On September 9, I contributed a posting on the controversy over the Taylor and Francis Groups refusal to publish a special issue of The Journal of Homosexuality. I called their treatments of the scholars involved shameful. I think Robert Wright’s handling of a controversy at Bloggingheads.tv stands in marked contrast to what we saw from Taylor and Francis.
Bloggingheads.tv is a video blog offering eight to nine split-screen dialogs (called diavlogs) each week between journalists, scholars, scientists, and others in the know. The editor in chief, Robert Wright, and his associates do an outstanding job of finding challenging pairings representing wide ranges of opinions and beliefs.
Most of the diavlogs concern politics and political punditry, but not all. Percontations offers weekly diavlogs encompassing philosophy and psychology, and Science Saturdays offers diavlogs on topics ranging from cosmology to linguistics, from chasing lightening to string theory.
Science Saturdays has been very successful in drawing both practicing scientists and accomplished science journalists. The participants clearly see their role as communicating the nature of science and scientific investigations as well as explicating the specifics of recent research.
All this merits mention on our Intellectual Freedom blog because of a recent controversy that arose when Paul Nelson, a young earth creationist, and Michael Behe, an advocate for intelligent design, were invited to participate in diavlogs.
To say the least, neither the viewers of Bloggingheads.tv nor the regular contributors to Science Saturday were pleased. Discussions of evolutionary theory and its place in K-12 science education are frequent on Science Saturdays. Giving a place at the table to proponents of pseudo-science felt like as a slap in the face to many. Two of the contributors to Science Saturday—Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer—have publicly disassociated themselves from Bloggingheads.tv and have vowed never to participate again.
The manner in which Robert Wright handled the controversy stands in marked contrast to how the Taylor and Francis Groups treated Beert Verstraete and his associates. They were, you’ll remember, simply told that the publisher had decided not to proceed. No explanation for the decision was offered. The material was handled as though it had simply come in over the transom and not as an issue that the editors had been encouraged to compile. Verstraete was left feeling that they had deceived him, getting him to withdraw Bruce Rind’s article from an earlier issue while feigning interest in later addressing Rind’s research on “sexual intimacy between adult and adolescent males”.
Robert Wright, in contrast, came forward and offered his explanation in a Science Saturday diavlog called Mistakes were Made. Wright makes quite clear that he takes responsibilities for any mistakes. He is also clear about what he is and is not willing to do to address the controversy. On the page containing his diavlog, he also provides links to Sean Carroll, Carl Zimmer, and other contributors’ statements as well as to the two diavlogs in question. Everyone gets to have their say. Nothing is suppressed.
Wright also articulates his policies on how such controversial topics will be handled in the future without yielding to pressure to ban such representatives of pseudo-science from Bloggingheads.tv. In fact, Wright explains that such people will appear when the context is appropriate. Intelligent design advocates and creationists (of either the young or old earth varieties) had not been invited in the past because they need to be paired with scientists who can discuss the foundations of evolutionary theory in a manner that is both accessible and absolutely solid. Bloggingheads.tv does after all want to have viewers and conveying the details that support evolutionary theory might well result in a diavlog that is more treatise than discussion. A diavlog that will be watched by no one benefits no one.
Wright also explained that both the controversial diavlogs were going to remain available on Bloggingheads.tv. After asking the participants to expend the efforts to record their discussions—discussions that were precisely on the topics they were asked to address—he wasn’t about to throw their work away. The controversy concerning the piece with Michael Behe broke out when Wright was on a meditation retreat and incommunicado. During this period, Behe’s interlocutor asked that the diavlog be taken down. The moment Wright returned he had that the diavlog restored to the web site; a request from one of the participants was not sufficient to have the piece suppressed.
Have a listen to the diavlog or a look at the supporting materials. I particularly recommend the piece by John Horgan.