“Transparency” should not equal a license to harass scientists

While perusing the New York Times over the weekend, I was disturbed to see an article by Paul Thacker that basically advocated using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request e-mails from scientists in search of undisclosed industry ties. The article was entitled, disturbingly, Scientists, Give Up Your Emails. Thacker, as you might recall, wrote a highly biased article with Charles Seife for PLoS One attacking scientists who work on and defend genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and foods made from them from pseudoscientific attacks by cranks like Vani Hari, better known as The Food Babe. It was an article that was ultimately retracted. Reviewing his articles, not just the retracted PLoS One article, but his most recent NYT article, I find it hard not to conclude that Thacker advocates the unfettered use of FOIA requests, even abusive ones, to go on fishing expeditions for undisclosed conflicts of interest (COIs), real or imagined. Basically, to Thacker, if scientists not engaged in any wrongdoing get hurt (like Folta), that’s just tough doodie. This became clear to me when I saw a Twitter exchange involving Thacker about his article (more on that later).

A bit of background is in order regarding why I care about this. A couple of months ago, I wrote about what I called a sad day for science advocacy. It was such a sad day because a staunch advocate for the science of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) against the pseudoscience and fear mongering that GMO opponents use, publicly announced that he was withdrawing from public advocacy. This public advocate was Kevin Folta, a food and agricultural science professor at the University of Florida. Indeed, it’s not for nothing that I describe anti-GMO activists as using the same fallacious arguments as the antivaccine movement. For his efforts, Folta had endured incredible harassment at the hands of anti-GMO activists, who labeled him a Monsanto shill and did their very best to intimidate him into silence.

The harassment reached its climax last year when US Right to Know (USRTK)—a nonprofit that sells itself as “dedicated” to exposing “the failures of the corporate food system“—hit Folta with a frivolous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that was clearly meant as a fishing expedition and a means of punishing Folta. What was less reported was that USRTK is a lobbying arm of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), which funded it to the tune of $194,500 thus far. The OCA appears to be USRTK’s only major donor. So basically, an industry that stands to benefit by demonizing GMOs used FOIA to harass scientists thusly:

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.

One notes that the scientists had a truly difficult choice when confronted with such an FOIA: Submit all of their emails and allow lawyers to sift through them independently, or spend hours doing it themselves alongside legal counsel. Of course, that’s the point. That’s why groups like USRTK make such FOIA. It’s a feature, not a bug, of such requests. If the cranks find something they can use to smear the target, so much the better, but even if they don’t they will have caused their target major headaches and have wasted many hours of their time, hours when they can’t be doing research or public science advocacy. As Steve Novella noted, it’s a win-win strategy for groups like USRTK. Even better, if the scientists push back or complain about an invasion of privacy, those complaints and any resistance to providing the e-mails can be spun as “evidence” of a coverup, with help from even crankier cranks like Mike Adams.

In this case, USRTK did find something that its director Gary Ruskin could spin negatively. It turns out that the University of Florida accepted a small unrestricted grant ($25,000) from Monsanto, to be used to pay for travel expenses, meals, and other minor expenses associated with public outreach. In medicine, for example, 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. The finding resulted in unfavorable coverage in the NYT that was criticized for bias. For example, the main scientific critic of Folta’s interviews, Charles Benbrook, is funded by the organic food industry, which was quickly countered with an observation that “the biotech industry has published dozens of articles, under the names of prominent academics, that in some cases were drafted by industry consultants,” as if that makes Benbrook’s bias excusable. (Two wrongs don’t make a right, or make a biased scientist like Benbrook any more credible.)

I will say something right here. Folta did screw up. A lot of skeptics circling the wagons are reluctant to admit that. I was reluctant to admit that at first. I now realize that he did, but I think he did it more out of naïveté than out of any intent to hide anything. If he had simply said that his university had that unrestricted grant and that he had accessed some of its funs, the cranks would have still attacked him but there wouldn’t have been even a hint of an appearance of impropriety. Unfortunately, all it takes to ruin one’s reputation sometimes is appearance

Those of us in medicine know that we fail to avoid such appearances at our peril, which is why we must disclose any funds received from a pharmaceutical company, no matter how small and no matter how innocuous. That’s why I not infrequently point out that I once received a one time grant from Bayer for €40,000 for a small research project. (That wasn’t even enough to pay for a postdoc for a year.) I also received $12,000 back in the 1990s from Rhône-Poulenc (which no longer exists as an independent company) as part of a payout for a patent I had with my PhD thesis advisor, who was fair enough to include me because I did much of the work even though he wasn’t strictly obligated to cut me in. I also learned that, even if you do disclose everything, cranks can try to paint you as having an undisclosed COI, as Jake Crosby did five years ago when, because my university had a grant from Sanofi-Aventis (which I had nothing to do with) and I was doing research on what was then a Sanofi-Aventis drug (but is no more) it meant that I was in the pocket of vaccine manufacturers.

When you work in a field where cranks are looking for anything they can find that they can turn against you, that’s what you have to do.

Even realizing that cranks are waiting, ready to pounce, there was no excuse for what cranks did with the information culled by USRTK. Nor was there an excuse for the threats that Folta endured or the publication of his home address to intimidate him. As I pointed out at the time, I’ve learned that the tactics used by various anti-science cranks, be they antivaccinationists, quacks, anthropogenic global climate change denialists, or anti-GMO activists, are often similar and often include targeting their opponents at their jobs. If harassment at work doesn’t work, maybe frivolous harassing FOIA requests will.

There is a serious issue here. Much of this research is paid for by public money, through government grants, and/or carried out at public universities. If you’re a scientist at a public university, you’re pretty much wide open to FOIA requests. If you’re at a private university you might still be open to them if you receive federal funding. In any case, there is a case to be made for transparency. The question boils down to the specifics, how much transparency and what is the balance between the privacy of what scientists discuss via e-mail compared to the public’s right to know. Personally, I tend to treat e-mails in my university e-mail account as though they could be subject to FOIA at any minute, which no doubt sometimes inhibits what I write even just on the off chance of embarrassment if I say something stupid or let my tendency towards—shall we say?—insolence run a little too free.

If you want an idea of where Thacker is coming from, all you have to do is to look at this paragraph from his NYT article:

One of our examples focused on a small nonprofit, U.S. Right to Know, which advocates for the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. The group filed Freedom of Information requests seeking the correspondence of scientists at public universities, some of whom wrote for a website backed by the agrochemical industry.

Notice what Thacker left out: the fact that USRTK is basically a propaganda organization paid for by the organic crop industry. This is something that is not even in contention. Even if it were, if Thacker were truly interested in “transparency” rather than biased advocacy, he would have mentioned that USRTK is heavily funded by the organic industry just for that reason.

Not surprisingly, he was called out on Twitter by Alan Levinovitz for having left that little bit of critical information out. Basically, Levinovitz pointed out that USRTK is funded by the organic industry:

Thacker replied:

When Levinovitz persisted—civilly, I might add—Thacker blocked him:

If it’s true that the NYT editor didn’t think it important to point out in an article advocating that scientists “give up their e-mails” in the name of transparency that the funding source of the group who filed an FOIA used as an example to argue for such “transparency” was a group who would benefit from disclosure of those e-mails, then that’s bias on the NYT’s part. If Thacker didn’t fight to include that information, then that just reveals the bias on his part. To him, it doesn’t appear to be about “transparency” but about attacking scientists who defend GMOs, like Kevin Folta. Basically, I call BS on Thacker’s excuse, and his blocking Levinovitz shows a disturbing unwillingness to engage with critics.

He also shows a disturbing lack of concern for the fallout:

As interest groups on both the left and right increasingly try to politicize the scientific process, there’s little question that there will be misuse of the Freedom of Information laws that some journalists and watchdog organizations have used to uncover wrongdoing.

Scientists have been harassed in the past and no doubt will continue to be harassed in the future, just like other public servants. You can argue that Mr. Smith’s broadsides against NOAA are a case in point. In turn, scientists are free to fight these information requests or seek to narrow the scope of the inquiries to protect against what they believe threatens the integrity of the scientific process or chills research.

But the harassment argument should not be used as an excuse to bar access to scientific research that the public is paying for and has a legitimate interest in seeing.

Of course, no one is saying that harassment should be used as an “excuse” to bar access to scientific research. No one. What is being expressed is concern about balancing the public’s right to know with the potential for the harassment of scientists. Remember, in Folta’s case, the harassment went beyond just making him give up his e-mails. It involved dissemination of his e-mails in such a manner as to guarantee that cranks would harass him at home and even harass his family. Given how utterly predictable such a consequence of releasing those e-mails was, I do not believe for a minute denials on the part of Ruskin or Thacker that they didn’t know or had no way of predicting.

Thacker’s attitude is also chillingly blithe. Dealing with legal actions is not something most people have experience with, including scientists. While lawyers and lobbyists, who deal with legal challenges all the time, might think them no big deal, the average person will be subject to enormous stress when they learn they’re at the receiving end of a legal action. The thought of having to go to court to fight to narrow a FOIA request or fight these frivolous and harassing FOIA requests is a big deal, even if the scientists’ universities are paying for it. The cranks making these FOIA requests know this. They’re counting on it. Again, that’s a feature of these requests, not a bug. Similarly, while complying with such requests is onerous, fighting them is even more onerous, particularly given that the scientist could lose and still have to go through all the work of complying anyway in addition to the work of fighting the requests.

Some of the commenters took Thacker to task for the one-sidedness of Thacker’s article. A common theme (one I agree with) is that his call for “transparency” would be more convincing and easier to take if the same standard were applied to, for instance, Representative Lamar Smith. His harassment of climate scientists would be put very much in context if members of the public could request his e-mail exchanges with donors, energy industry officials, and the like. Or, as another commenter quipped:

Finally, why focus on scientists for this e-mail trawl? Why not all government employees? I for one want to see all of Paul D. Thacker’s e-mails from the time he worked for the US Senate. Don’t worry, it isn’t malicious– it is for transparency.

Indeed. Perhaps some FOIA requests are indicated here. Transparency, you know. Of course, scientists like myself, who work for state universities, already know our e-mails could be subject to FOIA requests. Indeed, I’m rather surprised that I’ve not yet been subject to such a request by antivaccine loons. Of course, because I do my best to keep my blogging activities separate from my work, such a request would be pretty pointless. All my blog e-mail goes through either a Gmail account or one of my private e-mail accounts.

Another pointed out:

Launching an investigation into scientists’ correspondence without having beforehand evaluated the research on its own merit is indeed a politically motivated witch-hunt, and one that ought to be resisted.

Which is quite correct.
Others pointed out (quite rightly) that if you knew your e-mails were open to anyone you’d write a lot less in them and make more phone calls. As a result, there would be less candor in e-mails and research would suffer. Basically, as one commenter pointed out, we shouldn’t allow fishing expeditions going after scientists’ e-mails any more than we allow fishing expeditions in a court of law. Thacker doesn’t see it that way:

I don’t agree.

There are certainly legitimate reasons for scientists’ e-mails, but there really do need to be reasonable limits to protect scientists from the sort of abusive fishing expeditions to which Folta and other agricultural scientists or climate scientists have been subjected. In the end, I couldn’t help but read Thacker’s article as being extremely disingenuous and self-serving as it downplayed the costs of allowing unfettered FOIA-facilitated harassment of scientists as merely the cost of receiving government funding for science or working for the government. There needs to be a balance. I don’t claim to know what that balance should be, but I do claim that Thacker’s way goes too far. His “transparency” is a license to harass.