Yesterday’s New York Times reports on the arrival of a new science magazine: Nautilus: Science Connected. The NYT piece,”A glossy science magazine or a living fossil?“, notes that the magazine is funded by the Templeton Foundation (in fact, there’s no mention of any other funding), will appear quarterly on paper for a fee of $49/year, and has a free online version (first issue here).
I’m biased against Templeton because of their past history of suborning science in the service of faith, but this magazine looks like more of the same. The first online issue, called “What makes you so special? The puzzle of human uniqueness,” is right up Templeton’s alley. There’s an interview with Frans de Waal that, although arguing for an evolutionary origin of human morality, includes a hefty dose of atheist-bashing, and a number of small pieces on biology and physics that, to my mind, are rather superficial. Mercifully lacking is any overt accommodationism, so while I judge the magazine relatively free of faith-osculation, it’s not impressive vis-à-vis the science. Nautilus is in fact reminiscent of Templeton’s moribund “Big Questions Online” site, which paid hefty sums to writers, but rarely posted anything. I don’t know anyone who looks at it or even mentions it.
As the NYT notes, it’s not a good time to introduce a glossy science magazine, since in recent years many of them, like Omni, Science 79, and Science Digest, have gone belly-up. Others, like Discover, are struggling. The Times blames stiff competition from other magazines like National Geographic, as well as from blogs, TED talks, and the proliferation of online science journalism; and I think they’re right. What is not mentioned is that these alternative sources are not only free, but meatier than the first online issue of Nautilus. Who wants to pay $49/year for a glossy, Templeton-funded magazine when you can get better content for free?
The Times does address the issue of Templeton editorial control, claiming it’s nonexistent:
Mr. [John] Steele, 60, who studied philosophy before an eclectic career that included being a gofer for Walter Cronkite and the Rome bureau chief for NBC, hatched the idea for Nautilus a year ago, after the death of a colleague reminded him, as he says, that life is not a dress rehearsal. [JAC note: John Steele is owner, founder and publisher of Nautilus].
. . . He shopped his idea to the Templeton Foundation, perhaps best known for its annual $1.7 million prize for the advancement of spirituality (this year’s winner was Desmond M. Tutu) but also an enthusiastic supporter of what it calls Big Ideas.
It is viewed with suspicion in some scientific circles as having a religious agenda. Mr. Steele said that other than approving the concept, it had no editorial input.
The grant gives the staff time to build an audience, to gather data to present to potential advertisers, and to figure out how to make money, Mr. Steele said.
I find the “no editorial input” caveat a bit disingenuous. Sure, Templeton may not tell them what to write, but you can bet that Nautilus‘s funding will continue only if they publish content friendly to the Foundation. After all, the Foundation’s information about David Thomas, Templeton’s director of “cultural engagement,” says this:
Mr. Thomas takes a passionate interest in new media and the ways in which technology is changing our world. He advocates at the Foundation for innovative approaches to outreach and facilitating a global conversation about the Big Questions. These endeavors include Big Questions Online and the Nautilus digital publication.
That sounds like Templeton is a wee bit more engaged than simply providing funds.
At any rate, I predict that the paper magazine will be dead within a year and the online site will become very quiet, like “Big Questions Online.” I also surmise that the magazine pays its authors substantially more than do competing sites and magazines.
UPDATES: And here you go, right on Templeton’s front page:
Finally, an interview of Amos Zeeberg by “Communications Breakdown” at SciLogs at reveals this:
CB: Did Templeton provide all of the financial backing for the project? And were they only providing start-up funds, or will they be funding the project moving forward? Will Nautilus rely on advertising or subscriptions to generate revenue?
Zeeberg: The Templeton Foundation provided all of the money for our launch and for the initial operation of the magazine. We hope they’ll fund us further, and we also are getting revenue from advertising and potentially other foundations.
In the near term, all our content is free, so there are no subscription costs, but I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility over the mid-to-long term.
CB: Has Templeton had any editorial involvement, or have they given you full independence in terms of shaping what Nautilus will and won’t do?
Zeeberg: They had some input in working out, with John, the editorial purview of the magazine – that we’d be covering big questions in science in a thoughtful, philosophical way. Nothing beyond that; nothing in the month-to-month work.
That’s a weird way to hand out grants: first giving them and then helping the grantee work out what direction the funded operation—the magazine—is going to go. But that’s what one expects from Templeton.
A “hope for further Templeton funding” + help with “working out the editorial purview of the magazine” = bad news for science.