FIRE is supported by Templeton

January 31, 2019 • 1:00 pm

What do you do when an organization you admire gets money from an organization you detest? I’ve just found out that FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech group whose work I admire, has gotten lots of dough from the John Templeton Foundation. To see the article on the FIRE website, click on at the screenshot:

Gag me with a spoon! This is what FIRE writes:

“FIRE is grateful to the Templeton Foundation for its generous investment in the fight to defeat censorship and preserve academic freedom on campus,” said FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff. “The grant will give FIRE tremendous resources to engage a wider audience and better understand the current attitudes and arguments about campus rights. FIRE has been eager to pursue a project like this since our founding in 1999. The Templeton Foundation has now made it a reality.”

Businessman and philanthropist Sir John Templeton gave his foundation the motto “how little we know, how eager to learn” to exemplify its support for open-minded inquiry and the hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries. The Templeton Foundation supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. It encourages civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians, and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.

As the Templeton Foundation noted when it gave this grant in 2016, the money is $2,547836, and the grant goes from January of 2017 to December of this year. As for me, well, I’ll still report on FIRE’s activities promoting free speech on campus, but I won’t be involved with them in any other way (not that they’ve ever asked me!).


60 thoughts on “FIRE is supported by Templeton

  1. “open-minded inquiry and the hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries”

    If I follow their bait the way it is intended, I ask : since when is rejection of hypotheses because they don’t explain observation considered not “open-minded”?

    Rejecting nonsense is entirely “open-minded”

      1. But “other ways of knowing” would not be academic freedom– it would be academic incompetence. There’s a nice piece by Keith Whittington laying out what academic freedom entails up at the AAUP website. Money quote:

        Securing the right of free speech generally requires emphasizing our inability, or unwillingness, to distinguish between good and bad ideas. Academic freedom, by contrast, incorporates within itself the effort of a scholarly discipline to filter out bad ideas. Knowledge produced within a scholarly setting is routinely vetted, assessed, and, if necessary, censored. The scholars who emerge through that process can boast credentials that vouch for their expertise within their chosen discipline, and on the basis of that expertise they in turn can demand autonomy to operate within the bounds of professional norms.

        1. I see this interesting point.

          But the idea of “other ways of knowing/understanding” is nebulous because I can easily think of multiple ways to understand e.g. cancer with academic disciplines – biology, physics, chemistry, etc.

          I’m discussing the idea, bit arguing against your statements, but also finding snags with debunking the bogus claim by supernaturalists that OWOK is a green light for religion into everything.

        2. I can assure you that my college, it is a community college to be fair, absolutely considers academic incompetence to be a form of academic freedom. If that academic incompetence happens to be for religious reasons it is the most important form of free speech (and not to be criticized as criticism of religious perspectives is not protected free speech). The real world is quite shitty as academic responsibility is little valued by some.

        3. Guess we’ll see which side FIRE comes down on this next time there’s a contretemps like the one Jerry had with Ball State U and Eric Hedin.

  2. I suppose it’s a question if which is more important: the objective of the organization (in which case the source of the donations is of secondary importance), or ideological purity (in which case the source of the donations is the most important factor)?

    Put another way: If FIRE is doing work you support, does it really matter if someone else–even someone you find distasteful–also finds the organization worth supporting? It’s not like you can’t still oppose the Templeton Foundation on other fronts.

    Not to Godwin the thread, but: The USA and Nazi Germany teamed up at one point in WWII, to achieve a specific objective. This didn’t mean that either side agreed with the other (they were still trying to slaughter each other in other areas), just that the one specific objective was considered worthwhile to both parties. For that matter, WWII amounts to the capitalist West and the communist USSR accepting that sometimes people who you violently oppose are necessary allies to achieve specific short-term, high-amplitude goals.

    1. I agree. To sacrifice good work (and work that isn’t being done by many others out there) for ideological purity is a poor way to do things. I care about results, not how those results are funded (unless they’re funded unethically, but there’s nothing unethical about taking money from an organization like Templeton unless the funded party allows the donation to influence their work).

      1. The problem is that organizations tend to follow the smell of money. This can happen so subtly that even the members of the organization might not realize they are doing it.

        1. Is that happening in this case?

          If so, that’s a problem–either pressure the organization to fix that problem, or find one that doesn’t have that problem.

          If not, it’s a risk, but nothing in life is risk-free. Keep an eye on it, keep pressure on the organization to maintain high, objective standards, but otherwise accept that on occasion opponents agree on non-fundamental issues.

        2. Templeton’s funding priorities are not just goddy stuff. It supports classical liberalism projects as well; free speech, free markets, etc. So if FIRE smelled money available for that sort of thing, it is consistent with its mission.

      2. There’s a long track record, covered by our host on this website, of the distorting influence JTF money tends to exercise on the research it funds.

        Money corrupts; Templeton money corrupts absolutely more than most.

        1. I imagine that depends much more on the organization being funded than on Templeton. As someone noted below, Templeton funds programs on PBS. The Koch brothers fund many organizations, some of which they’ve had obvious influence on, and some of which they haven’t.

          I refuse to assume nefarious intentions before I see them, especially from an organization that has heretofore not displayed any.

          1. Templeton has funded some academic bullshit, see, e.g., here. Now, as to whether JTF chooses to fund bullshit projects or whether JTF money tends to corrupt the projects it funds, who’s to say?

            Anyway, I know many scientist refuse to take Templeton money out of concern for such malign influence, including our Official Website physicist, Sean Carroll, and our host while he was doing active research. And on such topics I trust Jerry’s judgment completely — as opposed to his judgment on music and movies and books and food, on which my confidence level concerning his judgment is, like, p > .05 (I mean, you know, still pretty damn high, but not absolute). 🙂

            1. I never said they didn’t fund a whole lot of academic bullshit. So do the Kochs. The Kochs also fund quite a few good things.

              I don’t really see how any of this has to do with what I said, which is that whether or not taking the donation will influence the organization depends on the integrity of the organization. And surely it’s also possible that Templeton simply sees FIRE’s mission and work as somehow helping the JTF agenda without any influence at all.

              There are multiple possible outcomes, not just the one you’re suggesting. As such, I’m not going to begin denigrating FIRE when, as far as I’m aware, they’ve had a sterling record so far. Until actual evidence of influence shows up, I will assume that FIRE will continue to be the kind of place it has been.

              1. I approve of most of what FIRE does, too. But herein out I will view its positions with a jaundiced eye. A shame that, and a self-inflicted wound.

              2. I will view it merely with a keen one. If the organization becomes corrupted, then I will view it as such. But I imagine there are quite a few organizations you support that, if you looked into their funding, you would find at least one or two people or foundations you don’t like that have donated to them.

            2. If you have ever been curious about how identitarians took over the Left, this post is a perfect demonstration. I’m not saying you’ve committed all the faults of such policies; you are, however, demonstrating the fundamental process by which such policies become acceptable, then common, than fundamental within an organization.

    2. “The USA and Nazi Germany teamed up at one point in WWII, to achieve a specific objective.”

      What was that? I’m not doubting it, just intrigued (and I can’t think of an instance).

      (I’m not referring here to the occasional operational quirk where both sides found it temporarily expedient not to interfere with each other, fascinating though those circumstances are).


      1. I think he is thinking of the battle of Schloss Itter where Americans and Germans fought along side each other briefly. But it happened right at the end of the war, after Hitler had committed suicide and days before the surrender.

        1. I just checked the Wikipedia page. It certainly was a bizarre little battle. Not just Americans and some Germans, including a Wehrmacht major who was the only casualty on the, errm, ‘Allied’ ? side, but French prisoners and Austrian resistance, versus Waffen SS.

          It’s a fascinating story, but I don’t think it really fits James’s quote about the US and Nazi Germany ‘teaming up’ for a specific objective.


        2. Thanks for filling in the blanks–I couldn’t remember the name, and my Google-fu failed me. 🙂

          To get back to the point of the discussion, let’s say this doesn’t fit my argument. There are ample examples that do. The whole “If the Devil were to fight Hitler I’d provide the pitchforks” agreement between the West and the USSR, for example. Much of the political side of the Napoleonic Wars, too. On a smaller scale, it’s not uncommon for a family member to call another for help even if they don’t like that family member; it’s common enough to be a trite sitcom trope. My argument hardly breaks new ground!

  3. I guess if FIRE has integrity and uses the Templeton loot accordingly then there shouldn’t be a problem? On the other hand, if this funding arrangement was agreed in 2016 (and came into effect the following year) but has only come to light now that could raise other issues.

  4. So long as the organization isn’t influenced by the money, I don’t really care. I haven’t noticed any discrimination in any way regarding the cases FIRE takes on, its reporting regarding academic freedom, or any other areas. They seem to take on any and all cases involving freedom of speech on campuses and I’ve never seen any evidence that they lean in any direction regarding anything they do. So long as they continue to do the fine work they’ve been doing, I don’t care if a portion of their donations come from Templeton, the Koch brothers, George Soros, etc. I would fund a cancer research center funded by the Koch brothers if it did good work.

    1. Even Bill Gates has done some worthy things with his money (and I say that as a dyed-in-the-wool Micro$oft hater 🙂


  5. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

    It may be naive to believe money can come with no strings attached.

    In my experience there are always strings. Those pesky, entangling, strings.

    1. I never sensed any strings in 37 years of being funded by the NIH and NSF; the only thing you had to do was do the research you said you were going to do, and publish that. You didn’t have to find a specific result or conform to any ideological standards.

      1. These were nice strings, and because you wanted to do and publish research anyway, you didn’t even sense them as strings (and do not now). But I fear the Templeton strings are of different nature.

        1. Or Templeton sees the work FIRE already does as somehow beneficial to their own agenda, and neither feels the need nor expect to exert any influence through their donation.

      2. I am not sure funds provided by Templeton, the Koch brothers and other extreme right wing groups allow such independence. Or at least would not continue their funding unless they approve the results.
        But I may just be reading too many books written by people that don’t like them.

        1. If you look at everything the Kochs have ever funded, it appears they’ve given donations to quite a few organizations, schools, etc. that do good work and don’t appear to have any connection to any political agenda. See mikeyc’s examples regarding cancer research above. I doubt Johns Hopkins and MIT are fudging results for the Koch brothers, and I doubt there’s some political agenda behind helping to find a cure for cancer.

        2. Also, I don’t think the Koch brothers foundation or Templeton can credibly be labeled as “extreme right wing.” The Kochs fund conservative causes when it comes to politics, while Templeton funds the religious and spiritual. There’s a big difference between “extreme right wing” and “conservative” or “religious/Christian.”

  6. I love the program NOVA on PBS and over the past year I have noticed that Templeton funds some of their programs too. Don’t like it.

  7. From FIRE’s web page:

    The Speech, Outreach, Advocacy, and Research Project (SOAR) is an ambitious three-year campaign aimed at inspiring greater understanding of and appreciation for individual rights. This project is focused on three primary initiatives: public opinion polling, legal and social science research, and outreach to high school, faculty, alumni, and public stakeholders. Through these efforts, SOAR is working to gain the knowledge and on-the-ground network necessary to effectively fight the culture of campus censorship.

    I expect Templeton gave them the grant because T. has an interest in stopping the censorship of right-wing religious expression, not because they are trying to buy a research result that supports the notion of religious beliefs being true in content.

    Still, funding source can bias research, so we should look carefully at the results (for instance, polling). I’ll also be curious to see if T. stops the grant if FIRE determines through their polling that conservative religious expression is not censored any more than other types of expression.

  8. in re “… …I won’t be involved with them
    in any other way,” that is how I operate with
    my support, $ or ideology, of other matters
    as well.

    instantiation = Mr Michael King’s ‘other’
    work outside of his / his Southern Christian
    Leadership Conference’s lifelong denigration
    of human beings who are its females.

    Before I support some person or some
    organization or some ideology ? I research
    it / its history precisely to uncover
    subtleties and hidden / masked yet nefarious
    activities. Or not.

    I have taught my three sons to do the same.
    And as adults they continue to do so now as


  9. I am reminded of Bernard Shaw’s anecdote about Major Barbara’s crisis of conscience when the Salvation Army General accepts a large contribution from a maker of cheap whisky: he was told by a real-life Major that the Sally Ann would have been only to delighted to accept the money, getting it out of the devil’s hands and into G-d’s.
    I don’t see why it shouldn’t work the other way round. Would you rather FIRE got its money from a Conservative think-tank or the Libertarians? The right is pretty keen on freedom of speech, where the left has lost itself in sectarian posturing.

    1. I have been known to donate to the Salvation Army’s appeals, because (so far as I can tell) they do genuinely good work with the down-and-outs.

      Even though I’m an atheist and even though their position on legalising voluntary euthanasia (they oppose it) is anathema to me.

      There ain’t no such thing as ideological purity in this world.

      I like Churchill’s retort when someone chided him for referring to ‘our brave Russian allies’ – “If Hitler invaded Hell I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”


    1. You’ve got to make up a budget. If it came out to an even $2,500,000 it would look contrived. Sort of like people who cheat on their taxes by inventing expense items. They never use round numbers. It’s $2518.45 for office supplies, never $2500.

  10. I think most here are giving FIRE a fair shake, and I’ll join them. I don’t think this will immediately corrupt the entire enterprise. But I also think giving them extra scrutiny in the future is completely fair. The only way to be sure is to look closely and wait.

  11. I sympathize. You’re probably feeling similarly to the way I felt when I learned that science bl*gger Ed Yong was also writing for The Nautilus. I think Templeton is out to poison everything we hold dear.

  12. The key thing to me seems not to be the money but the interference. Do Templeton interfere? If they do, then this is an issue. If John Templeton thought that free and open enquiry would lead people to god, then I dont have a problem with that. I dont think its right, but some of my best and most valued friends do manage to believe in god and remain friends with me.
    I have less of a problem with those people than those who would block free and open enquiry because they think it will lead people to believe bad things. And I know lots of people like that and a whole lot of them are secular.
    They don’t dictate my beliefs either. If I could be friends with Templeton then I dont see an issue with accepting his backing–in that spirit. If it was constrained, then I’d have an issue. Is it constrained?

    1. I suppose what I am trying to say is what is the most important value here? Of belief in god or belief in reason? I think someone can be an atheist and unreasonable (pay a call on P Z Myers if you dont believe me) and a theist and reasonable (Francis Collins or Georges Lemaître spring to mind). I’d rather spend time with a reasonable theist than an unreasonable atheist any day of the week. I can talk to the one, not to the other despite our superficial similarity. And hey, I might be wrong! (I’m not, but I might be)

  13. Why not give credit where it is due? In this case, Templeton did A Good Thing supporting FIRE which is on the front lines of the fight to defend free speech from the PC mob. There is no need to devalue FIRE in any way for accepting Templeton’s money, nor does that one act of valuable charity make up for Templeton’s sowing confusion about the relationship between faith and science.

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