Corporate Science = Evil Science? 13

ScienceBlogs is a science oriented blog network and community. Among the prominent bloggers affiliated with Science Blogs are P.Z. Myers (Pharyngula) a prominent atheist/evolution/skeptic/biology blogger and Orac (Respectful Insolence), a leading medical news and information blogger.

Earlier this month, Seed Media, owners of ScienceBlogs, added a new blog to their  family – a blog so pernicious, so evil, so offensive, so utterly devoid of any redeeming virtue that their readers and outraged bloggers alike pummeled them with protests and complaints. ScienceBlogs caved in a couple of days and withdrew the offensive blog, but the damage was done. Fully a quarter of their bloggers abandoned them and some of their remaining bloggers are “on strike” as of yesterday pending a more satisfactory resolution. The strikers have a number of complaints, but their leading demand is for better communication to ensure that a mistake of this magnitude can never happen again at ScienceBlogs.

You would normally expect scientists to follow the scientific method – or at least gather evidence and analyze and cite it in drawing a conclusion or making an argument. But in this case, the offending blog was so beyond the pale that some ScienceBlog bloggers rejected it out of hand – not feeling the need to quote from the blog in question to provide evidence in support of their assertion that the blog was offensive.

So, what was the eeee-ville blog ScienceBlogs tried to add that was such an affront to the scientific community at ScienceBlogs, you ask? What blog was so inherently and obviously repulsive that some ScienceBlog bloggers would not even stoop to quote from it before insisting it be cast from the fold? Creationists? Holocaust deniers? Flat Earthers? Child pornographers? No, it was apparently worse – much worse. It was a blog about “corporate” science. Food and nutrition researchers working for Pepsi have a blog currently hosted on their corporate website that they wanted to transfer over to ScienceBlogs. Check it out. Strangely enough, you’ll probably find (like me) that the flesh does not actually melt off your face from merely gazing on what Pepsi’s “Food Frontiers” blog offers. In fact, it’s a rather straightforward discussion on topics ranging from sodium in diet to obesity to gossipy items about what they are up to.

Of course, the ultimate indignity was that Pepsi was going to sponsor ScienceBlogs in exchange for being included, unlike the rest of ScienceBlogs’ bloggers who are paid modest stipends based on page views and traffic. So in other words, ScienceBlog bloggers were particularly outraged that ScienceBlog would allow corporate bloggers to pay for the virtual “space” that the bloggers were getting paid to use.  Can you say “Biting the hand that was trying to feed you?” Lest you think I am exaggerating the fury and vitriol this has generated, following are some of the reactions from ScienceBlogs bloggers.

Here’s Grrl Scientist (who has since left ScienceBlogs):

I cannot imagine what sorts of credible nutrition research PepsiCo is doing that they can or will actually talk about publicly, nor can I possibly imagine any “food” corporation actually caring about promoting public health — unless it promotes their bottom line. I don’t care how many PhD scientists they hire, PepsiCo is a corporation, not a research institute, fer crissakes! They do not engage in public navel gazing. As a corporation, their one and only goal is to increase their profit margin, even if that means poisoning their non-American customers or redesigning their “food” so it kills Americans more slowly. [Grrl Scientist who if you follow her last link is condemning Pepsi for designing an innovate salt with more surface area so you get the same saltiness but with 25% less sodium. And this is a bad thing?]

This is a giant mistake. Adding a PepsiCo “nutrition” “blog” damages the credibility of those of us who have invested literally years of our lives into building ScienceBlogs up into something special, something with integrity, something to be proud of. Not only is the addition of this “blog” an insult, but the skanky clandestine manner in which it was executed is a f*****g slap in the face from Adam Bly and the ScienceBlogs overlords, reflecting their overall (lack of) respect for our collective contributions and investments. [Grrl Scientist, edited for language, and while we’re on the subject, yes  I am one of those “delicate corporate types” who don’t think cogent commentary requires one to “swear or curse”]

Blogger  Peter A. Lipson “PalMD” (who has since left ScienceBlogs) says:

So PepsiCo’s PR flacks basically own a the center column content on one of our blogs.  This is not only a fundamental conflict of interest, it’s also deceptive.  If PepsiCo is providing the content, it should, in my opinion, be clearly labelled as advertising.  It could be argued that since it is clearly announced that the content is PepsiCo’s, that transparency is maintained, but it’s not.  Readers of the other 70-odd blogs at Sb expect independent content in the center column.  What’s more, Sb is indexed by Google News.  As a news outlet, we should be held to a high standard.  If the SEED management can’t see what’s wrong with this, this may be an insoluble problem. [PalMD]

Here’s ScienceBlogs most prominent blogger, P.Z. Myers:

So what’s with the corporate drones moving in next door? ….

There won’t be a scrap of honest opinion expressed over there that isn’t filtered and vetted by cautious editors before making it online, and it will all toe the Pepsi line. It’s going to be boring. It’s going to blur the line between blog content and advertising. It’s going to be bloodless dull blogging that will diminish the Scienceblogs brand….

I read blogs written by sentient beings, not committees of shills. [P.Z. Myers]

Based on my read of Pepsi’s “Food Frontiers” blog, Myers’ criticism of it as boring may well be justified. The Pepsi research team’s idea of nutrition blogging probably won’t include posts as exciting as Myers’ desecration of a Eucharist (and a Koran, and a copy of The God Delusion; see It’s a Frackin’ Cracker! and The Great Desecration). In my experience ScienceBlogs generally operates with a respect for free expression and a toleration for divergent views – enabling Myers in particular to post his often controversial and usually caustic attacks on religion, creationism, and the like.  Unfortunately, Myers and some of his ScienceBlogs colleagues are unwilling to extend that same respect and toleration to their corporate colleagues.

To be fair, not all of the objecting bloggers at Science Blogs frothed with violent attacks on the morality, competancy, and ancestry of “corporate scientists.” I liked the very reasonable approach taken by Isis. Her post was also enlightening about comparable potential economic conflicts of interest in conventional science publications.  One of the departing bloggers, freelance science writer Brian Swite, was able to explain his objections in terms of a perceived conflict of interest (without impugning the character of the scientists employed by Pepsi):

The offending blog, which has already been operating for some time on the PepsiCo website, greatly diminishes the credibility of ScienceBlogs by providing a corporation with a platform to advertise to readers without actually calling it advertising. A newspaper or magazine would not allow PepsiCo to write articles about global health or nutrition – there is a very clear conflict of interest there – so I am absolutely dumbfounded as to why the SEED management team thought it acceptable to give the corporation space here. If PepsiCo wants to have their R&D scientists blog on their own site, that’s fine, but in moving Food Frontiers to ScienceBlogs, the company is trying to trade in on the reputation I and other Sb bloggers have built while simultaneously tarnishing that reputation. [Brian Switek]

This legitimate and rationally stated concern deserves a reply. Certainly, everyone has influences and potential biases. Honest researchers do their best to preserve their objectivity and independence. They fully disclose any connections, influences, and remuneration that might impact their objectivity. Doing so not only avoids the appearance of impropriety, but also allows third parties to assess for themselves the researcher’s results in the context of those influences. As far as I can tell, the fact that Pepsi was supporting ScienceBlogs was disclosed. In this case, Pepsi made a great and welcomed (well, by ME at least) decision to engage with the scientific community at ScienceBlogs, to expose their work to a higher level of scrutiny than it would receive with their own un-networked blog. I commend Pepsi for their actions and regret the reception they received.

Would Pepsi be benefiting from the reputation and credibility of ScienceBlogs’ earlier bloggers by being allowed to join them? Yes, but consider the corollary. If the Pepsi blog were to present quality science, the decision to include them in ScienceBlogs would further enhance  the reputation and credibility of ScienceBlogs. On the other hand, if Pepsi scientists were to present shoddy garbage with obvious biases, they’d be ripped to shreds by the ravening school of piranha ScienceBloggers out for blood and eager to bite on even the slightest hint of flaw or bias. How would the resulting fight, taking on the “evil corporate bloggers,” tarnish the reputation of ScienceBlogs? In any event, the spectacle would certainly be far from boring and would probably draw welcomed attention to the blogs hypothetical flaws.

I can’t speak authoritatively about food science – not my area – but the resumes of the Pepsi researchers look impressive to my eye. Many of them have published side-by-side with their non-corporate peers and held senior research or academic positions prior to working for Pepsi.

What bothers me most about this episode is the obvious and utter contempt that some of the ScienceBlog bloggers have for scientists employed in industry.

The most recent Nobel Prize in physics went to three “corporate scientists:” Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith from Bell Labs in the U.S. and Charles K. Kao from Standard Telephones and Cables in the UK for their groundbreaking discoveries in CCD devices and optical fibers. Texas Instruments electrical engineer Jack Kilby got his Nobel for pioneering work in integrated circuits. IBM researchers  Gerd Binnig and  Heinrich Rohrer earned their Nobel for inventing the scanning tunneling microscope (which they shared with Siemens researcher Ernst Ruska for his work on the electron microscope). Stephen Chu, current Secretary of Energy, did his Nobel Prize winning work while a Bell Labs Researcher. IBM Researchers Karl Alexander Müller and Johannes Georg Bednorz were awarded their Nobel for break-through work in superconductivity in ceramics.

Are we to believe these distinguished scientists are “flacks” [Lipson], “shills” and “drones” [Myers],  or would happily kill people to increase their profits [GrrlScientist]? As a corporate scientist myself, I find the level of contempt exhibited by some ScienceBlog bloggers downright contemptible.

The brave and wondrous new world of integrated circuits, computers, the Internet, the World-Wide Web – this science and technology makes the contributions of ScienceBlog bloggers possible. Al Gore didn’t invent it all single-handedly. He had an awful lot of help from corporate scientists and corporate engineers in the service of companies out to make a profit by providing us all with amazing products and services.

Is it too much to ask ScienceBlog bloggers to show a tiny bit of gratitude and respect for the contributions of corporate scientists?

“Something is going rotten here. What could it be?” asks Myers. At least on that point he and I are in full agreement.

More from Consumerist, and The Guardian. Steven Andrew at the Examiner has a good collection of excerpts.

Correction at 6:30am to clarify that my criticisms apply to only some ScienceBlogs bloggers. I was gratified to see how reasonable most others were in the ScienceBlogs community when I started a more comprehensive read through their reactions. I thought I’d cleaned up all my unjustifiably sweeping characterizations before publication, but just now I caught – “Myers and his colleagues” and changed it to “Myers and some of his ScienceBlogs colleagues.” I also found and corrected an open paren if anyone cares.

Correction at 10:00am to remove name from blogger PalMD.

Correction at 1:00pm to correctly attribute PalMD as Peter A. Lipson, M.D. and update tags. Sorry for the mix-up. Thanks to commenter Zed for the corrections.

Also: A new commenter’s posts are held in moderation until I can verify they aren’t spam. I will only be able to check in every few hours during the business day to review and authorize comments.

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13 thoughts on “Corporate Science = Evil Science?

  • Jim Lippard

    I do believe you’ve missed the point. Scienceblogs already had bloggers from industry, but they got there the normal way–by being good bloggers who were recruited to bring their blogging to Scienceblogs. For example, Mark Chu-Carroll, a Google engineer, wrote the “Good Math, Bad Math” blog. The Pepsi blog, by contrast, was created not because Pepsi scientists who were already doing good science blogging were recruited, but because Pepsi paid money to Seed Media to allow them to establish a corporate blog at Scienceblogs. That’s not even how good corporate blogging works–compare to these: The best of the corporate blogs encourage individual employees to express their own opinions and expertise on topics of relevance to what the corporation does–that’s how, for example, the IBM blogs and Global Crossing (my employer) blogs work.

    • Hans Post author

      Legitimate points, and I’m glad there are some corporate science bloggers on ScienceBlogs – however my problem is that the justifications given for objecting to the Pepsi blog tended to be all about the corporate sponsorship and participation. One of the best and most healthy aspects of blogging is the whole – “on the Internet, no one knows if you’re a dog” aspect. What matters is the quality of the writing and caliber of the argument. Criticize a blog for what’s IN the blog, not for who wrote it or sponsored it.

  • DrBubbles

    If you look at the date stamps on Pepsi’s “Food Frontiers Blog,” you will notice that all of the posts prior to the Sb kerfluffle are all just corporate PR. It is only since the Sb blowback that they’ve actually been posting sciencey stuff. One could be forgiven for thinking that the sciencey postings are a response to the Sb criticisms, absent which they would not exist even on “Food Frontiers.” So from that perspective, the Sb criticisms were warranted.

    • Hans Post author

      Now that you mention it – I see the same trend. How much better still might the science and the scientific engagement have been on the Pepsi blog if the Pepsi folks had been allowed to engage with the ScienceBlogs community and been forced to answer the hard-hitting criticisms they would have received there?

  • Greg Laden

    Over 60% of US individuals who count themselves as “scientist or engineer” and have jobs in “science/engineering” fields are employed by private industry. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with those scientists having a voice. Indeed, there my be little functional difference between a staff scientists for Bayer and a soft money research scientists at Major Research University who is 100% funded by Bayer, yet the latter could well have a blog at science blogs.

    And, I’ve advocated with the Sb management to have a way for industry scientists to have a voice.

    However, that blog was not appropriate and needed to not happen. And, when it did happen, it needed to unhappen. (And that, indeed, happened).

    Does the happening/unhappening of that blog properly correspond to the exodus of bloggers? No. Many left because they were going to leave anyway AND were very pissed off, and this was the last straw. Other left because they overracted (possibly, i’m not claiming that for any one individual). Other left because, although Pepsiblog does not properly spread its kooties to any other blogs (no one fro the administration of Sb has yet told me what to blog or not blog, though many of my fellow bloggers have certainly pressured me in that area, ironically) but for some bloggers, their particular profession seemed to them to demand a departure (food/health bloggers, for instance). It’s complicated.

    And those who stayed also had a range of reasons from inertia to a commitment to effecting change by staying, rather than effecting change by leaving.

    No, that blog (Pepsiblawg) was not OK at all. But some way for pepsi and other industry scientists to join in on all this bloggy fun can be found, it just has to be done right.

  • Greg Laden

    Oh, and this point needs to be underscored: This was NOT a blog by research scientists working at Pepsico. This was a blog that would include the corporate-approved writings of people in Pepsi’s R&D division about the new pepsi “we can save the world” initiative, a particualr public relations push by PepsiCo. Had it been bloggy scientsits blogging bloggily, that might be quite different. This is an important fact that has been missed in 99% of the commentary on this issue.

    • Hans Post author

      I understand that there were other tensions in the relationship between ScienceBlogs and its bloggers. Whether corporate sponsored and approved or not, I believe Food Frontiers had the potential to be a great asset to the ScienceBlogs family – not only by providing financial support, but also by enabling Pepsi to more closely engage with the rest of the scientific community on issues important to public health, like obesity. This opportunity to enhance scientific dialogue at ScienceBlogs has now been lost. That’s a shame.

      I do appreciate, however, that folks are engaging with Pepsi over at their corporate website. Perhaps some good can come out of this.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment.