3/1/10

The Templeton Temptation

There's a certain kind of question I love to entertain on long car rides or hiking trips--what if you were offered a lot of money, but there was this or that  ethical dilemma involved in taking it?  What would you do?

For example, what if the Templeton Foundation offered me one of their deluxe $15,000 fellowships to hang out in Cambridge and listen to interesting speakers and shmooze with journalists, and then write something about the whole experience?

Sounds good so far. The problem is that the Templeton Foundation has an agenda that I can embrace at points, but don't care for at others.  I like their attempt to bring Big Questions into the public view. In fact, when they published a 2-page spread about whether the universe has a purpose in the New York Times, I used it in a class I was teaching.  There was enough diversity of thought to make things interesting.

On the other hand, their goal is to promote religion by making it seem as if there's little tension between science and religion. That goal isn't my goal, though I'm not averse to the converse: promoting science by playing down the tension between science and religion. That may be what we simply have to do to make rapid progress on the urgent issues of the day, like climate change.

So, would I take the grant?  Well, why not?  Do I really fear the Templetonians could corrupt me with their fancy cocktail parties and free laptops and complimentary back rubs...or whatever it might be?  Surely I'm made out of stronger stuff than that!

But perhaps there is this worry.  We humans are built to reciprocate.  If we are given X, we feel like we should give back a "big enough" Y.  In the positive psychology literature (I can't remember where I read this) there's a great example.  Evidently charities send people little address labels and free calendars and packs of greeting cards because we do have such a strong sense of reciprocity.  "You gave me this little thing, so I'd better send your organization a check."  That works, especially when people aren't aware of the mechanism.

So maybe if I let the Templetonians pamper me, I'd have an irrestible urge to start saying nice things about them, or maybe even try to see the world their way and make concessive, friendly points in that piece of writing I was supposed to produce.   Before accepting Templeton money, I'd certainly have to think about this.  Could I come home and write up a story mocking the goings on, if indeed I found them laughable? Would I be able to retain my independence, in spite of the free booze and backrubs?

As to why I'm asking this question right now, when I'm not in a car crossing Iowa, it's because Chris Mooney is Templeton-bound, and many people think that proves something very bad about him (see Jerry Coyne, for example).  But surely the proof will be in that piece of writing he has to produce. If he comes back promoting religion, we'll have to suspect the amenities got to him and he couldn't resist the urge to reciprocate.  After all, he's a solid card-carrying atheist, and has been for many years.

Something tells me that isn't going to happen, though.  I guess he used to be the darling of atheists. Secular types bought his books, gave him friendly attention at their blogs. Did he reciprocate? No, he wrote a book that lambasted "the new atheists" for excessive religion-bashing.  So I think he's a guy whose perfectly capable of not licking the hand that feeds him. But when his stint in Cambridge is over, we'll find out.

As to whether I would take the fellowship, let me end in Dr. Seuss style.  Would you?

11 comments:

Wayne said...

Socrates says in the Crito that we shouldn't care much about the opinions of those who don't know. I'd take the money and continue supporting what I support, and if people suddenly see different motives for my support, then so be it.

rtk said...

Sleeping with the enemy is often the only source of income. So many graduates of cinema of some form go on to do commercials instead of making the Sundance award list. My friend, a strong believer in everything ecologically wise, gets his generous support for his university labs from Monsanto. Chemists must cringe at their major dependence on pharmaceutical devils.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, I suspect I'd do the same thing.

rtk, I used to work with researchers who took money from very dubious sources, and you could have had suspicions of undue influence, if you didn't know them. But I did know them. Lesson learned: don't draw hasty conclusions about funding sources and influence.

Faust said...

What RTK said. And lets face it:

In a society like ours, where everything is tightly linked together by an enormous amoral exchange system, moral compromise is the name of the game. Invest in the stock market "ethically?" I suppose that can be done. Maybe. But you are going hamstring your portfolio if you take your ethics too seriously. How about that corporate job in the fortune 500? If you want to climb the ladder in there, ethics are not going to be your friend, though paying lip service to ethics might help your image. What about your taxes? Collateral damage anyone?

What's that saying? If you're not a liberal by 20 you have no heart, if you're not a conservative by 30 you have no brain?

I it selling out? Or just "being realistic?"

Ophelia Benson said...

I think about this kind of thing too - and about this one in particular! It does sound hugely appealing...I love Cambridge (and that's why Templeton set the thing up there, of course - Cambridge is highly attractive). There's even a book allowance. Sheesh.

But I know people who have had the strength of mind to turn them down.

It's not just a matter of whether they will corrupt the particular people who take their dime - it also has to do with the way things like this lend them an air of legitimacy. The more Names they can add to their many lists, the more the unwary will think they are a serious scholarly foundation.

I at least partly share your view of the Big Questions though (except I don't think they should call them that). I did a feature on Templeton for the next TPM, and I talked to a lot of philosophers on their advisory board (who are, naturally, on the pro side). One said she loved their conferences because it's a chance to talk to a lot of top people in a variety of disciplines who are exploring the same subject, a chance one doesn't get at academic conferences. I thought that was a pretty compelling point.

But the price is appearing to validate Templeton's agenda.

And by the way, I don't think Mooney's cheery willingness to lambast 'the new atheists' is a straightforward indicator of willingness to bite any and all hands that feed him. Atheists were hardly his only fans, and they (we) didn't really "feed" him (not the way Templeton is going to), and there is food to be gained by lambasting atheists.

I would also say he is decidedly not 'a solid card-carrying atheist,' not any more. He may still be a nominal atheist, but solid card-carrying? No. Solid card-carrying implies enthusiastic partisanship, perhaps to the point of blind loyalty, and that hardly describes Mooney's current relationship to atheism! I would call him more of a self-hating atheist if he's an atheist at all now.

Faust said...

"It's not just a matter of whether they will corrupt the particular people who take their dime - it also has to do with the way things like this lend them an air of legitimacy."

This is a very good point. "Legitimacy" is coin of the realm in the world where mass media and intellectual discourse collide.


"would call him more of a self-hating atheist if he's an atheist at all now."

Hmmm. So you think he's found God? Or he hates himself for not believing? How does this "self-hatred" work?

Ophelia Benson said...

I really don't know how it works, but I find his animus against atheists mystifying, and I think if he really is still an atheist, he must be at least somewhat hostile to that part of himself.

I know the claim is that he is just giving advice on strategy, but given all the repetition, in the mainstream media at that, I don't find that credible. (Not least because if he were really concerned about strategy he would do his advising privately and quietly; he wouldn't go to great lengths to create the very 'culture war' he keeps warning against. His schtick is to shout as loud as he can 'ATHEISTS ARE GOING TO MAKE MODERATE BELIEVERS ANGRY! WATCH OUT! OH NO! THEY'RE DOING IT AGAIN!'

Jean Kazez said...

Ophelia, I think you're entirely right that the Templeton Foundation includes non-believers to make themselves look more credible and objective. So yes, that's part of what you'd need to think about if you didn't share their agenda, and you were offered the cushy deal in Cambridge. I look forward to reading your article in TPM.

As to Mooney being self-hating...

That's like saying I'm a self-hating Jew if I have lots of objections to orthodox Judaism.

It's like saying I'm a self-hating animal advocate, because I have lots of objections to abolitionist-style advocacy.

It's like...

OK, enough. One other point. Some of Mooney's repetition of his anti-new-atheist points had to do with being under so much fire--one does have a right of self-defense.

Ophelia Benson said...

Jean -

Well I didn't affirmatively flat-out say he was a self-hating atheist - I said I would call him that. Nuance! I don't claim to know that, I'm saying that's how he strikes me.

And yes of course one has a right of self-defense, but then Mooney was 'under so much fire' because other people have a right of self-defense too - and also because he so adamantly refused to elaborate or explain or modify or reply to questions (except from a favored very few) in any way. If he had simply explained what he meant by saying that Jerry Coyne's New Republic review was 'uncivil,' for example, at least that particular source of exasperation would never have existed.

We all have an interest in this, after all - we're all writers - you are, I am, Jerry is, Chris is. We all want to know what the rules are.

Jean Kazez said...

I read the history very differently, as you know.

As to accepting a Templeton (or not)--I hereby announce my willingness to be offered a fellowship. It would be a lot of fun to have to make the decision, as opposed to thinking very theoretically about what it would be like to make the decision. Note to Templeton Foundation: make that an apartment for 4 please, and we'd like a cappuccino machine. Preferably out on the edge of town, with a country pub within walking distance.

amos said...

George Orwell writes somewhere that he refuses to go to cocktail parties with politicians, because being a friendly fellow, he would probably end up liking many of them and that that would be the end of his critical eye. I think that it's true that generally if one socializes with people, one ends up liking a fair number of them and loses one's critical sense of their ideological, philosophical or political errors and sins.