A sad day for public science advocacy

I’ve been at this blogging thing for more than a decade now. Looking back on those years, I find it incredible that I’ve lasted this long. For one thing, I still marvel that there are apparently thousands of people out there who still like to read my nearly daily musings (or, as George Carlin would call them, brain droppings) after all these years. More importantly, being a public advocate for science is a rough business, as I’ve documented over the years. Back when I first started out, I was completely pseudonymous and anonymous. I kept my real name relatively secret. It was less than five months after I started blogging that the doxxing began, starting with a man named William O’Neill of the quack group the Canadian Cancer Research Group, who sent e-mails threatening to sue to my department chair, division chief, cancer center director, and, of course, me. I admit that it freaked me out and almost ended my blogging career right then and there. Fortunately, my chair, the late great Steve Lowry (who is missed) thought nothing of it and supported me. Since then, every so often someone, be it an antivaccine activist (most commonly) or a cancer quack (less commonly) or an HIV/AIDS denialist (only once) has tried to make trouble for me at work or elsewhere. I’ve gotten used to it.

I’m relatively small potatoes, though, and, as I have a demanding day job and can’t go “all in” advocating science, I probably will remain so. When a science advocate’s prominence rises, the attacks from the antiscience side become more relentless and frightening. Paul Offit knows this, having endured death threats from antivaccine activists. Michael Mann knows this, having endured a concerted effort by anthropogenic climate change denialists to discredit him professionally and personally. Edzard Ernst knows this, having been targeted by the Quacktitioner Royal himself. Indeed, he was just awarded the Maddox Prize—and deservedly so!—because of what he’s endured standing up for science. Kevin Folta knows this, having been targeted by the “Food Babe Army,” followers of Vani Hari, who has become the queen of food pseudoscience and fear mongering, for his tireless refutation of her fear mongering about “teh ebil chemicalz” in food and, of course, genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Unfortunately, the pressure has been so great that Folta made this announcement on his Facebook page yesterday afternoon (click to embiggen if the type is too small):

A sad day for public science advocacy: Kevin Folta announces that he is ceasing his public advocacy.

A sad day for public science advocacy: Kevin Folta announces that he is ceasing his public advocacy.

This is a depressing development. Yet another public advocate of science has been driven to give up the fight because of the harassment of anti-science forces. Kevin was one of the foremost voices countering anti-GMO pseudoscience, and now he is gone. I’m not criticizing him for his decision. I really can’t blame him for deciding that his advocacy just wasn’t worth the price he was paying. Consider the price. Besides having to deal with anti-GMO activists harassing him online, he had to deal with numerous complaints to his administration about his science advocacy. I’ve had but a taste of what I know Folta has been going through. Periodically, some antivaccine crank or cancer quack will “complain” to my department chair, dean, or cancer center director. At first, they’d ask me what it was about; now I don’t even hear about them. Indeed, the last time the topic came up in a discussion with my department chair he confirmed that he periodically gets complaints from people trying to make trouble for me at work.

The worst incident occurred five years ago, when Jake Crosby wrote a profoundly dishonest blog post accusing me of an undisclosed conflict of interest, in essence that I was in the pocket of Sanofi-Aventis and a shill. His rationale was that I was studying a drug made by Sanofi-Aventis as a possible cancer treatment and Sanofi-Aventis makes vaccines. Or something. His logic wasn’t exactly what one would call coherent. Be that as it may, as a result, a lot of antivaxers wrote complaints to my dean and the board of governors of the university. Fortunately, my university supported me. My dean even called me to ask me if I felt threatened. I told her that I didn’t feel physically threatened, but clearly I was being threatened with other harm. Since then, there hasn’t been an attack at work that has caused me more than momentary annoyance, and the administration has learned that such complaints are usually nothing.

As I said, I’m small potatoes. Imagine having to endure what I endured five years ago, but on a much more frequent basis, along with a steady drip-drip-drip of other complaints. Imagine having to deal with being smeared on NaturalNews.com, the Food Babe’s website, and basically all over the Internet as a shill for Monsanto. Imagine being the subject of an intentionally harassing fishing expedition in the form of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request:

After receiving a FOIA request from US Right to Know—a nonprofit dedicated to exposing “the failures of the corporate food system“—the University of Florida notified Folta, a food and agricultural science professor at the university, that he would have to turn over all of his e-mails relating to correspondence with 14 different firms involved in agribusiness. His options: Submit all of his emails and allow lawyers to sift through them independently, or spend hours doing it himself alongside legal counsel.

The request is a response to public arguments by Folta that genetically modified foods are safe. Folta compares the strength of the scientific consensus on GM safety to the consensus on climate change and vaccines, and US Right to Know—or USRTK—believes the food and agricultural industries may be pressuring Folta and other scientists into voicing such arguments.

On January 28, US Right to Know sent out a FOIA request targeting 14 scientists at four universities, including Folta, requesting that they all turn over their email correspondence with industry representatives. Gary Ruskin, the executive director of USRTK, says the move is essential for uncovering the food industry’s efforts to manipulate scientists into advancing pro-genetically-modified propaganda.

No, the move was “essential” for nothing of the sort. The only purpose of Ruskin’s intellectually dishonest FOIA request was to harass the universities where scientists defending GMOs work, to chew up resources and the scientists’ time, and, if Ruskin was lucky, to find something he could distort to make it look as though a scientist were in the pocket of Monsanto. Indeed, it’s hard not to conclude that Ruskin was lying through his teeth when he told Keith Kloor that the scientists targeted had been chosen for their involvement in GMO Answers, an industry sponsored website that posts answers to public questions about the safety of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. After it was pointed out that some of the scientists had no relationship with the website, Ruskin changed his story and claimed that they were targeted for making public statements against California Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of GMO-containing foods.

Of course, whenever you search through thousands of e-mails, you are virtually guaranteed to find something that you can use against your target. Ruskin knew this, and he did indeed find something after Folta complied with the request. It turns out that the University of Florida accepted a one-time unrestricted educational grant from Monsanto of $25,000. This is not an uncommon sort of grant from companies, be they pharmaceutical companies or other companies, and “unrestricted” means just that: The company giving the grant provides the funds for the the institution receiving them to use without preconditions. As Steve Novella has documented, this small grant was used to pay for “travel expenses, snacks, and other minor expenses associated with scientists outreach activities.” The finding resulted in a hopelessly biased article in the New York Times by Eric Lipton in September. It was clearly a hatchet job designed to discredit him. In response, besides her usual nonsensical bloviating, the Food Babe promised to file an FOIA of her own.

I can only guess how the harassment has escalated over the last couple of months. Having no “inside information,” I can only speculate based on Folta’s statement that he’s “under a lot of pressure on many fronts” that perhaps his family is tired of the harassment. Another possibility, as unfortunate as it would be if that possibility were true, is that the University of Florida is pressuring him to shut up. Yes, universities generally support freedom of speech and academic freedom, but not all of them do so to the same extent, and when supporting a faculty member’s academic freedom results in too much pushback, even the most dedicated university might have second thoughts. Pressure could be exerted in many ways, particularly given that Kevin Folta is the chairman of the Horticultural Science Department, which, believe it or not, probably makes him more, not less, vulnerable to pressure, because unlike tenured faculty, who are incredibly difficult to fire (and intentionally so), department chairs generally serve at the pleasure of the dean. The university might not be able to get rid of Folta from the faculty, but it wouldn’t be too difficult to threaten his position as chair, either subtly or not-so-subtly.

I’m not saying that this is what happened. I openly admit that I’m speculating about what might have happened based on my experience with how universities work, which might not even quite apply, given that I am most familiar with how medical schools work. In fact, I really hope that this is not what happened. I hope that the University of Florida actually did support Folta completely, making his decision to withdraw from public advocacy unrelated to pressure from his administration. Again, I can’t blame the guy for deciding to withdraw, knowing just a little of what he was facing and having had only a taste of it myself in comparison. Indeed, I recently found out that his home address was published in a local Gainesville Craigslist anti-GMO ad aimed at Folta’s mother and asking her if she was ashamed. So it’s quite possible, likely even, that this sort of harassment is what tipped the balances in his decision. Only Kevin Folta knows for sure what factors led him to make his decision.

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.