Oy vey—a glossy Templeton-funded “science” magazine

May 7, 2013 • 12:49 pm

Yesterday’s New York Times reports on the arrival of a new science magazine: Nautilus: Science Connected. The NYT piece,”A glossy science magazine or a living fossil?“, notes that the magazine is funded by the Templeton Foundation (in fact, there’s no mention of any other funding), will appear quarterly on paper for a fee of $49/year, and has a free online version (first issue here).

I’m biased against Templeton because of their past history of suborning science in the service of faith, but this magazine looks like more of the same. The first online issue, called “What makes you so special? The puzzle of human uniqueness,” is right up Templeton’s alley. There’s an interview with Frans de Waal that, although arguing for an evolutionary origin of human morality, includes a hefty dose of atheist-bashing, and a number of small pieces on biology and physics that, to my mind, are rather superficial. Mercifully lacking is any overt accommodationism, so while I judge the magazine relatively free of faith-osculation, it’s not impressive vis-à-vis the science.  Nautilus is in fact reminiscent of Templeton’s moribund “Big Questions Online” site, which paid hefty sums to writers, but rarely posted anything. I don’t know anyone who looks at it or even mentions it.

As the NYT notes, it’s not a good time to introduce a glossy science magazine, since in recent years many of them, like Omni, Science 79, and Science Digest, have gone belly-up. Others, like Discover, are struggling. The Times blames stiff competition from other magazines like National Geographic, as well as from blogs, TED talks, and the proliferation of online science journalism; and I think they’re right. What is not mentioned is that these alternative sources are not only free, but meatier than the first online issue of Nautilus. Who wants to pay $49/year for a glossy, Templeton-funded magazine when you can get better content for free?

The Times does address the issue of Templeton editorial control, claiming it’s nonexistent:

Mr. [John] Steele, 60, who studied philosophy before an eclectic career that included being a gofer for Walter Cronkite and the Rome bureau chief for NBC, hatched the idea for Nautilus a year ago, after the death of a colleague reminded him, as he says, that life is not a dress rehearsal. [JAC note: John Steele is owner, founder and publisher of Nautilus].

. . . He shopped his idea to the Templeton Foundation, perhaps best known for its annual $1.7 million prize for the advancement of spirituality (this year’s winner was Desmond M. Tutu) but also an enthusiastic supporter of what it calls Big Ideas.

It is viewed with suspicion in some scientific circles as having a religious agenda. Mr. Steele said that other than approving the concept, it had no editorial input.

The grant gives the staff time to build an audience, to gather data to present to potential advertisers, and to figure out how to make money, Mr. Steele said.

I find the “no editorial input” caveat a bit disingenuous. Sure, Templeton may not tell them what to write, but you can bet that Nautilus‘s funding will continue only if they publish content friendly to the Foundation.  After all, the Foundation’s information about David Thomas, Templeton’s director of “cultural engagement,” says this:

Mr. Thomas takes a passionate interest in new media and the ways in which technology is changing our world. He advocates at the Foundation for innovative approaches to outreach and facilitating a global conversation about the Big Questions. These endeavors include Big Questions Online and the Nautilus digital publication.

That sounds like Templeton is a wee bit more engaged than simply providing funds.

At any rate, I predict that the paper magazine will be dead within a year and the online site will become very quiet, like “Big Questions Online.” I also surmise that the magazine pays its authors substantially more than do competing sites and magazines.

UPDATES: And here you go, right on Templeton’s front page:

Screen shot 2013-05-07 at 4.06.48 PMFinally, an interview of Amos Zeeberg by “Communications Breakdown” at SciLogs at reveals this:

CB: Did Templeton provide all of the financial backing for the project? And were they only providing start-up funds, or will they be funding the project moving forward? Will Nautilus rely on advertising or subscriptions to generate revenue?

Zeeberg: The Templeton Foundation provided all of the money for our launch and for the initial operation of the magazine. We hope they’ll fund us further, and we also are getting revenue from advertising and potentially other foundations.

In the near term, all our content is free, so there are no subscription costs, but I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility over the mid-to-long term.

CB: Has Templeton had any editorial involvement, or have they given you full independence in terms of shaping what Nautilus will and won’t do?

Zeeberg: They had some input in working out, with John, the editorial purview of the magazine – that we’d be covering big questions in science in a thoughtful, philosophical way. Nothing beyond that; nothing in the month-to-month work.

That’s a weird way to hand out grants: first giving them and then helping the grantee work out what direction the funded operation—the magazine—is going to go.  But that’s what one expects from Templeton.

A “hope for further Templeton funding” + help with “working out the editorial purview of the magazine” = bad news for science.

25 thoughts on “Oy vey—a glossy Templeton-funded “science” magazine

  1. templeton just saved me $49. Always a sucker for new Science mags, I was getting set to subscribe when I saw That name. I backed up fast. So much for sneakiness….

  2. I had a look at the Online Edition. The only remarkable thing about it is how dull it is. Nothing new that isn’t already covered much better by several quality science blogs and publications. For this reason, I don’t think it will last.

  3. I read the NY Times headline only and got excited because I thought it was an article about the mollusk, I looked further and was disappointed that it was a magazine and now after reading this, I’m completely dismayed that it is a Templeton production.

      1. Oh good the mollusc is there! That’ll teach me for not opening things (I must be the anti-Pandora)

  4. huh. I checked it out the other day and thought it looked interesting, if a little Utne-ish, and I completely missed the Templeton connection.

    They had an online “preview issue” which contained an amazing article by a guy who studies the cephalopod Nautilus, and I thought it one of the best internet reads ever.


  5. First of all I was very disappointed with the magazine, which is poorly written and illustrated and the connection with the Tempelton Foundation , who I find to be an organization that is a danger to real scientific research. However, I did enjoy the atheist Frans de Waal interview and I know quite a few atheists who enjoy his writings. He is an atheist accomodationist but his anti-religion values still stand out in his newest book. He has admirers like Faye Flam and Guy P. Harrison who have enjoyed his latest book. I am going to hope that Sean has made a mistake with Templeton because I idolize his science work and his stance as an atheist. He must have a good reason for his participation.

    1. That de Waal interview had a few wtf moments for me. For example, he rightfully refutes Collins’ claim that “you can’t explain morality with evolution” and then says:

      “He (Collins)must have read the wrong books. There has been a spate of books, starting with The Selfish Gene, that told us evolution cannot explain morality, that we’re born selfish and we don’t know where our morality comes from.”

      Wait, what? Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene was about how we’re all born selfish and therefore we don’t know where our morality comes from? De Waal states this … and then has the NERVE to bash Richard Dawkins?

      If you’re going to write a book which makes a point of going after the New Atheists it would be a good idea to make it sound like you’ve made a point of reading them. Not good.

      I also wasn’t thrilled with the interviewer Paulson trying to coax de Waal into admitting to holding to a form of spiritual transcendence. Of course that’s Paulson’s — and Templeton’s — schtick.

      1. I believe de Waal has been saying this for years–that Dawkins’s “selfish gene” concept predicts that we should all behave selfishly. That, of course, is a misconception (one endlessly corrected by Dawkins), but one in which de Waal persists despite correction. I think there’s one YouTube video in which he says this in front of Richard and is smartly corrected.

        1. Yes, the uncut interview with Dawkins and de Waal which was filmed for the Channel 4 series The Genius of Charles Darwin, They fleshed out in detail the concept of The Selfish Gene and seemed to reach a mutual understanding.
          This new reversal to straw man arguments by de Waal really shakes the principle of charity, it’s hard not to conclude an intentional effort to obfuscate and lie.

          1. There is an interview with de Waal recently on the Pod Delusion (great podcast by the way) in which he accuses Dawkins and Pinker of having a top down Freudian view of morality which he says is nonsense.

            He then goes on to offer an “alternative” view of morality and altruism which could have been lifted directly from the Selfish Gene.

            He’s either never read it (so he shouldn’t be so shrill in denouncing it), never understood it (so he’s an idiot) or is wilfully misrepresenting it (so he’s dishonest).

            There is no charitable interpretation!

  6. That is an extremely ugly masthead (I think that’s the word), black and yellow for poison – appropriate.

  7. This is a bit of a non-seq, but there’s some interesting Templeton discussion going on over at http://leiterreports.typepad.com/ right now. The philosophers seem worried about the influence of all the Templeton money pouring into their field, and the influence it might have on the direction of future research. Others (who mostly seem to have received Templeton funding, interestingly!) argue that money is money.

    1. Me too! How dare they besmirch the good name of my favourite mollusc! I saw one once in Hawaii.

  8. Ed Yong over at Nat Geo’s Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science has the launch of Nautilus as the first of his Missing Links post. He makes no comment about the Templeton link, good or bad, so I won’t insult Mr. Yong here but sometimes no comment is just as damning.

    1. I believe Yong is an accommodationist. He was certainly an atheist+ sympathizer (IIRC) during their 15 minutes of fame.

      He reminds me of what Sluggy Freelance’s Kiki needs to tell the likewise capable Bun-Bun from time to time: “Stay good!”

  9. Oy vey indeed – I’ve managed to comment on 2 posts last week – so thanks so profusely for the heads up!

    The reason I did was that I noticed Carroll’s annoncement via my feed, and forgot that he has reversed his policy of dissociation from Templeton. As I remember it he has now participated in at least one Templeton-funded acommodationist conference on the future of science with the requisite religious paraphernalia.

    But it is my responsibility, and the fact is that I set myself up since I have been less than thorough checking up on where I comment the last year. Lack of time is an explanation, but not an excuse.

    The upshot is that, if the comments are still open, I have occasion to inform both Carroll’s and Nautilus’s readers what I think of the anti-science religious involvement in science!

    1. Correction: I was mistaken, the conference I was thinking of was neither Templeton funded nor laden with religious. (But philosophers – nowadays I tend to confuse those two areas. =D)

      Sorry about that!

    2. My boilerplate:

      “I am very sorry I haven’t noticed that Nautilus is funded by an anti-science religious organization, Templeton Foundation, until now. They are on record for trying to insert among what we know ideas we now know are wrong.

      Our inflationary zero energy universe, which recently both WMAP 9 year and Planck 4 year data releases tested as inflationary beyond reasonable doubt, can’t be a result of anything but a spontaneous process according to thermodynamics or it would have shown in the CMB.

      And the recent LHC Higgs field completion of the standard particle models up to 100s of GeV protects the biological EM sector of a few eV from new physics or that too would have shown in the high precision QED models. Sure, the haphazard cosmic ray hit or perhaps the minuscule heating of a dark matter particle colliding with a nucleus once in a long while. If it isn’t a biochemical mechanism, forget about it – no intercessory prayers, no souls, no eternal life, no rebirths, no homeopathy, no astrology.

      With this I want to undo the damage my comments the last week has done by supporting this ghastly site.

      If my comments happen to provoke a future response, I wish to direct such to my mail (active4ce@gmail.com) to continue the science discussion there.”

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