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Good-bye ScienceBlogs, and Thank You

July 12, 2010

Three years ago I didn’t even know what science blogging was. Frustrated as a freelance writer, I typed “science blog” into my search engine and was thrilled when this network showed up first on the list. Here was a community of researchers and writers whose love of learning and the sharing of knowledge was communicated on a daily (and sometimes hourly) basis. After spending much of the day reading through posts by GrrlScientist, PZ, Bora, Carl, Chris and Sheril as well as John and Afarensis I was hooked. I made a decision right then and there that I would write for ScienceBlogs. I opened a Blogger account that very day and got to work. It took two years of sometimes-thankless effort, but when I got the call I felt like I had finally arrived where I wanted to be.
So it is with a great deal of sadness that I now announce I’ll be leaving. This wasn’t an easy decision but I fear it’s the only one I could have made. Seed Media Group’s decision to sell space on this network for a Pepsi infomercial was a slap in the face to everything I had believed in and worked so hard to attain. I wanted to be here because there was no better place to communicate science. The reputation that ScienceBlogs had built meant that you could trust the veracity and the integrity of those who appeared on the network. It was this reputation that Pepsi wanted to buy and which Seed was only too happy to sell them.
There is some debate as to whether what Seed proposed was really all that bad. After all, aren’t these Pepsi scientists merely offering their perspective? Many scientists choose to work for multinational corporations and, as Seed founder and CEO Adam Bly explained, “industry is increasingly the interface between science and society.” In an internal e-mail explaining his decision Bly wrote:

[W]e believe that a meaningful discussion about science and society in the 21st century requires that all players be at the table (with affiliations made clear), from all parts of the world, from every sector of society. And ScienceBlogs is where this is starting to happen.

He calls this maintaining “diversity” of opinion.
But let’s be extremely clear, corporations have one and only one goal in mind: generating profit for their investors. The individuals who work for such institutions may be moral beings who care about issues such as health, the environment, or human rights, but the structure of the institution itself has been honed over more than one hundred years so that moral concerns do not affect the bottom line.
This is not simply my opinion; this is a fact identified by free-market champions, such as the late University of Chicago economist and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman. Long before he became the darling of Reagan conservatives, Friedman wrote in the New York Times Magazine that:

In a free-enterprise, private-property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society.

The for-profit corporation has been designed to maximize these desires. Any negative consequences that come from making “as much money as possible,” what leaders of industry such as Friedman refer to as externalities–things like polluted water, the systemic risk of a banking failure, or public health and safety–are to be limited by passing them off on the public sector. This is what “LLC” refers to when added to the end of a corporation’s name: the “limited-liability company.” The corporation seeks to maximize their gains and minimize their losses by placing the incurred costs of their activities on the general public. A corporation is bound to follow “the basic rules of the society” (i.e. the law) but anything that does not make money for its owners must be shunned. As Friedman insisted in his book Capitalism and Freedom, any form of “social responsibility” should be viewed as a “fundamentally subversive doctrine” to a serious-minded investor or corporate executive.
Do Pepsi’s scientists care about public health and nutrition? Absolutely. I have no doubt that some of them have sleepless nights worrying about what the modern obesity pandemic means for the well being of our society. But the fact of the matter remains that PepsiCo’s investors only care about nutrition in so far as it generates a profit, otherwise they would invest somewhere else. When this profit is generated through products such as Doritos, Lay’s Potato Chips, and Mountain Dew (as they are for PepsiCo) this means that profits and the health of their customers can be at odds. Pepsi has begun purchasing healthier options such as Dole, Quaker, and Tazo teas, but these products represent merely 18% of their $60 billion in annual revenue. As more and more communities look to restrict the amount of junk food our children are exposed to (particularly in public schools) PepsiCo’s investors recognize a looming stock crisis.
The Pepsi scientists, therefore, serve a useful public relations function. They’re not necessarily shills for the company, but the Board of Directors has decided that it’s in Pepsi’s interest to promote nutrition as a way to deflect any criticism of their products. Pepsi needs to appear concerned about our children’s health (whether or not anything is actually done to affect positive change) in order to frame the discussion so that any future policies serve to benefit the company. This is why they wanted to buy into ScienceBlogs’ hard-earned reputation and why, by doing so, Seed was participating in an act of corporate propaganda.
That Seed was willing to sell the reputation of its writers in such a transparent manner was an outrage to many on this network. It was their principled stance to refuse to participate that resulted in the cancellation of the contract (at who’s bequest is unknown, though it would seem Pepsi had more to lose from the negative publicity than Seed). But now that the plan has been rejected many writers have resumed their work here and are looking to put the whole affair behind them. I’m not willing to do that. I’m not casting any aspersions on other people’s decision and I’m hopeful that ScienceBlogs will continue to be an independent forum for a long time to come. But I believe there are important issues at stake and I view this as a teaching moment.
We are in the process of creating a new form of media. The Internet is, in many ways, the “wild west” as far as how journalists and writers communicate with their audience. The rules are still being crafted and the decisions we make right now are important for what shape our media will take a hundred years from now. Commercial advertising has long been a bitter pill that media organizations are forced to swallow in order to remain afloat, but advertisers must not be allowed to determine the content. This is a crucial line that is vital to journalistic, as well as scientific, integrity and forms the basis of an open society. By blurring this distinction Seed has shown that they are compromised on an issue that I believe is essential and, for that, I am no longer willing to participate.
However, I believe that ScienceBlogs will continue to be an important source of news and information whether or not it continues to exist in its current form. ScienceBlogs is not Seed, something that was all too apparent in the reactions to the Pepsi contract. I will continue to read the work of my fellow Sciblings (both here and elsewhere) and I greatly value the friendships I’ve made during my tenure. I want to thank Bora for being an early advocate for my inclusion on this network, as well as PZ for being wonderfully irascible and generous (his link to me on my fourth ever blog post three years ago sent more readers my way than I received in the following six months). Ed, Brian, Mo, and Christie have, through their example, demonstrated that the best writing today can be found online and I have benefitted greatly by reading them. I also appreciate the vigorous debate from writers such as Orac, PalMD, and DrugMonkey. Science only advances when ideas and assumptions are ruthlessly interrogated and my own work was only improved through these discussions. Erin, Evan, and Arikia, thanks for all your help attempting to herd a bunch of surly cats on a rocking boat. It’s often a thankless job since you get blamed for what goes wrong but rarely congratulated for what goes right. Greg, thanks for being a friend. But I especially want to thank the readers. Your comments, suggestions, and insights have helped me enormously and I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without you. Through you, social media is transforming the relationship between author and audience. The future of journalism is ultimately in your hands by the way you hold writers and media outlets accountable. It’s a heavy responsibility.
I will be taking a break from blogging for the time being. I’ll return to freelancing and the occasional guest blog but will keep interested readers updated through my Twitter and Facebook accounts. Hopefully my access to this site will remain open and I can update readers should another home for The Primate Diaries emerge. Thank you again and, as the well-known humanist and novelist Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying (in his decidedly tongue-in-cheek way) “God bless you.”


Pepsi Has Been Defeated

July 8, 2010

In what was probably the worst idea since Crystal Pepsi, the corporate sponsored advertiblog has met an early and decisive end. The announcement was made this morning:

We have removed Food Frontiers from SB.
We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.

My hat’s off to all the writer’s at ScienceBlogs who put their principles ahead of their page hits. I guarantee you, however, that this type of ethical quandary will return. Since we are the pioneers of this new media landscape it makes small victories like this all the more important.


July 7, 2010

I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the time being because I said I would. Follow me on twitter or facebook to keep tabs on what I’m up to.

For more on this see here, here, and related issues here. But I’m sure everything is different now.

Huffington Post Is Afraid of Criticism From Their Own Writers

July 7, 2010

At ScienceBlogs we value our independence. Just consider the recent posts over the laughable PepsiCo nutrition blog to see how seriously people take this. But one thing that would never happen is for anything we write to be edited without our consent.
As I wrote yesterday, I am disappointed in the Huffington Post’s decision to grant a public stage to David Klinghoffer, Senior Fellow at the intelligent design “think tank” known as the Discovery Institute. DI is a self-avowed propaganda vehicle seeking to “wedge” religion into public schools. Once HuffPo handed him the megaphone Klinghoffer proceeded to assert blatant falsehoods about how Charles Darwin was responsible for inspiring Nazi eugenic policies towards a goal of racial purity, claims that have been refuted again and again.
But worse than being factually incorrect is how morally repugnant this is. Abusing the memory of the Holocaust to win cheap political points against science is disgraceful. It’s also a bizarrely hypocritical stance for the Huffington Post. Last year HuffPo’s editors deleted a video from journalist and author Max Blumenthal because they thought it was disrespectful towards Israel. And yet, they now allow the leader of a political organization to exploit the murder and sterilization of millions in their cynical campaign against Darwin. Where is the logic (not to mention the journalistic integrity) in these decisions?
The vast majority of my response yesterday was devoted to critiquing Klinghoffer, but I offered a few choice words at the end to the editor(s) who made the decision to offer him a forum in the first place:

David Klinghoffer and his fellow creationists should be ashamed of themselves, and the decision by Huffington Post to give a platform to an organization pushing a tactic rejected by a US federal court judge as “breathtaking inanity” should be strongly criticized. (screen capture)

But you didn’t read that part. It was edited out.

Read more…

Responding to the Discovery Institute at Huffington Post

July 6, 2010

My response to David Klinghoffer’s piece in the Huffington Post has just been published:

Creationists are fond of laying the blame for Nazi eugenics on Charles Darwin. They insist that his materialist argument that humans evolved from animals and his conception of natural selection inspired the Nazis to implement a widespread policy of artificial selection within the Fatherland. However, these claims are as baseless as was the so-called “science” that the Nazis employed.
The latest example of this ignorance disguised as revelation was recently published on The Huffington Post by a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, David Klinghoffer. The Discovery Institute is a self-avowed propaganda vehicle whose stated goal is to “teach the controversy” of intelligent design creationism. This approach was determined to be “a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory” in US federal court despite the Discovery Institute’s strong advocacy. Even the Templeton Foundation, the largest proponent seeking a connection between religion and science, has disavowed intelligent design as little more than “a political movement.”

Read the rest of the post “Intelligent Design Creationists Abuse Science and Victims of the Holocaust.”

Darwin and Hitler, Again?

July 6, 2010

Image: via PZ Myers

PZ Myers has a new post condemning Discovery Institute ideologue David Klinghoffer’s recent post connecting Darwin to the eugenic policies of Hitler. He trots out some of the same points that have been refuted time and again.

Darwin elaborated a picture of how the world works, how creatures war with each other for survival thus selecting out the fittest specimens and advancing the species. In this portrait of animal life, man is no exception. Any animal that strives to preserve the weak, as man does, is committing racial suicide. “Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind,” Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, a policy “highly injurious to the race of man.”
Hitler did nothing more than translate the competition of species into obsessively racial terms.

What Klinghoffer intentionally hides is the very next paragraph in The Descent of Man where Darwin specifically rejects any policy that would “neglect the weak and helpless”:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.

Read more…

Epigenetics and the Importance of a Nurturing Society

July 2, 2010

The latest issue of the journal Science has an essay by Greg Miller looking at the explosion of research into epigenetics and what this work could suggest about human society.

In 2004, Szyf and Meaney published a paper in Nature Neuroscience that helped launch the behavioral epigenetics revolution. It remains one of the most cited papers that journal has ever published. The paper built on more than a decade of research in Meaney’s lab on rodent mothering styles.
Rat moms vary naturally in their nurturing tendencies. Some lick and groom their pups extensively and arch their backs to make it easier for their young to nurse. Others spend far less time doting on their pups in this way.
Meaney had found that the type of mothering a rat receives as a pup calibrates how its brain responds to stress throughout its life. Rats raised by less-nurturing mothers are more sensitive to stress when they grow up.

This research demonstrated that the environment plays an important part in biological development and that offspring can even “inherit” the effects of a mother’s environment.

Read more…