Pepsi No Evil

By Neuroskeptic | July 16, 2010 9:44 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: blogging, politics
  • NiroZ

    I'm not sure that Pharyngula is as off topic on SB as you make it out to be. Many of the other blogs have a science education/battling the forces of anti-science theme to them as well (respectful insolence for one), and a lot of the time pharyngula is fact checking other people/promoting science in general. I won't deny it probably deviates more that probably all of the other blogs on the site from purely scientific topics, but I don't think you can argue that it's a misfit within the SB stable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05389974401782795345 ASP

    The problem for me, as a completely lay person with very little knowledge of science (but a lot of interest and love towards it), is that I rely on the integrity of people who write about science to do so because they care about stuff they write, not because they're paid to write whatever the executives think will advance their corporate agenda. I cannot be critical of science blogging because I lack sufficient knowledge for that. And this Pepsi thing necessarily brought into question whether I can really rely on other people at Science Blogs to be critical of Pepsi. SB seems to need Pepsi's money bad enough to sell them blog space that is usually deserved by diligent, dedicated and inspired blogging. What if they need the money bad enough that they'd silence other bloggers who might criticize Pepsi's science? Not to mention the fact that SB didn't even consider to designate clearly Pepsi's blog as advertorial until bloggers started leaving – it was basically introduced as just another Science Blog, making it seem equally valued, valuable and trustworthy. So, you know, from a lay person's point of view, there was a lot I perceived as wrong with this idea. I don't know anything about statistics, data evaluation, methodologically flawed trials etc. I rely on other people to truthfully and honestly represent and criticize research so that I could be adequately informed. I honestly believe that is not what I would get from a corporate blog.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10887809033252978757 Perceval

    Oh, Pepsi already was blogging on their own site, but nobody was reading / giving a damn. So they were looking for more exposure.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    NiroZ: Battling anti-science is an important part of science blogging, but Respectful Insolence, for example, does so by analysis of bad papers or misinterpreted papers – it's about the science.

    Whereas a lot of Pharyngula posts, not all, but most of the really popular ones, are just about religion. Like the whole Catholic wafer thing. I don't care what you do to a wafer, but I don't think it has much to do with science.

  • jld

    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).

    Hmmmm…
    A bit of dogma may be?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Perceval: Oh, right, I didn't know that.

    Well their PR ploy worked, we've heard of it now, but still no-one reads it.

  • stuff

    It struck me as weird that the bloggers objected so violently to pepsi, yet were happy to be part of a community – and one which paid them to blog – funded by a manufacturer of nuclear weapons, teh comany that refuses to clean up Bhopal and a company that is responible for massive polltionin Nigeria, amongst others.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02219505720807067694 NeuroKüz

    Totally agree with the points brought up in this post. I think the difference between media/advertising and science blogs is that the former says “this is how things are because I/we said so,” while the latter says “this is an issue that I've thought about, what do you guys think?” Hence the necessity for comments in blogs.

    I think starting a science blog is a good move for Pepsi if it wants to try to gain credibility in the science community. The realistic likelihood of them accomplishing this is another story.

  • http://saltedlithium.wordpress.com/ saltedlithium

    I'd be cool with it if they had a Coke blog, so then it'd be fair and balanced. Maybe toss in a Cott's Cola blog as the MSNBC of the group.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    I'd prefer a Coke blog, but then that's because I prefer Coke. Pepsi is just too sweet. diet Cherry Coke is the alpha and the omega of the soft drink world.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08010555869208208621 The Neurocritic

    Although I don't blame or judge any of the bloggers for what they did/didn't do, it's no secret that Seed Media Group is a business run by advertising, and bloggers were getting paid from advertising revenue.

    David Crotty was especially critical on this point:

    “And the value of that traffic gets to the heart of the problem, and this is why it was hypocritical for ScienceBlog’s bloggers to have objected so strenuously. ScienbceBlogs has never been a temple of purity, free of bias or agenda. ScienceBlogs is, and has always been, an advertising platform. In the past, they’ve run sponsored blogs from Invitrogen, Shell Oil and General Electric (note: these three blogs seem to have been recently pulled from the site as well). Why were these companies acceptable where Pepsi was not?”

    I would be curious to hear what happened to the traffic (and blogging income) of those who left the fold. My guess is that participation in the Sb network increases one's hits by an order of magnitude. Oh look, here's Scicurious (who may be exaggerating a bit):

    “I loved the exposure, I loved the community of really amazing, bright, intelligent, wonderful bloggers. And I loved the hits. They are like crack to us, precious. Dropping down from almost 100K hits a month to 100 a day? There’s some withdrawal.”

    I tried to avoid paying too much attention to the PepsiGate affair (which was impossible), and avoided blogging about it because of misguided retorts like this:

    “somebody is pissed cause others make money by blogging? That's just envy”

    No, not really, I just have a slightly different perspective on the matter…

  • http://www.priceperheadcostarica.com/betting-software-services/ sports handicapping services

    I feel great to research more about a product we consume a lot and we all want

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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