Pepsigate: The Blogging Scandal Of A New Generation

Coturnix, a former Scienceblogger, has the master list of links about Pepsigate.

Curtis Brainard at Columbia Journalism Review:

At least two well-respected science journalists and a handful of scientists have canceled their blogs at the popular and heretofore highly respected ScienceBlogs.com community, protesting Seed Media Group’s decision to give PepsiCo a nutrition blog.

On Tuesday afternoon, ScienceBlogs.com’s editor, Evan Lerner (who has contributed to CJR), posted a short note announcing the new blog, called Food Frontiers, which explained that:

As part of this partnership, we’ll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo’s product portfolio, we’ll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

Longtime members of the ScienceBlogs.com community reacted quickly and angrily to the move, arguing that Pepsi was “buying credibility” created by other bloggers on the site, and tarnishing that credibility in the process (tip of the hat to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which brought the scoop to wide attention on Wednesday with a post titled, “ScienceBlogs Trashes its Bloggers’ Credibility”). Announcing that he would move his popular neuroscience blog, Neuron Culture, science journalist and author David Dobbs wrote:

Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t cotton to this. With the addition of Food Frontiers, ScienceBlogs has redrawn the boundaries of what it considers legitimate and constructive blogo-journalism about science. In doing so they define an environment I can’t live comfortably in. So with this post I’m leaving ScienceBlogs. For the moment I am moving my blog to Neuron Culture, hosted by WordPress, while considering other venues that might make sense for me.

Rebecca Skloot, the best-selling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Brian Switek, a freelance science writer and blogger for Smithsonian, announced they, too, are putting their blogs on hiatus. Likewise, Blake Stacey, a physicist and science-fiction writer who writes the blog Science After Sunclipse, Mark Chu-Carroll, a software engineer at Google who writes the blog Good Math, Bad Math, and Dave Bacon, a theoretical physicist who runs the blog The Quantum Pontiff, suspended their operations.

PZ Myers at Scienceblogs:

So what’s with the corporate drones moving in next door?

They aren’t going to be doing any scienceblogging — this is straight-up commercial propaganda. You won’t be seeing much criticism of Pepsico corporate policies, or the bad nutritional habits spread by cheap fast food, or even any behind-the-scenes stories about the lives of Pepsico employees that paints a picture of the place as anything less than Edenesque. Do you think any of the ‘bloggers’ will express any controversial opinions that might annoy any potential customers?

There won’t be a scrap of honest opinion expressed over there that isn’t filtered and vetted by cautious editors before making it online, and it will all toe the Pepsi line. It’s going to be boring. It’s going to blur the line between blog content and advertising. It’s going to be bloodless dull blogging that will diminish the Scienceblogs brand.

So don’t say hello to them at all — don’t even bother to read them. If you want to know more about food science, check out Tomorrow’s Table or Obesity Panacea (more of an exercise physiology blog than a nutrition blog, but they did recently post on sugar-sweetened beverages. Didn’t like ‘em.)

Oh, and I don’t care what the Supreme Court said. Corporations aren’t people. I read blogs written by sentient beings, not committees of shills.

Mary Carmichael at Newsweek:

Whatever happens with Myers and the rest of the “SciBlings,” as they’ve become known, it’s pretty clear that a line was crossed with the Pepsi blog and that the line should never be approached again. Yet, with the institutional blogs, one could argue that the SEED Media Group is, if not completely crossing the line, tiptoeing along it. InstitutionalBlogGate (a term no one is actually using, and rightly so) isn’t egregious the way PepsiGate was, since none of the institutions paid for their slots. Also, to quote a commenter at Brookhaven’s blog, “there’s an appreciable difference between a national laboratory and a corporate PR venture.” The labs aren’t trying to sell readers an unhealthy product; they’re trying to spread the word about potentially important research that might make people healthier.

Still, there are some issues of credibility at stake. Would a blog authored by Pepsi scientists have been OK if ScienceBlogs had given it to the company for free? If not, what exactly is different about a research institution’s blog? Can readers put their full faith in these five blogs the same way they can with an ostensibly independent individual’s site? Or is there a difference, the way there is between reading a press release describing a study and more skeptical media coverage of the same research?

A lot depends on who’s doing the writing. Many science writers employed by PR departments are lyrical stylists and smart, conscientious people. But they don’t necessarily fill the role of watchdog the way good journalists and independent bloggers do. That function was neatly described by Marc Ambinder last week in The Atlantic: “When a story is complex, journalists ought to examine whatever thesis they hold and attempt, by reporting, to falsify it.” That’s a little like a scientist’s job description, if you think about it: come up with a hypothesis and then try as hard as you can to prove it wrong. But it’s not a PR person’s job description. “The people writing these blogs are not truly speaking independently as individuals,” says Dobbs, one of the writers who left the network after PepsiGate. “They can’t react critically to everything–at least I don’t think they can while keeping their jobs. Ideally, I would like to see the [institutional] blogs removed. I think ScienceBlogs and the readers would be better off if they weren’t there.”

Not all bloggers feel this way, Myers included. “We’ve known about those [institutional blogs] for some time—they aren’t a problem,” he wrote in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. “Those sites were set up under the same conditions as the blogs of corporate scientist Mark Chu-Carroll, who works at Google, and university scientist PZ Myers, who works at the University of Minnesota. … [The Pepsi blog blurred] the boundary between advertising and content. I agree that the institutional blogs also blur that boundary, just not quite as much. I can’t insist that their blogs be labeled as advertisements, unless I want my blog marked as an ad for the University of Minnesota, or Chu-Carroll’s as an ad for Google. It’s complicated and messy.”

Virginia Heffernan at NYT:

It started last month when 20 or so high-placed science bloggers angrily parted ways with an extremely popular and award-winning online collective called ScienceBlogs because it starting running Food Frontiers, a nutrition blog that PepsiCo paid to have on the site. (Several of the collective’s contributors, including some who left in protest, have written for The Times Magazine.) In farewell posts, the bloggers charged that the advertorial was deceptive and undermined the purpose of the collective.

Seed Media Group, which oversees ScienceBlogs, eventually killed off the commercial blog, but the staff bloggers kept leaving. Some have predicted that the ScienceBlogs network won’t survive the defections. “The ship is sinking,” mused PZ Myers, the writer of the site’s top blog, Pharyngula, which is devoted to “evolution, development and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal.”

I was nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings. The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don’t quit anytime there’s an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked “this is an advertisement.”

But the bloggers’ eek-a-mouse posturing wasn’t the most striking part of the affair. Instead, it was the weird vindictiveness of many of the most prominent blogs. The stilted and seething tone of some of the defection posts sent me into the ScienceBlogs archives, where I expected to find original insights into science by writers who stress that they are part of, in the blogger Dave Munger’s words, “the most influential science blogging network in the world.” And while I found interesting stuff here and there, I also discovered that ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling. Maybe that’s why the ScienceBlogs ship started to sink.

Recently a blogger called GrrlScientist, on Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted), expressed her disgust at the “flock of hugely protruding bellies and jiggling posteriors everywhere I go.” Gratuitous contempt like this is typical. Mark Hoofnagle on Denialism Blog sideswiped those who question antibiotics, writing, “their particular ideology requires them to believe in the primacy of religion (Christian Science, New Age Nonsense) or in the magical properties of nature.” Over at Pharyngula — which often ranks in the Top 100 blogs on the Internet— PZ Myers revels in sub-“South Park” blasphemy, presenting (in one recent stunt) his sketch of the Prophet Muhammad as a cow-pig hybrid excited about “raping a 9-year-old girl.”

Clearly I’ve been out of some loop for too long, but does everyone take for granted now that science sites are where graduate students, researchers, doctors and the “skeptical community” go not to interpret data or review experiments but to chip off one-liners, promote their books and jeer at smokers, fat people and churchgoers? And can anyone who still enjoys this class-inflected bloodsport tell me why it has to happen under the banner of science?

Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that’s not what’s bothersome about them. What’s bothersome is that the site is misleading. It’s not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.

Under cover of intellectual rigor, the science bloggers — or many of the most visible ones, anyway — prosecute agendas so charged with bigotry that it doesn’t take a pun-happy French critic or a rapier-witted Cambridge atheist to call this whole ScienceBlogs enterprise what it is, or has become: class-war claptrap.

Ross Douthat

Tim Lambert at Scienceblogs:

But what really takes the cake is this:

For science that’s accessible but credible, steer clear of polarizing hatefests like atheist or eco-apocalypse blogs. Instead, check out scientificamerican.com, discovermagazine.com and Anthony Watts’s blog, Watts Up With That?

Heffernan reckons that Whats Up With That presents credible science. This is a blog that argues that Venus is hot, not because of the greenhouse effect, but because of the high pressure in the atmosphere (so hence Jupiter and Saturn are the hottest planets right?) . Look:

If there were no Sun (or other external energy source) atmospheric temperature would approach absolute zero. As a result there would be almost no atmospheric pressure on any planet -> PV = nRT

Only if there was no such thing as gravity. Air pressure is determined by the weight of the column of air above a particular point. If the pressure is insufficient to support that column, then gravity compresses the column, decreasing the volume and increasing the pressure until it is enough to support the column. So if you turned off the Sun and cooled down the atmosphere, the pressure would not change. Actual credible science on this from Chris Colose is here. Again, this isn’t “bad-faith moral authority”, physics tells us what the right answer is, while Watts Up With That consistently gets it wrong. For example, accusing NOAA scientists of fraud, arguing that “up is flat“, hiding the decline in snow cover, and fabricating false temperature trends. And if you want more, Peter Sinclair’s video debunking Watts was so good that Watt’s abused the DMCA to try to have it supressed.

Via Andrew Sullivan, David Dobbs:

Heffernan makes two main points.

1. She found the science blogosphere, esp as represented by ScienceBlogs is cacaphonous and of uneven quality.

My comment: This is neither novel nor surprising.

2. She was “nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings” in their reaction to what has become known, more or less tongue-in-cheek, as PepsiGate.

The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don’t quit anytime there’s an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked “this is an advertisement.”

My comment: Obviously I differ with her on this, as I felt strongly enough about Seed’s blunder to leave immediately, before almost anyone else had, and before it was clear the reaction would be both broad and deep. You can read both my quick initial post announcing my departure — A food blog I can’t digest — and a more considered explanation at Why I’m Staying Gone from ScienceBlogs. And as you can read below, I’m not the only one, even among “legacy media,” types (I write for the same sorts of outfits Heffernan does, including the New York Times Magazine), who thought the transgression was serious enough to warrant leaving.

NeuroDojo:

You remember Virginia Heffernan’s New York Times article on science blogging last week? Yeah. It was bad. She totally deserved to be called on it. She’s made at least one follow-up since, but it probably ain’t going to convince many people.

I’m tellin’ ya, though… don’t brush her off completely.

Yeah, let’s criticize that she didn’t get past the first impression of science blogs. We should expect Heffernan to look before leaping – she writes for the Times, after all, which still has a certain reputation as a paper of record and quality. But let’s not pretend that her impression ain’t shared by anyone else.

For instance, she took heat for recommending a climate denialist blog. But that’s not the first time that blog got recommended by people who ought to know better. That tells me there’s something we can learn there.

When we read Heffernan’s piece, we don’t like it. She was bound to get a lot of, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” (which, like I said, she earned). But she’s not getting as much, “Would you like to learn?”

Now, because she is a public figure, and counts people like David Dobbs among her colleagues, we might be able to convince her we ain’t so bad. Win for us if we do.

But a lot of us are probably just going to give her up as a lost cause. “She didn’t like the science blogosphere? Tough noogies. Good riddance.”

Bora nailed it when he wrote about the power that the Science Blogs website in particular had, but it’s true for the rest of us. There’s probably a lot of other people who have reactions like Virginia, but don’t blab about them in such a public forum. So they go away all quiet-like, and nobody makes the effort to reach out and invite them back.

We can do better than, “Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.”

Chad Orzel:

That’s where I think this incident points out a real problem: if we’re really trying to promote science, Virginia Heffernan is our target audience: she’s a smart and educated person with no science background, who would benefit from learning more about science in an informal manner. She’s one of the people we ought to be speaking to using blogging as a platform.

If we’re driving her away before she learns anything, there’s something wrong. And castigating her after the fact, essentially for being driven away, is not helping at all.

That’s what bothers me about this whole incident. Firing up people who are already interested in science and know something about it is great, but to paraphrase an Adlai Stevenson joke, we need a majority. If we want to improve the standing of science, and make the world a better place, we need to reach people like Virginia Heffernan (at the very least), and get them on the side of science.

(Of course, my calling her “half stupid” isn’t as helpful as it might be, and now I sort of regret that phrasing.)

Now, it might be that she’s really a denialist in disguise, and deliberately whipping up sentiment against ScienceBlogs for nefarious purposes. But, you know, if you always assume that people who disagree with you are acting in bad faith, you’re not going to get anywhere good. I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt on the Watts thing, especially since the other two sites she recommended are, in fact, excellent sources for people who want to learn about science.

More Myers:

Man, that Heffernan article is turning out to be such an excellent marker for stupid. Now some Catholic wanker is citing it as supporting his claim that scientists are all nasty people, claiming that the problem with science is scientists. Being Catholic, you know exactly who he is going to complain about.

Heffernan writes about the meltdown over at Science Blogs. “Science Blogs”, as you may well remember is the home of blogger PZ Myers who is famous for advancing science by desecrating the Eucharist. While Myers is the most read of the misogamists at Science Blogs, his penchant for the unpleasant is rather standard fare.

“Science Blogs” has recently seen many of its bloggers leave in protest over the addition of a new nutrition blog called Food Frontiers. Science Blogs’ sin that PepsiCo sponsors the site. It is indubitable that nobody does righteous indignation quite like the ungodly.

Wow. Every sentence is wrong.

  1. There is no meltdown. There was risk of one, but Seed got their act together, and we’re all working away productively now.
  2. Cracker abuse is so 2008. Get over it. And no, that wasn’t science, nor did I claim it was: it was a protest against the inanity of reactionary Catholics.
  3. Misogamist? Moi? I’ve been happily married for over 30 years!
  4. Nobody quit over the addition of Food Frontiers.
  5. It was not a sin that Pepsi sponsored the site. The problem was that it was not labeled as an advertisement, and blurred a boundary between advertisement and content. That’s what got people upset, as well as a pattern of infrastructure neglect.
  6. Funny about that ungodly business. I’m definitely ungodly; I’m still here. So is Greg Laden. ERV thought it was all a tempest in a teacup. Jason Rosenhouse didn’t even seem to notice. The biggest ungodliest bloggers here seem to have had a range of reactions; and several of the people who decamped were theists.

Like I said, everyone who cites the Heffernan noise positively seems to be factually incompetent, including Heffernan herself.

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