very serious effects. I'm not sure why I even have to mention this. Do you really not see that creationism is different than ghost hunters in some pretty fundamental ways and that the repercussions of each being taken seriously and widely debated are very different?
2Peter_Twieg11yI'm quite sure that there are political participants who would fare worse than Behe on any of the dimensions you'd offer. I guess one could lack the expertise to evaluate more than a subset of participants, however, in which case one could apply the principle consistently.. You have to mention this precisely because it's disingenuous to hide behind the purely non-political justifications of the boycott - you end up trying to draw up a non-political dividing line which just so happens to exclude the viewpoints you have political objections to. This is precisely why I expressed skepticism that there's a non-arbitrary principle for the unique objection to Behe, because if the political considerations are a necessary factor in the boycott, there isn't one, unless one wants to get into a broader defense of one's particular political sympathies... which most people will avoid because they realize that "people who I dislike sufficiently shouldn't be given platforms to speak on" is a principle that isn't going to sway one's opponents.
5anonym11yAnd the young-earth creationist? Since you are quite sure about it, which people hold which specific political beliefs that are as utterly refuted by the scientific evidence as the idea that Genesis is pretty much right and that the Earth is on the order of thousands or tens of thousands of years old?
0Eliezer Yudkowsky11yThis is an interesting challenge and I'm wondering if anyone has a good candidate for it.
-2Douglas_Knight11yNo one ACTUALLY cares that the young-earth creationist was on. They only care about Behe. Note that Eliezer didn't mention the first interview. (edit for clarity)
3anonym11yWrong. Sean Carroll [http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2009/08/31/bye-to-bloggingheads/] : Why would emails be flying back and forth if he didn't care about the creationist? Carl Zimmer [http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2009/09/01/bloggingheads-and-the-old-challenges-of-new-tools/] : Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer leaving BhTV is what kicked the whole thing off, in case you haven't followed the affair at all, and they both explicitly stated in the articles quoted above that they were cared very much that the creationist was on but that they were willing to accept it was a one-time mistake that wouldn't happen again. How do you interpret that as "not caring"?
0[anonymous]11yI'm calling them liars.
-1Vladimir_Nesov11ySome conspiracy theory! Epistemic hygiene [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Epistemic_hygiene], please.
0Douglas_Knight11yI don't think a conspiracy is a reasonable reading of my words. I certainly deny a conspiracy.
1anonym11yExcept that it doesn't exclude viewpoints I have political objections to. It excludes people who are willfully ignorant and who refuse to engage with arguments and follow standard rules of intellectual discourse, regardless of what they happen to believe. It applies to atheists just as impartially to creationists, if they happen to engage in the same kinds of intellectual sleaziness. I never suggested that it would only damn creationists, just that it would be especially damning to creationists. And for what it's worth, I've had this personal test for distinguishing between people worthy of debate/discussion and people who are a waste of my time for much, much longer than I've had a distaste for creationism.

Interestingly, at 10:21, Behe accuses scientists including Sean Carroll of committing the Mind Projection Fallacy:

They confuse what's going on in their own heads with what's going on in nature

It is disturbing that he can identify this in others, without seeing his own vulnerability to this bias.

5Psy-Kosh11yWell, that's probably true of most people... easier to find flaws in the arguments of others that one disagrees with than to seek out the errors that they themselves are making.
2Peter_de_Blanc11yThis claim seems to be accepted wisdom, but I'm not sure if I believe it. OT1H, it should be easier to detect your own errors, because you have more data about what produced them. OTOH, different people have different sets of error-detectors, and whatever comes out of your own mouth has (one hopes) already passed some sort of sanity check, so by that point, you might not be able to detect whatever errors may remain. If there were good ways to collect statistics on this, I would bet good money that the fraction of errors which I catch in my own thinking before those thoughts turn into speech is greater than the fraction of errors I notice in the arguments of others who are about as smart as me.
0GuySrinivasan11yAs far as I can remember, I definitely catch far more errors in my own thinking before speaking than I notice in what my peers say.
0Psy-Kosh11yThere's also the whole motivation thing. The whole "often we tend to instead try to 'beat the other guy' rather than actually seek the truth, whatever it may be." But actually, that would be an interesting thing to test, if we could think of a good way to test it
0SforSingularity11yThat's what worries me
[-][anonymous]9y 1

Why aren't you posting any new videos on Bloggingheads.tv any more? From the outside they seemed like low investment at least with regards to the amount of time spent and easily accessible. Some may have even been personally entertaining conversations with interesting people.

I think you should consider making an appearance once your rationality book is out for promotion purposes at least.

This looks sincere to me, and given that it's sincere, people really ought to be allowed more chance than this to recover from their mistakes.

I say that depends entirely on the nature of the mistake. Gross negligence should not be forgiven, although the proper response is not necessarily retributive.

[-][anonymous]11y 0

I'm astounded that no one (especially in a blog devoted to rationalism) has mentioned the very obvious motivation for appearing on bloggingheads - self-promotion. Sean Carroll has already said almost everything he's qualified to say on bhtv, with the exception of promoting his upcoming book. He stands to benefit more from the attention/reputation he gains from 'taking a stand' than he does from doing nothing. He loses what? One more interview?

As EY pointed out, there is ample evidence that bhtv does not have a hidden 'religious' agenda. To say that only c... (read more)

[-][anonymous]11y 0

Behe is like the soft center a loaf of bread.

You should link to your comment on BHV.

One thing that has come out of this is that BHTV has finally posted their editorial policy, but I am quite disappointed that it's so vague. The substantive parts are:

At Bloggingheads.tv, we aim to set up conversations about interesting and important issues on which reasonable people have a diversity of viewpoints. We choose participants based on their past contributions to public discourse. This doesn’t mean we see particular merit in their views; it may just mean that they are articulate spokespeople for views that

... (read more)

I confess that I'm not really a fan of the idea that creationists should never get any space for debate. If prestigious scientists are worried that talking to creationists gives them too much credibility, then find some bright ambitious college student who reads Pharyngula to shoot their little fish in a barrel. But this business of trying not to have debates... doesn't quite seem to me like the right strategy, somehow, when the cold fact of the matter is that creationists already get plenty of airtime with plenty of listeners. That is probably one reason why I'm sympathetic to BHTV here.

I don't think there ought to be a debate about whether many-worlds is correct, but there is. Should I refuse to talk about it henceforth? Fundamentally, people talking to each other on public video just doesn't strike me as such a bad, terrible, awful thing, even if it's about something you shouldn't have to debate. Now setting up Behe with a non-opponent was terrible, but I'm willing to accept that as an honest mistake.

5Kevin11yYou're right, but... Creating the debate is a strategy used by the creationists. Every time you debate a creationist, you perpetuate the idea that there actually exists something to debate. The reason people are so against the debates with creationists is that creationists really like having debates, because it makes it more likely that their perspective will be mentioned any time the topic of evolution comes up even though their beliefs have absolutely nothing to do with evolution.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky11yOkay, so send out a TA in jeans to respond. Seriously, I think that defuses the attempt to manufacture the appearance of serious debate.
4SilasBarta11yI understand what you mean but ... seriously, you overestimate the rationalist skill of the average biologist TA in jeans. Even professors have a hard time making their scientific knowledge truly part of themselves [http://lesswrong.com/lw/la/truly_part_of_you/]. I don't hold out much hope for TAs.
8Eliezer Yudkowsky11yDon't send out an average TA. Send out an ambitious, bright TA from a higher-ranked school (or just with good SAT scores, I understand the results are the same) who's been vetted by P. Z. Myers for ability to debate well, explain well, and respond with scientific accuracy to standard lies. But send out a TA nonetheless, and make sure they're dressed in jeans.
2Furcas11yIn other words, don't give viewers the impression that creationists are to be taken seriously, right? The thing is, because BHTV has previously limited itself to hosting diavlogs between mostly honest, mostly reasonable people about topics that haven't been settled a hundred years ago, and because of the participation of scientists like Sean Carroll, merely taking part in a debate on BHTV gives that impression.
1Christian_Szegedy11yVery true. Last year I have seen an interesting Canadian documentary (Denial Machine, on youtube available, worth skimming through) on how the artificial debate on global warming was generated by the same PR firm that was hired by the Tobacco industry in the 90ies. They even funded the same university professors to generate apparent dissent. Although creationism/ID is a different area, the methods are strikingly similar. A good example is the http://www.dissentfromdarwin.org/ [http://www.dissentfromdarwin.org/] with the only purpose of luring scientists (mostly in unrelated areas) to sign the list with the sole purpose of demonstrating that there is genuine scientific debate going on.
3anonym11yEven if debating creationists and psychics were handled by bright, informed college students, the prestigious scientists would still end up leaving, because those sorts of dialogues affect the general reputation of the site and thus the reputation of those who speak there. Many scientists will (correctly, imo) infer that a site that thinks creationism is an "interesting and important" topic that reasonable people can disagree on is a site that has low intellectual standards. I just watched Wright's diavlog with George Johnson, at the end of which he says that he would have gotten an astrologer on right after Obama made the comment in a debate about astrology and Nancy Reagan, if he could have. Wright clearly has different ideas about what is worthy of discussion than many of his academic guests, which is why they are parting ways. The extremely vague and overly broad editorial policy he put up makes this clear. On your point that BHTV never having creationists on is akin to you never debating advocates of interpretations other than MW, the relevant differences between the two scenarios are that (1) many experts in the relevant science believe those other interpretations (not true of creationism), and most importantly, (2) they present arguments and react to and update on counter-arguments in the manner that we all expect intellectually honest people to do when participating in intellectual discourse (not true of creationists).
0Peter_Twieg11ybecause those sorts of dialogues affect the general reputation of the site and thus the reputation of those who speak there. So is it necessitated for consistency's sake that those who would boycott BhTV over this incident must also boycott all other forums with lower intellectual standards... which would basically include all mainstream organizations? Somehow I don't believe that it's this simple. The question I'm curious about is why a Creationist video on BhTV apparently creates reputational pollution in a way that a Creationist video on Youtube does not. My guess is that this has to do with BhTV being a smaller and more-exclusive community than Youtube, and this confers some benefits to "insiders".
2anonym11yYoutube is a free-for-all with no intellectual standards whatsoever. I understood BhTV to be something different. In terms of consistency, I imagine that most scientists would boycott any forum that presents itself as having intellectual standards and aiming at an audience skewed towards the educated, knowledgeable, informed subset of the population, IF THAT SITE also commonly supports discussion about topics such as creationism, ghost hunters, alien abduction, psychics, astrology, channelers of dead Atlanteans, etc.
7Eliezer Yudkowsky11yI think it's perfectly fair to have on "silly" topics, if the silly advocates are set up against skeptics who are strong debaters who usually proceed to kick silly butt all over the place. Nothing wrong with it. Seriously. It's instructive for the nation's youth.
1anonym11yIt's instructive and worthwhile, and I agree it should happen somewhere. It's just not what I thought BhTV was all about.
0[anonymous]11yI was pretty young at the time, but if I recall correctly, my father, a PhD physicist, went on TV at one point to refute astrology, and borrowed my star globe to do so. It may be argumentum ad fuzzium but I don't think my Dad was wrong to do that.
2Christian_Szegedy11yHmmm... Does it also apply to your discussion with Aubrey de Grey? Objectively (putting asides my own personal (non-expert) views, hopes etc.) It was a diavlog without any clashes but quite far from current scientific consensus.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky11yThey requested an interview rather than a debate. Did my best to just expose the BHTV audience to de Grey's ideas, and query further in one or two places where I disagreed with him (without going too deep).
2anonym11yThe actual scenario under consideration in this case is "people talking to each other on BHTV specifically [1], about topics (such as creationism) that the relevant experts pretty much unanimously agree are nonsense [2], with people who refuse to debate (in person and in the literature) in good faith following the standard norms that govern intellectual discourse [3]."
0komponisto11yERV is willing [http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2009/08/31/bye-to-bloggingheads/#comment-93056] to debate Behe, but BHtv apparently has yet to show any interest.

I just registered here, since I agree with the 'rationality' premise. Rational thought is (hopefully) less wrong than a less rational position, the implication being that little that the human mind formulates is totally correct. Less wrong is a goal, and modification of a stated position is often a requisite of nearing a more correct position.

Anyway, back to the topic of Blogginheads (allowed topics), accomodation, and (related) a critique of Michael Behe. Oh, also the question of whether ID is essentially Creationism.

First, RW sets the standards. It's... (read more)

In what way does ID equate with Creationism? First define both, then state the correlation.

ID arose as a way to circumvent the Supreme Court decision Edwards v. Aguillard which banned the mentioning of deities in teaching of secular issues.

The creationist text book Of Pandas and People which was being written at the time of the trial subsequently underwent CTRL-H editing to exchange "creator" for "designer," leading to the hilarious chimera "cdesign proponentsists."

The people endorsing creationism and ID are more or less the same. By far, most types of argument put forth by IDists have previously been used by creationists. "Irreducible complexity" is merely a restating of Paley's Watch or, indeed, Darwin's own rhetorical reservations regarding the complexity of the eye.

Further, the vast majority of IDists have explicit religious motivation (pdf) for their viewpoints, and the ID community uses the same tactics of quotemining, making lists of non-biologist skeptics, and appeals to authority.

Finally, the leading ID "think"-tank, the Discovery Institute, has stated its ultimate goal in an internal workpaper, The Wedge:

  1. "To d
... (read more)
-1LeeBowman11yAgain, what I'm asking for in simple terms is to define the basic beliefs of both camps, and where their beliefs correlate with each other. What are the conceptual differences between the two? I.E., what does a Creationist believe (seminal concepts)? What does a design theorist believe (seminal concepts)?
1Jach11yI thought Torben explained well that there is no noticeable difference between the two camps, that they're essentially the same camp.
-1LeeBowman11yThat he did, as have Barbara Forrest and many others, but those conclusions consist of 'blanket statements', and are subject to scrutiny. Many times when a statement of that ilk is made, there follows a link to one of the Creationist trials (Dover most often), the 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution, a critique of Forrest's book, 'Creationism's Trojan Horse', or links similar to those provided by Torben. These are just a few of the plethora of evolution supporting references, but the question we're addressing here is simply the "more or less" issue regarding the two camps. Blanket statements abound in the media, an example being "The US has the best health care system in the world", courtesy of Sean Hannity, and almost on a daily basis. Even given the fact that the US is advanced technologically in many ways, would you buy that statement carte blanch? First you define a philosophical or evidence based position. Then you debate the validity of its tenets. At that point you can more objectively discuss/ debate the merit of the conflation issue. A complicating factor here is the possibility that there are actually more than 'two camps', or that adherents (of either) may have altered their 'consensus' positions compared to say a decade ago. After defining the two groups' seminal tenets, we can THEN discuss Dover, Demski, the Wedge et al. Any takers?
2Torben11yAll right then. According to the Discovery Institute [http://www.discovery.org/csc/topQuestions.php], ID states and to the question "Is intelligent design theory incompatible with evolution?," they state According to Answers in Genesis [http://www.answersingenesis.org/get-answers#/topic/creationism], creationism states that * evolutionary theory cannot account for life on Earth * God created the earth (exact method & age optional) * death was the result of the Fall * the biblical Flood occurred and was global * God caused languages to diverge at the Tower of Babel incident ...plus some Christian tenets The latter three are demonstrably wrong and the latter two are not directly related to biology They go on to say and Creationism and ID agree that an intelligence created the universe and life, and that evolution cannot explain all of biology. Typically, the same arguments against evolution are used. What's left is the explicit deference to the Christian bible, and here we can either take DI's word for it, or we can see what they say to their peers when they think we're not listening. That's what the book Of Pandas and People, the pdf and the Wedge document illustrate. I mean, seriously, that book which was supposed to be a creationist textbook became an ID textbook. Authored by creationists (including YEC) who are also IDists. Further, do you really think Phillip Johnson or Bill Dembski would acknowledge anything that does not accord with what the Bible teaches? I don't. So what's left to distinguish them?