The GMO “debate” never strays far from the headlines. Almost every person I know has an opinion on the matter, and I cannot stomach that. As Patrick Stokes, senior lecturer in philosophy at the Deakin University, argues:
“The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue [with that person] is somehow [seen as] disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.”
And a disgusting feature at that, Dr Stokes.
You are entitled to an opinion; you are entitled to an opinion that can be reasonably defended with evidence and logical argument. This is why I am so fascinated by science denial. I have various friends and acquaintances who think GMOs and other “toxic” food ingredients are the single biggest threat to civilisation. I’m reluctant with my usage of civilisation as I’m not entirely sure proponents of this view can truly appreciate what civilisation is and why it is such a precious and fragile thing. However, they still expect their opinions as a non-experts to be respected and heard.
Speaking of the false equivalence between experts and non-experts, I was drawn towards Dr Kevin M. Folta and his push-back against Vani Hari, The Food Babe. Ms Hari is a staunch opponent of GMO technology and has rallied a sizable social media following numbering in the millions. Ms hari is convinced that scientists, agriculture companies, and shady governments are out to poison our food supply. This is an extraordinary claim to make and therefore requires some extraordinary evidence to validate.
Ms Hari was invited to the University of Florida, where Dr Folta holds the chair for the horticultural sciences department, to deliver a paid speech ($6000). An account of which is given on Dr Folta’s blog (I’ll give you a hint. She did not stick around for questions).Much of the information Ms Hari forwarded the students was baseless and lacked rigour. This prompted Dr Folta to speak up, and like all good scientists, Dr Folta fired back against Ms Hari’s baseless claims.
This occurs all the time in science. It is not rude to ask for validation, it is how the business works; it is why scientific-progress can be made. Right now, as I write this, all across the world in different labs, think-tanks, libraries, pubs and coffee shops, colleagues and friends are engaged in rigorous discourse. They disagree with one another, they propose alternative ideas, and they challenge the ideas of others. But you know what they don’t do? They do not file freedom of information act (FOIA) requests simply because a friend or colleague has disagreed with them.
For those not in the know, a FOIA request refers to the, “public right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.” These requests are undeniably useful in the hands of journalists and investigators. They are filed generally under professional discretion – you don’t go digging through someone’s closet unless you suspect they are hoarding a corpse.
Due to Dr Folta holding a public position at a publically owned university, this makes him liable to any such request. And it just so happens that Ms Hari has filed two of these requests against Dr Folta. The first FOIA request that found its way into Dr Folta’s inbox was in regards to his professional correspondence that honed in on a few keywords: Vani Hari, The Food Babe, Monsanto. Dr Folta complied with this request and even went above and beyond the FOIA and also provided detailed financial and professional information – after all, he has nothing to hide – Dr Folta is no paid shill.
After a second request was filed on the 20th of May this year, I decided to reach out to Dr Folta to ask him a few questions regarding the matter and consequently I too am now a part of that public record, for better or worse. Dr Folta was kind enough to comply and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to conduct this interview. The following conversation has been edited by myself and, of course, approved by Dr Folta:
BH: First of all, thank you for taking the time out of your day to respond. I understand that given the circumstances it must not be easy to be so forthcoming considering your past attempts at transparency (that went above and beyond normal expectations) have been thrown back in your face, misinterpreted and cherry-picked to help further the Food Babe narrative.
KF: My pleasure. I am so happy to be able to discuss this situation.
BH: As a student of the humanities I often marvel at science and all that it has discovered (my friends in science would call this marvel, envy). Here in Australia we have a total of three journalists dedicated to science reporting. And according to Australia’s Nobel Prize Laureate, Dr Peter Doherty, this has an undesirable effect on the public understanding of science and how it is scientists, like yourself, go about your daily work. Science communication is hard. And it is made even harder if the vocal box that the public is listening to is not formally trained in science. This is an anxiety most writers face, myself included – the fear of not knowing enough about your subject – a fear that seems absent in a few notable “food activists” I can think of.
KF: Here’s the problem. As a scientist you end up preaching to the choir. The folks that adore science want to hear you. That’s easy. There is a whole set of people out there that don’t accept scientific facts about food and farming. They reject what we say, but are happy to listen to those that confirm their beliefs. It is hard to communicate with them because they are not listening and they are frankly, unteachable. The people we need to be speaking to are the folks in the middle, concerned people willing to learn, but not willing to be talked down to. They are the people scientists fail to connect with. We can reach them, but we need to change how we do that. We’re getting better.
BH: It is of my understanding that this is the second FOIA request that has been made by the Food Babe, Vani Hari. The first coming in September of 2015 in pursuit of any correspondence you may have had mentioning: Food Babe, Vani Hari, and Monsanto. However, the most recent request has seen Ms Hari target your personal correspondence between friends. In the email Ms Hari requests that you (The University of Florida) waive all fees involved in the process, claiming that it, “will primarily benefit the public.” How your private correspondence will benefit the public is not exactly made clear in the request.
KF: Ms. Hari has been upset with me ever since I held her publicly accountable for false claims. She came to my university and lied to my students. Not on my watch. That story ignited a string of discussions where I was quite critical of her. I should be. She uses half-cooked science to get crazy wealthy, whilst scaring people about perfectly good food. She uses social media as an extortion tool to force companies to follow her directions [BH note: Examples of such extortions are openly bragged about on her website, to which I will not link]. It is pure blackmail and it results in no better food or agriculture practices.
She uses FOIA because she’s trying to figure out my motivation. That’s easy. I want people to know the truth about food and farming. She thinks I’m paid by Monsanto, and other organizations, to give her grief. She’s quite a narcissist to think that would be true. Scientists oppose her because she has no idea what she’s talking about, yet asserts herself as an authority.
And no, my private correspondences will not benefit the public. Her search terms are all based on friends of mine who have also criticized her. Her ship is sinking and she’s trying to unearth a conspiracy. There’s no conspiracy, just people who find her attacks on science and reason quite offensive.
BH: You claim, according to a blog published by yourself on the 22nd of May, that this request is a personal attack in retaliation for standing up to Ms Hari when she visited the University Florida and lied to your students. Am I right in presuming your blog post titled, Food babe visits my university, is the catalyst you are talking about?
KF: Yes, that was the first contact with her. She came to the University of Florida and was paid $6000 to talk to the students about her story. It was not bad in general, a nice story of someone finding their passions and following them, which eventually lead to the creation of an empire. The problem is that while food and health are a great passion to follow, using underhanded tactics and harassment to achieve those ends is simply not right. She is not an authority on food and farming, she makes countless mistakes and misinforms people. That’s directly the opposite of what my job is. She’s unravelling the education we give the students by teaching them it is okay to shun science if you truly believe in something else.
That’s not the way to raise scientifically literate young women and men.
BH: You have previously mentioned that FOIA requests are an important investigative tool when wrong-doing is suspected. Having been exonerated through your last round of emails that were made public, this seems to me, to be quite clearly an abuse of an otherwise useful law. I read a comment posted by yourself stating that the university is always compliant with these requests (and rightfully so) and no legal action on your behalf has been pursued. If these requests continue to be thrust upon you, and intrusions into your personal correspondence remain sustained, do you see any legal avenues that yourself or the university could take to stop further intrusions where there is clearly no basis for justice?
KF: Ms Hari and others, like the New York Times columnist, Eric Lipton, made false statements about me to support their narratives. They both promote false information that is personally very damaging to me. There are plenty of legal paths to take, but they are expensive, there is little chance of recovering damages, and even if I win I look like the bad guy. It is a lose-lose. The university won’t do this. Their job is to protect the university and if I need to lawyer-up it will come out of my pocket personally. I’m a public university professor, not an internet food celebrity. I can’t afford that.
BH: Undoing the misinformation that has been spread by Ms Hari is an important undertaking. I mean, the irony of someone proclaiming that toxins are bad while simultaneously shouting that natural is best seems to be missed upon many of her fans. However, do you see a future in which Ms Hari will admit her wrongs, or, like myself, do you perhaps think she may have a little too much invested in her Food Babe enterprise to admit her faults?
KF: I used to think she might come around. She’s not stupid, she clearly has some gifts and talents. However, money does change people. She says that I go after her Monsanto pays me to do that. Of course, that’s not true, and there is no evidence to support that. Yet she can make money, hand over fist, by making up nonsense, and somehow we are supposed to believe her. Her credibility would skyrocket if she stepped to the science side and admitted she made a mistake. Don’t count on it.
BH: Ms Hari is not the first person you have criticised as a professional. As a working scientist you no doubt have faced legitimate criticisms from other scientists, as well as dishing out your fair share of skepticism. This is the corner stone of rational discussion, and a principle of free speech that I hold dear. I’m interested in what you found different when criticizing the work of someone with no scientific training. As someone who has followed this debacle for quite some time now it does appear as if Ms Hari cannot clearly distinguish a personal attack from the attacks you make on her work – in her eyes, they are one in the same. If I may be the devil’s proponent for a moment, one could argue that by engaging with her you are allowing her to hitch a ride on your credentials. Ms Hari is debating a scientist of 25 years, she must be one brave and intelligent women who sure knows her stuff!
KF: You are correct. I’m glad to receive constant criticism from my peers. Our work is peer reviewed, we pay close attention to the comments on our grant proposals, and any other criticism that can help us do better science and communicate effectively. Science thrives on criticism. We are glad to receive the comments of experts because we hate to be wrong! As scientists, we’re always checking our biases and scanning for self-deception.
On the other hand, Ms Hari and her ilk see any criticism as most people do – that it is a personal attack. In response, they dig in their heels. When I criticized her for giving bad information to students at my university, she didn’t write, “Maybe I need to understand the objections of an expert, and check my science and beliefs.” That’s what a scientist would do. Instead, she says, “He must be a paid agent of Monsanto, so let’s get his emails using public record requests.” Instead of questioning her own science, she does ad hominem attacks on the scientists appropriately questioning her non-scientific claims.
And you are 100% correct. I have spent too much time dealing with profiteering charlatans like her. I’m glad to refocus on my research, my students, and helping people that have legitimate questions. I get questions all the time about statements she makes. I’d rather answer them directly and help people understand science. That’s how her brand will erode. It has happened tremendously. I even sent her personal notes offering to help her revitalize her brand by being an advocate for science. Imagine if she said. “I’m so sorry, I took the time to learn and understand the science… and I see now that scientists like Dr. Folta are interested in the same thing I am – healthy food and dietary habits. I’ve learned about the science of food and farming and want to work with the scientific community to teach from evidence.” Her stock price would go through the roof. She’d be a hero, and everyone would forget about her credulous past.
BH: Moving away from the public debate, I’m interested in Kevin Folta. After all, there is a human face behind the scathing headlines that can be found at naturalnews (a highly credible and prestigious news provider – said no one ever.) and at times this human face has peeped out from behind the public scientist and communicator that you personify for your work.
This melee between yourself and Ms Hari has most definitely taken its toll on yourself. You posted a few months ago questioning if furthering the public understanding of science and GM technology was worth the hassle this lady has put you through. Many of your followers promptly grabbed the life vest and swiftly threw it overboard to you. Offering both their support and solidarity with your cause. Is this a fair summary of the majority comments you have received throughout the Food Babe saga?
KF: This episode has been brutal. I’m Google-Trashed for decades to come. If you search my name or look in google images you just see how they’ve said that I “can’t be trusted”, I’m “psychotic”, and how I’m a hack scientist that works for Monsanto and harasses kids. It is horrible what they have done to me. Ms Hari makes some horrible statements that are patently false, and I don’t make Food Babe level money as a public university professor to hire lawyers to get this defamation fixed. They can say whatever they want, and they do. It is about destroying my reputation because I teach the evidence of biotechnology. It is about making me pay personally and professionally for criticizing her.
The New York Times piece was horrible and continues to weigh heavy in the discussion. It was false information. The problem is, the narrative is being defined by the loudest megaphones and not the truth. I’m small potatoes. I don’t have a Kevin Folta Army of millions of followers to stand up for me like Ms Hari does. The bad guys have the stronger conduits to reach others. I just have facts and data. It’s not a fair fight.
Sadly, after seeing how I’ve been smeared, other scientists are refusing to engage with the public. Those that do get record requests. Those that defend me or criticize the critics get record requests. It is using this system of transparency to intimidate and harass scientists, and cost their institutions a lot of money. This is how you silence the truth in 2016. It happens to animal researchers, climate scientists, water scientists, fisheries scientists and many others.
Now that everyone is running for cover, and I understand why, I’m in a position to take a leadership position against this kind of defamation. I’ve already been clobbered, but somehow I’ve come out stronger. I’m excited to now be a more visible envoy for science with the public aid in the understanding and be even more visible in protecting others under similar assault. This is happening to many researchers in biotech these days. Strangely, I’m glad I was the first one through the activist’ FOIA-based smear machine. I have a three-decade career in public science, a tremendous record of service, awards for mentoring students, and good recognition in my field. The empty claims of internet-spawned celebs can’t touch that. I did it the hard way. That’s what people know, that’s my reputation, and what makes them look bad for going after me.
BH: Lastly, thank you for giving a student and admirer a chance to tell your story. I am not awfully familiar with the academic situation in the States at the moment. But here in Australia it is not so great. We’ve had funding cuts and job cuts to the CSIRO, we have a government that has become complicit in the Great Barrier Reef bleaching episode that recently reported that 90% of the reef is damaged and may not recover. Ignoring scientists, cutting their funding, cutting their jobs and undermining their expertise. It’s not a happy scene.
So among all this misplaced skepticism, to see an individual scientist singled out and picked upon by one of the most notorious anti-science movements on Earth, really frustrates me. They are not pro-health and they are most certainly not pro-environment. Movements like these thrive on one irrefutable hypothesis, that they are right and you are wrong, because they said so. This is an unjust and fascist world-view. This to me seems like a valid reason to defend someone like yourself. Not only for the pettiness you must endure, but the gross encroachment of authoritarian movements wishing to stifle reasoned discussion.
KF: Yes, this is an important point. People and planet suffer alike when we are coerced into turning a blind eye on science. We see it in our national leaders here in the USA that reject climate science, even when the thermometer is higher every year. We ignore the health needs of people in our cities and deny the problems of food deserts. We need to put science first. Right now, I would never suggest that an early-career scientist engage these monsters. I’ll survive because I have 29 years of public research behind me. My record is dense. Certainly their career assassination attempts of a public servant will be effective in some ways. People that hear what I’m saying and then go to learn about me on the internet will likely consider me a poor source of information. However, the scientific community is disgusted. My cred comes from my life’s work, and that continues. There’s nothing Food Babe and industry-sponsored smear groups like USRTK (US right to know) can ever do to change that.
Going forward, I just need to do more visible acts of good. I have to do bigger, better things to raise the awareness of science. Together we have to teach more science and earlier. I’m glad to pick up that mantle. My goal for the next year is to teach more teachers and get more scientists out discussing these topics in public. I’ll also be doing some big things with kids and schools. The only way to win this war on science is to be more skilful teachers, and realize that we never have to engage the enemy – we just have to educate and inspire the next generations. If everyone speaks the language of science, then nobody will pay attention to those that marginalize scientists.