Expresses astonishment that “Folta’s cult followers” can’t see through his denials of conflict of interest. Report by Jonathan Matthews
Kevin Folta has attacked our recent reporting on the Genetic Literacy Project’s long delayed disclosure of its Bayer funding and his alleged involvement in securing that cash.
Responding to our article in a series of tweets, Folta complained that GMWatch had subjected him to “a decade of defamation” and that we “just post defamatory pieces about me and claim I'm a paid shill”. Folta also maintained that he had “zero funding from any company, and even if I did, that does not affect the science. The work published is scientifically on target.”
But the veteran science reporter and journalism instructor Michael Balter shot back in a tweet, “Again @kevinfolta lies about what conflicts of interest in science mean and gaslights his followers/the public. The person with the potential conflict does not decide themself whether it affects their judgment. This is just what someone bought and paid by industry would say.”
Balter added, “As for Folta’s claim of ‘defamation’ — he sued the @nytimes and its reporter @EricLiptonNYT for defamation several years ago for reporting his Monsanto connections. He lost.”
In fact, Folta’s case was so lacking in merit that the judge dismissed it “with prejudice” without it ever getting into court.
Main accusation ignored
Despite his flurry of pushback tweets, Folta has failed to respond to the principal allegation levelled against him – not by us but by his former ally Karl Haro Von Mogel – that Folta helped the Genetic Literacy Project secure its Bayer funding and then falsely asserted that the GLP didn’t take industry money.
If that seems too flagrant even for Folta, then don’t forget that he publicly asserted he had “nothing to do with Monsanto” despite having successfully solicited funding from them, and also falsely asserted that he hadn’t done any paid consulting for Bayer, even after Michael Balter published the letter from Bayer’s lawyers that proved beyond all possible doubt that he had.
Funded with industry money “to share the beauty of science”
After initially claiming the GLP wasn’t funded by the people that make Roundup, Folta later admitted that the company was “one of the GLPs funders”, claiming, “I just was made aware of this recently”. He then added, “Frankly, I don't ask who funded the classroom, I just show up to teach the students. I'm grateful there is investment in supporting accurate scientific media.”
Folta also tweeted, “Either you are partially funded with industry money to share the beauty of science and address false information, or it does not exist [i.e. without industry money, no platform for communicating accurate scientific information would exist]. Based on that calculus we'll tell the truth, and whoever wants to sponsor that, great.”
The problem with this picture of the beauty of science shared and scientific error carefully corrected is that both Folta and the GLP are notorious for engaging in vicious personal attacks on journalists, scientists and others (including us), often with claims that have little, if any, connection to “the truth”.
Smear and belittle
As we noted previously, the journalist and author Carey Gillam has recently been a prime target, particularly for the GLP’s director Jon Entine, whose claims Gillam has described as “false” and “far from any nugget of actual fact”.
Folta’s own history of personal attacks on Gillam even gained him an entry in Jennifer Jacquet’s The Playbook, a satirical “training manual” on how to undermine efforts to regulate industry, which draws on real-world examples of unethical behaviour. Kevin Folta shows up in the book’s Ad Hominem Attacks – or smear and belittle – section.
In Gillam’s own award-winning book on glyphosate, she notes that Folta “has criticised me in social media forums and in blog posts, writing that I am a ‘hideous human’ and ‘disgusting’. In one of a series of emails that Folta wrote to me he said I was a liar and a manipulator.”
And attacking what Folta calls Gillam’s “ethically questionable history” takes up several paragraphs of Folta’s recent GLP piece about one of Gillam’s Guardian articles.
In the same piece, Folta also attacks the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which he describes as “mired in scandal” – a claim based on an article by the journalist Kate Kelland, whose reporting has been exposed as seriously skewed by the undisclosed input of Monsanto, as part of the company’s campaign to discredit the WHO’s experts on cancer. The GLP was very much part of that Monsanto campaign and in all posted over 200 articles about IARC, including ones attacking IARC’s experts as frauds and liars.
Conflicts of interest matter
The ultimate irony is that both Folta and Entine in their attacks on Gillam allege she is involved in “cozy” relationships, and even it is implied financial relationships, with interested third parties. In other words, they attack Gillam on the basis of her supposed conflicts of interest – the very thing Folta attacks us for raising in relation to himself and Entine's GLP.
But it is perfectly valid to point out conflicts of interest when authors and publishers fail to declare them. And in none of the GLP’s articles defending glyphosate, including those by Kevin Folta, has the GLP’s direct funding by the firm that makes Roundup – the world’s biggest selling glyphosate-based herbicide – ever been mentioned. Likewise, in Kevin Folta’s articles there is no mention of his own payments from Bayer, which are put at over $200,000.
Folta, of course, maintains that we are only bringing this up because we are unable to challenge his scientific defence of glyphosate. But not all of those who have expressed strong concerns about his failure to disclose industry monies necessarily disagree with him on such issues. This includes not just former allies like Karl Haro Von Mogel and Anastasia Bodnar, who both ended up severing all ties with Folta after they concluded he had lied to them about his consulting for Bayer, but also others, like the well known UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen, who has said, “I am the last person anyone would accuse of being an anti-GMO activist, but Folta has completely lost my trust because of his repeated coverup of industry funding and his complete disdain for why it matters.”
Folta’s “science” critiqued
While we haven’t published a critique of the specific scientific arguments Folta deploys in his article about Gillam, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t published other critiques of his numerous defences of glyphosate, as well as of other of his claims about food/chemical safety – for instance, here, here and here, where some of Folta’s safety claims are shown to be not just false but reckless.
Ultimately though, Folta’s endless complaints that his critics are challenging the scientist not the science are straight out of his playbook for deflecting criticisms of his ethical failings. As his former ally Haro Von Mogel tweeted, “If you find yourself arguing that your or someone else's conflicts of interest must be ignored (‘check the analysis! What is factually wrong?! Ad Hominem!’)... you're not a wise or responsible scholar. You're a mercenary.”
The conflict of interest poster boy playing martyr for science
That, of course, is not how Folta presents himself to his many devoted followers. With them he plays “the martyr for science when his conduct is exposed”, according to Michael Balter, who has investigated a whole raft of concerns about Folta’s behaviour, including not just undeclared conflicts of interests but allegations of spousal abuse, as well as discrimination, retaliation, and bullying in the workplace.
Balter tweeted that Folta, in his attempts to rebut our article, had engaged in “amazing gaslighting”, adding that it was equally amazing that “Folta’s cult followers can’t see through it”.
Balter also told us that it wasn’t science that Folta and the GLP were defending: “Over the past two or three years, dozens of new peer-reviewed scientific papers have concluded that glyphosate could have harmful effects on human health and the environment. I have collected a thick folder of these publications. Nearly every week, on their podcast, Folta and his colleagues at Genetic Literacy Project try to debunk these studies, while attacking journalists who write about them. This kind of fervor to attack what the science says can only be explained by the never ending supply of industry money that flows to these dishonest, bad actors. Folta himself has become the poster boy for conflicts of interest in science.”