by Massimo Pigliucci
John Templeton Foundation.
A few nights later I was having dinner after an event in New York where I moderated a panel discussion with four colleagues. Over drinks someone asked me about my Templeton-related decision and I explained my motivations. Turns out three of my four colleagues (two philosophers and a scientist) were funded by Templeton, which frankly has only strengthened my resolve to buck the trend and remain unassociated with that outlet.
The JTF was established by Sir John Templeton to “support science, invest in the big questions,” which sounds great unless you know who Templeton was and what he was up to. Sir John was born in Winchester, Tennessee (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1987 because of his philanthropy), was a Yale graduate, a Rhodes Scholar, and made his money by investing in the stock market beginning in 1938, and eventually by managing other people’s money through mutual funds, starting in 1958. The Templeton Prize, which is financially heftier than the Nobel, was established in 1972 to further scientific and other advances “in the spiritual domain,” whatever that means.
The first recipient of the Templeton was Mother Theresa, the most recent one Martin J. Rees, the Astronomer Royal. For some time I have been disturbed by JTF’s activities because they smack of ideological interference with research and scholarship, essentially buying credibility for the Foundation by giving large amounts of money to scientists, philosophers, and other scholars in an environment in which funding for research is increasingly scarce and competitive. Of course, the idea of wealthy and not exactly pure-minded patrons supporting the sciences and the humanities isn’t new at all, going back to the very beginning of civilization, both eastern and western. But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
In thinking over my agent’s proposal I went to the JTF web site and poked around their “testimonials.” What I found was disturbing to say the least. There are five sections of short videos with various people telling us why JTF efforts are so important. The first one, on “Science and the Big Questions” is pretty plain and I found little to object to, except for the occasional popping up of strange words when it comes to a scientific vocabulary, like mentions of research on “virtue.” It also features Martin Nowak of Harvard regretting that most biologists find it “distasteful” to talk to theologians (they should). And then we find Charles Townes (UC-Berkeley) making the tired distinction between sciences dealing with facts (true) and religions dealing with meaning (on what basis, one might ask?), from which he comes pretty close to suggesting some sort of intelligent design at work. Okay, I guess I did have some problem with that section after all.
The second video concerns “character development,” which early on features David Myers (Hope College) talking about Templeton’s desire that science could eventually study and validate the “laws of life” (uh?) underlying good living, which led JTF to fund research on “forgiveness” (clearly a heavily Christian-influenced concept seldom found in the scientific vocabulary, until Templeton started giving out grants to study it). Following that, we have an appearance by David Blankenhorn, of the Institute for American Values, a neo-conservative think tank, naturally advocating rather vague “changes in public policies” stemming from JTF’s funded research.
It is only natural, then, that the third introductory video displayed on the Foundation’s entry page concerns “freedom and free enterprise,” and just from the title the savvy reader can tell where this is going. It opens with — and mostly features throughout — Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute (another conservative think tank), who delivers some bullshit about the morality of the free enterprise system, and who manages to belittle international aid to reduce poverty.
The fourth video is about genius, targeting young people with exceptional talents. I have no objection to that, though it seems to me that the problem the world has is not that geniuses don’t get a chance, it’s that too many people are functionally illiterate and incapable of critical thinking. Putting emphasis on the first rather than the latter problem will push society into an even greater divide between the elite few on one side and the large masses on the other — not a good trend for democracies and open societies.
The last video is not ready yet. It’s supposed to be about genetics, and the site says only that “the Foundation takes a particular interest in how major advances in genetics might serve to empower individuals, leading to spiritually beneficial social and cultural changes.” Sounds a bit Brave New Worldish to me, but at this point I may have developed Templeton-induced paranoia.
In short, my reason for declining the book project is that I simply don’t like having my name associated with right wing and/or libertarian organizations like the JTF, the American Enterprise Institute or the Institute for American Values. But the dinner conversation with my colleagues gave me also an informal opportunity to find out why others don’t seem to be as bothered by the idea of getting money from the JTF. Broadly speaking, and based of course on my extremely limited sample (augmented, however, by similar conversations I’ve had over the past several years), there seem to be three reasons (or rationalizations, depending on how you look at it) for why scholars take JTF money:
* “I’m independent anyway.” The first response is that there is a distinction between the agenda of the funding source and what one does as an independent scholar. This is certainly true, and I was assured (and have no reason to doubt) that Templeton would have had no editorial say whatsoever in what I would have written in my book. Then again, research into the practice of science does show that the source of one’s money makes a difference (often unconsciously) on the outcome. The case in point is that of medical research that is much more likely to find a given drug effective if the researchers received funding from the pharmaceutical industry rather than from government agencies. At the very least one ought to be aware of the danger and not just dismiss the possibility out of hand. (This, of course, is a separate point from the one I made above concerning one’s name lending credibility to an institution whose ideological positions one may not share.)
* “It’s the same with the federal government.” NIH, NSF and other governmental agencies also have agendas, the argument goes, because the federal government has an agenda, and these days that agenda is significantly tilted toward an anti-science, pro-religion trajectory, largely because of the influence of Congressional Republicans. I find this argument rather specious. I am not aware of any evidence of this sort of influence in the pattern of NSF funding (with which I am most familiar), and that’s probably because there are many layers between Congressional Republicans and, say NSF or NIH officers, and because the funding process is entirely handled by professional scientists. Of course, one could very reasonably question funding amounts and priorities at the level of the entire federal research budget, and that discussion would indeed be political and ideological. But at the very least we are talking about a government of elected officials, not a private outlet that is free to push whatever agenda it wishes to push. There is also, of course, the question of whether a scientist should accept money from specific federal agencies whose goals may be ethically questionable, such as the Department of Defense. And indeed I am sympathetic toward scientists who do reject such funding, and somewhat critical of those who accept it.
* “Someone else would do it anyway.” This is the ethically most naive response I have encountered. First, this may not be true, as Templeton has gained influence and credibility precisely because a good number of legitimate scientists and other scholars have accepted their money. The Discovery Institute (the Intelligent Design “think” tank based in Seattle), on the contrary, has not succeeded in part because legitimate scientists have ostracized them. Second, one’s integrity is not helped, nor is one’s ethical responsibility diminished, by the thought that someone else would have stepped in and gotten the money, so we might as well. If we adopted that sort of standard, all kinds of unethical behavior would become acceptable on pragmatic grounds, the academic version of realpolitik.
There was one more thing I was curious about concerning Templeton and how it manages to get the attention of prominent scientists and other academic outlets, so I asked the editor at the press that will produce the new book series: why exactly do you guys need the JTF, particularly as you have an excellent reputation and the JTF people will have no editorial input into the series? Answer: because Templeton has money, and money buys publicity, and publicity sells books. There is capitalism at work, my friends.