Massimo calls out Templeton

November 10, 2011 • 5:44 am

Well, Massimo Pigliucci and I have had our differences, but we’re together on one issue.  According to Rationally Speaking, Massimo found out that the publisher of an academic book he was writing wanted to co-publish it with the John Templeton Foundation. After doing some poking around on the Templeton website (I’d recommend this only to those with a strong stomach), Massimo declined. He found too much woo, too much invidious political conservatism, too much dubious “scholarship.” Go read what he found.

And then he questions some of his colleagues who take Templeton money about why they did it. We hear the usual dissimulations and rationalizations, and Massimo calls them out, listing the three reasons he hears most often:

* “I’m independent anyway.” The first response is that there is a distinction between the agenda of the funding source and what one does as an independent scholar. This is certainly true, and I was assured (and have no reason to doubt) that Templeton would have had no editorial say whatsoever in what I would have written in my book. Then again, research into the practice of science does show that the source of one’s money makes a difference (often unconsciously) on the outcome. The case in point is that of medical research that is much more likely to find a given drug effective if the researchers received funding from the pharmaceutical industry rather than from government agencies. At the very least one ought to be aware of the danger and not just dismiss the possibility out of hand. (This, of course, is a separate point from the one I made above concerning one’s name lending credibility to an institution whose ideological positions one may not share.)

I’ve found this first reason the most common. Templeton’s endowment is said to be around a billion dollars, and they dispense $70 million dollars per year to scientists purporting to answer “The Big Questions.”  Among scientists who take Templeton money are the physicist Brian Greene (it funds his World Science Festival) and Martin Nowak at Harvard, whose research center nabbed an astounding $10.5 million over four years. And even the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has an 18-year, $5.3 million dollar grant from Templeton to promote a “dialogue on science, ethics, and religion.”

As to whether the money corrupts the research of its recipients, who knows? Of course they’ll deny it, but so do politicians who take money from lobbyists and PACs.  As Massimo points out in the comments, the effect of Templeton funding on research outcome hasn’t been studied. We do know that Templeton fundees often produce books that are completely congenial to Templeton’s aims: these include recent books by Elaine Ecklund and Martin Nowak.  Ecklund, in particular, seems to have consistently  misrepresented her research findings to convey the impression that scientists are more religious and spiritual than we think. And there’s at least one instance in which Templeton apparently vetted for approval the contents of a book it funded: Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct.

But we really don’t need to know the effect on research to point out that taking money from a right-wing organization, one that unashamedly promotes pure woo as well as science, gives the appearance of conflict. And it’s that appearance that should be reason enough to abjure Templeton funds.

Massimo continues:

* “It’s the same with the federal government.” NIH, NSF and other governmental agencies also have agendas, the argument goes, because the federal government has an agenda, and these days that agenda is significantly tilted toward an anti-science, pro-religion trajectory, largely because of the influence of Congressional Republicans. I find this argument rather specious. I am not aware of any evidence of this sort of influence in the pattern of NSF funding (with which I am most familiar), and that’s probably because there are many layers between Congressional Republicans and, say NSF or NIH officers, and because the funding process is entirely handled by professional scientists. Of course, one could very reasonably question funding amounts and priorities at the level of the entire federal research budget, and that discussion would indeed be political and ideological. But at the very least we are talking about a government of elected officials, not a private outlet that is free to push whatever agenda it wishes to push. There is also, of course, the question of whether a scientist should accept money from specific federal agencies whose goals may be ethically questionable, such as the Department of Defense. And indeed I am sympathetic toward scientists who do reject such funding, and somewhat critical of those who accept it.

* “Someone else would do it anyway.” This is the ethically most naive response I have encountered. First, this may not be true, as Templeton has gained influence and credibility precisely because a good number of legitimate scientists and other scholars have accepted their money. The Discovery Institute (the Intelligent Design “think” tank based in Seattle), on the contrary, has not succeeded in part because legitimate scientists have ostracized them. Second, one’s integrity is not helped, nor is one’s ethical responsibility diminished, by the thought that someone else would have stepped in and gotten the money, so we might as well. If we adopted that sort of standard, all kinds of unethical behavior would become acceptable on pragmatic grounds, the academic version of realpolitik.

To paraphrase Richard Dawkins on why he wouldn’t debate William Lane Craig, “It looks good on Templeton’s c.v., not so much on yours.” Scientists who take Templeton money become prize horses in their Augean Stable, trotted out on the Templeton website and paraded around to show the scientific credibility of the organization.

Massimo then asked his erstwhile editor a question:

. . . why exactly do you guys need the JTF, particularly as you have an excellent reputation and the JTF people will have no editorial input into the series? Answer: because Templeton has money, and money buys publicity, and publicity sells books. There is capitalism at work, my friends.

As I pointed out in a comment on Massimo’s site, the argument that “I’m independent and the money is being put to good use” is disingenuous.  How odious must a funding source be before a scientist will refuse to take money from it? Would you take money from the Council of Conservative Citizens (a descendant of the White Citizens Council) to study ethnic differences?  Lots of scientists take money from the Defense Department; I wouldn’t.

The fact is that scientists are so greedy for grants, and the funding climate is now so dreadful that no matter how tainted one’s grant money will be, scientists will always line up with their hands out, eager to receive the largesse.  And they’ll always be able to rationalize it.  As Darwin said about another issue, “Great is the power of steady misrepresentation.”

Once again (and probably in vain), I call upon my scientific colleagues to reject money from the Templeton Foundation.  And if they do take it, as have Martin Nowak and Brian Greene, I ask them to publicly justify how they can take the money in light of the other conservative and pro-woo activities of Templeton.

With Templeton, it’s always about the money.  We’ve known this for a long time, and it’s curious that it took Massimo so long to realize it. Maybe he hasn’t been paying attention, but kudos to him for calling Templeton out.

h/t: Michael

40 thoughts on “Massimo calls out Templeton

    1. The Koch brothers are their own problem too… I see their names slathered all over Museum exhibits and PBS shows like Nova and Nature. I hope that they’re being careful when taking those guy’s money.

  1. As I’ve mentioned here before, in the case of Dr. Francisco Ayala, he was already wealthy before receiving the Templeton money. He donated all of the Templeton money to his school, so it is hard to make a case that Dr.
    Ayala was corrupted by cash.

    Still, I think it is a bit unseemly for a scientist to accept money from such an organization.

    1. When a scientist does not support what the Templeton Foundation stands for and yet takes their cash in exchange for allowing their name and credentials to be affiliated with that organization, it is a problem. When a scientist supports the goals of Templeton and accepts money, I don’t see a problem with that. I certainly was not shocked when Ayala took the money. If Dawkins took their money, there would be a huge gasp throughout the world. I was disappointed when Brian Greene took the cash (even though he used the money to fund his festival), because I don’t think he’s religious.

      1. I don’t see how a credible scientist can support the goals of Templeton, since its goal is to mix science with woo, conflating the factual with the superstitious.

        Brian Green, as far as I know, is an atheist. I suspect that Ayala is an atheist, too, but he’s always steadfastly refuse to divulge what he believes. He used to be a Dominican priest, but gave that up.

        1. But if Francis Collins, who believes in woo, takes their money I don’t bat an eyelash. I wish he didn’t believe in woo, but he does and Templeton’s goals appeal to him. It’s not hypocrisy when people like Collins do it. It was hypocrisy when Greene did it.

          I’ve always had the impression that Ayala is a NOMA kind of guy, so his taking the money was a bit of a problem because Templeton wants to overlap science and religion. I could be wrong about Ayala, but he gives me the impression that he still has warm fuzzies for the catholic church.

          1. It’s not just the woo, it’s the dangerous woo. Lending credibility to an organization that promotes climate-change denialism is not cool.

          2. One really nice thing about Ayala was that he gave 100% of his $1.5M Templeton Prize money to funding UCI biology grad students. This I think was a better use than refusing it. In effect, it was “laundered” by first being accepted by Ayala. The gift was from Ayala to UCI not Templeton to UCI. A very bright silver lining.

      2. I can’t imagine that everybody at the Perimeter Institute is happy with the $2 million grant it received from the Templeton Foundation.

  2. ” . . . it’s curious that it took Massimo so long to realize it. Maybe he hasn’t been paying attention, but kudos to him for calling Templeton out.”

    For about the last ten I’ve read (online and hard copy in Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic) a substantial number of his columns on various topics. I have the distinct impression that he had given a good idea of his stand on Templeton. But maybe I’m wrong; I can’t quote chapter and verse from memory.

    Maybe somebody needs to hire on to help him more appropriately prioritize his “To Do” list 😉 As the Old Marine said, “Everybody rides the bucking horse better than the guy riding it.”

  3. I’d be shocked if a scientist offered money to support writing a book were significantly motivated to change the material in that book based on Templeton’s influence. The worst that could happen would be a slight soft pedaling of certain aspects of the book, and even that is unlikely because Templeton undoubtedly picks out scientists who are already friendly to their position.

    …but I’d also be shocked if accepting Templeton money didn’t have a psychological effect on that scientist’s later work. Knowing that you have a patron, and that the patron will be upset and cut you off if you write certain things, can have no effect BUT to alter your perception. And worst of all, it can happen insidiously, with you not realizing why you find yourself more friendly towards the goals of the organization giving you money.

  4. In one of my comments on this website, some time ago, I predicted that Massimo Pigliucci would be collecting some Templeton money some day.
    I stand corrected.

  5. Argh! I went to look at the JTF website, and what do I find:

    “New Directions in the Study of Prayer” (http://www.ssrc.org/programs/new-directions-in-the-study-of-prayer), which is offering twenty to twenty-five research grants, ranging from $50,000 to $200,000!

    If theology departments want to investigate this, then let them knock themselves out doing it, by why would anyone with a scientific bone on their body want to waste their time doing this sort of research?

    As for the “New Directions” part of it, is there a new way of praying that we haven’t been told yet? Can I get some funding for my project: “Prayer: It doesn’t work but it makes some people feel warm and fuzzy” ? Kerching!

    1. …why would anyone with a scientific bone on their body want to waste their time doing this sort of research?

      Amassing a huge amount of data showing prayer doesn’t work can’t hurt…

      1. Except there is already a huge body of evidence showing prayer doesn’t work, and a handful of papers showing it does work that are now known to have been fraudulent. Why bother adding more evidence against prayer when that evidence is going to be ignored anyway? (It would be like independently replicating Kimura’s papers because then the creationists will believe it.)

          1. Scientific study? No way. For any scientific study you need some kind of theory, a mechanism, a model, that you would like to investigate. For intercessory prayer there is absolutely no mechanism one can imagine that would transmit the ideas or action of someone mumbling something to oneself and the recovery of a hospital patient at the other end of the world (and who is not aware of being prayed for). I believe the Spaghetti Monster website has a few examples of such screwball research ideas. The way aspirin works was not understood for a long time, but there was a physical model–that of biochemical and physiological reactions–that made trying to understand how aspirin works complete sense. The intercessory prayer project funded by the Templeton Foundation shows that in fact these people haven’t a clue of how science works, or what it is.

            1. Alexander,

              I agree completely that the Templeton Foundation is in the business of doing pseudoscience with occasional grants to real scientists to make themselves look credible.

              But your definition of science is too rigid. You don’t need a working theory before you do research. Many of the great scientific discoveries were complete surprises — and I don’t just mean experiments that failed to conform to theoretical expectations, but experiments that unveiled findings that the researchers weren’t even looking for. Examples: Penzias and Wilson’s discovery of cosmic background radiation, Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars, Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays.

              To be fair, there was a Big Bang theory among cosmologists at the time of the CMBR discovery, but Penzias and Wilson were not looking for it and did not realise what they had discovered until the significance of the finding was pointed out to them by a friend. Neither Burnell for Roentgen nor anyone else had developed any theoretical models predicting pulsars or X-rays.

              In short, science does not require that theory precede experiment.

              1. Chris:

                Examples: Penzias and Wilson’s discovery of cosmic background radiation, Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars, Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays.

                The two first ones are examples where researchers were looking for a radio signal–a very specific phenomenon. Penzias and Wilson looked for the source of hiss in very sensitive communication systems, and they found one possible source, the Cosmic Background Radiation, just like WWII British radar operators quickly noticed the radio waves coming from the sun. Bell looked for distant radio sources, and found that some of them pulsed in a very regular fashion. Both had a model based on physics, looking for radiation sources, which as a bonus, had some interesting properties. Roentgen’s discovery was serendipity (he did not do an experiment), but he still discovered that a type of radiation caused the blackening of film. Just like the discovery of supernovas can be serendipity, they are not experiments set up. But what is the physical phenomenon (causal link) the intercessory prayer experiment was expected to find? No more than the the causal link between me dropping a pencil and somebody in Paris burning his tongue on soup that is too hot.

  6. As to whether the money corrupts the research of its recipients, who knows?

    Well, as Massimo points out, studies about source funding and results have been done in the pharmaceutical field and they show a measurable bias. Source matters. I can’t see any reason why this field would be different enough that those conclusions wouldn’t apply.

    But there are multiple methods of addressing this. First, reporting funding sources becomes extremely important, as just knowing there will be a bias can help journal editors and reviewers be more critical. Second, as you say Jerry, private investors can follow the NSF method: the investor lays out the subject area they want researched – i.e., sets some boundary conditions – but then employs an independent group of scientists to do the actual project selection. Third, there may be ways to pool money to reduce or eliminate bias. For example, JTF could join with some pro-atheist group to hand out grants studying how science and religion interact. Scientists taking such grants will feel less subconscious pressure to come up with an answer one way or the other, since funding is from both ‘pro’ and ‘con’ sources. And the JTF can’t very well object to such pooling without admitting that people taking their money will be more likely to give them answers they want.
    Last suggestion I’ve heard, which probably doesn’t apply here but can elsewhere: insist as a prerequisite to funding that all tests/trials be declared before they are run. Any test run but not published is counted as evidence against. This prevents scientists from skewing reported results by simply not reporting the results they don’t like.

    Anyway, that’s a long-winded way of saying the problem exists but is probably treatable. Given the right safeguards, I’d have no problem with a scientist taking JTF funding.

    1. I would say the problem is not so much treatable as able to be accounted for. And the Templeton model of funding does not help.

    1. Satan has always been terrible at raising money for his organization. Jehovah has always been the top runner on sacrifices; whether human, goat, or hard cash. Just look at his finesse in those “Mr. Diety” videos.

  7. There may be a fourth reason atheists take money from Templeton:

    “My contribution may help to shift the Templeton Foundation — and those who follow it — away from both pseudoscientific woo and the assumption that science and faith are compatible. They want a “dialogue?” Ok. Let’s give them a real dialogue and bring metaphysical naturalism into the conversation, letting the chips fall where they may. They’re using science. They’re in trouble. Sooner or later they’re going to have to start backtracking and I’m helping from the inside.”

    IIRC, Michael Shermer made an argument like this. It’s similar I suppose an atheist going on invitation into an “interfaith” forum, announcing their atheism, explaining why it’s not a “faith” — and then letting them have it.

    Ok, I’m not unsympathetic to this motivation. I think there are fewer ethical problems here than in the 3 rationalizations Drs. Massimo put out. My biggest concern is that it’s naive. Who is using whom?

    1. Judging by the website and who Templeton funds, this argument really is naive: they’re still funding woo at an alarmingly high rate. I think that’s just an excuse to get your hands on some Templeton bucks.

      1. I’d add something more to this.

        Tearing down the nonsense that Templeton promotes doesn’t require anywhere near the budget of the grants they fund. All you have to do is point out the idiocy of thinking there’s some sort of “Truth” to a story about an enchanted garden with talking animals and an angry giant. See? No multimillion-dollar grant needed.

        Merely taking the stage to argue against them grants them a huge sense of legitimacy they don’t nearly deserve.

        Dr. Pigliucci’s actions in the matter at hand have done far more to discredit Templeton than anything he possibly could have done by attempting to subvert them from the inside with their money.

        Cheers,

        b&

      2. Maybe, but I could at least conceive of someone making this argument sincerely. I can also conceive of the strategy working over time — though this is more of a stretch.

        Whenever a faith-based organization tries to gain credibility by using real scientists and real science, they’re eventually going to be in trouble. Supernatural hypotheses run the gamut from being unnecessary, to being wrong, to being not even wrong. Apologists are scientifically “safer” when they make a big song and dance about religion needing faith and separate magisteria and a long, long distance from science and its rigorous and objective methods of critical inquiry. Otherwise they’re on a collision course.

        The problem of course is whether they can keep the virtue once the results don’t come out “right.” Look at Biologos: the relatively sane are either dropping out or being kicked out or a bit of both.

        1. Sastra, that ‘change from the inside’ strategy could work for the first grant or for one-off grants. But it becomes very problematical when you consider potential conditions on grant renewal. With each consecutive renewal, its going to become harder and harder for the academic to say something he/she thinks is going to jeopardize his/her now steady source of income.

          Bias creeps in. Not just at the start, but slowly, over time, because the longer your receive that steady income, the more of your academic position becomes invested in maintaining it.

          1. I agree. One of the way Templeton tries to wedge its way into the hearts and minds of rational skeptics is by their appeal to the need for an “open mind” on the question. “We haven’t completely made our minds up — have you?”

            Scientific inquiry is open and above board. The superficial similarity between what a scientist means by an “open mind” and what the woosters mean by an “open mind” is easy to gloss over I think when money is on the line. It’s also very seductive to try to align oneself with the “middle” position between “extremes.” Methinks those “extremes” are going to start creeping further and further apart, and what was once considered extreme itself will start to look moderate.

  8. I think there’s too much good research — especially in the area of evolutionary study of religion, which in the long run is of far greater value than the endless cycle of mere debating the existence of god — enjoying funding from Templeton to be so absolutely condemnatory of it for the — as Alex Rosenbeg aptly puts it in his recent book, the fun and penetrating ATHEIST’S GUIDE TO REALITY –“mystery mongering” stuff it indeed also funds. I’m thinking of folks like, for instance, Roy Baumeister, Alfred Mele, Christopher Boehm, Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, and, despite what Coyne has expressed about them at this blog, Jonathan Haidt and DS Wilson.

    1. The weird thing though is how the findings on the “evolutionary study of religion” are often spun. It’s like those alt med papers which report a result equal to placebo as a vindication of the alt med — and the media buys it. The more we discover why normal people would believe in the supernatural even in the absence of the supernatural, the more it’s trumpeted as empirical evidence that God prepared us all to be people of faith.

      I recall a study which reported that small children over the world would spontaneously ask “who made the moon?” — a percentage which would shrink as the children got older. Instead of using this as evidence that such teleological questions came from an immature brain’s tendency to confuse categories, it was used by apologists as evidence that children are born “knowing” there’s a God.

      Spin matters. If Templeton funded the study, then they will likely control how the results are reported. Ambiguous language can fulfill the letter of the discovery’s import while still managing to reassure the faithful that the results come down to support for their beliefs.

  9. I really like Pigliucci’s comments. To boil them down:

    “I’m independent anyway.” Nope. If you take other people’s money, you are not independent.

    “It’s the same with the federal government.” True. If you take money from the feds, then you are not independent from them. And you should only accept that grant if you happen to agree with the philosophy and objectives of the government (easy to accept with NIH funding, not so easy with the DoD).

    “Someone else would do it anyway.” This is setting the bar for ethics at what the least ethical person in your community would do.

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