Many who follow this site and Science Pony on Facebook and Twitter are no doubt aware of the venerable Dr Kevin Folta and the “scandal” in which he has recently become embroiled. For those who are not, here is a quick need to know:
Dr. Folta is a professor at University of Florida. He has worked tirelessly through his science advocacy and outreach program to increase the public’s knowledge of GMOs while reducing their suspicion and fear of the technology. As a result, he is well known to most of us in the skeptic community. He was a participant in my very first thread in my very first skeptic forum. While I didn’t know who he was that day, where I went from being anti-GMO to pro-consensus, I would come to know his work well and even consider him a friend over the following 18 months. This exchange is the epitome of the man I have grown to respect so much – he is abrupt, cocksure and fiercely pro-science. Because of these traits, he might seem an odd fit for science communication at first glance – but his genuine love of science, and desire to share it with the general public, has more than made up for his intermittent arrogance or occasional absentee patience.
Dr Folta carried on this way, supporting consensus and countering woo with science (and sometimes with snark), until February of this year, when he was hit with a FOIA request from US Right to Know—a non-profit with the stated goal of exposing “the failures of the corporate food system“. What unfolded was akin to watching a car crash in slow motion, a painful case study in harassment, bullying and wilful misrepresentation of facts to suit an agenda. Folta publicly tried to keep a brave face, but privately the stress of the near constant attacks by anti-GMO activists, including doxxing of his family and students and even death threats, was taking its toll and culminated in Dr Folta announcing yesterday that he will be stepping down from his science communication role effective immediately, stating:
“The attacks are relentless, I’m under a lot of pressure on many fronts. I’m taking the opportunity to disappear from public visibility and focus on my lab and my students. It has been a challenging time. I appreciate the support, I’m grateful for your wishes, but this battle is vicious and one-sided, and I think I’m well served bowing out of the public science conversation for the foreseeable future.”
Not unexpected, his words have sent shock-waves through our community nonetheless. There is something unspoken in the air, as we look around uneasily with the same barely formed sentiment hanging between us all – if it can happen to him, then what chance do we have? This entire ordeal has been a lesson in just how little protection there is for us imperfect messengers of science, and a reminder that it is not just disseminating of new research and scientific concepts that we are accountable for. Our emails, our private lives, and our human failings and imperfections are all potential weapons to use against us by those who refuse to believe that our support for consensus could be genuine; who assume instead that our steadfast assertions that GMOs, vaccines, and fluoride are safe have been bought and paid for by some shadowy, nefarious entity pre-fixed by “Big”. It is unsettling, and it is already taking its toll on our community.
Watching Kevin Folta struggle in and eventually bow out of the science communication field over the past few months has been disheartening and terrifying. Being attacked by antis is nothing new to those who advocate for science, but as vile and over the line as the actions against him by this faction have been, I personally believe that it is the actions of those on the side of science and consensus that have pushed him to his breaking point and resulted in his decision to bow out of this industry indefinitely. Kevin Folta was very much left to twist in the wind – both by a myriad of official science organizations and by many science communicators who whispered amongst each other that he had brought it on himself. And the worst thing is how expected it all has been. We bask in the reflected glow of those around us who succeed eager to let others know about our association with greatness. When greatness falters, though, we cut and run like cowards, terrified that this failure will somehow tarnish us too.
To every person who sat idly by while this man was bullied and his reputation and career were dismantled piece by piece – YOU are the reason why we can’t have nice things. Science needs every voice it can get, and the absence of Folta’s is an unnecessary blow to our end goal that should make us all evaluate how we treat and support each other in this industry. Sci com is part information, part pageantry; making science interesting and easily digestible for the general public is a science in and of itself, but never before has it been dangerous. I would argue that it very much is now. Scientists and science communicators alike have their emails sifted through, their private lives and personal misfortunes made into public fodder, the validity of their research questioned, and their reputations eroded based on the inability of those who oppose consensus to support their fears with actual scientific evidence. Their position is so weak, their fears so baseless, that they resort to the dirtiest of all anti tactics – poisoning the well. Rather than counter the overwhelming evidence that GMOs are safe for human consumption, they attempt to discredit those who author the supporting research, and those who report its findings, and our blind faith that evidence will win out over emotional appeal, fear-mongering and underhanded tactics has left these men and women of science vulnerable to said attacks.
It is time to acknowledge that it will take more than research to win the hearts and minds of the general public, and it will take more than evidence to keep the antis at bay. What is required is a united front, comprised of scientists and science advocates alike, that both protects its own and is willing to explore some of the methods that have worked so well for those who oppose us. There is nothing unseemly about occasionally resorting to emotionally appealing narratives to sell consensus, and, personally, I am not beneath writing a passionately worded email or two to show my support for vaccines or GMOs. It is time to do what works, not lament what does not.
I love science, and respect those who actually do it, you know, for real, but I don’t feel out of line pointing out that while pure science is the ideal, it is not enough on its own. Science requires men like Folta, who, no matter how big he grew, still outreached hard in the forums, to make it appealing to the masses. It needs advocates, and enthusiasts, and maybe even a pony or two. And it needs you. Science needs you to stand up and fight for it, now more than ever. It needs you to be angry over what has happened to Kevin Folta, and it needs you to communicate your displeasure, loudly and repeatedly, until someone pays attention and DOES something about it. Something good has to come out of this, otherwise this field will lose more than Kevin Folta – it will lose the next generation of science communicators whom he would have inspired. And that might very well be the nail in the coffin of rational thought and critical thinking. Without the advocacy and encouragement of the next crop of science cheerleaders, the battle between science and the anti-science movement will be over, and the antis will have well and truly won.
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Your Faithful Science Cheerleader,