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Friday, July 16, 2010

Pepsi No Evil

So the web's leading science blogs hub, scienceblogs.com, tried to open a big bottle of Pepsi, but someone had shaken it up and it sprayed all over their face. Or something.

The PepsiGate Affair aka #sbfail has been covered elsewhere in great detail. Basically, SB announced they were going to host a new blog by Pepsi where Pepsi could talk about the "nutritional research" they're doing. A number of their best known bloggers decided they didn't want to be a part of that, and moved their blogs off the site. SB backtracked, and the PepsiBlog is no more, but the damage has been done.

Now that the dust has settled somewhat, I wonder: what exactly was wrong with the idea?

Well, the Pepsi blog would have been crap. Almost by definition. And the whole thing was undeniably an ill-thought decision, as shown by the fact that SB U-turned when the backlash hit. If they'd been serious, they'd have stuck to their guns.

But would it have been so bad? Take this from the response that SB made to their critics:
We think the conversation should include scientists from academia and government; we also think it should include scientists from industry.
I agree with this. It reflects the real world, and to the extent that science blogs are there to educate about science, that's a good thing. It would be lovely if all research was done by tenured academics with absolutely no ulterior motives except to uncover the truth. Unfortunately, it isn't. Most research is either done by non-tenured academics, whose ulterior motive is to advance our own careers, or by industry. (Of course most tenured academics have conflicts of interest too, but at least they could be impartial and still make a living.)

Now it could be said that industrial researchers shouldn't be bloggers because their conflict of interest is so glaring that their blogs would be mere propaganda. Well, they almost certainly would, but the point about blogging is that it's peer reviewed by default: if someone writes something crap, then either no-one will read it, or they'll criticize it, probably in the comments.

This is why if someone has a "blog" with no comments I don't think it's really a blog (comment moderation is iffy too in my book). So the fact that we're rarely perfectly impartial isn't a fatal flaw, because we get grilled. And we get grilled if we're wrong for reasons other than impartiality.

I'd love it if every major company had an official blog, so long as it had genuinely open comments, because I think they would get ripped to shreds and that would, eventually, undermine their credibility. This is presumably why most companies don't. As Jack of Kent said, "they are exposed to a huge reputational risk by seeking to blog in the full glare of the blogosphere."

Now there is a big question as to whether scienceblogs.com should play host to such blogs. I agree that it feels wrong. But I suspect that this feeling stems from the fear that it wouldn't just be a new PepsiBlog, it would also lead to a chilling effect on any of their other bloggers preventing them from criticizing Pepsi. That it would fundamentally change the character of the whole site.

If that happened, then I'd stop reading SB, and I'd hope that any blogger with integrity would quit - but let's be fair, we just don't know whether it would have happened or not. And if it didn't, what harm would have been done? The non-Pepsi blogs would be able to continue blogging as happily as ever, PepsiBlog would get ripped to shreds, and Pepsi would, I suspect, have pulled it before too long anyway, realizing it had become a joke.

SB's pristine reputation for only hosting the best science would be dirtied. But I'm not sure that reputation was intact anyway. Look at Pharyngula. Let's be honest, most Pharyngula posts are not actually about science, they're about religion. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's one of the leading blogs of its kind, but it's pretty obvious that the reason SB host it is because it brings in a ton of hits, and hence advertising money. And the owners of ScienceBlogs have allowed advertisers to dictate editorial policy before (personally I find this incident more disturbing than the Pepsi one).

In my mind, there is however, one excellent reason for opposing the PepsiBlog, and that's that it is a slippery slope away from high quality writing. As it stands, SB recruits blogs on merit. At least nominally. Maybe they also accept sexual favors. But not openly. Pharyngula has plenty of merit, although as I said, it's not exactly science, but that's the big difference between Pharyngula and a corporate blog: Pharyngula brings in the hits because it's good at what it does.

The PepsiBlog, while not a disaster in itself, would have sent the signal that you don't need to be good to blog at SB, you can also blog there if you're rich. This would have inevitably led to the erosion of SB's own reputation, which was extremely good until this happened because most of their blogs were excellent. The very fact that there has been such outcry over all this proves it - people didn't expect this from SB because we thought: they are above this.

SB was a great site. It may still be one, I hope it is, and I suspect they have learned their lesson now. If not, then the biggest damage from PepsiGate will be that we've lost a great site. But I don't think that's happened yet. SB still has a lot of great blogs, although it has just lost some of its best, but I for one am hopeful that it will recover.

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