Casaubon's Book

I’d been planning to write this post for several days, and then late last night, got a nasty surprise that changed the focus of it for me. By now many of you will have heard that Pepsi bought a blog on science blogs and is using to to establish credibility by writing a blog focused ummm…on food and nutrition. Note long pause for your comments…feel free not to censor.

Let me be clear – my fellow science bloggers and I were blindsided on this – there was no advance notice, and let’s just say that a lot of us are pretty pissed. All of us suffer credibility hits here, but for me and the people who do medicine, health, and food this is a really big deal. My credibility as a writer is being used to feed audience to a corporate shill blog, basically to advertise for Pepsi’s supposed commitment to nutrition. I also have to face, every single time I go to speak, the comment that “but she blogs for those people who are shilling for Pepsi.” And I know for a fact I’ll be hearing that for ten years after I’ve left science blogs.

GrrlScientist does a great job of articulating my central difficulty (I suspect I’m still being inarticulate because frankly, I’m mad enough to spit – do, by the way, note and admire her subtitle “Sucking Corporate Dick”).

But I and my colleagues were recruited by ScienceBlogs based on our track records of productivity, topic choices, traffic and whatever ephemeral talent that their corporate masters thought we possessed. Not one of us had to buy our way in. And despite the presence of advertising on this site, none of us is paid to write content that supports a particular corporate agenda. But yesterday, we were blindsided with the surprise addition of a new corporate PR “blog” written by PepsiCo’s top R&D folks.

The presence of that “blog” raises a few important questions. How does ScienceBlogs expect to maintain their (OUR) credibility as a science news source (we are picked up by Google news searches afterall) when they are sneaking paid-for propaganda into the ScienceBlogs news stream under the guise of news? That is unethical. I can only speak for myself, but as an unemployed scientist who’d love to continue my interrupted career path before I’m dead, the only thing of value that I have left is my integrity, but this surreptitious decision by the Seed overlords is casting a pall over all of us by selling the site’s integrity to the highest bidder

As Zuska points out – this is not a new issue., and it is one I confronted when I elected to come here. My writing is being sponsored for ads by drug companies and car companies and all sorts of people. I decided (and I think it was right) that as long as I kept my original blog open and was able to return to it at any point, that it was worth trying – that the ads were a reasonable and unpleasant trade off for a different audience and a chance to speak about peak oil to a community that hasn’t already been reached.

This is different to me – I’m doing a speaking engagement soon to a group of community organizers working through Black Churches on how to get better food into poor urban communities. I just can’t go and do that when I’m being associated with the people who ship in the food that is killing them every day. I’m talking about water issues with an NGO and how to bring inexpensive manual pumping to poor rural communities vulnerable to power outages. How do I do that when Pepsi’s history of water piracy in India is now part of my own backstory? Moreover, how do I tell you all to get out of the supermarkets and start buying food locally and making fresh food, when a “nutrition” blog is promoting itself as having the answer when it creates very slightly less disgusting snack foods.

Pepsi is spending its money here buying credibility – association with the name “Science Blogs” and the people who built that credibility over many years – I’m lucky enough to have also taken part in that credibility, built up by my colleagues who have been here longer. And that’s being flushed down the toilet.

I have really liked blogging here, despite the ads. I like the challenges and support from my colleagues, I like reading new ideas. I admire them even when I don’t agree with them – blogging in a community is something new for me, and something I really like. Allies are important. You don’t have to hold together on every single thing to work together – I believe in community, and I like that I have it here. Unfortunately, the Media company is not being a worthwhile ally to have – it seems a terrible shame to lose my colleagues because of the idiocy of Seed Media, but that may happen.

I’m in the process of making my requirements explicit to my corporate overlords – I have no power here compared to Pepsi – I have no idea what they are paying for this, but I have no doubt my comparatively small traffic won’t compete in cost with the money they could give. And maybe Seed Media is trying desperately to stay in business – they don’t tell us that either. But I’m asking that they separate out the Pepsi blog, and put Pepsi in the logo, and isolate the corporate blog(s) in a way that makes it clear they are advertising. Otherwise, my blog will be departing. I recently turned down another site, and I’m not sure where I will go – back to my old blog or somewhere else, but if we can’t resolve this, it just isn’t worth the price. So stay tuned – I don’t expect to be up in the air all that long – I’ve set August 1 as my deadline. In the meantime, I’m still deciding whether I’m going to join my colleague at Island of Doubt and suspend all posting here or not. I’ll let you know, but you can always find me at ye olde blogge www.sharonastyk.com.

I invite and encourage you to let the folks over at “Food Frontiers” (Aka “I’m a Pepsi Whore Blog”) know what you think of its presence. I also encourage you to send email to Seed Media and Science Blogs and let them know your thoughts. I’m told they don’t like profanity in the comments section, which seems a pity, because the right language can be very helpful.

Meanwhile, I have two positive things to announce as well in the territory of allies. First, after many years spent criticizing The Association for the Study of Peak Oil on the grounds that a. they weren’t paying enough attention on what to do after peak oil and b. on the grounds that they were a bunch of affluent old white guys, and lacked a certain perspective, ASPO actually called me up and said “Ok, you are right, do you want to be on the board and help us figure out what we should do after peak oil.”

This was a little annoying for me, actually, because now I had a choice – am I just bitching, or am I serious. Damn, how unfair of these people not to be faceless jerks, but people who take criticism thoughtfully and try and figure out how to remedy it. And damn for making me do the work ;-)!

And after a lot of thought (I say no to almost every board request I get), I said yes. The reason I did is this – both because I respect the geologists and scientists who raised the alarm on peak oil, and want to be involved in making the issue clearer and also because I believe in using what we’ve got. I don’t think we’re going to have the wealth and resources to build a huge amount of new infrastructure. If ASPO doesn’t serve the purposes of raising awareness and help guiding policy, no one will. So I’m going to try. If you are not familiar with ASPO-USA, you should check them out. .

ASPO has plans to do a major media campaign to raise awareness of oil issues and it has the power I think to bring some real change about. The people ASPO works with are the people who first figured out the terms of our crisis, and those geologists and physicists have done a signal service to humanity.

It is interesting for me to think about the problem of alliances here – ASPO has its issues, as does any organization. Among other things, it has a conference that is out of the price range of most ordinary people, and it has a long history of focusing on folks who have money and power and helping them have more money and power. This is not something that I consider to be a high priority for me. But just as I went into the Science Blogs shift with a sense of the trade offs and my goals, I’m going into this with the same. I live in the world, and I’m just doing what I can to make it the best I can – rather than seeking perfection. Helping ASPO become a more diverse organization that connects better with ordinary people and does more to raise public awareness is a worthwhile project to me.

Which brings me to my third new alliance – with old friends, and with much less ambivalence. Ilargi and Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth have been friends and allies since well before the beginning of TAE. And the stunning success of their work has been wonderful to watch. Now they are starting to try and find ways to offer their readers who are worried about economic issues access to how to go forward, and they’ve invited me to join up with them and put that together. While there are ethical challenges working with anyone, this is one I can enter with a whole heart, because I know that whatever problems there may be can be dealt with a loud, furious internet battle between Ilargi and I while Stoneleigh shows calm good sense. This we can handle ;-).

In practical terms, eventually this means my courses will be done on a better platform than yahoo, and I’ve got some people I really admire with lots to teach lined up to do some teaching. I’m also hoping to do some occasional writing for TAE as well – although who knows, I may have a lot more spare time than I thought if I jump ship. All of us have been working as hard as we can, as fast as we can for a really long time, so I’m not totally sure that any of us really know what form my ties with TAE will take – but I do know this – that truly good allies matter.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 dewey
    July 7, 2010

    Feh. I never did think you’d fit in well with ScienceBlogs’ main audience, often mean-spirited devotees of the myth of progress. If you leave, your regulars will all follow you back to your original blog, and you’ll have fewer trolls. Congrats on the other two steps forward!

  2. #2 Pteryxx
    July 7, 2010

    I only found Casaubon’s Book because it turned up on Scienceblogs, and in my view, it’s vitally important to have such a black-sheep perspective given here. Not to mention you can blow away anyone else here in the depth of your cognition and grace of your writing. Some of us browsers in the sciences didn’t realize what’s really important about sustainability, or how even the terrifying aspects can be dealt with, before your lessons.

    I realize I’m not a blogger here, so I have much less at stake, but I’m saddened to see you give up the field so quickly. You were here first, and you earned your invitation by the strength of your writing, not by buying your way in. Anything PepsiCo writes will get ripped apart by one of the most intelligent and savage audiences on the Net. Is the community here worth standing and fighting for?

  3. #3 Lynne
    July 7, 2010

    Sharon,

    As a reader, I think it is a wonderful thing for you and TAE to team up. The benefits for readers of having exposure to both is very powerful for preparing for the future (I speak from experience). Both you and TAE have shaped what we’ve been doing with our household and finances, and I am so grateful. I have been busier lately with a lot of preparations, as I’m feeling a real sense of urgency now, so my reading has fallen off just a touch, but, like dewey, I’ll certainly be trundling along, following your writing wherever you go.

    Good luck!!

  4. #4 Carol
    July 7, 2010

    Sharon, I posted a scathing comment on the Food Frontiers post about their lack of integrity.

    Glad to hear you’re weighing your options for a move to a more suitable site. I’ll follow you wherever you move. Most things you say make 100 times more sense than anything out of the corporate media. Please keep up the good work.

  5. #5 Ethan Siegel
    July 7, 2010

    Sharon,

    You’ve quickly become one of my favorite blogs here on Sb. If you leave, please post a link to your original blog so that me and the other readers you’ve picked up since coming here can follow you back to your original site!

    And thanks for keeping us informed of all the important things you do.

  6. Sharon, I started reading you on your own blog and would happily follow you back there, (indeed, it’s still on my reader) or anywhere else you choose to write. I’d urge you to walk away from SB, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. You don’t need this platform, and your integrity is worth a great deal – in fact, it’s part and parcel – to the message you’re trying to get out there.

    SB should be ashamed of themselves. They deserve every desertion by upstanding writers that follows.

  7. #7 Matt Blum
    July 7, 2010

    Wow, I would’ve figured the highers-up at ScienceBlogs would have the good sense to at LEAST run the idea by their bloggers. You’d think they’d know what their bread-and-butter really is.

    I just saw Evan Lerner’s response come through on Twitter:
    http://scienceblogs.com/seed/2010/07/transparency_regarding_food_fr.php

  8. #8 Joe
    July 7, 2010

    Kudos to your proactive approach to this screw-up by SB, and best of luck with the new ventures! Will continue to read your work wherever it may land.

  9. #9 DennisP
    July 7, 2010

    Sharon –

    I really enjoy your blog. You are one of the most thought-provoking writers out there.

    But I think maybe you are being a bit precipitous, though, given your strong feelings, I can undertand why. But I’ve looked at the comments over at Food Frontiers and ScienceBlogs is getting excoriated. I suspect the Pepsi blog will soon be seen as a big mistake and eliminated, by either ScienceBlogs or by Pepsi (of course I don’t know how many dollars Pepsi paid; that will matter I suppose).

    But why don’t you sit tight on ScienceBlogs for a few days or a week and see how this shakes out?

  10. #10 Miss Cellania
    July 7, 2010

    If you must leave ScienceBlogs, I pledge to do my best to send new readers wherever you go.

  11. #11 Teresa/safira
    July 7, 2010

    For what little it’s worth, I’ll be much happier reading you without all the ads that have nothing to do with science, sustainability or anything remotely sensible.

    See you at the old site.

  12. #12 Jill
    July 7, 2010

    After reading you for the past 3 years or so on your old blog and taking 2 of your classes, following you here (and still check in at your old site) it’s safe to say I’ll continue to support you wherever you go. :) Keep up the good work. It’ll be nice to see you ‘officially’ teamed up with the folks at TAE. (pretty sure I heard about about them through you… goodness – you’re everywhere!) :)

  13. #13 Isis
    July 7, 2010

    Meh. I agree with Dewey. I followed you here from the old blog, and I’ll happily follow you back. And congrats on the new alliances!

  14. #14 delpasored
    July 7, 2010

    Oh Great One, Your loyal underlings and servile minions will follow you anywhere.

  15. #15 Pat Meadows
    July 7, 2010

    In case any of you haven’t seen it, the Guardian has an article about it: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2010/jul/07/scienceblogs-blogging-pepsi

    They also publish a letter from ‘Seed editor Adam Bly, sent today, to ScienceBlogs.com contributors, justifying the reasons for hosting the PepsiCo blog.’

    I read his letter as saying, basically, ‘We need the money, so it’s OK to do this.’

    Cheers,
    Pat

  16. #16 Abel Pharmboy
    July 7, 2010

    Sharon, I share your ire over at my blog but you mentioned a topic that interests me and my wife a great deal: how to get better food into poor urban communities. Perhaps I should contact you via e-mail but do you have a prepared talk/slides on these efforts?

  17. #17 Sharon Astyk
    July 7, 2010

    Hi Abel – I do, actually, a couple, one about strengthening urban-rural connections and one about the general problems of improving food security. One of the joys of all the attention coming to food systems now is that it is getting so much more necessary attention.

    Feel free to email to talk – I’d be pleased. jewishfarmer@gmail.com

    Sharon

  18. #18 Mike Cagle
    July 7, 2010

    Sharon, What do you think of the work of Will Allen and Growing Power?

  19. #19 CC
    July 7, 2010

    I will read you wherever you are, and applaud your integrity in this (and seemingly every) situation you’re in!

    One thing- if you suspend this blog, will you keep your content? If you move, will the posts move with you?

  20. #20 risa b
    July 7, 2010

    Remember when Treehugger was really kinda relevant? And then Discovery Channel bought them and everything went all cutesy and shallow? Welcome to Corporate America. We’ll be waiting for you over at the Keys with open arms.

  21. #21 Sharon Astyk
    July 7, 2010

    Note the word “maybe” here – if I and the other bloggers (who are almost universally up in arms, I think 8 have closed permanently as well) can get Seed Media to fix this -I will continue here, because I like science blogs. I like confronting more criticism, I like the audience, I like the arguments. I like hitting an audience that doesn’t know my stuff. Yes, there’s a price for working with the corporate shills – there’s also a price for purity, and I’m not shooting for moral perfection here, just something I can live with.

    I’m still waiting to see how this will shake out in the end.

    Sharon

  22. #22 janine
    July 7, 2010

    You also mentioned assuming ASPO board membership and that you would be in a definite minority with you opinions. I went on a prestigious board at one time in the same position. It was a frustrating and lonely six years. I met some folks I liked, but never found enough allies to carry the day on any issues of importance to me. In retrospect, I could have definitely accomplished much more elsewhere. Take care. We respect you greatly wherever you choose to blog.

  23. #23 Kerrick
    July 7, 2010

    Okay. I won’t be renting ScienceBlogs my eyeballs anymore, and I’m changing the links on my blog so they don’t point here. Thanks for letting us know.

  24. #24 Green Hill Farm
    July 8, 2010

    Sharon,you are the only blog I read here, so where ever you go I’ll read :). I think its good you are going to work with ASPO. Basically you’re on the same side you just need to help them: “ok we believe the graphs, but you can’t eat a bell curve, now what”

    Beth

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