I've always been interested in science and communication, and as time went along always wondered how to meld the two in an interesting and entertaining way. In fact, in my senior year in college I finished third in the nation in a forensics event-- something called After Dinner Speaking. Here you would convey a serious topic using humor as a vehicle. I was pretty good at that.
During grad school I was paid to write for stand-up comedians and even wrote greeting cards. I self-published funny books on pranks and pseudoscience, and wrote a lot of clever work for "fanzines", the pre-internet alternative media. My stuff flew off the racks at a local place called Quimby's Queer Book Store. Yes, there once were stores that sold books. As I moved through academic ranks from grad student to professor, my students' reviews always recognized how my use of humor was appropriate and helpful, and creative analogy and colorful tangents reinforced key scientific points.
But I didn't want to be the "talent". Yuck. I like my office, my lab bench, and the occasional research talk. To interview people seemed a little uncomfortable, maybe even arrogant. I didn't want that spotlight, but wanted to participate in a wider discussion on science.
So I created a character, modeled after the 1990's Art Bell show. When I was a grad student and postdoc I'd work every night well into the late AM, and recall the shows about UFOs, bigfoot, psychics... it was garbage, yet interesting.
Here I created the Vern Blazek Science Power Hour.
Obviously, from the cover art you can tell this is serious.
The character, radio host Vern Blazek, was modeled after Art Bell, and the thought was simple for the podcast-- instead of a real host entertaining clearly bogus science, what if a clearly bogus host spoke of legitimate science?
Art Bell's show was from the "high desert outside of Parhump, Nevada, Near Area 51." Vern Blazek was born, from the "high desert outside of Tillamook, Oregon, near Area 52."
The Science Power Hour is about 30 minutes long, and there is no desert near Tillamook, probably one of the most waterlogged locales on the planet.
And most of all, it was done from my home, on my time, and paid for with my dollars. It was what I did on Sunday once a month rather than cutting the grass.
But one journalist didn't get the joke, in fact, she saw Vern not as a character spawned to explore a new medium to share science and have a laugh-- she saw it as a devious plan. You can read about it over on Buzzfeed. I'm not linking it.
I actually asked her to be a guest on the Science Power Hour. She had a book on bedbugs and that seemed right up the alley of a kooky and clearly fictitious host, and probably a fun topic to bat around. I should say, that I always enjoyed her work very much, and followed her for a long time before meeting in person.
But instead of rolling with the joke, she was weirded out, confused, perhaps even outraged. Heck, it spawned the Buzzfeed piece. When she suggested the work was questionable I honestly evaluated it through her lens. I agreed that it could be considered problematic, and I took down the whole thing. Done.
In the ensuing months we spoke often. I was glad to talk to her and try to help her understand why we do experiments, in science and in communication. Why did I push the envelope with communications? Why did I try something weird, or different? It didn't make sense to her. I told her that I understood her concerns and made the correction. No problem. But she wanted to do the piece, not just correcting the problem, but now doling out the penalty phase of public shaming. So when it became evident that she was going to publish the story I put some of the episodes up, plus some others I had ready to go. That's what's there today, of course with some obvious transparency.
Long story short, it still ends up a substantial piece on Buzzfeed, intertwined with the tired story of my emails and a donation from Monsanto to an outreach program that was never used.
Now I've been branded as a "Monsanto Apologist", even though I've always stood up for science, and don't care one way or the other about Monsanto. More code for clickbait hit piece on a public scientist. (They did change the title later. Wow, maybe it is okay to change one's mind later about the appropriateness of what we do, maybe not unlike the re-adjustment of the VB podcast... Hmmm. Irony everywhere.)
Sadly, when we interviewed together for her piece I was able to clearly answer every one of her allegations, but it didn't matter. Even in the article she makes the claim that my interactions with Monsanto began in April of 2013, which I explained over and over to her was not true. She cites an email from a guy at Monsanto. She's right, he works there. Real discussions of communication and funding outreach didn't happen for a year and three months later. Still, it was important to establish the longest timeline possible. It was not a case of a decent scientist, who has made a career doing edgy science and outreach, pushing the edge-- to her, it was a scandal, a nitwit scientist that doesn't get it.
That's exactly what comes out in the Buzzfeed piece.
As for the author, I hope that she finds a sense of humor and an appreciation that we're not all schooled journalists that play from a narrow playbook. I can't help but think some of this is personal, something I said or something she doesn't like about me. I never got a good vibe from her, which is why I invited her to the podcast. I'm uncomfortable with not connecting to others, especially those in science journalism.
Some of us are obsessed with sharing ideas, teaching, and inspiring. And if a golden-throated parody of a UFO radio show shares a story or captivates a few minds... that's a good thing.
It will be very interesting to see how this story plays out. I think the story in Buzzfeed will long be viewed as a personal takedown, an attempt to harm a scientist that does not share views on modern ag or some other issue. Who knows? I don't understand why this was necessary.
And someone on Twitter saw this flap and hit the nail on the head about innovative science communication. She said, "Everyone keeps saying that we aren't reaching beyond the choir. Somebody tries, and it's nothing but pearl clutching."
Science will tell its story, and will do it with many means, including innovative, perhaps weird, use of many types of media. That's how we'll reach more hearts and minds that didn't find the original dry science particularly compelling.
7/12/2019 EDIT -- This was a good idea and was executed well. Unfortunately the other organizers took umbrage to my repeated demands to complete the work and dismissed me from the project. I did initiate drafts of the manuscript back in 2016. It is part of a much bigger falling out. These folks also decided to use FOIA to obtain internal university documents about confidential professional witness work I was doing for a law firm on my vacation time. They broke my confidentiality, revealing information that was not supposed to be public. It jeopardized my involvement in a private dispute between two parties, as well as the progression of the arbitration. They have certainly taken every opportunity to impugn my integrity and harm my career, in this and other ways. Please understand that if I had any pull in this situation I would do everything I could to complete the work as promised. It pains me to not deliver, but I have been dismissed from this project and have zero influence in its progression. ORIGINAL POST: We want YOU to help us answer the question!
The internet is filled with claims that wild animals will not consume genetically engineered crops. Even alleged experts like Dr. Don M. Huber claim with absolute certainty that animals "will not eat it at all" . These kinds of claims are reinforced by rather dubious one-off demonstrations on the internet. Like this one:
Demonstrations like this one are common on the internet, and suggest we need to do the real experiment.
Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel and I have been planning the actual test for years. We have finally obtained 2000 lbs of corn and it will be distributed as kits at $25 each. The fee covers the shipping costs, kit components, and cost to hire people to do the assembly.
Hypothesis: When given a choice, wild animals will not consume genetically engineered corn. You can hear the whole story on the Talking Biotech Podcast. We'll test this hypothesis with the help of 250 volunteers who will perform the test using our blinded, coded corn. The GM corn plants were glyphosate treated and have many "stacked" traits. Get your kit today, and any extra funding obtained will go to fund extra kits that will be distributed to schools for free.
100% of funds obtained will be used in this experiment.
All data will be available to the public
We'll publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal
Here's your chance to take part in a science experiment that will provide the independent replicates that will provide a definitive answer on this question.
In a textbook case of cherry picking, one sentence keeps emerging in the activist trial-by-internet concerning the Monsanto donation to my science communication program. The backstory is that my university received a donation from the company toward my outreach program, which covered the costs for me to travel and teach scientists how to talk about science. That was very nice of them, wonderful. Having funds to rent a facility, travel to the location, buy coffee/doughnuts or subs for the workshop is a real help. Previously this was all funded personally buy taking monies offered to me as speaker fees and deferring them to the Talking Biotech program. I remain extremely grateful for their support, even after those funds have been allocated elsewhere by the university. I was so grateful, that I noted this in an email to the Monsanto Company. That became a huge deal when 4600 pages of emails were seized by activists back in June. Out of the tens of thousands of sentences they focused on this single one, finally irrefutable proof of high collusion between a professor speaking facts and a company that makes products.
Select graphics from Natural News, GMO News and Food Babe.com tout my kind appreciation as dangerous collusion.
I was raised in a home that emphasized gratitude and appreciation for the gestures of others. I was raised in a home that taught me to take opportunities and maximize them, to work hard, to over-deliver.
So when I promise the donor "a solid return on investment" that's not a evidence of a conspiracy. That's evidence of a good upbringing.
The company recognized my program of science education as an effective and powerful way to help train scientists how to interact better with a concerned public, and their funds enabled me to do it once a month for a year. Ironically, I fell far short of expectations, and then lost the funds after activist uproar.
It is amazing that folks like Mike Adams and Vani Hari, along with the rest of the GMO-Truthers, see gratitude and appreciation as a negative thing. It tells us a lot about them and their characters.
When anyone trusts me with financial support for my research or my outreach, I will do my best to maximize the return on the investment. That is a promise. That is a quality instilled deep in my by loving parents and grandparents, that emphasized the value of hard word and always going above and beyond for others.
This week we’re joined by Richard Levine, communications director for the Entomological Society of America. We discuss bees, butterflies, insecticides and some of the current issues in crop protection from an entomological perspective. We then turn to the idea of promoting artwork using a science podcast, and the important effort to get Dr. Barbara McClintock on the ten dollar bill, replacing some guy. We discuss the barriers to her participation in science, and describe why she would be such a fitting presence on our currency– not just because she was a woman, not just because she was a scientist, but because she broken down barriers.
What exactly are "close ties"? These claims were make by Keith Kloor in the August Nature article. The same claims are now reiterated in following articles, without justification, simply based on that initial statement. Of course, I never claimed to have a working relationship with Monsanto, because I don't have one. But let's clarify what this relationship is once and for all.
What are "close ties"? (Apologies to Keith Kloor, I did originally write this blog with "deep ties" and that's my mistake) Here is the extent of interaction with the Monsanto Corporation: Are these close, personal or research ties I need to disclose at every research seminar? You decide. Tell me in the comments section.
1. Donation to science outreach program that paid no salary or personal funds. These (relatively small) funds were designed to cover a small projector, facility rental, plane tickets, rental cars/taxi costs, coffee-doughnuts-sandwiches for participants in a science communications workshop. All funds were moved from the communications program and given to a campus charity. Ultimately no funds were used for Folta's program.
2. ONE reimbursed travel event. In 13 years as a professor, the Monsanto company requested that Folta speak to farmers at a single farm event in Colorado. This is normal and acceptable, but there are no funds to support Folta's travel, so it is customary for the company to pay that amount. A total of approximately $600 covered hotel, airfare and other costs. No honorarium or speaker fees were provided.
3. TWO non-reimbursed visits to the Company. In 2014 and 2015 Folta was in the St.Louis area and arranged to discuss ideas learned about effective science communication. He visited at the request of an employee that met Folta at a separate science communications event in May, 2014. No funding was provided for travel. A hotel was provided one night in 2014. Lunches and dinners were provided, two in 2014, one in 2015. Folta received no speaker fees or honoraria. A company employee paid for coffee in 2015. 4. Friends in the company. Former students, former colleagues, other scientists keep in contact with Folta and work at this company. This is not uncommon and certainly expected for professionals that work in agricultural sciences.
5. Hosted Robb Fraley's talk at UF. Dr. Robb Fraley is Monsanto's Chief Technology Officer, and Folta arranged his visit to UF as part of a series of high-profile visitors associated with ag biotechnology.
6. Email. Several dozen emails were seized in the FOIA request and are all related to the events above. These are perhaps 40 total emails of 90,000 total during the FOIA period.
7. Mints and Lip Balm. Folta did take complimentary mints and lip balm from the Monsanto booth at a trade show.
It is difficult to understand how all of this normal, professional, and minor interaction can be interpreted as "close ties". However, these words continue to emerge in articles concerning the interaction, and falsely portray the relationship, which was simple, professional, collegial, and part of the job of a Land Grant department chair and professor.
I’ve been a critic of the Food Babe for a long time.Actually, I’ve been the critic of anyone that
attempts to manipulate the public perception of science, while presenting zero
deplorable are those that use fear to force a message, and scare people about
safe food while profiting in the process.
It’s an old story now, but when ‘Food Babe’ Vani Hari
visited my university to sell her science-blind worldview I was not exactly
thrilled. We professors are tasked to
teach from evidence, with foundation in a scholarly literature. Why would we subject our students to the daft
rants of a dim food activist that lines her pockets by frightening people away
from safe food?
I have always been an appropriate critic. I’ve addressed her specific points with
evidence and even have been complimentary at times. She certainly is a gifted communicator, and
can mobilize the drones that exploit social media to blackmail corporations
into aggressive change, not based on science, but based on coercion. That is not a fair way to inspire change.
Because I teach facts of a controversial public concern, I’m
currently enduring multiple invasive, expensive public records requests. Three
years of personal, private emails have been confiscated by US-Right To Know, an
activist organization led by Gary Ruskin that harasses public scientists that
teach the inconvenient truth about agricultural biotechnology. For 15 years I’ve spoken about genetic
engineering with the public, helping concerned citizens to understand this
scientific tool. They’ve been trying to
stop me for ages. FOIA laws are their new weapons.
I complied without hesitation. I had nothing to hide. But as I anticipated, when you give 5000
pages of email to people paid well to silence you, they will find little
nuggets of manufactured pseudo-guilt that they’ll parade in the interest of
destroying credibility. I happily turned
over my personal records, and activists started immediately misinterpreting
them in public places. Even Pulitzer
Prize winners skillfully threaded sentences together to customize damaging false
narratives which were more unethical than unfair.
Not to be outdone, Vani Hari needed some of that attention. “What did that evil professor say about me?” Now the laws made to help dissolve barriers to
resolve cases of malfeasance and wrongdoing were mobilized as an underhanded discovery
tool, a way for a marginal celeb to try to regain some of her ill-gotten
traction at the expense of a scientist that simply teaches science.
This is FOIA abuse.
She will cost my university tens of thousands of dollars to weed through
my private correspondences one by one, making sure that the emails they provide
to her do not contain student information.
It is an arduous and expensive undertaking. Why?
Well Vani likes Vani, and while she can’t point to anything I’ve done
wrong, she wants the emails. Just like
I can hear it now from Food Babe headquarters, “He didn’t do
anything wrong, so let’s find some things we can make look wrong—just need
More importantly, she wants to sift through my emails in a
sick cyber voyeurism, a pathetic, vain and egocentric glimpse into a
professor’s daily interactions. Just
because she can. This inconsistent with
the spirit and intent of these important laws. It is an unwarranted burden to
taxpayers and a deliberate and unfair means to inflict harm on a decorated
So what do the prying eyes need to see? Secrets to clandestine corporate
Nah, Ruskin beat and buried that dead horse, extracting a
few lame-o quotes and funding to a science literacy effort. Oh, the humanity.
What can Vani learn?
Gosh, the things she cares about most – VANI ! Here’s your tax dollars at work. She wants:
You will be glad to know that high-priced lawyers will search for “babe” as directed. Tax dollars will unearth a copy of my Amazon review of that crappy talking pig movie.
Well, Vani, a quick check of my account and you were not
mentioned much at all. You are not
relevant outside of Infowars and your adoring fans.
This is all pretty simple.
Vani Hari is a self-consumed amateur that is determined to discredit her
critics. Why? She sits atop a multi-million dollar empire
of corporate slander and internet sales.
Why would she possibly exploit expensive public records requests to
delve into the emails of a professor dedicated to public education?
Because he teaches facts, and more facts translate to fewer
profits for Vani.
So instead of meeting him head-on about the science in a visible and public
space, she uses a public records request to sneak a peek through his private
correspondence in the hopes of… not sure
In fact, I deliberated whether I should even write
this. But it is not about me, not about
Vani Hari—it is about abuse of a system to harm others that don’t share your
stupid opinion. It brilliantly illuminates the trendy abuse of the FOIA
system. Here, out of curiosity, out of
vanity, Vani Hari ignites an expensive, invasive system designed to resolve
criminal investigations--- to see if someone said something unbecoming about
I could have told her that stuff for free. Sorry Florida taxpayers!
It is a mockery of this important transparency system. Most of all, this exemplifies why these rules
need immediate revision. Here a doomed
food personality with no training and no scientific credibility bandwagons on
to a popular trend of abusing rules to damage professorial reputations of
reasonable scientific critics. When you can’t raise your own argument, find
some sleazy loophole to tear down the credibility of others.
We have entered the era of vanity harassment and fact-twisted
internet assassinations of public scientists.
And who better to accelerate that trend than Vani Hari?
As a scientist that has only spoken facts and truths about biotechnology, I have become the enemy of those that want to propagate myth, and scare people away from safe food. I have been active in public education on the topic for 15 years.
In February the US Right to Know organization, backed by funding from the Organic Consumers Association, used public records laws to confiscate 5000 pages of email from me.
When you turn over 5000 pages of email to people that want to harm you, guess what? They will attempt to harm you.
This is another perfect example of their best smoking gun, a pulled, out-of-context quotation that seeks to frame me as some sort of corporate lackey. Here it is:
Sounds pretty insidious! But what does it really say in context? It starts with a hideous scare commercial that is aired by GMO labeling campaigns in Fall 2014. They show Ray Seidler holding conventional corn seeds along with a handful of untreated seeds. The associated rhetoric is ominous and scary. The seeds are blue, due to the fungicide and insecticide coating, and are held in a rubber glove. They are described as freaky abominations of science and dangerous to the consumer. It was an emotional scare piece, and the folks against labeling were planning a response.
I thought the use of fear was deplorable, and unfair. So I was excited to sign on to support any Op-Ed efforts to talk about the scientific truth of the ad. I was glad to see that science-minded people were promoting science, facts and reason and offered support. This is the letter where they extracted the quotation above.
As a scientist, my analysis means something, and it is not uncommon for scientists to support various campaigns or initiatives. My support for truth and fairness around the labeling issue is welcome and appropriate.
GM Watch and Gary Ruskin have pulled this quotation out of context to harm my reputation and create the perception that I am a lapdog of some company. However, in context it shows no such thing.
Furthermore, I'm glad to talk to write or speak for anyone that asks. That's my job. Monsanto is in the vast minority, offering me a few opportunities over the last few years. They do not control my words.
This is a perfect example of the dangers of transparency abuse. Ruskin and others know that single quotations taken out of context can be damaging. That's why they want the emails, and that is how they will be used.
Will scientists stop talking about these topics? Absolutely. Who would want their words taken out of context to harm their careers?
I have no formal relationship with the company. Friends, former students, colleagues from
previous jobs work there. They once made a relatively small donation to my university to cover travel/production costs of my science
communication program in August of 2014.
The entire original amount was reallocated to
a campus charity. Monsanto does not fund my research and never has. I have spoken at the company twice about science communication and enjoyed collegial hospitality.
As is clear by emails, I'm glad to share thoughts and opinions with them on science communication. I hold no formal capacity in this regard. I do this with any company and show no special favor to Monsanto.
2. What is your relationship with Ketchum?
Ketchum runs the GMO Answers website. As an educator, I’m
always excited about new ways to communicate science, and am especially eager to harness the reach of well-designed and promoted electronic media. The GMO Answers website
was a great opportunity to answer questions for a concerned public using
scientific evidence. The website remains
extremely useful, and is an recognized resource for a curious public to have questions answered. I still answer
questions for the public via that medium, and will do so until there are no
questions to answer. I receive no
compensation for my answers, and all reflect strict interpretations of the scientific literature.
3. Did you receive reimbursement for travel from anyone?
Absolutely. As an expert in my area of research
(fruit genomics, LED light in controlled environments) I am frequently asked to
travel to companies (such as LED light companies or greenhouses), fruit
companies (Driscoll’s etc), or universities (many). I provide a seminar about my lab’s
research and interact with companies to aid in their research directions and designs. It is customary for those
requesting the presentation to cover the related travel and lodging costs.
I'm a cheap date. I don't want anything special, basic creature comforts.
Similarly, if a company wants me to speak on biotech communication, they pay my
associated costs. If politicians request
to hear from an expert, the companies, professional societies, or industry groups may be willing to cover my costs. That is
normal and customary. The university
does not cover travel costs and my laboratory has no travel budget outside of
grant-sponsored travel specific to the project.
It is important for these parties to hear from scientific experts, and the scholarly literature should be the central driver of policy decisions. Therefore, my voice is important in these cases, and I'm grateful for anyone that is willing to cover my minimal costs to participate in such discussions.
4. Do you receive speaker fees or honoraria?
Occasionally I am offered fees for my time, again, which is
customary and appropriate. Those funds could go to me
personally, but I recommend they are directed to fund my outreach program. In essence, funding to me, goes to fund outreach.
5. Did Ketchum write your answers on GMO Answers?
Early in the first months of GMO Answers a Ketchum employee
provided scientifically precise answers as samples for what I might choose to write. They were offered as a guide. I can find two cases where I read and modified their
template. I answered the other 65 with zero prompting.
It is not uncommon for scientists, politicians, journalists
and others to have staff prepare draft documents. I am not compensated for my time, and these
are lengthy answers, so the well crafted answers from Ketchum were used as a starting point to produce a hard answer that was scientifically correct. This is a common and acceptable practice, as busy people
work from outlines framed from others. Hence the occupation, "speechwriter".
However, I pride myself on documents generated from a blank page. I just like the way I write. These two
examples were uncharacteristic conveniences, and will be replaced with answers
that are completely my own words. They
provide an identical message. It is not an admission of guilt. It is my way to say, that only my words appear online.
6. What did you mean by "I'm glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like"?
Simple. I appreciate opportunities. Out of context this sounds nefarious, but it is what I say to
anyone that extends me an opportunity to speak, write or participate. I make this statement daily, and it is my job
to provide scholarly interpretations of the literature, relate science to
schools, and aid our state extension personnel in communicating this
science. I am glad to help anyone that
offers me an opportunity to write or speak, if it means better understanding of science.
Cherry picking a quote from industry emails neglects the thousands of interactions I have with school groups, retirement homes, statewide non-GMO fruit industries, nationwide industries and the many other places I help teach science.
7. Has a company's financial or other influence ever influenced the science you communicate?
No. These are my words and no company has, or ever will, influence what they are. They are interpretations of the scholarly literature, and in agreement with a vast scientific consensus.
I guess we could say that support allows me to do it more often, thereby influencing the frequency of the communications events. However, only I provide content. All of my talks, lectures and workshops are available online at Slideshare.net.
Lots has been said about me lately, and while it is tempting to respond, I have to retreat inside my own head. I know what I've said, I know the facts, and it has always been the truth, and so time will be kind. Authors are looking for a story, and showing conspiracies and collusion always raises an eyebrow, so these folks are just out to make a splash at the expense of others, even if facts are thin and don't exactly mesh with reality. Welcome to Journalism 2015.
To be characterized as a lobbyist is rather laughable, and as such makes this a non-issue. Here's something to think about-- if scientists are not supposed to be speaking to politicians, farmers, companies and the public about science, then who should? I'm doing my job, and doing it well, and I don't have a budget for travel. If politicians and companies want to hear about the science, they should at least get me a plane ticket to come talk about it.
Speaking of which, back in October I was asked to go to PA to talk to the House of Representatives Ag Committee. I don't have such funds, so BIO paid my plane ticket. Thanks BIO! How cool to be able to share published science with real decision makers! At the same time, Chuck Benbrook was heading to the same meeting. Who paid his ticket? Who cares? I don't. Since we're in the age of divulging email content, here's one that everyone conveniently forgot to post. Enjoy.
The blacked out part is my cell number. Wow, I'm so awful.
It is super disappointing to see the cherry-picking, selective omission and extreme editing that this NYT author used to create a false narrative. 5000 pages of email from three years, and that's the best they can assemble from lifted quotations. Geez. If this is what NYT does, then maybe good journalism is dead.
Thanks everyone for your support. This thing is a non-issue. I'm making a difference, so they'll be doing everything they can to take me down, even if it is making up stories of being a lobbyist for big ag.
If teaching science is being a lobbyist, then I've been a lobbyist in the classroom my entire life. If this is lobbying, it is a special kind that is backed by evidence, and done in a spirit of love and kindness so that others are inspired to learn, know facts, and help shape the future of food and natural science.
Just when you thought they could not get any lower. Now someone is posting truly evil information on the Gainesville, FL Craigslist page. Tomorrow would be my mother's birthday, she'd be 69 years old, if she was still alive. She died a few years ago, way too young, and we all still miss her tremendously. So imagine my joy when someone directed me to this on the local Craigslist:
To call these people scum is an insult to scum.
It is bad enough that they are posting personal information online, but now they are sifting through my history. It is a sick kind of stalking that shows the delinquency of this movement.
And if Ginnie was here right now she'd tell you that she wished I worked for one of those companies, that I would make "real money", work 40 hour weeks, and stop wasting my time around universities.
She never really understood what I did or why I did it.
But she would absolutely be amazed at the hate I endure to be an interpreter of science, and the lengths that people go to hurt others. She'd be particularly disturbed that some sick little tart scoured the web for information that could be made personally harmful or injurious to me.
She had a kind heart and was good to everyone. She would not understand this kind of evil.
Now there are messages showing up on Craigslist. They are false and defamatory and foment local fervor that could translate to physical harm to my family, home or laboratory. These people are scum. Please share this post EVERYWHERE. We need to expose the heinous tactics of the anti-GMO movement. This shows their disgusting approach to harm those that simply teach science. This has been reported to Craigslist. (and note how they don't really get the science terribly correct either)
I'm furious about the false and defamatory statements made by Paul Thacker and Charles Seife in this August 13, 2015 article on PLoS Blogs. There are several key take-home points: 1. While they have since tacked on a clarification in a footnote, it was not complete. Thacker and Seife's allegation implication that I was a paid advsor to the Monsanto Company to defeat California Proposition 37 still stands, and has been cited elsewhere. The anemic correction leaves false statements available for maximum damage. Mission Accomplished. 2. USRTK claimed that the FOIA request was to test relationships for why I, and other authors, answered questions for individuals on GMOAnswers.com. The article by Thacker and Seife shows that this is not the real intention. The email released has nothing to do with GMOAnswers.com. Plus, why would a hostile activist-funded organization release that resource to authors unless it was to advance reputation damage to those communicating science? These are two important questions that clearly demonstrate the intent and the strategy. What should have happened? The authors and PLoS should have made it right. 1. PLoS should have immediately demanded the article be changed to reflect factual information, or else pulled down the article. 2. PLoS should have offered me equal space to clarify the real situation. 3. Thacker and Siefe should have provided a public apology. However, Thacker has dug in, and on Twitter now accuses my actions of being orchestrated by a PR firm. Over the years I've made some mistakes in my blogs. Even when I criticized Vani Hari, I heard that she left my university in a limo, and reported that. When facts came out otherwise, I was petrified. I felt so bad that I misreported information based on what a credible source told me, and the minute I had internet access I made the correction, and apologized. This is what should have happened here too.
Instead, the authors are defensive and digging in. PLoS stands by their decision to publish harmful, false claims.
It is a bad time to be in a controversial area as a scientist. The career that took you a lifetime to build, can be destroyed overnight by activists, and with the help of your friends in scientific publishing,
How could you destroy someone with their own words, if their words present no evidence of wrongdoing? It actually is amazingly simple, and illustrates the danger of limitless access to personal emails through public records requests. In this post I will show how two writers for aPLoS One Blog*blatantly misrepresent content obtained through such a request. This is how scandals are manufactured from nothing. They fail to fact-check information with a non-opaque effort to harm the reputation of a public scientist.
I know, because that scientist is me. Here’s the story.
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 coveredhereandhere.
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.
My fears of context manipulation blossomed this week. An entry atPLoS* Biology Blogs, writtenbyPaul 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.
This email was provided from the activist group targeting me, and it smacks of journalists asking the activists for a little something to satisfy some ideological agenda. Why else would US-RTK furnish these coveted resources?
In a breach of journalistic ethics, this author team published false and misleading information. While Thacker contacted me about other information regarding this FOIA request, neither author contacted me for clarification about this email prior to this vicious blindsiding.
A fail of Journalism 101. So what did they say? Here are some of the words from thePLoS Biology Blog(I’ll address the omitted portions next time):
Last week, Nature reported that the University of Florida had provided them with emails that U.S. Right to Know had FOIA’d on one of their researchers.(citation) … the story noted that the researcher has received money from Monsanto to fund expenses incurred while giving educational talks on GMOs…. The article does not report that the scientist has repeatedly denied having a financial relationship with Monsanto. (citation) The article also does not report on an email titled “CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update” from the researcher to Monsanto in which the scientist advised Monsanto on ways to defeat a political campaign in California to require labeling of GMO products (citation).
Sounds pretty devious! First, it has never been a secret that my science communication outreach program is sponsored by numerous individuals, companies and associations, including the Monsanto Company. Private funding covers the costs of site rental, portions of my travel and coffee, donuts, subs for participants that attend this half-day science communication workshop. No salary is furnished, for me, or anyone. I still don’t consider a donation to an outreach program a “financial relationship” any more than my donation to my local NPR station a financial relationship. Monsanto does not fund my research or salary, and they have no influence on workshop content.
However, the last line of Thacker and Seife's bogus interpretation is the most damaging. Here two journalists deliberately ignore facts and disregard reality to take a hatchet to a public scientist they don’t want teaching science. Again, a cyber lynching Climategate proponents would be proud of.
I never had any role as an advisor for Monsanto's policies and I had no idea where they could have possibly got such ideas. I would never start an email with "CONFIDENTIAL", so it seemed fishy. I asked them to provide the email they reference, which they kindly did:
This is the email where the authors claim
that I "advised Monsanto on ways to defeat a political campaign in California to require labeling of GMO products" The redactions are mine, as I do not feel it is my place to share email addresses of those corresponding.
Now it was crystal clear. The original email was not written by me, despite what Thacker and Seife imply. I did not write “CONFIDENTIAL : Coalition Update”. The note was sent from someone in theNo On 105camp to Lisa Drake, a government affairs person for Monsanto, which the email clearly reveals!
It was clear that this was a hit piece. There is no way that any of this shows this email to be my work, and my paragraph in therewas critical of Monsanto, hardly "advising".
In September of 2014, Farmers north of Denver had questions about GM technology, safety, and the labeling bill. They didn’t want to hear company led discussion. So Ms. Drake reached out to me, to come speak to the farm group at a private dinner as an independent scientist that knows the topic. She forwarded this “CONFIDENTIAL” email to me, unsolicited.
It was confidential because the dinner and discussion were by invite only. And how confidential was it if it was forwarded to me, someone outside of the intended recipients?
To address Thacker and Seife’s claims of collusion, it was not a case where “the scientist advised Monsanto on ways to defeat a political campaign in California.” First of all, it was Colorado.
Nice job, guys. Even the softball facts seem to be a problem.
Second, do you really think that my notes to a Monsanto employee are “advising” the company?
This is my point my message to Ms. Drake—I want the discussion pro- or anti- to be science-based, and perhaps that message would resonate (in the last year I've adjusted that dumb thought, as I now understand that facts don't matter).
This email was my criticism of the anti-labeling rhetoric with a person that works for Monsanto. It was hardly me providing strategic campaign advice to defeat labeling as the authors state.
So Thacker and Seife fail to ask questions, and instead manufacture a false interpretation that paints me as some sort of confidential-email spin meister with a master plan on defeating a bill that had been voted on two years before this email string took place. They also cite the date as 2011, prior to the California vote, when it was clearly dated 2014. Agenda, gentlemen?
Wrong author of the email, misrepresented content, wrong date, wrong state, and portraying me as a stooge of the company, when I was criticizing the company. Did they get anything right? Why would they do that?
Because truth would not reinforce the rest of their article. They had to destroy the truth to fit their thesis.
And there is the intent to destroy the reputation of a public scientist. In the age of the internet, the truth does not matter. The message you want to propagate can be told, and it will spread like wildfire. And spread it did.
“One email from Folta reportedly was entitled “CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update,” and contained advice from Folta to Monsanto on ways to defeat a political campaign in California requiring the labeling of GMO products.”
The false statements now were oozing from their primary factually bankrupt cesspool and now were becoming part of others' research, assuming that Thacker and Seife’s smear article was based on actual facts.
My alleged monkeywrenching of the California GMO labeling initiative as a Monsanto secret PR agent has now spread Twitter and is now installed as a permanent part of the “can’t trust scientists, can’t trust Folta” narrative. It promotes irresponsible, unethical, hack journalism that Thacker and Seife should be ashamed of. They were able to get my emails from activists, so clearly they have a relationship there, and this speaks volumes about their justification.
Now their distortion and lack of diligence becomes my history, as told by the internet.
In a broader sense, it illuminates the danger of these unencumbered public records requests. This is only one email of thousands, and I am the just the first person compliant of forty subjected to this invasive sweep.
In conclusion, what good is it to have a mechanism to uncover the truth, if the truth is twisted into a lie, and unabashedly used to damage the credibility, reputation, and careers of scientists that simply defend science and teach inconvenient facts? When scientists are guilty until proven innocent, and written realities are manipulated to create false narratives from public records, how do we stand a chance?
* I contacted PLoS and requested equal space to refute Thacker and Seife's false statements. PLoS refused to provide equal space. Their representative said, "Respond in the comments section". I have published in PLoS journals. I reviewed for PLoS journals. and have a paper in review there now that I'm strongly considering pulling. While PLoS blogs has a disclaimer that they do not control content, they do offer a visible, reputable brand to host this fact-challenged attack on a public scientist.
Researchers should consider this event when deliberating publication or reviewing with PLoS journals.
I'm speaking at the Trottier Symposium in Montreal and was asked to submit an abstract. The symposium topic is "Trusting Science- Do You" So I prepared this:
Mistrust of the Safest Food Supply in History
Breakthroughs in breeding and
genetics have radically improved plants and animals used for food. Introduction
of modern technology to production practices makes farming more
chemistries allow us to produce more with less, with greater sensitivity to the
environment. However, in the midst of the safest, most abundant and most
diverse food supply in human history, there is a rising perception of its
danger. The suspicion has
not been driven by science. Instead it is a well-funded marketing ploy to push
food dollars to boutique choices, and sell lifestyle-oriented selections that
promise, but don’t necessarily deliver, improved health and performance. A multi-billion dollar industry
has emerged to provide these higher- cost, health-halo alternatives. These
efforts are promoted by television doctors, celebrities, best-selling authors,
activist documentarians, and other self-appointed experts. This problem results in higher
prices for consumers, and slows development of new, useful genetic and chemical
strategies that could help the farmer, the consumer, the environment and the
needy. Scientists engaging an
evidence-based discussion are maligned as corporate patsies, typically through
conduits benefiting from generous corporate support. The most
substantial issue is a well-bankrolled mistrust of food, farmers and
scientists, which is a tremendous problem on a planet with a growing population
and dwindling resources. Today scientists, dietitians and farmers are learning
to communicate these issues more effectively, and borrowing from the activist
toolbox to enhance the understanding and perception of food.