Thursday, April 21, 2016

Why This Recognition Means More than You May First Believe

The news that I was the recipient of the 2016 CAST Borlaug Agricultural Communications Award added a new extreme to the wild emotional dynamics of the past twelve months.  Celebrate, suffer; dance, cry; hurt, heal. Quit, start, refresh, retreat. Lather, rinse repeat.

Back in August and September 2015 I read in disbelief that I was part of Monsanto’s “inner circle”, one of their “strategic advisors” with “close ties” that “took money to lie about science” and “used undisclosed funds to thwart labeling efforts.”  I read the websites, I read the articles.  The person I was reading about was not the person in the mirror.

But in the day of the internet, the person in the mirror is forced to take the yoke that the most devious person installs.  You become, in perception, who they decide you are.  You lose control of your own persona—that is left to those that want to destroy you.

There is nothing you can do if you are a mostly unknown public scientist that has a minor social media presence.  The opponents have money, agenda, personnel, and a mission-- as well as access to some of the nation’s loudest media megaphones.

The title of the Buzzfeed article was pure hyperbole, designed explicitly to harm the reputation of a scientist. It was soon after changed to "Seed Money" after the defamatory clickbait title did its intended job.

It does not matter what is true.  If you read Google's top 100 entries when you search my name, you won't read about Kevin Folta, 29 years in public academic laboratories, research funded almost 100% by public sources. You won't read much about they guy that minted a dozen Ph.D. graduates and gave lab experiences to over 120 undergradutes. You won't read about the work in strawberry genomics and how specific light wavelengths can improve plant nutrition.

Instead you'll be treated to the story that US-RTK, Gary Ruskin, Paul Thacker, Mike Adams, Charles Seife, Eric Lipton, Vani Hari, Brooke Borel, Joe Mercola, Allison Vuchnich, and many others wanted told—  that Kevin Folta is a “corporate lobbyist” and “Monsanto apologist”, that is, when he's not conspiring with PR firms to bully 15 year-old girls. These words were written in prominent places only to be gleefully grabbed and propagated by activist organizations sworn to at least destroy my credibility, or at most, end my career in science.

Activist organizations like Natural News, GMO Free USA, and GM Watch danced with joy as reputable writers spun these tales from carefully-chosen words from my emails, willingly released under public records laws. Words and sentences pulled from context, plucked and reassembled into weapons. They took the manufactured narratives of legitimate journalists and twisted them to impart maximal damage.

Gary Ruskin of USRTK gave it a whole 12 minutes before trying to downplay the gravity of this recognition.  He posts a link to the hit-piece he commissioned when he sent my emails to Eric Lipton at the NYT with a story for him to tell.  We're eight months out and everyone sees that it was a cheap shot at harming a public servant. 

Trolls on the internet, and even professionals like Dr. Ena Valikov reviewed my every online interaction, and took every opportunity to trash my sentiments with vicious interpretations.  I’ve saved every one, and there are well over one thousand.

I remember last September, I was in tears sitting with Brooke Borel, a writer I once really appreciated, begging her not to hyperbolize a comedyparody podcast mocking Coast to Coast AM. I told her that the internet trolls would punish me hard and her words would forever be used to harm me. She was cold and unswayed. The article ran with the catchy “Confessions of a Monsanto Apologist” headline, that later was changed perhaps when a moral calculus, or a legal adviser, finally weighed in.  She is one person I will never forgive. I hope it was a big check.

The damage was done. The internet's slander machine kicked into high gear, leading to days of articles shared tens of thousands of times, claiming I was a "psychotic", that I was "mentally deranged" and "should never be teaching in a public university." Global News writer Allison Vuchnich assembled a tale that I was paid by Monsanto to harass 15-year old Canadian activist Rachel Parent. 

Whether by coincidence or cause, my invitations to talk about science at elementary schools went from twelve a year to zero. Now nobody does it. 

Those intent on my demise posted my home address and phone numbers. My office phone had to be changed, and messages were re-routed to the police and Domestic Terrorism Task Force. My email accounts experienced numerous cases of “excessive logins”. I had to scroll through thousands of pages on Craigslist to find, and have removed, the postings in my community that inspired violence against me, listing my home address and phone number.

Once my normally-closed office door was open, and police were called to check for bombs and booby traps. I just must have left it open. A package showed up with no return address, and it sat outside, unopened for weeks, until I found out that a friend just sent me a book. Your life becomes living in terror.

This is what USRTK and their cadre of complicit journalists inspired— their constructed narratives fueled defamation of a lifelong public scientist, along with threats and harassment.  It provided dangerous fodder for an emotionally-motivated movement that has a history of burning down laboratories and threatening scientists. I still watch my back.

My good work remains in space, unquestioned and still recognized as important by the scientific community.  But awards for mentoring students, caring for postdocs, publishing work to advance science, and giving endless service, seven days a week, all day, every day, is just not as public-interest-exciting as the story of the shill lobbyist traitor with an alter ego, who takes money from companies to lie about science and bully high school girls.

Through all of this, through all the criticism, it was all attacks on me, the person.  There was not one shred of wrongdoing, and absolutely no evidence of scientific misconduct, despite what some of the authors imply.  Not one hint.

I learned of many things that I could have done better.  I took actions to be beyond aggressively transparent. I've tried hard to de-snarkify and be a better leader in communicating contentious issues with grace. I still have a long way to go.

But living as me, knowing that the perception of who I am is in control of horrible people that want to destroy my career, and using the media to destroy me personally — nobody could handle that.

I didn’t handle it.  It changed me.  I suffered with gyrations between overwhelming runaway anxiety and devastating depression.  I neglected myself, quit my almost religious gym habits and interest in exercise.  I didn’t care anymore, and still am not completely back to where I was before this all happened.  

I don't know that I ever will be.

One day in September I sat in a plane on my way to another something out of town, and I remember thinking to myself, “If this plane were to crash, I would be okay with that.”

I would break down all the time.  If I gave a talk about my work, I’d get choked up when I’d describe our clever experiment, and I’d have to stop and lose tears when I put up a picture of the scientists in my lab, sweet, dedicated professionals that I am so blessed to share my days with.  I would have quit if it was not for them, for the faculty I work with, and for a bigger mission serving the agricultural interests of my state and nation.

It all changed me.  My hair started going grey and I aged a decade in the last year.  My breathing is slow and shallow, I don’t sleep well.  I’m forgetful.  The toll has been harsh. My eyes swell with tears when I even think about what I have been through.

But I wear a convincing mask.  The whole time I haven’t missed a beat at work.  We’re doing good research, we’re publishing, I’m speaking all over the country about research and science communication. I’m taking care of business as the Chair of a leading department in our discipline.

I answer almost every email from every high school or college student that is doing a report.  I answer the emails from concerned moms.  I read and try to respond to every comment on my public Facebook page and on Twitter. 

I survived, but I’m dragging an anchor. I can feel it.

Others say, “Screw ‘em, who cares what they think,” and I get that.  But to know that there are still wicked people laying landmines in my path and trashing my reputation, that's hard to live with.

Then over the last month or so my university turned over another huge set of my emails to US-RTK and the Food Babe, Vani Hari.   I went through them, nothing exciting there.  However, I sit waiting to see the news explode across social media of my evils and indiscretions, more manufactured stories that simply are not true, but now become part of my story, as told by the internet.

Throughout this ordeal there have been some rays of sunshine.  I get endless support from an online community of science enthusiasts that are fast to reach out and offer their thoughts.  I’ve seen scientists like Dr. Allison Van Eenennaam and my colleagues here at the University of Florida step up and admonish the relentless ad hominems I endure. My boss, Dr. Jack Payne, stepped into my defense with great authority, clarifying the issues in public forums and within the university. Drs. Steven Novella, David Kroll, and David Gorski have written brilliant rebuttals and supportive entries. I'm grateful to Dr. Maria Trainer for assembling the packet leading to this recognition. If it was not for the support of colleagues I would not be in science today.

This is why being recognized with the Borlaug Agricultural Communications Award is so amazing. It is a reminder that I am doing the right thing.  It helps me rebuild that record of who I really am, to put a different story in social space to contrast the cyber-slander of Food Babes and Health Rangers.

That is why this recognition means so much.  

When the sun sets on this mess everything will be okay.  Time will be kind.  Today’s announcement is a continuation of that redefining process. I have to go above and beyond to be more effective, more transparent, more prolific.  I need to find a new level of service, both in the scientific community and in the public eye.  That’s all happening.

I believe that in a strange way the invasive and libelous activist attacks are a gift.  They have provided me a visibility and platform that this marginally-relevant plant scientist would never have had otherwise.  Now the challenge is to use that momentum to do what Dr. Norman Borlaug would do-- advance science that can help people. That is the mission of this recognition, to use science, and science communication, to honor his legacy by ensuring that all people, especially those in need, have access to our best agricultural innovations.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

McGuire et al. Breast Milk Study Fallout, COI, and Sensationalism

Why I'm Standing Up.

Last year my email records were willingly released to activists without a lot of worry. I've been a public scientist for 30 years or so working in research about light and its role in plant growth and development. All public funded, except for a sprinkle of strawberry industry funds.  Nobody really seems to get too excited about that. 

But I always enjoy engaging the public in discussing any science topic, especially in agriculture and especially in genetic engineering. Some people get very excited about that. 

The organization that requested my records, US Right to Know (USRTK), is highly funded by elements of the organic movement. That's not organic farmers per se, or organic researchers. They like me just fine-- I support lots of organic research. 

The search was financed by a radical wing of the movement sworn to decry modern farming and its technological ornaments.  I took US-RTK at their word that they were simply looking to understand influence of companies in why scientists say and do the things we say and do. 

Therefore, I didn't really care.  While I have had interactions with companies and industries of many kinds over the years, nobody ever had any influence over my research or outreach.  Nothing to hide. No big deal. 

Shortly thereafter, USRTK filtered my emails for sentences that could be damning out of context, and systematically distributed them to willing journalists. Some journalists declined to do anything with my words-- they saw it as how they were being used by activists to lynch public scientists.

One popular science journalist even said, "I read the 5000 emails and this guy is a damn boy scout." 

However, a select few were enthusiastic to twist the stories of a public scientist that doubled as a key "inner circle" strategist and lobbyist for Big Ag, namely Monsanto.  They told false stories of how I was a central strategist in the defeat of the California labeling effort, cherry-picking emails that had no such information.  I read about how I was paid by Monsanto to bully a 14 year old girl.  

After I composed myself from laughing I realized the damage this would do, and endured, and still endure the wrath of hate from factions of the public sworn to harass public scientists, simply because they do their job. That job -- to perform the highest quality research and interpret the literature for a public that has questions. 

Why the Science Community is Weak

I've had many thoughts on the matter.  However, one was clear-- I was not impressed with the scientific community's response.  Our national organizations looked the other way, scientists ran for cover. A few spoke out, valiantly, but for the most part, the hush was deafening in support of career public scientist that was suffering.

The scars are permanent. It changed me as a person, it hurt my reputation, and anyone performing a Google Images search will see the smear that Lipton, Borel, Mike Adams, and a gaggle of others seeded, as they offered red meat of a non-story or manufactured narratives to an activist throng poised to destroy the career of a scientist. 

Well I survived.  Changed, but not out, focused more on my lab and my role as a leader in my field, especially in communication. My focus is not the radical wing of a scientifically bankrupt movement. My focus is to share the beauty of our findings with a public that desperately needs real answers, and does not know who to trust. 

I want to earn that trust, and I have. I will continue to do that. 

But one thing is for sure. I swore to myself I would not sit quietly when others were unfairly attacked.  Nobody should have to endure what I endured. 

No Glyphosate in Breast Milk EOM.

Dr. Shelley McGuire is a lactation specialist at Washington State University.  She was asked to test the activist claims, as she is an expert in analyzing breast milk-- a chemically-complex liquid that presents various challenges and caveats to analysis (that activists are free to ignore). 

The report examines breast milk from 41 women using a recently published LC/MS method.  The method of detection can take months to devise, so such work merits independent publication. 

This reputable report demonstrates that the high-resolution proper result are not consistent with the fearful claims on an activist website.  

But what is reported?  Let's analyze the piece that came out this week in Forbes online, by a credible journalist and respected science communicator --  Monsanto-Linked Study Finds No Monsanto-Linked Herbicide Glyphosate In Breast Milk

I'm not sure how many more times you can mention the word "Monsanto" in the title, so maybe a little tip to the bias of the piece going in. 

And also of note, many companies make glyphosate (the herbicide) not just Monsanto.  I'd guess that the majority of human exposures stem from residential use of glyphosate-based products, of which Roundup is just one.  I always buy the generic version at 1/3 the cost for use in my garden. 

But "Monsanto-Linked" is code for "you can't believe it" and the author knows that. 

The article states: 

The study, however, is weighted with conflicts of interest that include having three Monsanto employees as authors. The first two authors also have received grants from Monsanto, and the costs of the chemical analyses for the study were covered by Monsanto. This study is not, however, the only one reporting this outcome.

This really bothers me as a scientist.  The author is willing to discount the findings, or at least sees them as "weighted" (e.g. suspect) because employees of Monsanto are authors, and the company at least partially covered the costs of this expensive analysis. 

Classic. Right form the Merchants of Doubt playbook  While ultimately stating the outcome of the work correctly, the implication is that the work is tainted, somehow suspect, and worse, a victim of its own transparency!  She implies a conspiracy between the journal, a professional society, a respected scientist, and an ag-biotech company. 

Instead, can we please discuss data?  Can we discuss the methods?  What is it about the detection that you find inappropriate?  What is questionable from an analytical chemistry standpoint?  Why are the data not to be trusted?  That is what journalists should be asking! 

To imply that association with a company is tantamount to misconduct with the data/methods not discussed, is seriously off base, and impugns the integrity of Prof. McGuire and her research team.  

The validity of scientific results and their interpretation takes place in the peer-reviewed literature, not in Forbes.  Unfortunately the first salvo that necessitated this situation came from an activist group on a website that claimed to find glyphosate in breast milk using a noisy test and published on a website piloted by a team sworn against genetic engineering.  

McGuire's group took the risky task to pursue the truth and perform the proper test, scientifically testing the hypothesis that glyphosate in breast milk was detectable. They showed, using proper scientific methods, replication and dissemination, that it was not. 

That is the story.  Quality, transparent science, sound methods, and and independent lab show that the people that manufactured data for the Stunning Corn Comparison are likely not being honest here either. 

The real story for a journalist should not be that McGuire's work is suspect because of associations with a company.  It should be a comparison and contrast against the on-line report from an activist group's noisy assay with no controls versus a properly-performed study.  It should teach the public what the differences are, and how they can better equip themselves to understand what is legitimate science, and that activist drivel devised to scare them. 

But that does not get clicks.  

Sticking it to Scientists

Maligning a legitimate scientist due to associations, with no evidence of wrong-doing and complete transparency throughout the process is a much juicer story that fits the popular narrative that our best-- most respected public scientists are just dupes of Big Ag that should be shamed into silence, and eventually out of public service.

And this coming from an author that won the Maddox Prize 2014, awarded to someone standing up for science despite adversity. 

Of course, the author does step back and make it look like this might be one "lens" the public could use to see the situation, striving for a sense of objectivity.  However, the use of other terms, like calling McGuire's association with Monsanto a "slumber party" are highly disturbing, implying the popular quid pro quo myth. 

The original article has since been adjusted to remove some of the language first used to inflate the scientific collaboration to the intimacy of a corporate fluid-swap slumber party

McGuire was kind enough to be interviewed on the Talking Biotech Podcast -episode 30.    She explained that the association with Monsanto was because Monsanto houses the world's experts in glyphosate detection.  That's why she worked with them.  That's what we do in science. We find the best possible collaborators to do the job. 

Plus the results were all verified by an independent laboratory. 

McGuire was forthright and transparent with her associations, as it should be.  Only to be trashed by the internet's jury as a slumber-party stooge that can't be trusted. 

My Final Thoughts.

Our scientific integrity is not defined by cherry-picked emails and lazy journalists glad to smear a scientist to cash a check --- It is determined by our peers and the most rigorous scientific standards. 

Our legacy is determined on the advances that line the library shelves and seed new discovery-- The New York Times lines the bottom of the birdcage. 

Our impact is determined by the solutions we deliver that help people and the planet-- Their impact is measured in mouse clicks generated by sensational claims with thin facts. 

Our value is measured in the lives we touch, the students we train, the problems we solve. Critics' value is measured in how much they can stop us from doing it.  

Time will be kind to scientists they seek to defame.

Months ago, I literally repeated that over and over as I cried myself to sleep as I planned my exit from this discipline.

We don't need to earn journalists' respect. They need to earn ours. 

I wonder how many of them will have the courage and character to apologize someday.