Sep 11 2015

How To Attack a Public Scientist

I have long held that one of the best ways to gauge the intellectual integrity of an individual or a group is to note how they deal with bad information or a bad argument that seems to support their position. You get points for rejecting an unsound argument or unreliable data even when it could be used to defend your side.

The flip side of this is acknowledging valid points that are on the other side of the argument. I will sometimes present what I feel is a rock-solid point for one side to an opponent, just to see how they will deal with it.

Of course it is far easier to point such behavior out in others, more difficult to police it in yourself. This is why constant reminders to value process, integrity, and fairness over any particular position is critical to skeptical inquiry.

Further, there is a range of bad responses to invalid points that can be exploited to support your position. In extreme cases ideologues will take the bad argument as total vindication. They will do a virtual victory dance, spike their fact in the end-zone, and turn up their self-righteousness to 11. Then you know you are dealing with someone with effectively zero intellectual integrity.

Attacks on Kevin Folta

Kevin Folta is an agricultural scientist who is publicly funded. He does not do research for agricultural companies, his work is not really relevant to “Big Ag”, and he has no research funding from business. He mostly works with strawberries – trying to uncover the genetics of their flavor molecules.

Kevin (who, full disclosure, has been on the SGU a couple of times, was a speaker at NECSS, and is someone I consider a friend in the science communication field) also does public education. He is a rare scientist who dedicates a fair amount of his time to educating the public about his field of work, and has a talent for communicating science. He makes no money from public education, and in fact often has to eat minor costs associated with his public outreach.

In January a group called US Right to Know (USRTK) filed a freedom of information act (FOIA) request to 14 scientists at 4 public universities. Executive Director Gary Ruskin is just convinced that scientists who support the technology of genetic modification (GM) must be in the pocket of Big Ag. He used the FOIA request as a fishing expedition to find any connection between scientists who support GM and Big Ag.

I find this very common. Those in the anti-GMO community have a solid conviction that they are correct, and therefore any scientist or science communicator supporting GMO must be a shill for the industry. This is so common it has become a running joke in the skeptical community – playing the “shill card.” Those who are anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, anti-mainstream medicine play the shill card at the slightest provocation, and without the slightest bit of evidence to support their accusations.

If your recall, about a year ago Mike Adams from Natural News simply concocted a list of people he claimed were evil Monsanto shills. He then compared them to Nazis and essentially argued that killing them would be morally justified. This was so outrageous that the FBI became involved, and Adams had to edit his article to tone it down a bit.

I think deep down the antis know they are on thin ice (that they don’t have any smoking gun evidence) and so they eagerly latch onto the thinnest thread of evidence to support their shill accusations.  This brings us to USRTK’s FOIA request – this was a hunt for that thinnest thread of evidence.

Kevin Folta was caught up in this request, but he dutifully complied and made all of his e-mails available. Not surprisingly (and much like the climate-gate affair) if you pore through thousands of e-mails and are willing to take whatever you find out of context, you can find things that you can make sound sinister. Well, Ruskin must feel as if he hit the mother lode.

It turns out that Kevin’s university accepted a one time unrestricted educational grant from Monsanto (gasp!) of $25,000. This money was used to pay for travel expenses, snacks, and other minor expenses associated with scientists outreach activities so that the scientists would not have to pay out-of-pocket for the privilege of educating the public. Kevin used this grant to pay for, as he says, gas money and sandwiches for some of his talks.

There you go – you have a financial connection between Kevin Folta an the evil Monsanto – the anti-GMO crowd went wild. They are now doing their virtual victory dance and exploiting this for all it is worth.

Natural news writes: “Academic GMO shills exposed: Once-secret emails reveal gross collusion with Monsanto, academic fraud at the highest levels inside U.S. universities.” Just about every word in that headline is wrong. Mike Adams himself wrote:


That is a direct lie.

Perhaps the most shrill response was from Food Babe (I know, you’re shocked). She writes:

“I’ve always said that food and chemical corporations work with public university scientists “behind closed doors” to manipulate the public—and now our movement has irrefutable PROOF. “

She promises to continue the witch hunt by submitting her own FOIA request.

There are campaigns underway to harass Kevin on Twitter and Craigslist. Kevin is being called, “Monsanto’s douchebag.”

Of course, if you look at the articles by Hari (Food Babe) and Adams you will find that they have nothing – no smoking gun. They are writing as if Kevin personally received the $25,000, which is not true. Kevin personally made no money from the grant, he simply used the money to cover incidental costs for the public outreach he was already doing. Seriously, do they think scientists can be bought for gas money?

They don’t seem to care about the reality. They have a drum and they are going go beat it.

Kevin supports GMOs because the science supports GMOs. The technology itself is safe. Individual GMO crops have to be evaluated for themselves, and the ones on the market currently are safe and useful. The potential for the technology is also tremendous.

The reality is, there has been a paid disinformation campaign going on – funded by the organic food lobby and environmental groups like Greenpeace. They have successfully demonized GMOs and Monsanto and the agricultural industry. Scientists and science communicators are just now trying to set the record straight, and they are being attacked as shills – the irony is thick.

Vani Hari and Mike Adams make substantial personal money spreading their anti-science and nonsense. Kevin doesn’t make a dime correcting their misinformation. That is the reality. Anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva gets personally paid $40,000 per lecture. Kevin gets sandwiches and gas money.

Now of course agricultural corporations are interested in correcting the misinformation that has been used to smear their industry by their rivals in the organic food industry and the fearmongers who make substantial amounts of money selling their “natural” products. To whom are these companies going to reach out to help educate the public about the real science of GMOs? To scientists. The e-mails that Adams and Hari are presenting as “PROOF” of collusion are just the typical conversations that companies have with scientists in the relevant field. Taken out of context, of course, anything can be made to sound sinister.

Kevin and the University of Florida have decided to transfer the unexpended funds to a newly-established on-campus food bank, The Field and Fork Food Pantry, to benefit students having difficulty making ends meet. So they don’t even have this paltry educational grant any more. Public scientists are now less willing to speak to the public on controversial issues, because many feel the harassment is just not worth it.

Honestly, I would never have taken the grant in the first place precisely because it could be exploited like it is. Unfortunately, perception sometimes trumps reality. It is hard to turn down corporate money to support good projects, but that is the poisoned environment we live in.

And, I have to say corporations often do try to improperly influence public opinion, and even scientific opinion. That is why I support full transparency. When a scientist is personally making hundreds of thousands of dollars, or has million dollar grants from a company, that is a conflict of interest. Gas money just isn’t.

The fact is, Kevin’s opinions are his genuine scientific opinions. The science genuinely supports the safety and effectiveness of GMOs. The anti-GMO campaign is largely pseudoscientific. There is as strong a scientific consensus around the safety of GMOs as there is for the safety of vaccines, or the fact of anthropogenic global warming. If you reject the science, then you also have to reject the scientists.


We have not seen the end of this. The shill witch hunt is just getting started, and now they are emboldened by the PR bonanza they have found in FOIA requests for e-mails. All of this is likely to have a chilling effect on scientists speaking out in the public square on controversial issues. The nutcases have scored a body blow.

However, the community of scientific skeptics will not back down. We have already decided to engage with the dark underbelly of pseudoscience, to promote science even in the face of threats and slander. We will stick together, to expose the charlatans, and persistently educate the public about science and pseudoscience.


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