Field of Science

Conflict of Interest is not unique to corporate blogging

You may or may not be aware of the major kerfuffle on ScienceBlogs recently. If not, consider yourself lucky. Seriously, it's not that important. In a nutshell, SB launched a new blog on food science operated by someone in PepsiCo, SB readership exploded, SB withdrew blog, several very important bloggers left over it, and yeah. Basically, a scheme devised to remind me of how nice it is here on Field of Science, where we are truly independent, mostly blog about actual science (with apologies about this post) and have yet to see any drama *knock on wood* =D

Well, since all the big kids are doing it, I'll chime in too =P partly to procrastinate with take a break from writing about foraminiferan pseudopodia.

I don't really have a strong opinion on corporate blogging either way. It should be clearly labeled as such, just so we can estimate what the bias would be. On the other hand, it'd be nice to know what our brethren in the private sector are doing. They have labs and scientists and science over there too; one doesn't need a medieval institution for that. But again, there is a real potential of such a blog turning into a PR campaign. Which, actually, isn't too different from an independent blogger pushing a particular opinion or ideology. On the other hand, ScienceBlogs did fail public relations, and quite miserably too. From the looks of it, its bloggers weren't well informed. But still, that's a poor excuse to act like a cage full of rabid howler monkeys on caffeine tablets and low-grade acid.

I don't think automatically treating anyone with private funding as a 'corporate shill' and 'non-human immoral braindead moron' is a particularly wise or constructive thing to do. In other words, it's fucking moronic. Corporations are technically just a legal shell, and can't really write or do anything. They themselves don't have a physical presence. Corporations consist of people, who do have a physical presence, and are capable of writing and doing stuff. They're people like everyone else. Being employed does not suddenly make one a braindead zombie. In fact, can't the other side call academic bloggers "academic shills" and accuse them of merely parroting what the grant officers want to hear?

As all people, corporate employees have personal interests, desires, goals, demands and worldviews based on which they try to deal with all the former. These interests are not evil, nor is the 'pure' pursuit of science a saintly task. Sometimes – nay, often even – other people's interests conflict with our own. Who the fuck are we to judge our own interests and worldviews as 'morally superior' to anyone else's as if we, alone, have some god-ordained divine access to 'Higher Truth'? Sure, some views (hypotheses, if you will) stand up to facts (ultimately, sensory input) better than others. Which is why creationism is not on equal footing as evolution. At all. But one must remember that those people will act in ways that are founded on their beliefs and worldviews, as well as extrinsic restrictions. In other words, they're doing the best they can. Soulless* corporate 'shills' included.

*In the literal sense.

We all have conflicts of interest. Starting with the very basic fact that a lot of our blogs are known to friends, colleagues and *gasp* employers. I'm affiliated with a certain lab (and still sort of affiliated with another), I am funded by a specific university and have an employer. Obviously I'd have a conflict of interest whenever I write something potentially sensitive, like blogging about my department's research. That's little different from somebody in the private sector blogging about their industry with all the associated concerns. We all have political, social and financial interests to consider. (unless you're some isolated hermit in the middle of the tundra somewhere in Nunavut with a satellite connection)

Furthermore, people who actually do research (unlike those of us who just write about it, heh) generally need $$ for their activities. This $$, generally, needs to come from somewhere. Where do you think it originates? Siphoned off the Flying Spaghetti Monster's personal chequing account? Magically created in the lab of some mad scientist? If only. It comes from the evilest source of all: the bloody economy. Ok, perhaps you [wisely] stay the hell away from Big Science, and subsist entirely on federal grants. Where did you think that money came from? That's right: taxpayers. Ie, ultimately, the very private sector we all love to hate.

From the little I understand (still a long ways away from grantwriting), grants aren't exactly a no-strings-attached affair. You have to report your results eventually, having not only done something productive but also something very relevant to what you wrote in your grant application. I may be wrong, but that's the sense I'm getting. Please correct me if grants actually are free gifts of shiny money you can then spend on a giant fully-catered university-wide orgy with an open bar, on a boat cruise in the Seychelles. Not that federal grants can cover even a tenth of that...

If it's the former, then, presumably, your next step is to work towards securing the next grants. That is, your results should probably be of a kind that would encourage further funding in your field. Presumably, if you get funding for environmental topics, you'd be better off with results stating your Cute Fluffy Animal is on the brink of extinction rather than 'oh it's doing fine'. In that particular case, who the hell is going to dump more money into Cute Fluffy Animal research if it's not under some sort of threat? Conflict of interests much?

Even blogging about research papers is sensitive, especially within your own field. You have to balance opinion, factual accuracy and style without offending the authors. Some bloggers find it perfectly sensible to unleash a tirade against some paper they don't like, but I'd prefer not to sever potential relationships with people I've never met, even if I do think their paper is a piece of crap. Primarily for selfish reasons: at this point, I'm in no position to start collecting enemies in academia. Or anywhere, really.

If I were a truly independent blogger, that wouldn't fucking matter, and I'd probably make a point of devouring every crappy paper I come across for shits and giggles. Again, this isn't all too different from a corporate blogger generally speaking well of their employers and perhaps being more critical of their competition. Naturally, I'd be more inclined to publicly rip other labs' papers to shreds rather than my own.

This wasn't really about the ScienceBlog 'Pepsigate' incident much; drama fluff comes and goes. I think there's a bigger problem: too many people, including academics themselves, live in this magical bubble where conflict of interest and the bias it drives somehow fail to exist in the bastion of rational thought that is academia. Research, as soon as it's peer-reviewed, is automatically politically-neutral and scientifically-accurate. That sort of thinking is outright delusional, and dangerous. We are humans. And, like all humans, we are just trying to make ends meet in this distinctly unfriendly world, handicapped by the eons of accumulated evolutionary garbage and imperfections in our bodies, brains included. We are biased and selfish. We are also diverse and varied. And not a single one of us knows the 'Truth'.

I find it odd and annoying that neutrality/centrism tends to be universally politically unfavourable, sometimes absurdly so: people often think higher of their opposition than of anyone neutral. Neutrality is not necessarily symptomatic of indecision or indifference (although sometimes is, and for good reason), but rather often an admission of the intense complexity of the issue at hand. I think it's better to abstain from taking sides at all than make ill-informed ones based on oversimplified cases. For some reason, that view is surprisingly unpopular in some circles...

Anyway, I'll get back to actual science posting. Now you know why I rarely discuss controversial/political stuff here -- too complicated for my tiny little brain. Besides, protists are way cuter =D


  1. Agree with all this, on the other hand, did you actually go *read* the Pepsi blog? It was AWFUL. Seriously, it was barely science, just posts and posts of "Pepsi attended this conference about obesity because Pepsi are wonderful and adopt bunnies".

    I have no idea why SEED went anywhere near it to be honest. Although like you I only actually found out about the whole mess once it was over.

    I quite like corporate blogs, because all their scientists have fast slick machines for high productivity. But the pepsifoodco was no blog.

  2. I suppose I'd better ad my two cents. I've followed the divergence over at very closely. Were I a blogger at SB, I would have left. I question the principles and/or wisdom of the bloggers who have decided to remain (working for Seed Media Group). The Pepsi blog may be gone, but the ethic that allowed it in the first place remains undeterred in its quest to sell a seat at the table.

  3. Oh I'm not defending the Pepsi blog at all. I'm not as interested in the social side of food production as the technical/biological side, and tend to avoid political discussions at all costs to begin with. But I don't think that excused the vicious outlash against all things corporate that ensued from the readership.

    I dislike SB for other reasons, only partly to do with the Pepsi blog. The Media Group itself seems distinctly unpleasant in dealing with bloggers and the readership alike. But more importantly, too many of the bloggers there have little to do with science, and post like 95% crap and politics (also mostly crap). There's also a strong case of hivemind there, with a rather lopsided treatment of real controversies. An extreme example is the Pharyngula commentators, where any mild divergence from the accepted ideology results in a blinding firestorm. I don't thing SB is any sort of 'bastion of rational thinking' that they like to portray.

    Even the whole religion/creationism mockery -- it's kind of fun for the first year or so, and then you grow out of it. Religious fanaticism and the ignorance of science are serious problems, and would be better approached from a balanced and coolheaded angle. Mocking them doesn't solve anything.

    SB has too many hotheaded narcissists who think they're special snowflakes because they have blogs. Grrrr.

  4. Interesting take. If nothing else, this last week has been an education on SB.

    My worry, I guess, is that science bloggers in general who take a dim view of what has transpired at SB will take it as a cautionary tale when considering FoS, so I'm making an effort to draw the distinction.

  5. I must admit I was very relieved and impressed by the quick email response from FoS and *incredibly* glad that I'd chosen to come hear rather than make a bid for Scienceblogs (for which you can thank Psi actually!)

    There is a lot of stuff and Scienceblogs that isn't science as well, and while I do love reading it, I love that FoS is pretty much all about the papers and the science work.


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