I’ve been blabbing a lot about free speech lately–in posts here and here, on New Hampshire Public Radio and the online chat show Bloggingheads.tv, in my classes. I’ve defended the right of all citizens to challenge scientists and other “experts,” who are often wrong.

"Teach the controversy," a phrase coined by intelligent-design proponents to promote their agenda of sneaking religion into classrooms, isn't a bad approach to teaching or journalism. Image: Discovery Institute.

I may have confused matters by mentioning “rights” and “free speech.” As some commenters have pointed out, no one is suggesting that creationists, global-warming skeptics and vaccine rejecters be legally prohibited from stating their views.

So let me pose the problem in a different way: When you encounter people with views you think–you know!–are wrong, what do you do? Demand that they shut up? Tell them they’re ignorant and stupid? Ignore them? Pretend they don’t exist? Try to change their minds?

I was forced to ponder this issue years ago as a result of a brouhaha involving Bloggingheads.tv, on which I’ve been chatting about science (usually with science journalist George Johnson) for almost a decade. In 2009, Bloggingheads.tv hosted chats featuring Paul Nelson, a young-earth creationist, and Michael Behe, an intelligent-design proponent.

Two other Bloggingheaders–biology writer Carl Zimmer and physicist Sean Carroll-were upset that Bloggingheads gave a platform to Nelson and Behe. Zimmer and Carroll quit Bloggingheads after journalist Robert Wright, who founded and runs Bloggingheads (and is an old friend), refused to promise to keep creationism and other fringe topics–even astrology!–off the site. What follows is based on a post I wrote at the time of the controversy for a now-defunct blog:

I respect Zimmer and Carroll, who are smart, knowledgeable, eloquent science communicators, but I disagree with their stance that some topics (with one exception, noted below) should be shunned. I believe dialogue and debate are intrinsically good, leading to enlightenment and progress in human affairs and all sorts of other good stuff–in principle if not always in practice.

When it comes to creationism and other religious claptrap, I like to “teach the controversy.” Yes, intelligent-design proponents coined this phrase to describe their strategy for sneaking religion into classrooms. But “teach the controversy” isn’t a bad description of my philosophy of teaching and journalism.

The best way to counter a bad idea is to confront it and point out where it is wrong or misleading. I feel this way not only about religious superstition but also about homeopathy, astrology and parapsychology–not to mention psychoanalysis, psychopharmacology, multiverse theories and string theory.

Lumping things like psychopharmacology and multiverse theories alongside astrology and homeopathy is my passive-aggressive way of making the point that it isn’t always easy to draw the line between solid and flimsy science. Some titans of science have espoused wacky beliefs. Linus Pauling insisted that vitamin C could prevent cancer. Fred Hoyle suspected the flu virus comes from outer space. Freeman Dyson believes in ESP and thinks global warming may be good for us. Sean Carroll thinks multiverse theories deserve serious attention.

Bloggingheads features pundits with hawkish views, which are potentially far more dangerous than creationism, astrology or multiverses. I’m a peacenik, who fantasizes about the end of war. Should I shun hawks? Of course not. If you’re a hawk, I want to talk to you, ask you to explain your views, tell you why you’re wrong. Maybe you’ll persuade me you’re right, although I doubt it. At the very least, we may achieve some mutual understanding, which can’t be bad.

I try to apply this principle in my personal and professional lives. I have smart, knowledgeable friends who believe in ghosts and ESP and a loving, just God and don’t believe in universal health care and human-induced global warming. If I shunned everyone who holds what I consider to be irrational beliefs, I’d have very few friends left.

Call me na?ve and sentimental (many do), but I have faith that human reason will ultimately help us prevail over superstition and intolerance and war and other bad things, as long as we keep exchanging views.

Sometimes, of course, you have to agree to disagree and move on. Also, I allude above to one controversy I don’t think should be taught. Claims that certain races are innately less intelligent than others are so noxious–with so much potential to exacerbate racism-that I disapprove of their dissemination. In fact I’d like to see research on race and intelligence discontinued, because it has less than zero social value.

Further Reading:

Can Faith and Science Coexist?

What Should Teachers Say to Religious Students Who Doubt Evolution?