Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Thoughts on the Templeton Foundation

It’s no secret that many atheists don’t much like the John Templeton Foundation (hereafter just ‘Templeton’), and have a pretty low opinion of people who accept Templeton funding and financial support. This theme cropped up in two recent blog posts – one by Jerry Coyne, the other by PZ Myers – and I want to make a few comments about both.

Coyne’s post was a response to a new website to be launched by Templeton, Big Questions Online. Coyne starts in characteristic style:
“Are you one of those indigent freelance writers, scrabbling hard to earn a pittance? Sick of magazines and newspapers that pay you jack? Well, your troubles are over—at least if you’re willing to churn out accommodationist pap. The John Templeton Foundation, through its credential-bending director of publications Rod Dreher, has announced that, if you’re willing to toe the party line, Templeton has big simoleons for writers.”
The details of the ‘pap’ writers will have to produce are provided by Dreher:
“[T]he Web publication the John Templeton Foundation will soon launch, Big Questions Online, will be paying good money for essays. We're interested in smart, insightful pieces on science, religion, markets, morals, and any combination of the four.”
Myers’ post is a long response to an essay by Ron Rosenbaum, who was one of this year’s Templeton Science and Religion Journalism Fellows. At the end, Myers writes:
“I'm not going to try to take apart every word in Rosenbaum's disjointed agglomeration of poorly thought out nonsense. But I will leave you with one little phrase from the article that tells you everything you need to know: “Having recently spent two weeks in Cambridge (the one in the United Kingdom) on a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship…” Goodnight, Ron Rosenbaum.”
I don’t think I’m misreading Myers’ comment when I say that the implication is that anyone who has anything to do with Templeton is inherently untrustworthy (intellectually) and their views can be dismissed simply by virtue of that association.

Coyne’s short post admits of two possible readings. On one, he could be taken to be saying that writing about science, religion, markets or morals is to inevitably churn out accommodationist pap (otherwise it doesn’t make sense to cite the scope of the articles Templeton are interested in as evidence that putative contributors will be required to do so). But that would be crazy talk. Joseph Henrich, for example, is one of the world’s leading anthropologists, and uses a combination of ethnographic observation, mathematical modelling and experimentation to tease apart the basic factors shaping human behaviour (I haven’t done justice to his research with this summary; check his website out for more details).

A recent paper of Henrich and colleagues, published in Science, was entitled, ‘Markets, religion, community size, and the evolution of fairness and punishment’. The abstract reads as follows:
Large-scale societies in which strangers regularly engage in mutually beneficial transactions are puzzling. The evolutionary mechanisms associated with kinship and reciprocity, which underpin much of primate sociality, do not readily extend to large unrelated groups. Theory suggests that the evolution of such societies may have required norms and institutions that sustain fairness in ephemeral exchanges. If that is true, then engagement in larger-scale institutions, such as markets and world religions, should be associated with greater fairness, and larger communities should punish unfairness more. Using three behavioral experiments administered across 15 diverse populations, we show that market integration (measured as the percentage of purchased calories) positively covaries with fairness while community size positively covaries with punishment. Participation in a world religion is associated with fairness, although not across all measures. These results suggest that modern prosociality is not solely the product of an innate psychology, but also reflects norms and institutions that have emerged over the course of human history.
Is this accommodationist pap, junk research that is of no interest to anyone but the devout wishing to reconcile science with religion? Of course not. Would I be producing worthless accommodationist garbage if I wrote a story about this sort of work for, say, Science or Nature? Again, of course not. So would it automatically become accommodationist pap if I wrote exactly the same thing for Big Questions Online? And what does writing about science, religion, markets and morals have to do with arguments about accommodationism? Indeed, Coyne seems to have moved away from principled arguments about accommodationism to simply smearing everything and anyone that has anything to do with Templeton (though as we’ll see below, his targeting of people is actually a bit selective). And if writing about science, religion, markets and morals – even for Templeton – is not intrinsically pap-worthy, then why does Coyne say, in response to calls for essays on these topics, that writers must be willing to “churn out accommodationist pap” or be “willing to toe the party line”? And finally, just what is the Templeton party line when it comes to science, religion, markets and morals? I’m genuinely interested to hear answers to these reasonable questions.

Of course, the real issue here is the Templeton Foundation – what it does, and what it’s about. The big sticking point, for writers such as Coyne and Myers, seems to be not merely the fact that many folk at Templeton hold religious beliefs, but that they argue for a compatibility between science and religion that Coyne, Myers and many others do not accept*. Richard Dawkins has criticised the organisation for trying to ride on the coat-tails of science, but I get the impression that the issue is really much deeper: that Templeton poses a threat to the conduct of science and the integrity of researchers who benefit from their funding. On the Edge website, Coyne wrote:
I absolutely agree ... that the Templeton Foundation corrupts science. It does this in two ways. First, it involves us in a dialogue that is designed to have a predetermined result: the reconciliation of science and religion. But when doing our own research, we are not committed to a specific outcome. Thus, if you're one of the many scientists who doesn't think that such a reconciliation is possible — at least not without mendacity, self-delusion, or cognitive dissonance — then it is unethical to take money from the Foundation. That is like taking money to attend a conference aimed at reconciling evolution with Intelligent Design, even if you do not think that they're compatible. (IDers think that they are.)

Second, it leads, as George Johnson has noted, to the appearance of a conflict of interest, even if the beneficiary is convinced that none exists. Even if a US Senator is predetermined by his own opinions to vote in favor of, say, drilling for oil in Alaska, it is nevertheless illegal and unethical for him to take personal money from the oil industry, and it looks bad to take campaign money from the oil industry. Scientists should be purer than Senators because it is our business to promulgate the truth, and all we have is our reputations as unsullied truth-seekers.

I am appalled at the Templeton Foundation dangling large sums of money in front of scientists. Why so much money? This can only serve, I think, to bend those people motivated by the prospect of gaining a million-plus dollars toward the will of the Foundation.
You’d have to be a bit of a moron to fail to see why someone might hold these concerns. But I think they may be a bit over-blown, and I’ll try to explain why. The first point, that anyone who doesn’t believe in a fundamental compatibility of scientific knowledge and religious belief is behaving unethically if they accept money from the Templeton, seems to go a bit far, for a number of reasons.

First, not everyone who receives Templeton funding does so in relation to work that is aimed at establishing this compatibility. Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, for instance, is a leading social and cultural psychologist, and one of his research interests is in the long-neglected positive emotions. Hadit has received Templeton funding into positive psychology, but the published work that has arisen from this has nothing to do with reconciling science and religion, or even arguing for accommodationism.

Second, even if you disagree with Templeton about accommodationism or the fundamental harmony between science and religion, it does not strike me as unethical to work with Templeton. Here’s a parallel. Jerry Coyne, like me, has written for Science magazine – and the official line of its publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is accommodationist. Yet that didn’t prevent either Coyne or me for writing for them, and quite rightly. The purist attitude evident in refusing to accept money from someone with whom you do not entirely agree with is commendable to a degree, but I think it needs to be kept in perspective. I wouldn’t write for a racist publication or organisation, for instance – my ethical stance against racism would make me an unethical hypocrite if I did. Yet does it follow from that example that I shouldn’t write for anyone with whom I disagree on some point, whether it be foreign policy or domestic politics? Obviously not, otherwise I wouldn’t write for anybody. Similarly, if you only maintained friendships with people with whom you agreed 100%, you’d probably be pretty lonely.

So it clearly matters what the disagreement is about. A disagreement about whether some races are inherently superior to others is very deep moral disagreement, one that cannot be glossed over while conversation focuses on other things. But is a disagreement of whether science and religion can be reconciled a similarly profound moral issue, as opposed to an intellectual/epistemological issue? Is it the case that if someone believes in accommodationism, and you don’t, then that person’s is, like the racist, beyond the moral pale, and should therefore be avoided? This seems a little hard to swallow, but I’d be interested in arguments to show I’m wrong.

Coyne’s second point, that accepting Templeton funding creates the perception of conflict of interests, even where none really exists, also seems to be less significant in practice. In the case of the oil company and the senator, the oil company wants to pursue drilling and the senator is advocating drilling. But this one-to-one mapping of interests is not always, or perhaps even frequently, evident when it comes to Templeton funding: it’s not like Templeton has a single goal of arguing for accommodationism and only funds people who argue likewise. Haidt’s work on the positive emotions, for instance, is not a call for accommodationism, nor is it offered as proof of “spiritual realities” – it’s just basic psychological research.

The final point, about the temptations created by the prospect of large sums of money, calls into question the integrity of those who accept it. Yet I’m not really sure that Coyne or Myers want to go on the record and question the research and motivations of people such as Haidt, or Dacher Keltner (another researcher in positive psychology), or evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson who have received Templeton funding – or researchers such as Herb Gintis (a leading game theorist and behavioural economist) and Michael Gazzaniga (one of the world’s most famous neuroscientists), who have participated in Templeton projects. (I accept that the quality of their work and their fame is no guarantee that they do not bend their views to get Templeton money, or that they don’t hold bizarre views in other domains, but I’ve seen no evidence to support either assertion.) Of course, if Templeton was an inherently immoral organisation, then there would be cause for censure of these academics – but what evidence supports such an argument?

I want to return to the issue of the scope of Templeton’s funding interests, which I’ve already suggested go beyond simply giving people money to spout an accommodationist position. The organisation funds research into many areas that are part of standard academic research. For instance, the highly respected evolutionary biologist Gunter Wagner of Yale University was awarded a grant to study “genetics and the origins of organismal complexity” (a topic that should be right up Myers’ and Coyne’s street – and mine too, as you can see in this article). This sort of work is essential for understanding the topic of ‘evolvability’, a central issue in evolutionary-developmental biology. Wagner’s published work – which I heartily commend to you – has nothing to do with promoting a reconciliation between science and religion. It’s just good science, and we should be grateful that it’s being funded. Would Coyne be prepared to say that Wagner (or Haidt, or Keltner) has in some way acted unethically or been corrupted by accepting this grant? Has science lost out, or gained, by the availability of Templeton funding in this case? And if this case is beyond reproach, then why the blanket dismissal and ridicule of all Templeton-related activities? What about behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin of Kings College London receiving money to look into the genetics of high cognitive abilities? Or Paul Zak receiving funding to study the effects of oxytocin on social behaviour? Are all these researchers obligated to churn out accommodationist pap because they’ve received money from Templeton? And if not, then why does that logic apply to writers contributing to the Big Questions Online?

So I come back to the starting point. Why does Coyne suggest that doing anything related to the Templeton’s activities automatically imply that you have to write accommodationist pap, or toe a part line? Why does Myers think that the mere fact that someone has had something to do with Templeton mean that they can be written off? I understand that neither of these writers likes the idea of science and religion being compatible in a deep sense (i.e., not just that one mind can hold both scientific and religious beliefs), but I struggle to see how this translates into such vitriol against Templeton and its affiliates: remember, Coyne described the Templeton Fellowships as a "bribe" (Coyne did later say he didn’t really mean bribe – though it’s it not quite clear what he meant other than to smear the organisation), and Russell Blackford called Chris Mooney a "disgusting traitor" for accepting one such Fellowship.

I must be missing something. Perhaps Coyne and Myers will suggest I’m a mental defective who simply can’t see what’s really going on. Or perhaps they know things I don’t about how corrupting Templeton is on researchers, writers and science at large. I hope, however, that if they reply, they can refrain from the obvious temptation to attack me at my deepest integrity by suggesting that I’m simply auditioning for Templeton money. We need the debates to get beyond the ad hominems.

*I’m also an atheist who doesn’t believe that science and religion are fundamentally compatible: if you accept that the way we find out about the world is through observation and experiment, and that explanations must be couched in naturalistic terms that can be assessed empirically, then faith, revelation and authority seem to be off the cards. But it doesn’t follow from this position that I should be hostile to the work of Templeton, the researchers it funds, or the writers it supports.


Blogger Marion Delgado said...

Scientists aren't pure, as a group, and especially in the venues of Coyne and Myers (the US) and Dawkins (the UK).

It always amazes me that scientific illiterates like Penn Jilette are made so much of, even though they practice only selective acknowledgement of science - when their rigid dogmatic religion, market fundamentalism, is challenged, science goes out the window every time.

The number of "joint ventures" (a.k.a. conflict-of-interest ventures) still increases every year, and many have science-busting nondisclosure agreements to boot.

So the contamination argument is not just wrong, not just stupid - it's insane.

Notice how, in the "skeptic" community the fraudulent safety work on Vioxx sank without a trace? The scandal of research physicians letting pharmacy shills write their research papers?

There is a hole in so-called skepticism big enough to drive a truck through, and its name is dogmatic and unchallengable capitalism.

4:29 pm GMT  
Blogger Zachary Voch said...


I'm working on a series of details, keeping my conclusions open for the time being.

Here is an outline of the approach which I feel that critics of Templeton must take.

As for the reaction of Coyne, Myers, etc., it seems explicable as reactions to articles like the one Rosenbaum wrote. So, they see themselves named, labeled marginal and extreme, dismissed, etc., usually without substantial supportive argument, and then when they look at the source, they find Templeton looming in the background.

However, this is a selective experience of Templeton, subject to confirmation bias. This is why I'm working on a more rigorous outline to see if the general statements actually hold, and I would of course appreciate contributions.

For Russell's "disgusting traitor" line, it might be appropriate for you to add some historical background concerning Mooney's interactions with the NA blogosphere. His future Templeton Fellowship was predicted based on his treatment of NAs, which, including more recent events, has not been overly pleasant.

It is of course true that not everything Templeton does is related to accommodationism. Their board of directors, as well as the interests of the founder, all reflect this. Otherwise, some projects are what we might call loosely accommodationist, say research into the benefits of altruism with lots of heavy religious language. We might dislike the religious language and the crediting to religion the insights of the research, but we still have to admit that this pursuit is broadly humanistic in motivation and valid in approach. Two of the board members, both psychiatrists (if I recall), seem to focus on this.

However, the focal point of the complaints appears to be derived from the "hard compatibilist" side of Templeton, as represented by Alexander and a few others on the board. This side of Templeton openly "others" New Atheists, particularly Dawkins, quite fiercely. And more worryingly, the writings in this vein are almost always misrepresentative of New Atheists in my experience.

So, I'm still undecided as to whether or not the New Atheists have overblown this, but as you said, there is a real concern at the center which needs to be recognized.

That said, it does not mean that Templeton-funded writers on accommodationism can be automatically dismissed and discredited. However, it does mean that we can predict, with apparent accuracy, the stances of these writers based on their affiliation.

6:10 pm GMT  
Anonymous Hitch said...

I consider this blog post to be misleading.

It hides that Haidt, Sloan and Henrich's research is well aligned with Templeton's goals and the fact that they get funded constitutes a confirmation bias.

The first two (maybe also the third) have been openly critical of New Atheism.

In general being critical of open criticism of religion seems to further ones chances of getting funding by Templeton and this it seems to me is the crux of the criticism.

Does Templeton truly fund research that shows that aspects of religion is harmful and that religion in science has a negative effect?

But let's take Henrich:

"Participation in a world religion is associated with fairness, although not across all measures. These results suggest that modern prosociality is not solely the product of an innate psychology, but also reflects norms and institutions that have emerged over the course of human history."

That's a win for religion, isn't it?

Oddly enough previous work as reviewed by Zuckerman has shown that highly secular societies such as Sweden and Norway are very altruistic, have high levels of charity giving and support high levels of taxation to support social causes.

Going back to Henrich's study, it is informative to check what populations were studied to get a sense of the conclusion with respect to religion. Surely the US is the most egalitarian society of those studied, and it has a high degree of adherence of world religions. Hence this study simply does not properly control for the claim that world religions help.

But yes, it got through the peer review at Science.

6:29 pm GMT  
Blogger Dan Jones said...

Thanks for the comments folks - I was travelling from the UK to Boston for a holiday and have not been checking up on my emails. In any case, I thought this post had died a death, but Mooney's mention of it has breathed life back into it - will write a better reply after some sleep, which has been sorely lacking for the last couple of days!

1:35 am GMT  

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