Jonathan Matthews reports on the attacks on Nassim Taleb by Kevin Folta and his supporters
The celebrated Lebanese-American essayist, scholar, statistician, and risk analyst Nassim Taleb responded to the recent revelations about Kevin Folta's close ties to the biotech industry in typically combative style.
In the light of the pro-GMO scientist’s repeated protestations that he had had nothing to do with with the industry, and because Taleb believed Folta had attacked his Precautionary Principle paper* without revealing that he was using arguments provided by Eric Sachs of Monsanto, he tweeted that Folta was not just a liar but a shill and a “lowly person.”
Folta reacted to this in a variety of different ways, including legal threats, saying he’d just let Taleb “spew”, calling Taleb a “hateful man” who’d be “gone” if he were at Folta’s university, and saying he’d “love a pizza and a beer with Nassim”.
The most successful of these gambits was the pizza and beer. It lead to Folta being declared a “true gentleman”, while Taleb, who rejected the offer by saying he wouldn’t break bread with such “a disgusting fellow”, earned a whole blog condemning him as a disgrace to science communication, with Folta serving as his foil.
This is more than ironic, given that Folta is a serial offender when it comes to insults and character assassination. But Folta is also a past master at painting himself the victim and of using that as a way to galvanize his supporters into action against those he claims are persecuting – or even terrorizing – him.
We love GMOs and vendetta
Nassim Taleb’s insults played straight into Folta’s cult of victimhood. The price Taleb paid included not just a sea of Twitter hate but a petition calling on NYU to “Terminate” him, over 1200 emails to NYU administrators lambasting him, a blog falsely claiming he despised cancer survivors (Taleb is himself a cancer survivor), and graphics comparing him to Adolf Hitler.
The blog was the work of Yvette D’Entremont aka the “SciBabe”, who is one of Folta’s closest acolytes, while the Hitler graphics were put together by Stephan Neidenbach, another leading Folta defender whose Facebook group’s profile shows him and Folta with their arms around each other.
Neidenbach is also someone Folta regularly thanks, telling him on one occasion, “You’re an evil genius. I’m flattered and grateful fo [sic] such support.”
Neidenbach’s anti-anti-GMO activism attracts significant endorsement from others too. His Facebook group, “We Love GMOs and Vaccines”, has received over 35,000 “likes”. And when he recently organized a counter-protest aimed at interrupting a Food Justice March in Washington DC, his collaborators included Michael Shellenberger, the President of the Breakthrough Institute, as well as Mark Lynas and the Cornell Alliance For Science. Neidenbach can be seen below with his arm around Lynas.
If Neidenbach is to be believed, he also enjoys industry support. Certainly, industry people are notable among his Twitter following. And in a tweet about tracking down Folta’s anonymous online critics, Neidenbach claimed, “We have some computer people Ketchum hired to help us out.”
Ketchum is the biotech industry's controversial PR agency, which brags about its ability to influence the GMO debate online and which ghostwrote for Kevin Folta. Ketchum also has a history of involvement in spying on groups concerned about GMOs. Neidenbach’s tweet was subsequently deleted.
Anyone who follows Neidenbach on Twitter, as all his collaborators seem to do, cannot fail to be aware of the extreme nature of his actions. For instance, not content with pairing Taleb with Adolf Hitler, Neidenbach put in a public records request for Taleb’s emails – even though he himself had called such requests “a McCarthy-style witch hunt” when Kevin Folta was the target.
And whereas US Right To Know framed their request narrowly, limiting it just to Folta's email exchanges with named agrichemical companies and their PR firms and front groups, Neidenbach demanded the University of Massachusetts hand over all Taleb's emails without exception, i.e. including ones containing purely personal or academic information. Given that Taleb stopped working at the University a decade ago and published nothing on GMOs while he was there, it is hard to see this as anything but a punitive fishing expedition – or, as Neidenbach told his followers, “Hopefully we find something fun.”
Another way Neidenbach found of having “fun” was to forge a tweet from Taleb by modifying what Taleb originally said so as to make “his” tweet appear ridiculous. And when another of Folta's critics, the systems biologist Joe Norman, took issue with this and with graphics Neidenbach was producing that attacked Norman himself, Neidenbach's response was revealing: “Joe Norman if you just apologize to Professor Folta, we can leave you out of this.”
This follows on from another contributor to We Love GMOs and Vaccines saying to Joe Norman that he considers anyone who likes Taleb “must be a doucheturd” and that though he’s not so “fond of violence ... if I ever see anyone of you FUCKING idiots crossing my path in real life, you’ll know what it feels like to get submitted.”
On another occasion Neidenbach himself responded to Norman with what reads very much like a threat: “You have harassed biotech scientists far too much... We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.” His use of the tagline of the hacktivist group Anonymous ties in with his aping them in other ways, including using the V for Vendetta mask that has become their trademark as a profile picture for his own (We Love GMOs and Vaccines) group. He has also posted photographs of himself wearing the mask.
But while many people are prepared to turn a blind eye to the vigilante aspect of Anonymous because of the group’s willingness to take on tyrannical governments, powerful corporations, belligerent despots and even the likes of ISIS and the KKK, groups like Neidenbach’s seem to be targeting for “vendetta” individuals that they feel have been overly critical of Kevin Folta and/or themselves.
How far this “vendetta” may be taken by some of Folta’s followers is hard to say, but while writing this article I came across people who were convinced that their email and social media accounts had been hacked, or who believed that they had been subjected, like the California veterinarian Ena Valikov, to various forms of underhand retaliation, after criticizing Folta and/or some of his leading supporters.
Certainly, the threatening nature of some of the posts on We Love GMOs and Vaccines lacks any ambiguity. One recent poster referred to Ena Valikov and a couple of other critics as “scumbags”, “cunts” and “slanderous pieces of shit” and went on to say that someone “oughta kneecap” them.
Although the post was deleted, it wasn’t condemned or even criticized. Instead, We Love GMOs and Vaccines issued an alert to its followers that someone “was taking screenshots of people from this thread now”. They posted a screenshot of the encouragment to kneecapping as evidence of this unreasonable behaviour, thus reposting the threat with even more prominence!
If any of this is suggestive of a cyber lynch mob, then that tallies with what someone who used to follow Kevin Folta, and was part of the online groups that support him, has to say. According to Sam Yang, by attacking Folta, Nassim Taleb got himself “into a fight with the internet mob.”
“I followed Kevin Folta before he became famous fighting Food Babe, along with other Facebook pages within that circle,” Yang wrote in a response to the blog that attacked Nassim Taleb for insulting Folta.
Those groups, according to Yang, “did the same things Nassim was doing, many took it further. I mean it was downright mean. I get not agreeing, but online mob mentality? Reminded me of old school street justice, just uncalled for... They don't have a face. It’s a collective, whereas Nassim has a face. He can only tweet so many insults, whereas that collective can bombard him... This article showed the tweets of Nassim being mean, and some cordial opposers. Why not the tweets attacking Nassim?”
Stephan Neidenbach claims Folta has warned him to “knock it off with inflammatory memes”. But the memes Neidenbach gives graphic expression to almost invariably stem from Folta himself. So when Neidenbach posts images comparing Taleb to totalitarian mass murderers, he is merely following a meme of Folta’s, who responded to USRTK by comparing their actions to the Stalinist onslaught on the great Soviet botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov.
“Facts sometimes can be inconvenient to activist agendas, so they must eliminate or marginalize the teachers,” Folta blogged. “During the late 1930's in a roundup USRTK would be proud of, geneticists were arrested and tried. Many of them were murdered...”
Folta claims he’s not directly comparing himself to Vavilov but seeking “to compare where ideology violently overrules science.” In other words, he deliberately associates USRTK putting in public records requests with totalitarian terror.
It therefore makes perfect sense that a Neidenbach image that sandwiches Taleb between Hitler and Stalin also takes in USRTK’s co-director Gary Ruskin. The image also features another pet hate-figure of Folta and his supporters, the Food Babe – someone Folta has accused of “abject food terrorism” and of being intent on fomenting violence against him, even though Vani Hari appears to have suffered far uglier threats and abuse than he ever has.
Folta’s extreme rhetoric serves a serious purpose. Folta’s memes of martyrdom, terrorism and totalitarianism serve to stir up anger and hatred against his supposed persecutors, so encouraging his followers to engage in the kind of abusive behaviour he claims to be the victim of. This is the Alice in Wonderland world of Kevin Folta, where he complains of being vilified, marginalized, and silenced – yet those are the very tactics that he and his followers seem to adopt.
This behaviour seems so ingrained in some of his supporters that, even with Folta now operating largely behind the scenes, it looks set to remain a significant part of his legacy.
Monsanto mon amour
Just as toxic as the stimulus to trolling and other intimidatory behaviour, is the way Folta has made being pro-GMO synonymous with being pro-Monsanto. Ena Valikov has repeatedly challenged Folta and his supporters to produce one example of Folta being critical of a Monsanto product or a Monsanto study, or in any other way “diverging from Monsanto's party line”. No convincing example has materialized.
In fact, Folta has gone to incredible lengths to defend the controversial Monsanto product Roundup. He has not only repeatedly drunk the Monsanto weedkiller in public to supposedly “demonstrate harmlessness” but he has even encouraged others to do the same. This dubious showmanship is a negation of science and is utterly irresponsible.
It’s revealing in this context that although Folta used to repeatedly maintain that he had “nothing to do with Monsanto”, in seeking to fire up his supporters to attack USRTK, he actually told them the exact opposite: “I’ll ALWAYS maintain relationships with these corporations and maybe someday I’ll be fortunate enough to talk Monsanto into sponsoring YOUR research” (double emphasis in original).
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, not only can biotech industry personnel be found among his staunchest supporters, but some of his other leading defenders appear to wish they were working for the industry too. Stephan Neidenbach, for instance, seems to enjoy posing in a Monsanto T-shirt almost as much as a V for Vendetta mask.
Neidenbach has also openly encouraged Monsanto’s vice-president to get the company to hire him.
Another staunch Folta defender and ultra-aggressive Taleb attacker, Yvette D’Entremont, worked until recently for the pesticide maker Amvac, which collaborates with Monsanto on its GMO-and-pesticides packages. D’Entremont, who styles herself the “SciBabe” and has over 140,000 followers on Facebook, tells her supporters that they can’t really be considered pro-GMO unless they also back Monsanto: “If you claim to be ‘pro-GMO but anti-@MonsantoCo,’ you're part of the problem.”
D’Entremont certainly can’t be accused of trying to maintain any critical distance from the company, gushing to Monsanto’s vice-president that she is a “Big fan of your work and your wonderful employees”, while asking him to help with the book she is writing.
For D’Entremont it is apparently unimaginable that a technology could be misused by a profit-driven multi-billion dollar industry. Yet the record of agrichemical giants like Monsanto hardly seems to justify giving corporate biotech a free pass.
This, then, is Kevin Folta’s legacy: a legion of uncritically GMO-supporting, Monsanto-loving devotees, ready to savage anyone who, like Taleb, doesn’t sign up to their dogma.
The Kevin Folta fan club
Back (left to right):
Janice Person – Monsanto’s Online Engagement Director. Helped set up GMOLOL
Julie Kelly – pro-GMO blogger whose husband is a lobbyist for agribiz giant ADM
Front (left to right):
Anastasia Bodnar – a director at Biofortified. Kevin Folta is a co-director
Yvette D’Entrement – aka the SciBabe. Worked until recently for the pesticide maker and Monsanto collaborator Amvac
Cami Ryan – Monsanto’s Social Sciences Lead
Julie Gunlock – Senior Fellow at The Independent Women's Forum, an anti-feminist right-wing public policy group, which grew out of Women for Clarence Thomas. Thomas is an ultra-conservative member of the Supreme Court and a former Monsanto attorney.
This article is based on a longer article, Kevin Folta's Toxic Legacy – part 4 of a series about the aggressive tactics and deceptive behaviour of Folta and his supporters.
* See also the recent supplement to Nassim Taleb's Precautionary Principle paper