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?