Templeton sponsors accommodationist “ads” in Smithsonian Magazine

November 20, 2016 • 10:45 am

Two days ago I was beefing about an “article” in Smithsonian Magazine in which physicist (and believer) Sylvester James Gates was interviewed about physics, and at the end espoused a harmony between science and religion. Here’s the masthead:

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-8-42-42-amI wrote a critique of that piece, concentrating on Gates’s answer to the last question, “In science, both mathematics and physics play large roles in describing and probing the earliest stages of our universe. But some people view the question of where our universe came from as the sole domain of faith or religion. What do you think about how science and faith are often pitted against each other?“.  I found Gates’s accommodationist answer lame—indeed, almost incoherent.

I took that piece to be a genuine article in Smithsonian, but it wasn’t. It was, as readers Darren and Taz noticed, as I didn’t, “sponsor content”; I simply didn’t notice this bit over the title:


Let me enlarge that little stuff at the upper right:


So what we have is a Templeton-funded ad (euphemism: “sponsor content”) masquerading as an article. (Note as well that only the last of eight questions to Gates has anything to do with the ad’s title!) So I’ll apologize for accusing Smithsonian itself for publishing an article promoting accommodationism, and chastise myself for missing the fact that the piece was an “ad”. But my criticism of the contents of the piece stands, and I still think the ad was designed to look like a real article—just like this other Templeton-funded “sponsor content” promoting the compatibility of science and religion (click to go to the article):


That interview was also conducted by Summer Ash. So what we have is two Templeton-sponsored ads in Smithsonian Magazine, both espousing harmony between science and religion, with both interviews conducted by a writer who describes herself like this:

I’m the Director of Outreach for Columbia University’s Department of Astronomy.

I’m also a freelance science writer and communicator. My work has been published in The AtlanticSmithsonianNow. SpaceScientific AmericanSlate, and Nautilus.

Note that Ash’s Smithsonian link is to another Templeton sponsored “ad”, and that Nautilus magazine was started and is sustained by grants from the John Templeton Foundation: over two million dollars in the last two years.  It’s not clear who’s paying Ash, since she’s listed with “smithsonian.com” under her name. My guess is Templeton, but it’s a bit unclear.

Reader Taz also ferreted out Smithsonian’s editorial guidelines:

As members of the American Society of Magazine Editors, Smithsonian.com adheres to the guidelines set forth by ASME; you can read the full guidelines here: http://www.magazine.org/asme/editorial-guidelines, which contain the following points:

  • Every reader is entitled to fair and accurate news and information

  • The value of magazines to advertisers depends on reader trust

  • The difference between editorial content and marketing messages must be transparent

  • Editorial integrity must not be compromised by advertiser influence

  • Marketer-provided content, including native advertising, should be prominently labeled as advertising, and the source of such content and the affiliation of the authors should be clearly acknowledged. The term “Sponsor Content,” already in use on some websites, can be used to label native advertising.

  • Native advertising should include a prominent statement or “What’s This?” rollover at the top of the advertising unit explaining that the content has been created by a marketer and that the marketer has paid for its publication

  • Native advertising should not use type fonts and graphics resembling those used for editorial content and should be visually separated from editorial content.

I suppose Smithsonian has adhered to these guidelines, but I still object to the ads. Now the onus for the tripe emitted by Gates falls not on the magazine itself (though I think they could have rejected these ads), but on the John Templeton Foundation, which continues its relentless and misguided campaign to show that religion and science are compatible. Templeton now inserts into Science magazines ads that, I claim, are deliberately designed to look like articles. Though they’re labeled as “sponsor content,” they at least fooled me—and I bet other people as well.

What I find odious about all of this are two things. First, that Templeton continues to pay huge amounts of money to persuade scientists that religion is not at odds with science, though it is in several ways (see Faith versus Fact). The organization has claimed to me that I misrepresent it, implying that they’re more engaged in promoting science than pushing accommodationism. And yes, they do promote science, but their main aim, which seems unchanged, is to promote religion and science together as a Happy Package.

Second, I find it disturbing that the Director of Outreach for Columbia University’s Department of Astronomy is making bucks on the side promoting science and religion for Templeton. Were I an member of Columbia’s Astronomy department, I’d be a bit miffed by this, for it besmirches the pure science produced by that group.

13 thoughts on “Templeton sponsors accommodationist “ads” in Smithsonian Magazine

  1. This is why I no longer subscribe to The Smithsonian, and subscribe to Scientific American, instead. They do have sponsor-written sections, but they’re pretty obvious and they don’t promote science and religion as a “Happy Package.” (I like that phrase. I hope you don’t mind be borrowing it.)

    1. Unfortunately Smithsonian had some good astrobiology in it. Nautilus too of course, but the obvious Templeton plant would nauseate me to read it; Caleb Scharf is welcome to it.

      More problematic is the Templeton plant in the NASA astrobiology blog Many Worlds. And now this.

      Templeton is all over the place with essentially the same wishful text: ‘science and religion is best buddies’. It has become the Cut & Pasta Monster, except it has no meatballs in it.

  2. The label “Series made possible by the JTF” makes it look they’re sponsoring something rather more neutral than one of their own ads. It looks to me like it is deliberately designed to be misleading.

  3. Dang. Just yesterday I signed up for email notifications from Nautilus since its content seemed pretty interesting and wide ranging. Just a moment ago, after reading this post, I unsubscribed. Perhaps WEIT had previously mentioned Nautilus as being Templeton-sponsored; if so, at the time I wasn’t familiar with the magazine and made no mental note. And the NASA astrobiology blog?! They have no shame. These parasitic stealth tactics used by the Templeton Foundation are reprehensible. Someone should compile an SPLC-like “Watch List” of groups and publications that have been parasitized by Templeton with sponsorship of any kind, stealth ads, or any other dishonest and devious tactics.

  4. What self-respecting magazine publishes ads that go against their best interests? This is like The Lancet placing an advertorial for diluted arnica, The Guardian promoting the Sun, or Vatican Today placing a page-sized promotion for Islamic Awakening.

  5. Meh. I’ve subscribed to Smithsonian for over 30 years. I used to like how the articles went on and on and on. They were very thorough. Not so much these days.

    However, the ads, oy vey! They were all over the place from good stuff to literal junk. They didn’t seem to care so long as the ad paid. So, I ignored the ads. Nothing new to see here, same old Smithsonian ads.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *