Will the real Kevin Folta please stand up

Jonathan Matthews looks at how Kevin Folta tries to vilify, marginalize, and silence scientists he disagrees with

BuzzFeed recently caused a stir with a bizarre story about Dr Kevin Folta, the University of Florida scientist whose close ties to the biotech industry made the front page of The New York Times.

In the article, Brooke Borel explains how Folta created a “shady podcast alter ego” to interview scientists for The Vern Blazek Science Power Hour. Folta even used his deep-voiced Vern Blazek alias to interview himself about, among other things, how activists tried to tie independent scientists like him to Monsanto.

Will the real Kevin Folta please stand upBut Folta never told his listeners, or at least three of his guests, that he was the show’s real host. And when those guests finally found out about the subterfuge, their verdicts on it ranged from “surprising and unsettling” to “a monster fuckup”.

That resonates with how many people felt when they found out that Folta had posed as a wholly independent scientist at lobbying events and reporter meetings arranged and paid for by the biotech industry. Then there were the articles he put his name to which turned out to be largely ghostwritten by industry PR people. Not to mention, of course, the $25,000 grant he got from Monsanto, a company he repeatedly maintained he had no connection with.

Perhaps this is why the BuzzFeed piece so captured people’s imaginations. Vern Blazek gave concrete form to their sense that with Kevin Folta, what you see is not what you get.

Indeed, the gap between how Folta presents himself and what he actually gets up to is so extreme as to seem almost sociopathic. In these instances though, he doesn’t change his name, disguise his voice, or hide behind a pair of shades. Instead he makes use of a persona just as carefully crafted to deceive as his fake reporter alias, but more insidious.

Folta hides in plain sight in the guise of a kindly and respectful science communicator. He has even styled himself “The Lobbyist of Love”, claiming to be known for his “unending patience and softness, even in the presence of insults and idiocy".

Yet as we shall see, from under this guise of tolerance and respect, Folta engages in censorship, character assassination and antics that are devious in the extreme.

Character assassination

Kevin Folta is extremely protective of his reputation as a scientist, and so readily resorts to legal threats to defend it that NYU journalism professor Charles Seife has accused him of “screaming ‘defamation’ every few minutes”.

Folta told one of his admirers that, because stopping “defamatory statements in the internet age is not easy”, he had been “consulting with attorneys, and devising a plan that works,” adding, “It is no [sic] enough to send two to the morgue, you need a daisycutter that solves the problem for good.”

But despite his fierce determination to protect his own reputation, Folta is careless about the reputations of scientists he disagrees with. Just how careless is shown by his comments on Twitter about Dr Arpad Pusztai, whose research showed rats were harmed by GMO potatoes: “Pusztai should have to explain why nobody repeated his results in 17 years (because they were fake).”

Folta tweet accuses Pusztai of fraud

There is no graver charge that can be levelled against a scientist than fraud – and the accusation is particularly inappropriate in Pusztai’s case because nobody ever dared try to repeat his experiment. When Prof Jack Heinemann challenged Folta to produce evidence to back up his accusation, Folta started to back down before blocking him with the hashtag #blockthewhackjob.

block the whack job

Folta doesn’t stop at labelling scientists whack jobs and frauds, he is just as ready to call them liars as well. When one of his supporters described Dr Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumers Union, as “a congenital liar”, Folta agreed: “I know. Everything the guy says is a carefully worded half truth. His science background serves him well. He’s no big fan of most of the charlatans in anti GM, he’s just a more refined one.”

In another exchange, Folta described Dr Hansen as a “classic Gish Galluper [sic]”. The Urban Dictionary defines a Gish Gallop as a debating tactic “created by creationist shill Duane Gish”, involving “spewing so much bullshit... that your opponent can’t address let alone counter all of it.”

Folta’s contempt for any scientist who acknowledges uncertainties around GMO safety was made clear when someone mentioned the peer-reviewed statement affirming that there is no scientific consensus on the issue. Folta dismissed the hundreds of scientists, including molecular biologists and biotechnologists, who had signed onto the statement, by declaring them mentally retarded: “Science does not care about a few morons.”

Censoring scientists

Folta’s attacks on fellow scientists as fraudsters, charlatans, whack jobs and morons should not be seen as mere intemperate outbursts. This extreme character assassination serves a purpose – to destroy these scientists’ credibility, not through evidence or reason but through defamatory assertion. The aim is to stop them being taken seriously either as researchers or expert commentators.

Of course, the best way to silence the critics is to deny them a platform. And Folta attempted to censor scientists from speaking about the scientific uncertainties surrounding GMO crops and associated products like Roundup at a conference in Colorado called Seeds of Doubt, for which the Colorado Department of Education offered professional credits to medical professionals who attended.

Folta tweeted: “Want to scream on a Saturday? Anti GMO conference counts for Healthcare Continuing Education Credit! That’s sick.” And when a Monsanto seed dealer responded, “There should be some type of legal action that could be taken against these people and their agenda”, Folta replied, “I agree. I put in emails with CO dept of Ed. I will stop this one. I’m out there next week, so I can twist arms in person” (my emphasis).

Folta wants to censor scientists from speaking

Ahead of the conference, Folta published a blog that contained his usual brand of ad hominem attacks on the scientists involved: “The participants are not being educated, they are being lied to by expert manipulators that push an activist agenda.”

It’s hypocritical of Folta to accuse other scientists of being activist “manipulators”, given his own activist role in promoting commercial products such as Monsanto’s Roundup, which he has repeatedly claimed to have drunk publicly to “demonstrate harmlessness”. Indeed, his statements on drinking Roundup could not be further from science, no matter what you think of GMOs. Nor does he seem to have the professional background or body of published work that would qualify him to speak, as he repeatedly has, on the human health effects of ingesting Roundup.

Roundup is safe to drink Kevin Folta proved it Patrick Moore

Kevin Folta accuses scientists of lying

In contrast, the three scientists he accused of activism and lying are academic scientists speaking in their area of expertise. They have collectively contributed to the peer-reviewed literature on a scale that would dwarf Folta’s accomplishments. Folta also produced no evidence that the scientists in question were liars. But ironically, there are real question marks over his own veracity, and not only in relation to his repeated denials of any connections to Monsanto.

The Colorado conference went ahead despite Folta’s vow to stop it. But it is not the only event he has tried to have cancelled. A talk by a registered dietitian who supports GMO labelling was also something Folta thought people ought to “scream” about. Folta considered the speaker likely to be “an activist parasite” and he compared the event at the South Florida Science Center to bringing in “a psychic, a UFO expert, or a moon-landing hoaxer,” not to mention, of course, “a Holocaust Denier.”.

The campaign Folta whipped up via social media lead to the event being postponed so a pro-GM speaker could be added. But Folta was still not satisfied and he continued to lobby (unsuccessfully) for the event to be cancelled completely.

What is most striking in all this is the tone of fanaticism from someone who claims to be promoting science and reason, and who declares, “Inflammatory or angry opposition just alienates the people we need to inspire most.”

Fake images

Folta’s social media onslaughts on fellow scientists can be more inventive than just posting insults and defamatory attacks. This became apparent in late 2014, after Monsanto’s Executive Vice President, Robb Fraley, had been on the winning side of a GMO debate. The following morning Folta began to circulate fake images that accused Fraley’s opponents, Dr Chuck Benbrook and another scientist, of having been paid by Monsanto to throw the debate.

On Facebook, Folta posted a fake graphic, bearing the logo of the nonprofit GMO Free USA, on the pages of both the March Against Monsanto and of GMOLOL, an aggressively pro-GMO group started by Monsanto’s Online Engagement Director, Janice Person.

Folta Fake graphic of March Against Monsanto, with comment.jpg

He also twice tweeted a screenshot which appeared to show the same graphic posted on a Greenpeace site. This was doubly deceptive. Not only was the graphic fake, but it had never been posted on Greenpeace’s site, as Greenpeace subsequently made clear.

Hero to shill.jpg

The bogus images that Folta went to such trouble to get into circulation were malicious in several different ways. First, they rubbed salt in the wounds of the scientists who lost the debate, by implying they were so bad that even their own side (GMO Free USA) was accusing them of having been bought. Second, if anyone remotely believed the accusation, it would be extremely damaging to their reputations. Finally, if people disbelieved the accusation but still believed the images to be genuine, it made GMO Free USA and Greenpeace look paranoid and vindictive. In reality, of course, it was those putting the anti-Benbrook graphic into circulation who were the vindictive ones.

When challenged about the fake graphic, Folta maintained he had posted it because he thought it was probably “legit”.

Folta admits skeptical about image authenticity but still posted

What makes this more than surprising is that just five days earlier, on 29 November, Folta had posted another graphic bearing GMO Free USA’s logo, but this time he admitted, “I don’t think it was made by GMO USA [sic] even though it has their label.”

Fake GMO USA image posted by Folta

Revealingly, despite acknowledging he thought this earlier graphic was fake, Folta still encouraged his followers to post it more widely. He also congratulated someone who posted it on the March Against Monsanto page – and called for more such fake graphics over “the next few days”. A few days later, Folta posted the second fake graphic – the anti-Benbrook one – and then claimed to have done so because he thought it was probably genuine!

Folta also claimed that he had only come across the anti-Benbrook graphic because someone had posted it on his Facebook page. But GMO Free USA told me that even though they had been carefully tracking what Folta was up to with the fake graphics, they saw no sign of such a post ever having been on his page. In fact, they could find no postings of the anti-Benbrook graphic anywhere at all before Folta himself started posting it.

In short, despite his claims to the contrary, the evidence suggests not only that Folta was directly responsible for putting the anti-Benbrook graphic into circulation, but that he was aware that the graphic was fake when he did so.

GMO Free USA also told me that Folta had tried to cover his tracks by quietly deleting all his tweets of the bogus images, as well as his posts and shares on Facebook, on December 9th, five days after he took the lead in getting them into circulation.

For whatever reason, many GMO supporters appeared to take the fake images at face value, not least Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project, which based a whole article around them. But others were more skeptical. GMO scientist Alan McHughen, for instance, posted the following comment on GMOLOL, “I detect Kevin Folta’s clever but evil genius all over this meme.”

Kevin Folta's clever but evil genius

Licence to troll

No one is better at putting a positive spin on his own actions than Kevin Folta. And he also has a talent for playing the victim and for making out that any transgressions on his part were provoked by those intent on destroying his reputation as a public scientist.

But no provocation of any kind came from Dr Arpad Pusztai, when Folta branded him a fraud. And Folta describes Dr Michael Hansen, whom he smeared as a mendacious charlatan, as “a really nice guy”. Similarly, Folta says, “I like Chuck Benbrook as a person”, and describes him as “a sharp guy” and “a guy with a great career and a wonderful CV”. But none of that prevented Folta from circulating the malicious anti-Benbrook graphic, which, whatever he says, he clearly knew was not “legit”.

Folta’s boss, Jack Payne, senior vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Florida, says Folta is only such a contentious figure because he is “raising scientific literacy. That is why companies, including Monsanto, are interested in providing funding to cover [his] workshop costs and travel. It is also why anti-GMO activists need to marginalize him and destroy his reputation."

But a careful examination of Folta’s statements and behaviour shows he is more of a perpetrator than a victim when it comes to marginalizing scientists and destroying their reputations.

And why would Jack Payne rein him in? Industry money keeps pouring in to the University of Florida, even if Folta is not a direct beneficiary. In fact, they’ve just had their best funding year ever, including a whopping 41.38 percent increase in corporate contributions, something Payne describes as “one of the proudest moments of my career so far”.

And the spectacle created by the circus around Kevin Folta also serves as a useful distraction from all the other university scientists and administrators, including many far more prominent than Folta, who have also been caught colluding with the biotech industry.

With plenty of people happy to have Folta and his followers out there fighting dirty, don’t expect his GMO Power Hour to stop broadcasting for very long.

In the final part of this series we will look at some of the other antics Folta and his supporters get up to in trying to vilify, marginalize, and silence his critics.