Attention conservation notice: ~5600 words about a ~10,000 word article and two others totaling ~7500 words, all examining the Templeton Foundation. If you aren’t interested in the ins and outs of the to and fro over the Templeton Foundation’s influence, and the question of whether the longer piece – funded by Templeton critics – actually lands any blows on the Foundation, you might want to skip past this. Or read the bit above the fold to get the gist.


Since last June, I’ve basically been sitting out the fights over the Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation has a lot of money donated by mutual fund giant John Templeton (of Franklin Templeton Investments fame) for the purpose of wrangling issues involving science and religion, and also religion in society. Templeton also endowed, and the Foundation continues to manage, a prize (The Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities) that is set by its endowment guidelines to always exceed the monetary value of the Nobel prizes. The Foundation funds conferences, research, other awards, and a range of other program activities that make it difficult for certain sorts of researchers to avoid Templeton Foundation money one way or another. Its endowment is on par with that of the George Soros-founded Open Society Institute, and it rivals OSI in its ability to inspire conspiracy theories.

There’s good reason for the scrutiny, though. The Foundation’s deep pockets and broad funding choices give it the potential for substantial influence. In some disciplines, it’s getting hard not to take Foundation funding, either directly or through Foundation-funded conferences, etc. There are legitimate questions to be asked about how that influence is used, questions that can and should be asked of any funding agency, including groups like NIH, NSF, etc. But that doesn’t justify the paranoia, which has gotten to the point where a researcher’s being funded by the Foundation is treated, in some circles, as a black mark on anything the researcher says or does. The reasons for this have never been well-justified, nor has the imputation of influence-peddling ever seemed strongly supported, but since last June I’ve steered clear of the issue because of rumors that a detailed investigative report was in the offing. I figured I’d wait to see the full story; there’s reason to be skeptical of Templeton’s influence, and I was prepared to be convinced by as-yet-unpublished revelations some sources hinted at.

That hint came first in the midst of a long profile in The Nation published in early June 2010, examining the Templeton Foundation and also the heir to the Templeton fortune, a more conservative man than his father. The piece found nothing egregiously wrong with what Templeton does, no substantiation of the critics’ worst charges, and several things that tend to undermine their charges, but in the middle, it says:

Dawkins and Kroto, with eight other advisory board members of Project Reason, founded by New Atheist author Sam Harris in 2007 to promote secularism, are at work on another offensive. Project Reason hired British science journalist Sunny Bains to investigate Templeton and build a case against it. Her unpublished findings include evidence of pervasive cronyism: more than half of the past dozen Templeton Prize winners were connected to the foundation before their win, and board members do well obtaining grant money and speaking gigs. Bains also argues that the true atheistic tendencies of leading scientists were misrepresented in the foundation’s Big Questions advertisements. Templeton’s mission, Bains concludes, is to promote religion, and its overtures to science are an insidious trick with the purpose of sneaking in God.

Those are the harshest claims in the piece, but without seeing Bains’s piece, it was impossible to judge the claim. Cronyism is a serious charge, but it wouldn’t be surprising (or evidence of cronyism) if the sort of person who would go on to win the Templeton Prize would also tend to get funding from Templeton, to attract speaking gigs and grants, or to be drawn on as a member of Templeton’s advisory board (which, it should be noted, is distinct from the Board of Trustees which governs the Foundation). Nor was the charge of misrepresentation spelled out enough to judge. But I was sure that the report would, in time, come out, so I figured I’d wait to comment until then. As I say, I was ready to be convinced if Bains had the goods.

Eight months later, it’s finally out, and boy am I disappointed. First, the story – creatively titled “Questioning the Integrity of the John Templeton Foundation” – comes out as a commentary paper in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Why that journal, rather than a newspaper or magazine specializing in investigative reports, or a peer reviewed journal with more impact and more relevance? Hard to say, and a request to Bains for comment went unanswered. The word “psychology” is never used in the paper, and “evolution” is only mentioned in reference to the published responses to “Big Questions” gathered from public intellectuals and published by the Templeton Foundation. When Bains concludes by addressing how scientists should think of Templeton, she singles out “my colleagues, particularly in cosmology,” not evolutionary psychologists (Bains is at the department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College, London). The journal has a peer-review process, but the short turn-around from submission (Feb. 15) to publication (Mar. 2) suggests that pieces labeled “commentary” (like this one) don’t go through rigorous peer review. The piece has 5 citations and 74 footnotes, though why some references are cited and others merely footnoted is never clear.

Peer review, especially from a political editor or reporter more accustomed to this sort of article, would have really helped. The hardest charges in the piece come at places where the reporting is thinnest, and the reporting never rises to the standard I’d expect from even regional newspapers, let alone a paper of record or a peer reviewed journal.


For instance, Bains cites John Horgan’s negative assessment of his time as a Templeton Journalism Fellow, and notes that Horgan’s name was removed from the list of fellows after he published his critique. She wraps up the passage:

His is the only name that has gone missing in this way. I checked with him directly to see whether he had asked for this: He had not. One could speculate that the organizers did not want to put off potential applicants doing research into the experiences of previous Fellows.

Indeed one could. One could speculate that Elvis Presley is actually an alien from Roswell and is still alive, but that doesn’t make it so. It’d be nice to have more than “one could speculate” to back up the speculation, though. Did she contact the Templeton Foundation to request comment? Are there other explanations that one can conceive of? Is there evidence that would allow us to move past speculation and on to something more deserving of the title “investigative journalism”? This speculation would be a good place to start an investigation, but it’s a bad way to end it. This isn’t to say she’s wrong, but it is to say she hasn’t got the evidence, and probably should have reported some more before publishing (and she has had 8 months since showing the piece to a reporter from The Nation to tighten up the reporting).

The passage immediately following shows no greater fidelity to the evidence:

Perhaps the clearest indication of the true agenda of the Foundation is summed up by one of their latest projects: US$2 million for the “Science for Ministry Initiative”. Organizers write of the project:

“At the heart of the Science for Ministry program is the conviction that pastors, in the course of their preaching, teaching, writing, and care, are key catalysts in developing a more fruitful integration of science and faith among their parishioners.”

Their current goal, they say, is “Supporting effective science education programs and resources for people in active ministry.” What this means is illustrated by one of the four endorsements that they quote on their website, attributed to Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University:

“Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have opened up a broad cultural debate which no pastor or congregation can ignore or avoid. This excellent initiative will enable the churches to address these issues from a scientifically and culturally informed perspective. We urgently need a new generation of clergy who can handle these burning issues. I believe this initiative will be of immense benefit, and commend it enthusiastically.”

In other words, the program is specifically intended to do what the entire Foundation appears to be aimed at: using science and scientists to support a religious agenda.

That last sentence is true in that they are “other words” than what her sources used, but otherwise not much good can be said of it. It is not obviously a true characterization of the Foundation’s intention for the program being discussed. There may be a case that she could make for this ulterior motive, but the quotations offered do not obviously compel us to accept her reading. It is an interpretation, one which might be justifiable, but it is not justified here. Again, I’m not saying she’s wrong, just that she hasn’t proven her case.

This was also true, most disappointingly, of her attempt to show cronyism. Bains notes that 9 of 14 Templeton Prize winner (possibly only 8 given imperfect record-keeping) were members of the foundation’s advisory board before winning the prize. Also:

Other winners also had relationships with the Foundation before their million-plus jackpot. 2008 winner Michał Heller published Creative Tension with the Templeton Foundation Press in 2003 and contributed to Science and the Search for Meaning in 2006 (to which [2009 Templeton Prize-winner] Bernard d’Espagnat also contributed). This suggests that getting involved with the Foundation is akin to buying a lottery ticket with a very big prize and extremely good odds.

Except that isn’t what it suggests.

First, a Prize is not a lottery. There’s a selection process, which will involve a person’s pre-eminence in the relevant field, broad alignment with Templeton Foundation values and goals, and a record of accomplishment. She never makes a case that any Templeton Prize winner lacks those traits.

Equating membership on the Foundation’s advisory board with “getting involved with the Foundation” is also blatantly specious, same for publishing through their press or editing books for them. You don’t just volunteer to be on the advisory board or publish with them by random chance, you get chosen, and obviously the sort of person chosen to be a member of the advisory board will be a prominent person in the science/religion field who is aligned broadly with the Templeton Foundation’s mission and goals. Those also happen to be among the major desiderata for a winner of the Templeton Prize. Not surprising that there’d be significant overlap.

To say that this is like a lottery is like noting all the Senators who become President, and then saying: “This suggests that getting involved in the US Senate is akin to buying a lottery ticket with a very big prize and extremely good odds.” You don’t just “get involved,” you work hard at it just to get in, and then you work even harder to get the next step.

Proving Bains’s repeated charge of “cronyism” would require some additional evidence, something that puts the 9/14 statistic in perspective, some way of establishing what we’d expect the ratio to be if not for cronyism. Such evidence might include testimony or documents from the Prize committee that shows improper influence by advisory board members, or a Prize winner describing that sort of evidence, or perhaps a case study of someone who obviously deserved the award more and lost out to a member of the advisory board. All we get is a specious comparison to a lottery. That Bains’s story doesn’t demonstrate cronyism doesn’t, of course, mean cronyism exists, but the more times Bains fails to make a charge stick, the more it feels like she’s crying “wolf.”

This same argument holds for the complaint that too many of the advertisements the Foundation takes out for its Big Questions program feature answers from people who have received Foundation support. These advertisements are not offered as scientific surveys, they are advertisements. And of course Templeton solicits answers from people who are already in their Rolodex. Nor is it clear that their Rolodex is so horrifically unbalanced as to be inherently biasing. The people she includes in Templeton’s stable include Michael Shermer, Christopher Hitchens, David Sloan Wilson, Jane Goodall, Robert Sapolsky, and “Frances [sic]” de Waal, while creationist Catholic Cardinal Christopher Schönborn is on the outside. Templeton’s stable isn’t exactly a doctrinaire group of advocates for religion.

Rather than acknowledging that these advertisements are fucking advertisements, Bains makes a mountain out of a molehill. She quotes Shermer’s explanation that he answered the question “Does science make belief in god obsolete?” because they “approached me about the project and suggested the question title, which I liked and agreed to. … the folks at Templeton basically gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted, as long as there was a wide variety of answers to the question.”

Bains objects. She ponders Shermer’s decades of work on behalf of skepticism, his experience dealing with religions and cults and the deceptive practices of everyone from psychics to Holocaust deniers, and concludes:

Shermer might be accused of naïveté. First, the question itself has a major problem, especially in the context of the huge publicity the essays were intended to generate and receive. Having had time to think about the question, the writers presumably understood that it related to whether belief is obsolete. This means that the resulting answer is almost bound to be equivocal. For instance, had it been written as, “Does science make belief in Santa Claus obsolete?” many who did not think Santa Claus existed might nevertheless say “No, because the belief gives the pleasure of anticipation to children every year.” The problem is that the vast majority of readers will glance at the “Big Questions” advertisement and then turn the page (as they would with any other advertisement). It is not hard to imagine that many of these readers might be left with the impression that it is the fact of God that is not considered obsolete by the majority of the contributors.

In other words, Bains thinks she’s more media-savvy than Shermer, and that the newspaper-reading public is too stupid or lazy to understand the plain meaning of a short sentence. I’m unconvinced on both counts. This doesn’t mean she’s wrong, of course, only that yet again she cannot seem to put together a convincing indictment of Templeton.

But she continues:

Furthermore, the use of the term “science” in the question, and the context of some of the advertisements (many in science-related magazines) could make it appear that the scientific community is divided on the issue of whether God exists.

She then cites surveys of the membership of elite scientific societies, which are overwhelmingly atheist, but doesn’t cite the more recent and more comprehensive surveys of scientific religiosity from Pew and from Elaine Howard Ecklund which show the general scientific community to be much less atheist than elite groups like the National Academies of Science (any competent peer reviewer from a relevant field would have caught this).

That selective citation aside, the premise of the paragraph is remarkably weak. The fact that the question wasn’t about scientific findings would be the first hint that the intent was not to survey scientists, a hint that would be confirmed by anyone who noticed that panel included a Catholic cardinal, not to mention Christopher Hitchens and Michael Shermer. Someone reading the advertisement carefully enough to count the votes couldn’t help noticing that the question wasn’t about science alone, and wasn’t asked exclusively of scientists, and most importantly, wasn’t offered as (and with n=13, couldn’t possibly be) a survey of scientific opinion.

The sloppiest part of the piece comes when Bains tries to justify the claim: “For a group that claims to be pro-science, the Templeton Foundation, and Jack Templeton, its Chair, seem to fund organizations that have an anti-science bias.” Bains makes that “and” do a lot of work, since she never shows the Templeton Foundation itself funding anything that she can characterize as anti-science. She talks about Jack Templeton’s private funding of conservative groups of various sorts, both directly and indirectly, a trend which might be problematic if she could show that Jack Templeton (Sir John’s son) was using his position to sway the Foundation in more conservative directions. The Nation offered some evidence of that, but Bains simply doesn’t try. Talking about the Foundation itself, she notes that:

the Templeton Freedom Awards are administered by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a group that is perhaps most notable for its opposition to taking action against climate change and for being a defender of the tobacco industry that has traditionally given them funding.

She never clarifies what relationship the Templeton Freedom Awards have with the Templeton Foundation or the Templeton family. A bit of searching on Google turned up that the Foundation did endow those awards, but Bains never bothers to mention that tie, leaving the reader to do her research for her. Nor does she establish what, if any, ongoing role the Foundation has in the administration of those awards. This is the closest she comes to showing the Foundation itself flirting with anti-science positions, but she fails to show the crucial link between the Awards and the Foundation, or to clarify what influence, if any, the Foundation still has on the awards. It’s possible that the Foundation does direct these awards toward climate change deniers, but it’s also possible that the initial endowment of the award gave AERF complete autonomy. Bains doesn’t give us enough information to draw any conclusions. She may well not have gathered enough information to draw conclusions. Yet draw them she did.

Thus, when the story concludes that she finds the Foundation’s agenda “unclear” and adds “At worst, its agenda is pro-religion and anti-science,” she simply hasn’t made the case for the latter point, and doesn’t show a good faith effort to actually examine the agenda. The obvious way to do that would be a comprehensive survey of its grantmaking; Bains doesn’t do that. Despite its length (~10,000 words, including references and appendices), she fails to mention basic points about the Templeton agenda raised by the two major profiles of Templeton published in the last year.

With the Bains story in hand, it’s interesting to return to the piece from The Nation. Nathan Schneider, who reported the piece, had clearly seen Bains’s work, and (to borrow a phrase) one might speculate that Bains tried to sell the piece to The Nation, but they assigned the story to another reporter to re-report. Along the way, the worst accusations had to be dropped, and a lot of the missing pieces had to be added. The resulting piece expresses some concerns about the Foundation, but notes, for instance: “Nonreligious scientists who accept Templeton grants—like biologist David Sloan Wilson and psychologist Jonathan Haidt—insist that the money comes without strings attached. ‘No coercion, no corruption,’ Haidt says.” Bains seems not to have asked grantees about their sense of the Foundation’s agenda, nor whether they think it’s shifted.

In examining the politics of the Foundation, Schneider winds up mostly focused on Templeton fils, heir to the chairman’s seat on the Foundation’s board of trustees, as well as a fortune large enough to endow his own conservative foundation. That foundation funds teabagging groups and marriage segregationists. It works to privatize Social Security. It helped fund 2004′s Swift Boat liars.

But the Foundation itself doesn’t get so political. Schneider writes:

According to his lifelong friend Jay Norwalk, Templeton “is exceedingly scrupulous about keeping his personal life separate from the foundation.” By most accounts, this has been the case. Physicist Karl Giberson, a self-described liberal who has been a close collaborator on various foundation projects, adds, “To me, Jack Templeton represents the way you want conservatives to be.” (Jack Templeton declined requests for an interview, and the foundation’s chief external affairs officer, Gary Rosen, a former editor at Commentary, instructed foundation leadership to conduct interviews with The Nation only in writing.)

To my eye as a news junkie, “X declined requests for an interview” or “X refused comment” are more powerful signals of something nefarious afoot than “one could speculate” or “in other words,” the sorts of locutions Bains favors in her piece. The former tell you that the reporter bothered to try, signal that there’s more to the story, but don’t assert any knowledge not actually in evidence. It’s one of many reasons I’d think The Nation wouldn’t have bought Bains’s article, and would instead re-report it. We don’t know why Templeton didn’t want a less-vetted interview format, and Schneider knows better than to make guesses, however plausible they might be.

Again, for comparison, here’s Schneider on the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, providing the sort of links that Bains either didn’t gather, or didn’t bother to include in her report:

Templeton’s charter stipulates that the chief executives of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty are entitled to be members of the foundation, and both have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Templeton grants in recent years. Those organizations also receive contributions from Big Oil and take part in the campaign to distort the scientific consensus on global warming.

This doesn’t show that the Foundation itself has any say in its grantees global warming denial, but it at least clarifies the relationship between JTF and AERF. Bains, you’ll recall, never described any link between the Templeton Foundation and AERF, despite hinging her accusation of anti-science activities entirely on that link!

Schneider’s conclusion is ultimately supportive of the Foundation:

the foundation … has associated itself with political and religious forces that cause it to be perceived as threatening the integrity of science and protecting the religious status quo. … As a result of such alliances… the foundation is … better positioned than most to foster a conservatism—and a culture generally—that holds the old habits of religions and business responsible to good evidence, while helping scientists better speak to people’s deepest concerns. On issues that range from climatology to stem cells, science has too often taken a back seat to the whims of politics, and Templeton’s peculiar vision offers a welcome antidote to that. To live up to this calling, Big Questions are one thing; but the foundation will have to stand up for tough answers, too, as it did when announcing the findings of a major study that intercessory prayer doesn’t improve medical outcomes, or when rebuking intelligent design.

John Templeton did want to hijack the meaning of life; he meant to remake the human race’s moral and cosmic toolbox in some scientific revolution of the spirit. His money has given new life to ancient questions that matter to all of us. But there is also an inescapable curiosity…in the idea that how we think about the most lofty things has become so much at the mercy of an eccentric investor’s later-life dreams.

In short, there’s much potential in the Foundation’s goals and programs, but cause for continued vigilance against the chance that the tremendous wealth of the Foundation would be used to distort the social discourse, or particular academic discourses. The same can and should be said of any major funding body, from the Ford Foundation and Open Society Institute on the left, to money from Koch, Coors, Ahmanson, and Scaife family foundations on the right, and even non-ideological funders like the NSF and NIH. The Nation and other investigative outfits have done great work by investigating the influence bought by such groups, and in the case of the Templeton Foundation, didn’t find the sort of harmful influence that you see from others. Of course, that’s not the result Bains was paid to provide, so it’s hardly surprising she came to different conclusions. But the fact she was paid to get the result doesn’t make it wrong, nor does the fact that she didn’t make a good case for that result.

Another report, this one in Nature, came out on February 16 of this year, and makes no reference to Bains or her story, but again refutes the worst charges against the Foundation, while expressing skepticism appropriate for any large and powerful grantmaking entity.

It is entirely possible that Bains pitched the story to Nature, and that they also chose to re-report it rather than buy the dog’s breakfast she produced, and that again the re-reporting failed to back up her worst charges. She submitted her paper to Evolutionary Psychology on February 15, by which point the existence of Nature‘s report was public knowledge (it went online the next day), and her hopes of selling the story to them would have been dashed. This may explain her choice to submit to a decidedly lower-ranked journal.

Mitch Waldrop’s report in Nature is not a sympathetic treatment of the Foundation, but again comes to a generally positive conclusion. It quotes Jerry Coyne’s criticism of Templeton, without noting that Coyne is on the board of advisors for Project Reason, which funded Bains’s investigation. Coyne didn’t disclose that in blogging about Waldrop’s report, nor in writing about the piece in The Nation, though he did when Bains’s story was published. That post was his first reference to his own role at Project Reason on the blog. It would be irresponsible not to wonder whether a member of the advisory board for the group that funded Bains’s report on the influence of the Templeton advisory board concealed his ties to that report in order to magnify the apparent support for Bains’s position.

Like The Nation‘s report, the Nature report observes:

researchers, both with and without Templeton grants, say that they find the foundation remarkably open and non-dogmatic. “The Templeton Foundation has never in my experience pressured, suggested or hinted at any kind of ideological slant,” says Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic, a magazine that debunks pseudoscience, who was hired by the foundation to edit an essay series entitled ‘Does science make belief in God obsolete?’…

Foundation officials insist …questioning is their reason for being. Religious dogma is what they are fighting.

That does seem to be the experience of many scientists who have taken Templeton money. During the launch of FQXi [Foundational Questions Institute, which focuses on cosmology], says [director Anthony] Aguirre [of UC Santa Cruz], “Max [Tegmark, FQXI co-director and MIT cosmologist] and I were very suspicious at first. So we said, ‘We’ll try this out, and the minute something smells, we’ll cut and run.’ It never happened. The grants we’ve given have not been connected with religion in any way, and they seem perfectly happy about that.”

John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, also had concerns when he started a Templeton-funded project in 2007. He had just published a paper with survey data showing that religious affiliation had a negative correlation with health among African-Americans — the opposite of what he assumed the foundation wanted to hear. He was bracing for a protest when someone told him to look at the foundation’s website. They had displayed his finding on the front page. “That made me relax a bit,” says Cacioppo.

And as The Nation notes in passing, Templeton funded research on “intercessory prayer,” the claim that a sick person can heal faster if another person prays for them (without the patient’s knowledge). Previous flawed studies had found some effect (one was run by an ID creationist physician who seems to have made up his own measure of health in order to get a positive result, another study was withdrawn for various reasons, including the unrelated fraud conviction of an author). The Templeton-funded study found no statistically significant effect, and the strongest effect was that intercessory prayer group caused a decline in health. Templeton continues to tout the research on its website. There are no stories of results being suppressed or rewritten by Templeton to offset these positive accounts.

Waldrop notes, significantly, that the Foundation is re-organizing its grantmaking process, bringing in more external review and changing how it describes its focus:

a change most clearly seen in the organization’s new website, launched last June. Gone were old programme names such as ‘science and religion’ — or almost any mention of religion at all…. Instead, the foundation has embraced the theme of ‘science and the big questions’ — an open-ended list that includes topics such as ‘Does the Universe have a purpose?’

Under this umbrella come new programmes in such areas as mathematical and physical sciences, life sciences, and philosophy and theology — each, for the first time, with its own team of programme officers. The peer-review and grant-making system has also been revamped: whereas in the past the foundation ran an informal mix of projects generated by Templeton and outside grant seekers, the system is now organized around an annual list of explicit funding priorities.

It’s fair to say that these institutional reforms are long overdue. For reasons of fiscal oversight if nothing else, having program officers and specified funding targets is vital; the “informal mix of projects generated by Templeton and outside grant seekers” is a situation ripe for cronyism or even worse financial chicanery. A careful analysis of Foundation spending might have turned up genuine cronyism, but she did not attempt any comprehensive survey of Templeton grant allocation, nor did she attempt to assess the merits of the grants made versus those denied. There might have been something there (though they always used a system of external review), but Bains simply didn’t get the goods.

Bains’s piece does at least note this change to the Foundation’s self-description (though not to its staff reorganization), mentioning:

It has since changed its stated aims and goals, and their presentation, in a way that seems calculated to make them appear more “open-minded.” Nevertheless, the Foundation’s agenda—based on its actual activities—seems to have remained the same.

To support the latter charge, Bains examines a series of individual programs, including the Science for Ministry program discussed above, but never establishes a baseline for the supposed change. Waldrop’s article takes the simple step of comparing the frequency of various words on the old (1998) and new (2011) Templeton Foundation websites. A similar analysis of the grants listed on the Templeton website could have been revealing, showing whether the types of grants really did change, whether the subjects funded had changed, etc. Bains didn’t even bother comparing the language of the website, let alone the content of the grants. All she offers are snippets about particular programs that she doesn’t like, and which she feels obliged to misrepresent (“in other words…” above) to build a case against Templeton.

This is the consistent pattern in Bains’s story. The problem is not that her conclusions are demonstrably wrong – she may well be right about Templeton, and she may even have gathered evidence which would support her conclusions. But the story she wrote is not convincing. Key assertions are couched in equivocal language that relies on her judgment or her assumptions, not on any evidence offered to the reader. Obvious opportunities for detailed investigation – financial records, grantmaking decisions, interviews with Templeton staff, interviews with grantees, examination of correspondence between grantees and Templeton – are entirely absent. The investigation seems to have consisted of a careful examination of Google results.

There’s a lot that careful online investigation can reveal, and I wouldn’t denigrate that. The foundation’s IRS filings – 990 forms – are publicly available through websites like Guidestar (and must be provided by the group on request), and include information about how much various trustees are paid and about grants given and major program expenditures. A good investigation would draw on that paper trail to show the breadth of Templeton’s influence, and then use interviews with Templeton, grantees, and failed grantees, as well as the language of the grants themselves and of grants rejected, to build a case about how Templeton uses its influence. Bains didn’t do a good investigation, not by that standard at least.

My criticism of Bains’s sloppy reporting is not to insist that Templeton is made of sugar and spice. Her charges may be true, but she hasn’t proven them. Given Templeton’s size and influence, failed hits against their “integrity” (Bains’s word) only serve to strengthen them, making later critics sound like they’re crying “wolf.” As Omar tells Wee-Bey in The Wire: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

Comments

  1. #1 John S. Wilkins
    March 5, 2011

    Damn – you beat me to it. If I hadn’t gone out for lunch…

    I read that essay and my thought was that the evidence cited doesn’t justify the conspiratorial conclusion. Applying the same logic, nobody should accept grants from the U.S. Government because it starts wars, lies about matters of public interest, and is controlled nowadays by religious interests. Hand back those NIH and NSF grants, folks!

  2. #2 Ian
    March 5, 2011

    Interesting post. And yes, I made it all the way through. Makes me less inclined to read the other three, if only because I really don’t care all that much one way or the other about the Templeton Foundation – though maybe I should be writing my thoughts down and hitting them up for money :)

    As always, I’m terribly disappointed in sloppy thinking, sloppy logic – be it from defenders of religion or from anti-religion folk. Thanks for one of the few voices who demand rigour for the critiques of religion.

  3. #3 mememine
    March 6, 2011

    The IPCC were the eco Nazis of fear mongering.
    Real planet lovers are happy the promise of crisis was wrong:
    After years of believing in climate change, I find myself now with the majority, that being the former believers. We see the scientists breaking ranks everywhere, especially after when Obama didn’t even mention the climate “crisis” in his state of the union address to the nation. Reasonable people now see the exaggerations committed by a science industry.
    We were all fools and history is showing climate change to be another Iraq War of false Weapons of Mass Destruction. Shouldn’t we all feel a little guilty for condemning our kids to a death by CO2 for 25 years of climate change warnings and needless panic? Remove the CO2 and continue stewardship of the planet anew I say.
    Let’s get ahead of the curve because history is watching this CO2 insanity die a slow death.

  4. #4 Scott Belyea
    March 6, 2011

    Way back at the beginning, there’s a quote …

    “Project Reason hired British science journalist Sunny Bains to investigate Templeton and build a case against it.”

    Certainly sounds like a dispassionate facts-based approach, doesn’t it?

  5. #5 julian
    March 6, 2011

    @3

    I suppose you’d be equally willing to dismiss the pro-Templeton gibberish the foundation has funded and had published?

    Why do I even bother reading this site.

  6. #6 TB
    March 6, 2011

    @4. Possibly. Can you point to some? I have a good gibberish-o-meter so I usually don’t see that stuff.

  7. #7 Verbose Stoic
    March 6, 2011

    Julian,

    If you think that people should be skeptical about things that the Templeton Foundation has funded that support them or attack opponents, you should be equally skeptical about things that Project Reason funds that support them or attack their opponents. And it seems to me that before this all came out, there was an instance where people on the anti-Templeton side were annoyed that an article critical of them was Templeton funded. That they welcomed the news of this initiative is revealing.

    So, are you just as skeptical of them? If you are, then I fail to see the point of your comment. And if you aren’t, then you should be able to see that there’s a problem there.

  8. #8 V. infernalis
    March 6, 2011

    Templeton also endowed, and the Foundation continues to manage, a prize (The Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities) that is set by its endowment guidelines to always exceed the monetary value of the Nobel prizes.

    Isn’t “spiritual realities” an oxymoron?

  9. #9 Anthony McCarthy
    March 7, 2011

    The charge of the Dawkinsites that you can sneak religion into science is so absurd that it should be enough to impeach their credibility. In order to introduce religion into science IT WOULD HAVE TO BE BLATANTLY OBVIOUS. It would have to be clear and visible, if it was hidden it wouldn’t achieve anything that could damage science.

    But that doesn’t justify the paranoia, which has gotten to the point where a researcher’s being funded by the Foundation is treated, in some circles, as a black mark on anything the researcher says or does. The reasons for this have never been well-justified, nor has the imputation of influence-peddling ever seemed strongly supported

    If the review process of science is so broken that it couldn’t eject anything that was bad science then the problem of science isn’t religion, it is one of its most basic necessities to exist. If the review process can’t get rid of covert religious content then how could it keep out political content. Considering Dawkins and Harris are prominent in this, and considering the ease with which gender, racial, class and other kinds of clap trap REGULARLY gets into evo-psy and cog-sci, it’s probably not surprising to see them so paranoid about religious insertions, though I’d like them to document the danger of that actually happening.

    All of this alleged pollution of science by religion is theoretical until they come up with the evidence. But, as their science is all about theory and making up evidence instead of producing it, it’s going to have to be up to their critics to demand it consistently.

    I’ve got huge problems with Templeton, the son, but unless there is evidence that the foundation is in the business of peddling bigotry, the charges are, indeed, paranoia instead of evidence based.

  10. #10 Anthony McCarthy
    March 7, 2011

    Julian, if it isn’t published as science, they’re free to come up with material that isn’t based only in science, that’s called freedom of thought. You might not like that but they haven’t yet established a dictatorship of scientism. I’d suggest a look at the various attempts at “scientific” government, starting in the late 18th century in France to see what a wonderful life that’s produced.

  11. #11 Anthony McCarthy
    March 7, 2011

    Isn’t “spiritual realities” an oxymoron?

    No. The phrase “spiritual realities” consists of a noun modified by an adjective, the word “spiritual” tells you what kind of “realities” are being considered. And the word “realities” isn’t a word that designates only what materialists consider to be “reality”, much as they would like to pretend it does. I’d call “scientific integrity” a spiritual reality, among some scientists, though I’d certainly be able to point to cases where it would be anything but a reality, generally on the basis of the self-interest of the scientist, which would also keep it from being spiritual, in any positive sense.

    You should read up on the damage that has been done to the word “oxymoron” in the past half century or so. It’s one of those words that have been twisted past the point of coherence, generally for ideological purposes.

  12. #12 Wesley R. Elsberry
    March 8, 2011

    I was paid by Templeton for my post-doc at the Digital Evolution Lab at MSU. Nobody asked me to insert God into Avida. The project was about evolving intelligence.

  13. #13 Sunny Bains
    April 8, 2011

    Sorry, can you let me know when you contacted me to ask about why I published in Evolutionary Psychology? I’ve searched my e-mail for your name and can find nothing.

    Thanks,

    Sunny