Bad for science and academic freedom: harassing Kevin Folta

If you don’t know about the case of anti-GMO activists harassing Dr. Kevin Folta, Professor and Chairman in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, I’ve written about it extensively over the past few months.

Dr. Folta  is considered to be an expert in plant genetics including genetic modification of plants. He has been studying this field for nearly three decades, published extensively in real peer-reviewed journals, and has trained legions of graduate students. He should be considered a real authority figure in GMO research.

In 2012, Dr. Folta was “targeted” by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from an activist to get all of Dr. Folta’s emails about GMOs. If you are unfamiliar with this particular tactic, it is used frequently by climate change deniers to harass and bully climate change scientists.

This will be a repeating theme of this article – the science deniers who are harassing Kevin Folta are almost exactly the same as the science deniers who attack climate change scientists. They must be proud of this.

The back story

 

To keep it simple, here’s Dr. Folta’s description of what happened (originally published in a Science 2.0 blog):

[infobox icon=”quote-left”]Back in February I received a Public Records Request from a California activist group that demanded my emails back to 2012. This was the first time I ever heard of such things. After 27 years in public science I’d never thought that my emails were anyone’s property other than my own.  I had to comply, and did. The story has been covered here and here.

My central fear was not revealing incriminating or proprietary information, as the activities of a Professor in a Horticultural Sciences Department aren’t terribly exciting.  I was comfortable with university I.T. pulling three years of email from university servers. However, I had one suspicious fear—that this venture was nothing more than a way for activists to spin my statements, and manufacture devious and defamatory narratives, a suspicion that would come true.

Why would they target me?  I am well trained in transgenic technology, familiarly, “GMOs”. I teach science communication to farmers and scientists, and explain to them how to discuss issues in biotechnology, the risks and benefits, strengths and limitations, with concerned public audiences — something they historically have not done well.

My desire to synthesize and teach the scientific literature has drawn the ire of anti-GMO activists, that feel a scientist speaking about science, must be some puppet of an agricultural conspiracy.  That is why my emails were requested by the group US Right to Know.[/infobox]

As you would expect, the GMO deniers examined the emails to find anything that would be useful in tarnishing Dr. Folta’s reputation, without using really using anything close to critical thinking. And of course, by cherry picking a quote here and there, they tried to tarnish his good name and belittle his scientific knowledge.

Back to Dr. Folta’s narrative of these events:

[infobox icon=”quote-left”]My fears of context manipulation blossomed last week. An entry at PLoS* Biology Blogs, written by Paul D. Thacker and Charles Seife, shows the danger of releasing public records to individuals set to attack professors because they dare to teach a facts in a subject steeped in emotional angst.

In a smear campaign not unlike Cilmategate, Thacker and Seife make assumptions, bend the truth, or are ignorant of information lacing an email they somehow obtained.[/infobox]

There is an evolving feeling that all science deniers, including GMO and climate change deniers, are all the same, irrespective of their political leanings. They both rely upon denialism (also known as pseudoskepticism), which is the culture of denying the established scientific consensus despite overwhelming evidence.

Admittedly, some of the denialism is based on political expediency. Climate change denialism is a fundamental aspect of many politically conservative voters across the world, but especially in the United States, where Republican legislatures in the United States have passed anti-anthropogenic global warming legislation. 

But not to be outdone, the left-wing radicals across the world have their own particular brand of science denialism–GMOs. Some have argued that vaccine denialism has a political component, being supported by white, wealthy liberals, there’s also a lot of evidence that Republicans in the US have the same anti-vaccine belief.

Setting aside the politically nuanced anti-vaccine groups, GMOs are the left’s version of right-wing climate change denial. Anti-GMO activists and climate change deniers share some of the same tactics and strategies, even if they are, for all intents and purposes, at the opposite ends of the political spectrum.

They both reject the powerful scientific evidence that does not support their beliefs and a priori conclusions. They both use the same character attacks on supporters. And they both are awfully good at cherry-picking data that buttresses their denialist beliefs.

In other words, they look for the data to support their pre-ordained beliefs, rather than the scientific method which is to find what conclusions can be supported by the evidence.

 

The bullying and harassing of Dr. Kevin Folta

 

Well, the PLoS blog article (subsequently “retracted”, just in case you thought they were standing by it), despite a lame non-apology apology from PLoS, began a massive bullying effort by the anti-GMO cult.

One of the most vile personal attacks was from some cowardly and anonymous Craigslist poster who invoked Dr. Folta’s deceased mother to attack Folta’s reputation. And used childish and ridiculous language like calling him a “Monsanto whore.”

craigslist-folta-monsanto

Remember, the original PLoS article was wrong. It was retracted. A PLoS refused to stand by it, even apologizing (kind of, sort of, maybe) to Dr. Folta for publishing it.

But the attacks continued. Harassing Kevin Folta became a sport for the GMO deniers. They emailed him. Called him. Tried to get University of Florida administration to fire him. He was attacked on Twitter and Facebook.

Furthermore, Dr. Folta’s science communication outreach program, sponsored by many individuals and corporations, including Monsanto (obviously evil) that covered the costs of a workshop to help people communicate about science, had to move funds that came from certain companies to other programs.

As a scientist, I personally think any workshop that would help us all communicate more effectively is a great thing. Science doesn’t fit into 140 character tweets, effectively the intellectual attention span of most people. Science is nuanced, and it’s difficult.

The program wasn’t, despite the lies of the GMO deniers, a mouthpiece for Monsanto. It didn’t train anyone to speak about GMOs – well except to effectively describe the massive amount of scientific evidence supporting the safety of GMOs.

But you know, Monsanto. However, if only those “journalists” (scare quotes intentional) at PLoS spent a few minutes actually reviewing more information, rather than confirming their bias with a cherry picking, this may be settled.

Dr. Folta has vehemently criticized Monsanto’s fear tactics about GMO labeling. He states that “…in any opinion I’ve written on labeling, I have been disgusted by the lies, distortions and fear mongering promoted by the pro-labeling efforts.” Really, Folta is more pro-labeling than I would ever be.

His comments seem to be in line with what he said in his emails (as long as you’re not cherry picking a line or two out of context). Dr. Folta was asking that the discussion about GMOs, and labeling, be based on science, and science alone. This is what many of us say about GMOs–the scientific evidence matters. That’s why the scientific evidence is solidly on the side of the safety and usefulness of GMO foods.

Dr. Folta’s public statement

 

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 11.38.23

On 4 November 2015, Dr. Folta posted a statement on his Facebook page that he was going to take the “opportunity to disappear from public visibility and focus on my lab and my students.”

Apparently, the “vicious and one-sided” battle caused him to bow out of the public discourse on an important topic in science. This is bad.

Personal attacks, not real science, pushed Dr. Folta out of the discourse on a life-saving technology, genetically modified foods and crops. He did not withdraw because of some real scandal. His papers have not been retracted (you know, like those “journalists” at PLoS). He has not been fired from the University of Florida. His graduate school hasn’t withdrawn his PhD.

Kevin Folta has published at least 40 articles in biomedical journals, and he’s not technically a biomedical scientist. He teaches undergraduate and graduate level classes at the University of Florida, helping another generation of students become leading researchers in agriculture.

What have these bullies ever done? Lie? Cheat? Would they even know what DNA is if it kissed them on the lips? Of course, DNA does transfer between humans that kiss each other, but apparently these people think that GMO DNA is super powerful. That’s funny.

But now we lost a voice for scientific knowledge about GMOs. Sure, Dr. Folta is just one voice (there are thousands), and I’m certain that someone else will speak up. But this isn’t the point.

Science should be honored. Academic Freedom should be sacred. Yet, bullies can silence science, it doesn’t matter if the bullies are anti-GMO, anti-evolution, anti-vaccine, or anti-climate-change. They just try to intimidate people because they lack evidence for their beliefs.

And Freedom of Speech should always be respected in science. That should be a fundamental foundation of how we treat science.

The Catholic Church arrested and imprisoned those who fought against their brand of myths.  The Church of GMO Denial, based on beliefs not scientific facts, does the same. Harassing Kevin Folta right out of scientific discourse.

 
 

Yeah, we have heard this before!

 

Good for you GMO deniers. Proud of yourselves? Proud that you are on the same side of political issues as your buddies, climate change deniers? Oh you don’t like that comparison? Too bad, because you are just as anti-science and anti-freedom as the science deniers on the right. Don’t hurt your shoulder while you pat yourself on your back for your denialism.

Could you imagine if a global warming denialist published an article that said “secret emails from climate change scientists PROVE they lie and manipulate data?” Every climate change scientist, probably some of them who are anti-GMO activists, would condemn the lies.

But that’s not just my imagination. It did happen.

A few years ago, emails were hacked at the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in the UK. This affair was called Climategate, especially by the right wing climate change deniers who actually believe that there is a debate about anthropogenic climate change. There is no scientific debate about climate change,

Debunking Climategate is almost like Dr. Folta’s debunking of GMOgate (when are we going to retire “gate” as a suffix for any silly conspiracy belief?):

  • The emails were taken out of context.
  • They do not show any wrongdoing.
  • They do show honest discussion of data and conclusions.
  • They didn’t “trick” anyone or “hide” anything.
  • They were discussing climate openly, not hiding anything,
  • Groups who are using these emails to misrepresent science–it’s a desperate tactic.

These emails showed typical discussions of data by real scientists who were frank and honest.

Even if the data discussed was under some sort of statistical or scientific suspicion, it represents a tiny portion of the available data supporting the fact of anthropogenic climate change. But in the world of right wing false-equivalence journalism, Climategate outweighs all of that other evidence.

Oh wait, it’s the same for GMO science. Left wing false-equivalence journalism says that Dr. Folta’s out-of-context emails vastly outweigh all of the published, peer-reviewed, scientifically robust evidence that say GMOs are safe. What are they teaching in Schools of Journalism these days?

Climate change deniers (along with vaccine deniers and creationists) have long claimed that there is some massive conspiracy between all the world’s scientists to suppress or fabricate evidence. This ignores, of course, the massive amount of data, accepted by nearly every scientist who is expert in these fields, that supports the consensus.

A conspiracy of this level would require all the hundreds of thousands of scientists working together to invent data to show that evolution is true. That global warming is happening. That vaccines are safe and effective. That GMOs are safe.

In today’s world, with all of the social media, and desires to be famous, you’d think that out of those hundreds of thousands, a few would want to become famous by outing the conspiracy. In lieu of that, I guess emails, taken out of context, will suffice.

Consequences

 

Many scientists will stand up to this nonsense. For awhile. Dr. Paul Offit has endured most of what Folta has, probably more. I’ve watched Dr. David Gorski’s Twitter feed for years, and the attacks on him are legendary.

Dr. Offit just ignores them, doing yeoman’s work in making sure children are protected from horrible diseases. Dr. Gorski just mocks them with a level of humor that probably takes an intellect far above what the science deniers have.

But I’m guessing most scientists would just surrender once the personal attacks destroyed their reputations. Or put families and friends in harm’s way.

There’s an old story that was passed around Wikipedia editors who focused on controversial medical and science articles. This was back before there was Twitter or Facebook.

A respected physician started editing Wikipedia’s abortion article, removing some nonsense science. And if there’s a world where there’s a lot of nonsense science, it’s in the abortion “debate.”

Sadly, this editor got into the crosshairs of the anti-abortion whack jobs. They started to call the academic institution where he trained another generation of physicians, accusing him of being a pedophile. Most of you know that once an accusation is made, it becomes nearly impossible to clear your name. And it’s worse today with social media.

The physician quit editing, lost his job, lost his family, and who knows what he’s doing today. There are no limits to what science deniers will do to hurt others.

Dr. Folta has gotten support from many quarters. Orac looked at Folta’s resignation with uncanny clarity:

[infobox icon=”quote-left”]Over the years, I’ve noticed many traits that various antiscience cranks share in common, be they antivaccinationists, quacks, anthropogenic global climate change denialists, or anti-GMO activists, and that is an obsession with ad hominem attacks. They can’t win on the science because science doesn’t support them; so they attack the man—or woman.

The tactics they use include online harassment, harassment of families, legal thuggery (as Steve Novella recently suffered), and, of course, harassing them at work by contacting their supervisors or administration. The idea behind this last tactic is to annoy the offending skeptic’s boss to the point where he pressures the skeptic to knock it off. This tactic is depressingly effective when the skeptic works for a private company that can fire an employee at will, less so against academics.

That’s not to say that it never works against academics, but universities tend to value academic freedom and freedom of speech for faculty. Of course, if harassment of one kind doesn’t work, maybe another type of harassment might. If harassment at a science communicator’s day job doesn’t work, maybe a bogus lawsuit or online public attacks might.

Whatever the tactic, the idea is to intimidate the critic to silence, or at least to make speaking up so painful that the critic thinks twice about it. At the very least, other scientists who see what happened to, say, Dr. Folta might decide speaking up is just not worth the consequences. Again, that’s the idea.

I wish Dr. Folta well and thank him for all that he’s done in the service of science. I also hope that a day comes when he decides he can re-emerge and re-enter the conversation.[/infobox]

I too wish Dr. Folta well. And I do hope that we could live in a world where science is honored for the hard work that is done to find the truth, whether anyone likes that truth or not.

Dr. Folta has dedicated his life, his education, his academic reputation, and his good name on finding solutions to agricultural problems. He should be held in high esteem for his integrity, his intelligence and his character.

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor

Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!