Butterflies and Wheels is one of the most intellectually stimulating websites around. Anyone interested in critical thinking should look at it. Ophelia Benson (who co-founded it with Jeremy Stangroom),is its driving force, and a regular commentator on Virtual Philosopher. I asked her about the website and what motivates her to keep it alive and thriving.
Nigel: Why did you set Butteflies and Wheels up? What is its main focus?
Ophelia: It was actually Jeremy Stangroom who had the initial idea for Butterflies and Wheels, as a website to criticize pseudoscience. He invited me to collaborate on it, and I accepted with enthusiasm because I had a fairly longstanding interest in pseudoscience and various other forms of voluntary woolly thinking. The idea was that I would do most of the content but Jeremy would participate, but in the event he was busy with other things and I simply took it over. It developed a sort of momentum of its own, I suppose - if it hadn't done so well, I perhaps would have spent less time on it, and it would have been a somewhat less active site, but in fact it succeeded (in the sense of readers, contributors, links, Google ranking, etc) way beyond what we'd expected (and much faster, too), so I did my best to keep up with it.
Its main focus is the way thinking goes wrong when it becomes wishful thinking, especially certain kinds of fashionable academic wishful thinking.
Nigel: Where does the title come from?
Ophelia: The title comes originally from Pope's Epistle to Arbuthnot, which I have a link to on B&W: 'What? that thing of silk, Sporus, that mere white curd of ass's milk? Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel? Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?' But the reason it's B&W's title is (as Jeremy wrote on B&W's 'About' page) as follows: 'The web site takes its name from a comment made by the philosopher Mary Midgley in a footnote to an article she wrote called "Gene Juggling"...[T]he whole article is riddled with elementary errors and misunderstanding. Why? Well, that's a complicated story, but at least part of the reason has to do with the fact that Midgley's motivation in writing the article was to challenge a moral outlook - psychological egoism - that she found repellent. That's why Butterflies and Wheels is a suitable name for this web site. It's a reminder that it is never a good idea to allow one's political, ideological and moral commitments to infect the judgements that one makes about truth-claims which have nothing to do with such considerations.'
Nigel: Who do you think reads what you put there?
Ophelia: Well to some extent I know who reads it, because of emails and the Letters page and comments on 'Notes and Comment': academics, journalists, people interested in science and reason, people irritated or amused by certain kinds of silliness. Quite a few feminists and human rights workers in places like Iran, India, and Pakistan, which pleases me enormously. People who don't like being shoved into 'communities' without their consent, people who don't think multiculturalism should trump women's rights.
Nigel: Does it pay?
Ophelia: Sadly, no; not a dime.
Nigel: How do you keep up the momentum of providing new content?
Ophelia: By being a nerd. It's what I do - I get whiny and difficult if I'm dragged away from it.
Nigel: How has blogging changed your life?
B&W isn't actually a blog; it's a website, or something called an 'internet resource,' rather than a blog. It has one section that is a blog of sorts, but it also has articles and a good many other things. Running B&W has changed my life in a lot of ways - turning me into a nerd, for a start; I used to be normal, I used to go sailing and mountain-climbing and have a regular job with a paycheck. No I didn't, that's a lie, I've always been a nerd, but B&W's made me a nerd with a lot of correspondents all over the planet, and a couple of co-authored books, both of which are (to my lasting suprise) currently in bookshops.
Nigel: What is your favourite weblog?
Nigel: Thank you very much.