Phi Beta Cons

How to Embarrass a Professor

There was a summer storm at the University of Florida, and it’s continuing. Kevin Folta, chairman of the university’s Department of Horticultural Sciences Department and a researcher who specializes in GMOs (genetically modified organisms), is being attacked as a shill for big chemical companies.

His attackers, Charles Seife and Paul Thacker, wrote such an inflammatory and inaccurate article on the PLOS (Public Library of Science) Biology blog that the managers took it off. (Seife is a professor of journalism at New York University.)

The article followed (and to some extent was based on) a massive public-records request last winter by U.S. Right to Know, an advocacy group that opposes genetically modified foods. The FOIA request asked for all email communications over two years between forty professors and GMO-related companies. Folta complied.

Folta’s blog gives you an idea of the result:

Wrong author of the email, misrepresented content, wrong date, wrong state, and portraying me as a stooge of the company, when I was criticizing the company. Did they get anything right? Why would they do that?

Because truth would not reinforce the rest of their article. They had to destroy the truth to fit their thesis. 

Among all the rhetoric, apparently U.S. RTK found that Folta had accepted a $25,000 grant from Monsanto to encourage better communication of science. Monsanto may have paid for his outreach travel, too (but no honoraria). Folta is upfront about his support of GMOs and contributes to a website, GMO Answers, that is sponsored by biotechnology companies. Unlike Monsanto, however, he champions labeling of genetically modified food.

To maintain his reputation, Folta decided to give the $25,000 to a university food bank (with Monsanto’s approval).

The attack on Folta is similar to the effort to demolish the credibility of Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

When will these attacks end and what is the University of Florida doing to help this man?

Jane S. Shaw — Jane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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