Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Pepsico Controversy

Many of the science blogs I follow are hosted by ScienceBlogs - stalwart, dependable blogs like Laelaps, Tetrapod Zoology, and Pharyngula. It's a great place to keep abreast of science news and get the perspectives of a number of science writers, working scientists, and academics. Many of the blogs at SB are clearly labors of love, yet also reflect a high degree of professionalism. They set a standard I hold myself to here at LITC, with admittedly varied success.

It's pretty disappointing that Seed Media Group, who runs ScienceBlogs, has seen fit to give Pepsico space to write about "the science behind the food industry’s role in addressing global public health challenges." The same description admits that the blog is "an extension of PepsiCo’s own Food Frontiers blog." I'm not going to post a link to it. You can find it if you want to. It comes with the typical disclaimers about conflicts of interest, which are hollow.

I don't think I'm speaking too rashly when I say that it's outrageous. A company that pumps out millions of calories of junk food a year - that's a conservative estimate - has no business sharing space with honest-to-gosh science blogs. Science, after all, is the pursuit of the bare truth. And those truths don't always square with corporate interests. They certainly don't square with those of a junk food corporation.

So I support Scicurious for taking a hiatus, or David Dobbs and Brian Switek from Laelaps for jumping ship altogether. And I support all of those who haven't made such moves, and are surely trying to change Seed's mind.

It's hardly a shocking move on Pepsico's part. They'll adapt as needed to sustain themselves, and advertising means more than billboards and TV spots these days. They clearly saw this as a way to put their name in front of more eyeballs and, perhaps, garner an air of scientific legitimacy from the average reader who stumbles upon the blog by googling "artificial sweetener." Pepsico is just jumping on an opportunity. You can't try a cheetah for murdering an antelope.

But that antelope would rightfully be called foolish for walking up to the cheetah and laying down. The desperation for money in a shrinking economy that drove Pepsico's decision is surely what led Seed to theirs. It probably was not arrived at with any great enthusiasm. Hopefully they see now that it's no solution at all.

UPDATED 2:42 PM: Switek is gone and will announce Laelaps' new home soon, likely via Twitter.

UPDATED 7/8/10 1:30PM: As David Tana wrote today and PZ Myers announced at Pharyngula, Pepsico has slunk off to go back to blogging on its own server space. Saith PZ, "I agree that scientists in industry must be part of the discussion. However, putting that discussion in the framework of an industry-sponsored infomercial compromises it — there are just too many constraints on what could be said."

It's true: scientists aren't automatically tarnished because they work in industry. After all, shareholders aren't going to stand for rotten or distorted results any more than the public is. The issue here is that it's an improper forum, and let's be honest: those shareholders' concern isn't honest writing on ScienceBlogs. Is there going to be a single scientific paper that utterly obliterates Pepsico? Probably not. But corporations have a pretty awful track record with science.

It's not a new battle, it's not ending soon, and this probably won't change the game. But it's heartening to know that concerned writers were able to change the mind of their management, and that now Seed is going to have to be more open about its methods of bringing in money. PZ seems pretty optimistic about it, and I think rightly so. He writes that he doesn't believe "that PepsiCo in this case was interested in a genuine dialog..." It would be great if this controversy did result in a greater awareness among SB readership about the rough waters all forms of media are facing, and they can be part of a genuine dialog about better ways forward. It's just a shame that it's cost SB a fair number of good writers.

1 comment:

  1. According to PZ, it looks like things may turn out alright.


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