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Neutrality of author/authors.

Posted by abledanger on 24 Oct 2009 at 22:44 GMT

Sam Harris has a personal and financial stake in portraying religious people in a certain way. He has written two best selling polemics on religion. This study was was also partially funded by his Reason Group which is dedicating to "spreading secular values". How is this not a competing interest?

No competing interests declared.

RE: Neutrality of author/authors.

mscohen replied to abledanger on 26 Oct 2009 at 20:46 GMT

Thanks for writing and for sharing your concern. We discussed all of this at considerable length both among the authors and with the journal. Sam has no financial stake in this. Like all of us he earns his living by doing this job but the study per se supports no income-generating process. We all carry certain beliefs and preconceptions and biases, but these also are not conflicts of interest. A good scientific manuscript states the methods and results of experiments in sufficient detail that the findings might be replicated and presents these in a neutral manner.

Many thousands of scientists also write books aimed for popular consumption. Stephen Hawking's books, have been bestsellers for example. The consensus among the community of scientists is that this activity is not a conflict of interest (even though Dr. Hawking's book royalties are tied to has accomplishments in astrophysics).
After a good deal of thought, and concordant with journal, and scientific community guidelines we explicitly stated that the Reason project (a non-profit entity) helped in the funding of this work, as you clearly saw.

Unlike, for example pharmaceutical companies, the Reason project does sell anything. It does have a clearly stated mission, but it is no more edgy than the myriad other private funding bodies (the Whitaker foundation, Cure Autism Now, the Epilepsy Foundation, etc...) that promote research in highly specific areas. Dr. Harris makes no secret of his own philosophy regarding religious belief. In fact, were he less public about this I suspect that the findings would not have engendered much controversy.

Finally, I would like to point out that this article makes no editorial points regarding the veracity of religious beliefs and promotes no specific agenda. As Sam's research mentor, it is my responsibility to separate religious polemic from neuroscientific exploration. I believe that Dr. Harris has done a highly admirable job in this regard.

No competing interests declared.