The Primate Diaries

Good-bye ScienceBlogs, and Thank You

i-584b887aba8ec18c635f1246853d4950-Goodbye.jpgThree 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.”

Comments

  1. #1 Tracey S.
    July 12, 2010

    Eric,

    Sad to see you go, but its the right choice. Hope Primate Diaries finds a good home soon though!

  2. #2 Quinn O
    July 12, 2010

    Communicating science to the public is important, but not as important as communicating ethics. You’ve done an excellent job of both. Good luck.

  3. #3 Ed Yong
    July 12, 2010

    Best wishes for the future Eric. You have a great blog and I know this cannot have been an easy decision. Whether the original purpose was to join this network or not, what remains is that you built up a quality product that people want to read and, I suspect, will continue to wherever you end up.

  4. #4 JG
    July 12, 2010

    Well, how spiffy. Your loyal readers are penalized for the actions of Seed and Pepsico. Just great.

  5. #5 PJ
    July 12, 2010

    I applaud you for staying true to your convictions. The world needs more people like you.

  6. #6 efren
    July 12, 2010

    I disagree with your decision and reasoning, but I do appreciate that you took a considerably more nuanced and thoughtful approach than others.

    FWIW, a LLC doesn’t, by design, pass liability onto the public sector. Liability still resides with the corporate entity, but the LLC structure generally protects the partners in the LLC from individual liability. Even that is not a given as a quick google of “piercing the corporate veil” will attest.

    Further, Pepsico is not, to my knowledge, an LLC. It is a public corporation which affords stronger protection to individuals from personal liability for actions taken as an employee of the corporation. Again, not always. This additional layer of protection isn’t cost free, though. Corporations are subject to higher taxation, in exchange. Indeed there is double taxation in the form of taxes on the profits of the corporate entity along with additional taxation on the dividends and capital gains of the owners individually.

  7. #7 deb h
    July 12, 2010

    you will be missed..thank you for your time, effort and sharing of your knowledge

  8. #8 John S. Wilkins
    July 12, 2010

    Eric, I have followed your blog closely since you first came to my attention. I really hope you continue to blog.

  9. #9 David Dobbs
    July 12, 2010

    Eric,

    As you know, I’m with you on this. Any blogger needs to have a venue he or she feels comfortable with. And this combination of leave-taking and pressure from within (from the bloggers who remain) is what’s needed to press SMC for change and what’s particularly needed at this time, a clear declaration of principles and policies about divisions between ad end ed. Kudos to all who are pressing for this, from within and without, and good luck to you, Eric, in this and all. Ping me up anytime.

    David Dobbs
    http://neuronculture.com

  10. #10 Bob O'H
    July 12, 2010

    I know leaving Sb is a difficult decision, but I guess it doesn’t surprise me you’ve taken this route.

    Do you still have your NN blog? That might be a good place to crash until you find something better. Of course, you’ll have the fun of learning the ways NN’s MT4 doesn’t work. :-)

  11. #11 Earon Davis
    July 12, 2010

    Eric, I love your combination of science, humanity and ethics and look forward to staying in touch somehow. I completely agree that it is essential for our culture to curb the incessant corporatization and neo-ethics that have eroded citizenship in favor of consumerism.

    Best wishes,

    Earon and the other Divine Primates :)

  12. #12 Anonymous
    July 12, 2010

    You are a primate of conviction and class. Your reasoning is sound, your integrity bullet proof. Be well.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    July 12, 2010

    Damn. A great loss to Sb. Best of luck as you disperse in search of a new troop!

  14. #14 Physicalist
    July 12, 2010

    Very sorry to see you go. I enjoyed the blog.

  15. #15 Deborah Blum
    July 12, 2010

    hi, eric – best of luck and i hope to be reading you again soon. your wonderfully smart blog has been an inspiration to me. say when on your your new home.

  16. #16 John Browne
    July 12, 2010

    Thanks… for the explication of your motives behind this decision, and for reiterating the Why & (potential) How the corporate bodies must operate in order to achieve their principal goals… and why that’s a continuing threat to the endeavors of ethical journalists (& any correspondents). At its heart the conflict you outline is like the one between the Letter & the Spirit of the Law (where corporations neither recognize nor regard the Spirit). ^..^

  17. #17 arvind
    July 12, 2010

    Balanced and thoughtful as usual. I am glad to have found your blog, and don’t particularly care whether you blog at scienceblogs or elsewhere. Enjoy your hiatus.

  18. #18 arvind
    July 12, 2010

    I mean, I do want you to eventually blog somewhere. What I don’t care about is whether the venue is scienceblogs or not. Just thought I’d clear up the ambiguity in my earlier comment.

  19. #19 John McKay
    July 12, 2010

    I’ll definitely miss your insights while you’re gone and (selfishly) hope your hiatus will be a short one. I’m sure others have made the offer, but, for what it’s worth, you’ll always be welcome to guest-post on either of my blogs if you feel the need.

  20. #20 Art
    July 12, 2010

    I liked the blog but if your so dainty that the mere existence of a blog, for all of one post, offends your sensibilities you are much too delicate a flower to hold your own in this garden of ideas.

    The whole Pepsico thing has helped sort the wheat from the chaff. Some bloggers kept on doing their thing. Some objected and engaged the conflict through rhetoric or withholding production. Others cut and ran like frightened children unable to process the sudden realization that Sb wasn’t immune to conflicts inherent in the surrounding reality.

  21. #21 PalMD
    July 12, 2010

    @Art

    Um, no. That’s not it at all. If you truly believe that, you have failed at basic reading comprehension and emapathy 101.

  22. #22 kittywhumpus
    July 12, 2010

    Sorry to see you go, and I hope your hiatus from writing is not extended too long. Thank you for the reasoned explanation. I always enjoyed this blog, and I am looking forward to your return, wherever that may be.

  23. Eric – nice farewell. Give this 10cc song a listen. I think you will like the chorus – “We’re all inmates in a Human Zoo…” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Buh2JzQbpI8

  24. #24 cgauthier
    July 12, 2010

    I love all the comments here, and to other bloggers around these parts that took offense; that it is somehow craven and puerile to disdain association with a giant, planet raping, health destroying greed machine like Pepsico.

    Excusing overgrown corporations because they employ good scientists and engineers is like excusing the Roman Catholic Church because they employed great artists. The subject matter of Michaelangelo’s work suffered because he had to paint and sculpt according to the need of the church to maintain social control. Surely there’s some kind of analog in a modern scientist’s work being relegated to only that research, and only those results, that increase a corporation’s profit margin.

    Yeah, yeah, no, you guys are probably right; I’m sure PepsiCo would have loved to read what their scientists really think about PepsiCo’s nutritional and sociological impacts. Assuming flesh and blood scientists were to be the actual bloggers anyway…

  25. #25 cgauthier
    July 12, 2010

    Go here http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/07/episode_lxxix_american_splendo.php#comments and have a look at the way corporate money makes an otherwise intelligent, humorous human being behave in the face of truth.

  26. #26 Cath the Canberra Cook
    July 13, 2010

    So wait, Pepsi has been defeated and yet you’re still going? I missed seeing why that was.

  27. #27 Cath the Canberra Cook
    July 13, 2010

    Umm, sorry, that’s “I missed *understanding* why that was.” Not seeing that you had said something, just not getting your point exactly.

  28. #28 MosesZD
    July 13, 2010

    I’m bummed.

  29. #29 Corey J.
    July 13, 2010

    I loved reading your posts. The Primate Diaries is an education I’ll miss very much. I hope it finds a new home.

  30. #30 Who's Yer Daddy?
    July 14, 2010

    My favorite Scienceblog, Scicurious (http://scicurious.wordpress.com) recently left Scienceblogs (Neurotopia) to go out on her own. In addition to the ethical issues, lack of support of mobile devices, very slow page load times, viruses in ads, and poor technical support might make anyone choose to leave Scienceblogs.

  31. #31 Sphere
    July 15, 2010

    Wow, sci blogs is losing a great talent here, but wait, your part of the collective, Hugh can’t leave…well it was a shot.

    Seriously tho it appears that this is where the individual draws the line, corps and insta’s can not act as individuals even if the screwed up 14th amendment says they can, so I guess the lesson from all of this is however hard they my try, they will not be successful. The blogger for a corp would have to take on the persona of the whole corp and this is not possible, of course in the back of my mind I tend to think that it was and is a attempt to dummy this forum down like they did for TV, this is not TV. They failed…They will try again…They will fail again. Their feet will be held to the fire. The corp mind set is no match for the individuals spirit. I hope you continue to blog somewhere in the ol’ blogosphere.

  32. #32 Pierce R. Butler
    July 18, 2010

    A regrettable but admirable decision.

    We can only hope that Adam Bly and Co. have actually learned a lesson – and not just one about appearances – from the backlash by bloggers of integrity.

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