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.”