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The Agenda of Science Magazine

January 6, 2010

Over at Klimazwiebel, Dennis Bray, has an interesting post about his experiences trying to get a letter published in Science Magazine. His frustrations are probably not atypical for authors that have been denied (and, as I know first hand, blogs are a great venue for venting, and getting the message out anyway). And upon denial, it’s easy to examine assumed interests of the parties involved, and imagine hidden agendas and conspiracies.

Bray was trying to publish a letter in response to a very high-profile article by Naomi Oreskes, which claims to have demonstrated a scientific consensus on global warming. Bray’s own survey work (discussed here, here, and here, among other places) has suggested a much more complicated state of affairs, and certainly calls into question the consensus idea. But Science didn’t publish his letter in response to Oreskes. Why not?

Well, it’s all speculation of course, but Bray’s theory relates to the profit motive, and the need to please sponsors, many of whom run environmentally conscious ads in the magazine (many of which might be considered “greenwashing“). Bray concludes:

The question is, does Science’s quest for appropriate image come at a cost to content? Can the charges leveled against ‘industry’ funded research be applied to ‘we want to have a green image’ commercial (Science is a commercial enterprise) journal? Does advertising have a place in academic journals?

Whether or not these questions have any bearing on the publication of Bray’s letter, I think it is interesting to examine the motives and the agenda of Science, and its parent organization, AAAS. However, I think Bray has misinterpreted the dynamics somewhat.

I suppose that Bray is right about the need for sponsors, and the effect that could have on behavior of the journal. But how does one reconcile “greenwashing” (which is insidiously anti-environment) with the pro-environmentalist agenda? I can’t imagine that companies like GE, Exxon, and BP would have a real problem with prominently displayed opinions that questions the consensus on global warming. If their advertising is indeed greenwash, then wouldn’t this (secretly) be exactly the kind of content those companies would like to see? The choice of Science as an advertising venue by supposed greenwashers is no accident. The association with that magazine is part of the greenwashing, and advertisers probably don’t care much about the content of letters to the editor as long as their ads get seen by lots of people sympathetic with an environmental message.

What’s more, Science Magazine is not a for-profit organization. In fact, Science often proudly points out its non-profit status, which distinguishes them from one of their primary competitors: Nature. As they put it:

“Triple A-S” (AAAS), is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson and professional association.

The organization “spearheads programs that raise the bar of understanding for science worldwide.”

Let me suggest a different explanation for the preferences of Science and its parent organization, AAAS. They are not primarily concerned with profit, nor with courting large corporations. They are concerned with science itself: its place and prominence in the world. They promote the agenda of AAAS members (scientists), which is to preserve and increase the intellectual authority of science, and to increase funding for science by governments and other entities.

AAAS does this through extensive lobbying of the US government, and and the insertion of scientists into government positions (for example, with their post-doctoral fellowships in Congress and federal agencies). And they go to great lengths to show that science is inherently good and virtuous. See for example, the incredibly silly and arrogant editorial by Bruce Alberts, Editor in Chief, which argues that the global financial crisis could have been avoided if only we all thought and behaved more like scientists (discussed further here).

All of this could explain the refusal of Bray’s letter (and I should stress that this is complete and utter conjecture, for the sake of argument only), because questioning the global warming consensus is seen by many as inherently anti-science.

The main point is that profit itself is not necessarily a motive of Science Magazine. Other motives entirely consistent with science advocacy could be enough to affect the conduct of an organization like AAAS. Whether tracking government funds, supplying the government with employees, representing the interests of government funded scientists, or educating the public about the importance of science, the involvement of AAAS in science is heavily, heavily political.

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