Observations of a Nerd

I, like many of my fellow SciBlings, am less than ecstatic that PepsiCo now has a blog here at ScienceBlogs. It needs to have the Pepsi logo on it. It needs to be 100% clear that the content may be shameless advertising for a major corporation. Right now.

But what ever happened to innocent until proven guilty? I’m not talking about Pepsi or its products, which have been shown time and again to be general detriments to health. I’m talking about this new blog. People are accusing them of all kinds of things including compromising the content here – but they haven’t written a single post.

Yes, it’s possible that Food Frontiers will be filled with barely masked advertising for Pepsi. But it’s also possible that it will actually be used how it says it will be – as an open line of communication between the R&D of Pepsi and scientists and the general public, as a window into a different side of science that is most often behind closed doors. Maybe, just maybe, they will actually talk about the science that is done behind the scenes by major companies like this. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll actually have something interesting to say.

I’m not saying I’m for this blog. I’m just not against it – at least not yet. I want to know what I’m supporting or deriding before I make my decision on it.

What bothers me far more than the presence of this sponsored blog is the mindset of commenters and non-Sciblings who have now decided to boycott ScienceBlogs for this. Boycott the homepage so that you don’t see anything from this new entity – go right ahead. Boycott this new blog – totally with you on that one, especially if they end up being thinly veiled advertising. But why stop reading the blogs that you know are good? Why hurt those who actually do a good job?

Just ask any animal behavior specialist. Negative reinforcement is a shitty way of changing behavior. If you just jump ship, you lose your voice in the matter all together. A better way to dictate content is to say “Hey, ScienceBlogs – this is what we like. This is what we will read. This is what you need more of.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Greg Laden on this one.

Some commenters have said they will never read another scienceblogs.com blog ever again because our credibility has totally collapsed because this blog exists. That’s like when a student told me that nothing I had said in lecture all semester could be believed because (according to his misguided understanding of something) I had gotten this one thing wrong. Those commenters will either calm down and keep reading the blogs they like, or perhaps stick to their guns and go away, thus making Sb a bit less stupid of a place, or so one might hope.

Boycotting is lazy and a copout. And even worse, it hurts those who haven’t done anything wrong, like the many fantastic bloggers here at ScienceBlogs.


  1. #1 Leslie
    July 6, 2010

    Not too long ago you were boycotting Discovery for using Sarah Palin … I wouldn’t watch her show either, but…

    Just something to think about…

    But I do wonder what got this new blog on here. I thought prior posting was a requirement and it was merit that got a blog here? Am I wrong?

    If not, somebody should show thinks to posts that qualified the blog… right?

  2. #2 gammidgy
    July 6, 2010

    I really am very sorry Christie. You have been very badly served by your hosts here.

    I’m afraid I can’t agree with your arguments. I think Orac nails the issue. While science is under daily attack from the forces of willful ignorance, we need science writers who are free from any smear of suspicion. It is not enough to have integrity as a science writer; one must also be seen to have no conflict of interest. ScienceBlogs have played straight into the hands of the anti-science conspiracy theorists.

    Whether PepsiCo actually posts good material on the blog or not is irrelevant.

    If the Food Frontiers blog gets very few hits then perhaps PepsiCo will decide it is not a good use of their money, but perhaps not. They may stay with it for the cachet that comes from the association with respected writers. Either way, the reputation of ScienceBlogs will have been damaged.

    As a lone reader of these blogs there is little I can do to influence matters. At least by staying away from ScienceBlogs for a while I can decide not to support a business model that is antithetical to quality journalism. Trust me, it’s going to hurt me more than it hurts you.

  3. #3 Mike
    July 7, 2010

    As a food/agricultural scientist in academia I have worked with food scientists in businesses. The reaction from so many of the people has been knee-jerk anti-business. What is wrong with a wait and see approach. What is wrong with reading about the science of making beverages that taste good.

    If the blog turns out to be pure advertising, then fine, kick them out. But to attampt to kick them out before even reading them is juvenile and shows a desire to remain ignorant.

  4. #4 Hank Campbell
    July 7, 2010

    Some of the early bloggers overreacted a bit and mobilized people to boycott so it’s no surprised it has spread. Scienceblogs is also a corporation but it carries a lot more public relations blogs than Pepsi and the writers on Scienceblogs get paid to write just like the Pepsi researchers do. So it feels vaguely creepy that Pepsi Sneetches are unethical but academia Sneetches are not. If you get a check from a corporation and are in science, you have the same stigma – but I think most, like you, do not regard anyone as dishonest because they work at a corporation.

  5. #5 Jennifer Ouellette
    July 7, 2010

    @Mike: there is nothing anti-business about this stance. I’m all for business. I recognize the importance of advertising to SEED’s business model, and indeed, most media’s business models. Many of the concerned Sciblings who’ve written about this issue have said the same, with great care and articulation. You do them a great disservice by blithely making this accusation.

    Sci, I respect your level-headed approach to this, and think a hiatus to ponder is a good idea. But ponder this: the issue is not “Let’s wait and see what their content is first before we make a judgment.” The content is irrelevant. The principle here is the blurring of boundaries between advertising and independent content, and the damage has already been done. A company bought their way into Science Blogs, which is very different from scientists who happen to work for PepsiCo starting a blog about food/nutrition. People who don’t understand this either don’t understand, or don’t respect, 100+ years of journalistic practice.

    I’m an advocate for blogs being an excellent and badly needed supplement to the mainstream media (which also struggles with this issue, but mostly keeps the lines reasonably distinct), particularly when it comes to science coverage. There’s still a lot of hostility and undeserved derision aimed at bloggers out there. But bloggers will lose all the hard-earned credibility and respect they’ve managed to build up so far if things like this go unquestioned/unchecked…

  6. #6 Scicurious
    July 7, 2010

    Jenn: I think you meant Christie. 🙂 Sci’s over here!

    My problem right now is that I have spent a lot of time building up a reputation on the web and at Scienceblogs, and I worry that this sort of selling out, regardless of what content comes out of it, is a compromising of our reputation. This, on top of some other issues that have been ongoing, may be the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.

  7. #7 DeLene
    July 7, 2010

    Jennifer O hit the nail on the head. The issue is not the content that will be posted; the issue is indeed SEED magazine allowing a major corporation to buy their way into a space that previously was reserved for independent writers and scientists who do a good job of providing science writing, science journalism, and editorial commentary independent from paid advertisers or businesses. If SEED is going to head in this direction, they need to put a clear boundary between the two types of content; for example, setting up a “ScienceBlogs-Business” cyber sandbox for PepsiCo and other corporations to post their content within. (And don’t think for a SINGLE moment that the PR and communications folks at PepsiCo are planning on letting these corporate scientist/bloggers have a long leash…)

  8. #8 Christie Wilcox
    July 7, 2010

    Let me clarify my position just a little:

    I do agree that this blog needs to be clearly labeled as different from the others, including a huge Pepsi label, marking as advertising, etc. But as far as I can tell, it’s not new territory for SEED. This isn’t the first sponsored blog, and the only major differences between it and others are in potential contributors and content, which we can’t judge until we see.

  9. #9 Jacob
    July 7, 2010

    Christie, I would like to hear you respond to the first comment. I seem to recall a whole boycott campaign against Discovery because of the TLC Palin show. I’m sure a Discovery boycott would hurt many fabulous science/nature filmmakers who did nothing wrong. How is this different?

    For lowly readers like myself, my personal page hits to ScienceBlogs IS my voice. It is my vote. As many people have said – it’s not about the content of the pepsi blog. That’s irrelevant. To take it back to Discovery, I refuse to support a company that gives voice to Sarah Palin under the guise of a “nature” show. The similarity is obvious.

    I’ve only read your blog a few times, but I’ve loved it all. That being said, this post makes it sound like the main reason you’re upset about a boycott is that it means you get fewer hits. You’re last sentence says it all.

  10. It’s not that it’s a corporate blog, it’s not even that it’s buying space to promote their content, it’s that Pepsi is buying your credibility. Food Frontiers is on Science Blogs because Science Blogs has a reputation as a source for excellent science content. That reputation came from you and your sciblings, who’ve been building it for four years. While you had to work to build that reputation, Food Frontiers gets to buy it from you and cash in on the fact that most people will assume they’re part of the network for the same reasons everyone else is. Whatever Pepsi paid to be on here, that’s the value of your intellectual reputation.

  11. #11 Christie Wilcox
    July 7, 2010

    To clarify my position on Discovery: it isn’t a boycott. Just feel like they aren’t what I’m looking for them to be, so I have no interest in what they offer anymore. If they ‘changed back’, I’d gladly watch them again. I still think most of Animal Planet is good, and still will watch that channel despite it’s affiliations.

    The difference here is that the presence of a sponsored blog doesn’t change the quality or nature of all of the good blogs here. I don’t see it as a loss of credibility any more than I see my association with PZ through the network as a stance against religion.

    My issue with a boycott is that it’s not the right approach to solve the problem. The only function of a boycott, generally speaking, is to shut something down. In this case, boycotting the whole site essentially means you want the whole thing shut down, but the message (I presume) that you want to send is “get rid of this tiny part.” It’s not about pageviews (I don’t really make anything here anyways). I just don’t think a boycott is the right approach.

    Think about it in terms if consumer power. It’s not what you don’t buy that matters: it’s what you do buy.

    Furthermore, I do think it’s a bit hypocritical that everyone is up in arms about Pepsi when nothing was said about GE. Let’s be real here: a year ago, GE could have been BP and no one would have cared. GE has plenty of faults, but somehow, no one cared. What makes Pepsi so different?

  12. #12 Mary
    July 7, 2010

    It’s funny, there was none of this drama over the GE blog (which I don’t think I ever read much, but is here). And GE is a major player in the health industry–with testing and diagnostics and other life science products stuff as well. I’ll bet you they had a major stake in the way the health care legislation played out, and how NIH grants get funded. But nobody trounced them for their presence here.

    This conflama is unfortunate. I do think the rollout was mishandled by Seed. But I totally agree on the fact that they haven’t actually done anything yet, and there are a lot of other gray items over here besides that.

  13. #13 Jolanta Benal
    July 13, 2010

    “Just ask any animal behavior specialist. Negative reinforcement is a shitty way of changing behavior.”

    Actually, negative reinforcement (removing an unpleasant stimulus, in response to a desirable behavior performed by your learner) is a highly effective way of changing behavior, though to be humane it should be done with a very light touch. I think you’re thinking of “positive punishment,” which is killing off behavior you don’t like by applying aversive stimuli. Example, dog pulls on leash, you jerk hard on his/her strangle (“training”) collar. Whereas in negative reinforcement the aversive stimulus should be as mild as possible, in positive punishment substantial harshness is generally required.

    Modern animal trainers agree that positive punishment is almost always unnecessary and counterproductive.

    Nothing to do with Pepsi, but I wanted to clarify the learning theory.

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