Between Scientists & Citizens

New York Times: Your reporting fed McCarthyite attacks on Kevin Folta

with 6 comments

So, follow below the fold to find my defense of these three claims:

  1. Folta is an outstanding science communicator.
  2. He is being targeted by McCarthy-style attacks.
  3. The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education failed to resist the McCarthyism.

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 7.09.11 PM1.  Folta = Science Communication

Many have been calling for bench scientists to invest more time engaging the public. Having seen Folta present and having looked over some of his outreach efforts, it’s my view that he is a model science communicator and that any scientist wanting to jump into public communication should learn from him.*  I may write another blog post about it, but to put it briefly, Folta shares his passion for his research and makes clear his respect for each and every member of his audience.§¶

*One thing they should learn right off is to be ultra-scrupulous in declaring all sources of funding–Folta has admitted sloppiness in this, and he is paying the penalty.

§ Folta loves his listeners; that sounds sappy, but it isn’t. Listen to the talk he gave at my university, paying attention his interactions with those skeptical of GMOs. Be aware, it’s over two hours long–because he was willing to stay there and respond, respectfully, to every single question and challenge. Or take a look at one story of what talking with Folta feels like from the audience point of view.

¶ Folta loves his listeners, with one exception: he clearly loathes those who he perceives to be a core group of science-distorting anti-GMO fanatics. This also is a mistake that he is paying for: he should love them, too; or at least, speak as if they did not exist.

2.  McCarthyism: what it is, and how it’s relevant here

Considered broadly, McCarthyism is rhetorical form:  a cluster of techniques that is reliably effective in achieving a specific result.  McCarthyism involves:

a. Accusations of fundamental disloyalty: in McCarthy’s case, accusations of commitments to overthrow democracy in the US and impose a communist dictatorship under the USSR.

b. An appearance of hard evidence; in McCarthy’s case, his famous “I have here in my hand a list…”

c.  Guilt by association; in McCarthy’s case, for example, that having some association at some time with an organization with some ties with the Communist Party means that one is a communist.

McCarthy with “evidence”

McCarthyism is a form of pseudo-courtroom rhetoric that takes advantage of the fact that the public sphere doesn’t provide the procedural safeguards built into the trial process. Accusations of treason make it onto the front page; waving a list and associating the accused with an enormous, hidden, conspiratorial network seem to support a quick judgment of “guilty!”  Nuanced consideration of the actual evidence and associations takes weeks to marshall, and shows up on page 6, if at all. By then, the damage to an individual’s reputation has been done.

The attacks on Folta are following this rhetorical form:

a.  The underlying charge against him is “professional dishonesty  That’s got to be about the worst thing you could say about a scientist.

b. Extracts from a set of emails are produced to make it look like there is hard evidence against him; some quotations seem like “smoking guns.”

c. As soon as he is associated with the biotech industry, he is guilty.

Now, just because he’s being targeted by McCarthyite tactics doesn’t mean that Folta is innocent. Maybe McCarthy himself turned up some communist infiltrators! The problem with McCarthyism is that it undermines the conditions we need to maintain in order to have an open, fair, free, well-informed debate on public issues.  To borrow Dan Kahan’s phrase, McCarthyism “pollutes the science communication environment.”

There’s no easy way of cleaning up the blogosphere, but I do expect reputable news outlets like the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education to do better. McCarthyite communicators are counting on getting front page coverage; it’s up to the press to slow that down. That didn’t happen in this case. Following is a partial analysis of how the Times in particular failed to resist the McCarthyite attacks.

3. Failures in the reporting

I’m going to go in the opposite order to the three features of McCarthyite rhetoric.

c.  Guilt by association/Failure to help the public think clearly about the issues of money and bias in research.

From hanging out at a land grant university for the past dozen or so years, it’s my impression that crop research is in close conversation with industry and advocacy groups, on both the Big Ag and organic/alternative sides.  Even “neutral” federal funds are directed to encourage collaborations with producers and other stakeholders. Ag science is in Shapin’s phrase “never pure.”

One could take this as a model of science for the public good–scientists engaging with the public “upstream” in the research process, so that the research questions are directed not just by the scientists’ curiosity but also by the public’s needs. Science studies/science communication/science policy scholars have been calling for more such engagement for years, although they only occasionally notice that ag research exists.  This perspective on the Folta affair has been offered by commentators at Science 2.0 and Grist. But it seems to be too much to ask the traditional press to consider the possible positives of engagement between scientists and various public stakeholders.

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 7.04.08 PM

Folta with transgenic strawberries

So, let’s jump to the opposite conclusion: that the ag research system is riddled with conflicts of interest and bias.  That certainly sounds like something the TImes or Chronicle should investigate. If so, though, why pick Kevin Folta as the poster boy of GM corruption? He works on strawberries, for heaven’s sake!  Focus on him is completely disproportionate to the real problems in the sector. Roger Pielke Jr. has been making this point on Twitter.

Even assuming Folta is a legitimate target for a takedown of industry and advocacy group “infiltration” of academic science, adequate press coverage would emulate the recent report at Forbes and help the public distinguish among:

  • being employed by industry or an advocacy group
  • consulting for I/A
  • having I/A be the primary form of support for one’s lab
  • getting a research grant from I/A
  • having I/A pay expenses to talk with third parties
  • getting funded to give at talk at I/A

Each of these (and other) relationships provides a different level of support for a conclusion that a scientist is biased.  So precision would be a virtue–for example, precision in avoiding characterizing travel expenses or a gift to a university foundation account as a “grant,” as the Times did in its print headline. Otherwise, the Times seems to be endorsing guilt by association–that any contact with industry or advocacy groups is scientific treason.

b.  Waving alleged hard evidence around. 

I haven’t gone through the emails myself (a McCarthyite communicator counts on laziness like this), so I won’t comment on the representativeness of the sample quotes the Times pulled out, or whether they fairly convey Folta’s meaning in context. I hope the reporter exercised scrupulous care before writing an article that may remove a person from the public sphere. I know the Chronicle didn’t; their piece was a distorted summary of the article in the Times.

a.  Fundamental disloyalty?/Failure to help the public understand the exact ways Folta’s communication was distorted by his industry involvement.

The Times explains to us that the biotech industry, represented by what seems to be a particularly inept PR firm, decides to buy a megaphone for a scientist who is saying things they like.  As the saying goes, I’m shocked, shocked!

Presumably the Times thought Folta worthy of front page coverage because he, a scientist, was in fact influenced by the free megaphone. If so, it should be possible to document that influence in his communications. The Times kindly notes that “there is no evidence that academic work was compromised,” but then undermines that concession by referring to research as “supposedly unbiased,” and characterizing Folta as an “actor[] in lobbying and corporate public relations campaigns.” The Chronicle takes this farther, converting the Times’ online headline that Folta was “enlisted” into a claim that he was a “foot soldier” for industry.

An “actor” in a PR campaign should be speaking not in his own, but in his boss’s voice. If Folta started speaking Syngenteseº,  it should be evident in his discourse. He’s left a lot of tracks–he is a very public public communicator–so the Times with a little elbow grease should have been able to document specific ways Folta shifted his rhetoric because of his industry involvement.

I can’t say what such an investigation would find, but I can say that if the biotech industry hired Folta to be their “PR actor,” they didn’t get their money’s worth when he visited Iowa State. In his talks here he took apart the studies which suggested health impacts from eating GMO foods. But he also laughed off Big Ag’s standard argument that GM crops would “feed the world,” and expressed sorrow that research priorities were so driven by corporate monoculture, instead of developing technologies that could benefit consumers and small producers around the world.  (See a similar report of Folta’s message at Forbes.)  At the time I thought that if an anti-GM advocacy group was smart, they’d follow Folta around with a camera, edit it down to just the good bits, and put the anti-Big Ag Folta up on their website. The New York Times couldn’t have noticed this, too?

So in sum:  The New York Times and the Chronicle did a poor job on this story, helping perpetuate McCarthyite attacks on a scientist who–unlike most–has bothered to reach out to the public. For shame!

º I’m tired of having Monsanto get all the free publicity. I think for the next ten years we should take Syngenta to be the Evil Empire, before rotating on to DuPont, Dow and so on.

Written by jeangoodwin

September 10, 2015 at 7:23 pm

Posted in discourse analysis

Tagged with , ,

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I think it’s too bad that nobody is looking at this controversy from the point of view of the biotech industry.

    There are some valid criticisms of agricultural biotechnology, but there’s also a flood of propaganda and misinformation. It’s certainly not unreasonable for companies to want to correct the misinformation.

    So how can they reasonably do that? They could put out press releases that are spun to support their side. They could spread claims that attack the honesty of the other side. They could use their economic power to suppress the propagandists. They could do lots of things. But the least objectionable of their alternatives is to encourage trusted academic scientists to educate the public. Why on earth is this considered objectionable?

    Charles Rader

    September 13, 2015 at 8:00 am

  2. […] that sounds like good preparation to analyze what the New York Times did to Kevin Folta, then you would be right. If you explore Jean’s blog Between Scientists and Citizens you will […]

  3. Bravo Jean Godwin, what an exceptionally insightful piece! I just subscribed to your RSS feed and wrote a little post which hopefully sends a couple more visitors.
    Question: how would you go about motivating a journalist like Eric Lipton or Will Saletan to invest the effort to expose the beneficiaries of the campaign against biotech crops and non-organic agriculture? As an observer of the developments over the past decade I’ve come to the hypothesis that the media focus is inverted from reality. Testing that hypothesis requires a lot of research to connect the threads amongst the various labeling campaigns and the nurturing of fear of food. Were moms afraid of feeding poison to their children in 1980?

    Steve Darden

    September 13, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    • Thanks for your kind words, Steve: From my perspective, I doubt if we need more media exposés of individuals. What would help the public most in figuring out whether to trust scientists is likely a report on how research in ag-related sciences works.

      I think my colleagues on both the conventional and alternative ag sides have knowledge that would be useful in decision-making. Our land grant mission means that most of them work in communication with or even in collaboration with stakeholders outside the university–with producers (farmers, to you Coastal folk) and producer groups, industry, consumer groups and groups advocating for change, etc. In part, this is a good thing: the research is driven by society’s needs, and the researchers’ knowledge can get out quickly to the stakeholders who can actually use it. But in part, the close ties to stakeholders raise the possibility of bias.

      This bias, if present, is not conscious; all the conventional/alternative ag researchers I know are deeply committed to serving the public good (as they perceive it). If the bias exists it is baked into the system: to work on alternative ag is to be committed to one vision of what an ideal landscape looks like; to work on conventional ag is to have a different ideal.

      So the public has a legitimate question: Which of these researchers can be trusted, and for what?– Personally, I trust them all; but then, I know them. To help those that don’t know them, reputable media would do well to report on how agricultural research is organized. In what ways does the organization of ag research lead to bias? Are there effective mechanisms in place for controlling bias? Do some institutions do better than others? Why? What are the warning signs of bias, that non-experts can use to test for trustworthiness? Investigative reporting on this topic–including interviews with social scientists who study scientific organizations–would be most helpful to the public.


      September 14, 2015 at 8:54 pm

  4. McRuskinism is the new McCarthyism. I don’t know if it’s laziness or the sheer weight of chaff they throw at the public to hide the fact that there isn’t any there, there.

    Good night, and good luck!

    First Officer

    September 13, 2015 at 5:41 pm

  5. […] I started the exchange with the belief that Kevin Folta was kinda cool. […]

Have your say!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s