No Coke, No Pepsi Either?

In which I suggest a way that Pepsigate could have been different.

I think PepsiCo’s research scientists have something to say that I want to listen to. So do the scientists at Coke. And Cargill. The reason I think this is that some of my own research involves diet and nutrition, and I assume that the bench scientists working in the food industry are busy figuring stuff out at the molecular and biochemical level that I would not mind knowing.

Strike that: I know they are figuring stuff out. A few years back I had the honor and pleasure of being asked to give the keynote speech at a conference run by the European Union’s equivalent of the American FDA. The conference was attended by food sciences working for a mixture of government agencies, academic institutions, and private companies. There was some interesting stuff going on that had to do with the fact that some of the scientists were working for Da Man (one group was a nearly exclusive subcontractor of one of the super-major giant multinationals, not Pepsi). But there was nothing that happened that interfered, in the context of that highly specialized and small conference, with the exchange of ideas about important issues facing the specific areas of food science addressed there.

Are the research scientists of private corporations important? Do they do real work, make real contributions, or are they mainly involved in marketing and working up falsified reports to use in the courtroom to mitigate the effects of law suits, and to blunt the effectiveness of government regulation? Well, I don’t know. There’s always the old Bell Labs to point to, AT&T’s research group. The Bell Lab philosophy, at least according to post hoc idealized rhetoric but probably also the real thing, was to give the squints all the labby stuff they needed and let them come up with cool stuff. Some of that stuff would benefit Ma Bell, other discoveries not so much. Only by letting the scientists pursue the questions they stumbled across while pursuing other questions, and following their own interests and using their own talents, would great things happen. And great things did happen. The Unix Operating System happened. Radio telescopes happened. The transistor and the laser, and seven Nobel Prizes, happened.

So that’s good. But then, there’s the tobacco industry. I’m also familiar with a lot of their research because of my interest in plant-animal interaction. It turns out that tobacco is so good (as in addictive and pleasurable) because of chemistry that has to do with anti-herbivore defense. Also, anti-herbivore defense is simply important to any plant-growing industry. So, we know more about the animal-plant interaction of tobacco’s nicotine and coffee and tea’s caffeine than any other system. But, you know most of those tobacco industry scientists (including their fully paid up subcontractors) were mainly working on making cigarettes more addictive while proving more conclusively that they were not, and covering up the dangers of smoking while developing methods of making ciggs that in many cases made them more of a health risk.

But still, imagine Scienceblogs back in 19-whatever and the very young Adam Bly arranges for a Bell Lab Blog, written by Arno A. Penzias and Robert W. Wilson (of cosmic background radiation fame). What would happen? Well, the sociocultural response would be fear and loathing. I promise you that we all hated AT&T back then at least as much as we hate PepsiCo today. AT&T really was trying to take over the world, and was involved in political activities nefarious beyond anything PepsiCo’s Secret Division of E-vile Deeds and Plots could ever imagine. But among scientists, who despite the occasional Communist Plot to avoid world nuclear destruction and such were probably more apolitical than today, the interaction may have been welcome. But the modern world, and the blogosphere in particular, is a place where these different sub-worlds are reasonably well mixed (though there are lumps in the mix that allow, for instance, sciencebloggers to be nearly random as to which commercial sponsors they get mad at and by how much). Science is culture, and culture is often dynamic.

Now, before we go any father, I want to point out something very important about the PepsiCo blog that was to be on Scienceblogs.com. That blog was not about bench science, the molecular biology and biochemistry of food, or the science of nutrition. It was about some other thing having to do with PepsiCo making the world a better place. The blog, though run by scientists, was part of PepsiCo’s current Hands Across Da Blah Blah Blah Initiative, ultimately designed to make us believe that they are interested in “a healthier future for people and our planet” blah blah blah.

What? Me? Cynical?

A truly e-vile plot, making the world a better place. Or, subtextually, making everyone think PepsiCo is making the world a better place for people, while it was really making the world a better place for Pepsi. Well, no, it is quite possible for a major corporation to actually make the world a better place by simply sinking money into the appropriate initiatives. The problem with the PepsiCo initiative is that they are trying to work through the nutrition angle, and they are a “food” company that specializes in junk food. That just can’t happen without an internal conflict of interest, and the only way to solve that conflict of interest is to reshape the “save the world” initiative to serve the corporate demands. They should have done something totally different. Build art museums and inner city parks or something.

Meanwhile, I think that almost everyone who can exploit this current initiative should do so, take the money and do something to lead us towards a healthier future. School teachers, boyscout troops, middle school environmentalist clubs. But be careful and keep your head above the rhetoric. You’d be working with a corporation that for decades has played a major role in causing most of our nutrition problems in many parts of the world. You are now the small change being dropped on the ground while the guilt-money is being paid out. But you can exploit that if you keep your perspective.

And, there may well be a place for this initiative to emerge on a place like scienceblogs. Here’s how: Scienceblogs could start a new blog with three or four existing sciencebloggers at the helm, individuals interested in food, nutrition, healthy eating, locivory, etc. We have an excellent cadre of such individuals. PepsiCo could be invited to also provide two or three bloggers to join in. Although PepsiCo’s bloggers may well be sending in blog posts that are vetted or overseen in some way, that would just be part of a stream of discussions on relevant issues. The corporation would be acting, in a way, as the person it legally is, but that ‘person’ would be on square and even footing with actual people not beholden to a corporate board of directors or stockholders. This would be spectacular and would probably have palpable, interesting results. After all, when a group of bloggers get together they tend to go after each other’s throats instead of the throats of their obvious common enemies. Here, we get Sharon Astyk and Professor PepsiCo in the same room talking about the same topic for two months. A fight would ensue, and if it didn’t get too sophistic or immature (which it probably wouldn’t with Sharon at the helm), that would be cool.

PepisCo would benefit from sticking their pinkie into such a crucible for a while. And Scienceblogs would have a shot at a new kind of engagement.

But that kind of exchange would not really lead to the increased involvement of industry scientists in the broader discussion. In the context of the blogosphere, where everyone can see you, that sort of exchange may not be allowable by a large corporation. As we speak, a comment that I made on PepsiCo’s own version of the blog-that-could-not-be is, I suspect, sitting in the email inbox of designated members of the marketing and outreach units who oversee that blog. My comment is a question: What kind of internal oversight do you have, who besides the named author of the blog is involved in vetting or checking what is written by said author? Others asked similar questions on that blog post (but I was the only one being polite about it). On Monday morning, I assume these questions will be reviewed by this corporate committee and an answer composed, checked again, and published. The main question for them will be, “do we tell them the truth, lie, or is there a way to say this painlessly that is not really a lie.” Right?

That is not very bloggy. In fact, it is anti-bloggy.

But that does not mean that there is not a way for industry-ensconced researchers to be involved in the public conversation about science. My personal feeling is that a place like Scienceblogs.com (or maybe an entirely unrelated entity, but there might be some ethically clean cash flow in this, so in my view Sb should look into it) could create a separate web entity that has highly limited and controlled linkage with the science blogosphere, but that acts essentially as a bloggy trade journal. The articles written in trade journals tend to be corporate-managed and often self serving, but also of use to others. They are to aftermarket books what short stories are to novels. Have you ever purchased a book on how to use a particular piece of software … something published by QUE or some similar publisher? Well, there is a certain chance that the book you purchased was written by employees of the company that produces the software, the very same individuals who wrote the official manual and help system. This is simply a way in which that company can get more information on how to use their products out there, capture some of the potentially lucrative after-market book business, and possibly have an extgra positive voice or two about their product. Slimy? Maybe, depending on how it is done. Useful? Yes. You know it is useful because you own some of those books.

But while you may feel burned to learn that your 38 dollar aftermarket book is a knock-off of the free help system, and you may feel extra burned that nowhere on the book does it say this, trade journals are different. People who read trade journals know they are reading trade journals. They know that when John Deere puts out an article on how to adapt it’s older model tractors to pulling the latest harrow, they want you to buy the latest harrow and keep using John Deere products. But, they also tell you how to do this important thing you need to do, and if you keep up your subscription to Today’s Farmer, you’ll also get to read the letters to the editor two months later by people who tried the harrow thing and have additional helpful suggestions on that topic.

It is quite possible that you, dear reader, are unfamiliar with trade journals. If that is the case, please don’t judge my suggestion until you check them out. Trade journals are widespread but have such specialized markets that you may never encounter one depending on what you do for a living.

If you do know about trade journals, you’ll also know that there have been controversies. There is nothing wrong with trade journals, and in fact, they are good things that help make the world go round and all. But there have been instances of trade journals pretending to be something else, or perhaps innocently “blurring lines.” For instance, the trade journal BioTechniques is said to print peer-reviewed articles that are actually authored by employees of major advertisers. That journal, BioTechniques, has been referenced in blog posts and comments on blog posts on Scienceblogs.com approximately nine times according to a google search. In one case, a major publishing company produced a trade journal perfectly disguised as a medical journal. Well, not really perfectly. Sciencebloggers noticed.

But for the most part, trade journals are obvious for what they are, are no more evil than a clearly marked paid ad in a magazine, the directions that came with your alarm clock that you regret throwing out in the recycling, or classified ads specific to a certain business or industry. Scienceblogs.com (or some other place) could host a bloggy on line trade journal for industry scientists, paid for by those scientists, with a regular but modest overflow of profits for the larger corporation (because it is, after all, a corporation) which we bloggers can than lobby for access to, to turn into bits of swag or, say, high school student essay contest awards, or other good stuff.

Scienceblogs.com is a private corporation. So is the company that made the computer you are using. So is the company that made the browser you are using, and even if you are running that browser on Linux, an OpenSource operating system, your OS is probably also produced by a private corporation. Even non-profit corporations have bottom line requirements (“non-profit” does not mean “free” or “loss” as many people seem to assume). We are already existing in a world where there are bottom-line related motives and requirements. We Sblings and our readers have managed so far. The PepsiCo blog maneno was, in my view, the accidental intrusion of trade content into a world of OpenAccess content. I am very pleased that the community’s immune response was effective, but we are all suffering the post-infection exhaustion. When that passes and we rebuild our energy again, let’s look into the trade publication idea.

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 11, 2010

    And, there may well be a place for this initiative to emerge on a place like scienceblogs. Here’s how: Scienceblogs could start a new blog with three or four existing sciencebloggers at the helm, individuals interested in food, nutrition, healthy eating, locivory, etc. We have an excellent cadre of such individuals. PepsiCo could be invited to also provide two or three bloggers to join in. Although PepsiCo’s bloggers may well be sending in blog posts that are vetted or overseen in some way, that would just be part of a stream of discussions on relevant issues. The corporation would be acting, in a way, as the person it legally is, but that ‘person’ would be on square and even footing with actual people not beholden to a corporate board of directors or stockholders. This would be spectacular and would probably have palpable, interesting results.

    This is an excellent fucking idea, holmes.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    July 11, 2010

    Thanks, CPP. It was actually my hope for the GE blog, but as it turns out, despite their otherwise wonderful qualities, randomly chosen research scientists are not automatically bloggers, and don’t have a feel for it. But it can be done with the right company and a pitcher of Marquita.

  3. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 11, 2010

    And BTW, one of the things I really don’t get is why it is so difficult for people like ERV to wrap their minds around the fact that–as you allude to–there is a substantial principled difference between a blog that is sponsored by a corporation and to which corporate employees may contribute as a subset of the authorship and a blog that is owned and operated by a corporation. To me, this was the fundamental issue with the Pepsi blog, and not that drinking sugar water is bad for you.

  4. #4 Abe Silberstein
    July 11, 2010

    I still want to know what the fuss is all about. ScienceBlogs is owned by a private company, SEED and has every right to air views the way they see fit, even if it for no other reason than profit. Obviously they should have said that the blog is a paid advertisement, but why delete the blog?

  5. #5 Elf Eye
    July 11, 2010

    Greg, looks like your comment is out of moderation.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    July 11, 2010

    Elf: It was never in moderation (sorry if I wasn’t clear) It went right up. What I’m thinking is in moderation is the answer!

  7. #7 Stephen
    July 11, 2010

    The proposal you make sounds like it could actually work. As a grad student, I would love to see some more discussion of what industry scientists are involved in. I’m not so sure about one of your final statements though.

    The PepsiCo blog maneno was, in my view, the accidental intrusion of trade content into a world of OpenAccess content.

    There was nothing accidental about this. Companies will always act to benefit their shareholders. For PepsiCo, this means getting credible positive advertising of their products whist avoiding any engagement on contentious issues. This sort of behaviour is completely rational, so we should be continually vigilant as the intent will always be there.

  8. #8 efren
    July 11, 2010

    there is a substantial principled difference between a blog that is sponsored by a corporation and to which corporate employees may contribute as a subset of the authorship and a blog that is owned and operated by a corporation.

    Did you even look at the biographies of the four individuals who were going to contribute to FF? They had PhDs and some had even worked as scientists in the oh-so-virtuous public sector. Did you even have the decency to look at their publications and the quality of their science before you started besmirching their integrity? Oh, but they must not have any integrity because they work for a corporation, huh?

    And, frankly,the Science Bloggers didn’t have an immune response, they were exercising the heckler’s veto. Better to shout them down before they actually say anything. Protect the poor innocent audience from even being exposed to what they might say. Yup, us poor dumb bastards in the readership need you to protect them from the EBUL CORPORATIONs because we are just too stupid to figger things out for ourselves.

    You know, if the Science Bloggers were so worried about their reputations, they might stop and consider what it looks like for them to be running around like hypercaffienated Chicken Littles. But, that is okay for you CPP since you blog pseudonymously and can fully engage your OCD by running around to every blog post about this incident sanctimoniously talking about “fucking corporations.” Get over yourself.

  9. #9 Jeremy
    July 11, 2010

    Good idea Greg.

    The reaction did seem a little over the top to me. I would hope that the readers of scienceblogs have enough critical thinking skills to on the whole, be able to look at a blog by Pepsi workers, as long as clearly stated, in a critical manner. I know that when I read other blogs and people say things I disagree with or think are wrong, I have no amount of intrinsic faith in them, and I imagine had the blog remained, people would have held them to account.

    As a science student, I’m also very aware of the possibility that when I graduate I’ll be working for some kind of “evil” corporation, possibly even a company similar to Pepsi, so I would have enjoyed reading their blog.

    I do understand and sympathise with the arguments against the blog, but I just don’t feel like it was as serious issue as people treated it. I can only speak for myself, but had the blog remained, it certainly wouldn’t have made me question the credibility of your blog Greg, or any other blogs that I read, and I wonder how many people actually would have regarded your posts as less trustworthy because of the existence of that blog.

    I’m obviously a pragmatist and care about what actual impacts it would have had, more so than the principle of the matter.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    July 11, 2010

    Stephen: There was nothing accidental about this. Companies will always act to benefit their shareholders. For PepsiCo, this means getting credible positive advertising of their products whist avoiding any engagement on contentious issues. This sort of behaviour is completely rational, so we should be continually vigilant as the intent will always be there.

    What I mean specifically is on the part of scienceblogs. I truly believe that the Sb management thought they were fairly using the blog format to set up a place for industry bloggers to go, and that they were not doing something much different than Collective Imagination. That was a major goof, of course, but I think they blindsided themselves. My opinion is reasonably well supported by the facts at hand, but has nothing to do with Pepsi’s motivation. For that, yes, what you said is certainly close to the truth.

  11. #11 Stephen
    July 12, 2010

    Greg:
    My opinion is reasonably well supported by the facts at hand

    Fair enough, although I would be interested to hear what you feel the relevant facts are. From my perspective (not having any inside knowledge of Sb management), there was no reason to believe that this blog would be a beneficial contributor.

    Considering that the pepsi hosted version was light on science and heavy on PR (including the posts from those illustrious PhDs, efren) and that it was edited and moderated by a PR rep rather than a scientist, Seed must have known that this was advertising rather than an attempt to include corporate scientists in the scientific conversation. At best, I would say that their decision to host the blog showed that they are indifferent about the quality of the content they deliver (so long as they get paid for it). At worst, they deliberately tried to pass off advertising content as legitimate scientific discussion.

    There were two parties to this fiasco and I think that calling Seed’s involvement an accidental mistake diminishes their true responsibility.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    July 12, 2010

    Fair enough, although I would be interested to hear what you feel the relevant facts are.

    It is my opinion based on having worked with the Sb staff on a couple of projects, and from what Adam Bly has indicated. In other words, it is what I have come to understand as the case from my conversations, and what I believe to be true based on my trust for my colleagues.

    Seed must have known that this was advertising rather than an attempt to include corporate scientists in the scientific conversation.

    Hind sight is pretty sharp! The point was not to replicate an existing blog. But yes, the signs were there. But no, the new blog was not going to be hosted by a PR rep. Which deflates your next point:

    At best, I would say that their decision to host the blog showed that they are indifferent about the quality of the content they deliver (so long as they get paid for it). At worst, they deliberately tried to pass off advertising content as legitimate scientific discussion.

    That does not reflect the actual situation on the ground, no.

    There were two parties to this fiasco and I think that calling Seed’s involvement an accidental mistake diminishes their true responsibility.

    My intention is not to diminish anyone’s “true responsibility.” But that is my analysis of the situation.

    The other day someone I know spilled a deadly chemical all over herself in a lab accident. It was an accident. There were no nefarious intentions. But, in retrospect, with hindsight, it is now clear that a certain procedure that had been done dozens of times had this risk. The procedure has been modified.

    The analogy is no where near perfect, but I use it to demonstrate that there is a difference between intentionality and other forms of fucking up.

    Science blogs and Adam Bly totally screwed the pooch with a big giant fat dildo.

    I believe that, and so does Adam Bly, from the looks of it. And I hope that satisfies your need for blame.

    But you don’t get to decide how something went wrong by what appears to be a requirement you are expressing for a certain kind of inentionality to match with a certain level of how badly something fucked up. That is a fairly common kind of reasoning but is not really rational.

    This is like the bullets in Oswald’s gun. Three guys on the FOURTH floor of the book depository heard four shells hit the floor and four rifle reports. Oswald’s rifle was found with zero bullets in it. But it holds five. Where was the fifth bullet? According to the best reconstruction, he had been target practicing and used most of his ammo just before hearing that he had a chance to shoot the president. No way or time to get more ammo. That simple fact alone utterly kills all the conspiracy theories. There is no version of cubans, russians, or mobsters involving Oswald as a patsy or an assassin in which he brings four bullets to work that morning to use with his rifle.

    At science blogs, if you’ve been paying attention an ad for acupuncture or Russian brides or a copper bracelet causes the bloggers to go apoplectic. In exactly which universe is Adam Bly or the Sb staff going to say to themselves “Oh, let’s sneak this blog which will be nothing but a big fat ad by the Sblings. They won’t mind.”

    For me, I know that this blog was not thought of as a big fat ad when it was concieved and pushed out. It was a different kind of experiment. Indeed, since it never existed, we can never be sure if it would have been a big fat ad. Our other corporate blogs were not, and this was an evolution not from a standard science blog but from those other corporate blogs. I.e., the evolutionary “gap” is not so big as many people imply. I know that is what this blog was, but for those looking in who can’t or won’t try to understand (or trust/believe) what has happened, consider the problem of the missing fifth bullet.

    And that is probably going to be my last “defense” of that position. I’m not really interested in the usual sophistic bullshit. I’m telling you what I’m pretty darn sure to be true, and you can take it or leave it. The blog was a bad idea, but it was not a nefarious attempt to sneak an ad past the Sb bloggers and readers. That is an absurd idea.

  13. #13 Stephen
    July 12, 2010

    I’ll take your word for it. My trust is somewhat less for people speaking on behalf of companies.
    I hope they’ve learnt something from the fuck up. A proposal like yours would be a good place to start.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    July 12, 2010

    I think they’ve learned. But, of course, the comparison of white as driven snow to all covered with shit is still a false dichotomy, I muse, as I glance to the right side bar and see an ad for Ben’s Ripped Combo Workout from Hollywood!!!!! Gotta get me some of that.

    Oh yes, it uses Nitic Oxide. Nitic. I don’t think that’s a thing, is it? I gotta admit, though, Ben looks a lot more ripped in his “after” picture than his “before” picture. http://xrl.in/5ttk

  15. #15 Stephen
    July 12, 2010

    But, of course, the comparison of white as driven snow to all covered with shit is still a false dichotomy
    Perhaps I should clarify then.
    If the evolutionary gap between the other corporate blogs and the pepsi blog was smaller than you think, then the gap between the pepsi hosted version and the Sb version is even smaller (it was even called “an extension of”). Given the content of the previous version, I was disappointed that the Sb version was going to be overseen by the same people. Had they done it in the way you suggest I would not have had a problem.
    I haven’t seen anything yet about what Seed thought Pepsi would bring to the table (although I’m eagerly following Adam’s blog for the details). From the outside, it looks more like they were looking for some money and were prepared to not look too closely at how they were getting it. I don’t think it was deliberate, but it does cause me to worry about what else might start appearing here. I’m glad that you think they have learnt from this, but hope you’ll forgive me if I’m a little more skeptical and will wait to see what happens now.

    The ads on the side are just that, ads. They are not dressed up as being part of the scientific conversation that is the purpose of Sb. That conversation could and should have room for industry scientists, but I think that the pepsi idea was so flawed that it should never have gotten off the ground. (BTW I think that Nitic Oxide is what helps you to do pess ups)

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    July 12, 2010

    Had they done it in the way you suggest I would not have had a problem.

    Me to! Dammn them!

    I haven’t seen anything yet about what Seed thought Pepsi would bring to the table (although I’m eagerly following Adam’s blog for the details).

    I doubt this is going to get covered in the detail you are looking for on Adam’s blog or elsewhere. At present the Pepsi Maneno remains as a source of fascination and as a touchstone for the usual consternation to many on the internet, but Sb central is much more interested in moving on.

    it looks more like they were looking for some money and were prepared to not look too closely at how they were getting it. I don’t think it was deliberate, but it does cause me to worry about what else might start appearing here.

    Well, one could take the approach that since they made a mistake that they are deeply tainted to the bone in all other things, and to expect them to srcrew up again any second. Or, one could take the attitude that this fiasco realtes to one event, a thing that happened once over a four year history and that they clearly wish they had not done, and thus it would be surprising if it happened again. In this case (and I very rarely say this) the truth is somewhere in between, and as a relatively optimistic person I’d lean towards the latter.

  17. #17 kajskshdf
    June 5, 2012

    randomly came across this rambling piece and 6 paragraphs in…what is the point here?