A 15-year legacy comes to end as Kevin Folta announces retirement from public science advocacy. The relentless attacks came to a fever pitch with multiple FOIA ploys launched against him with a Buzzfeed cherry on top1. Much has been said2 and more will follow in the community I’m sure. Emotions are running high and that is to be expected. It’s testament to the impact Kevin Folta has made upon the public. The most prevalent emotions expressed are anger and despair. Those certainly are valid emotions to have. Before we react rashly though, I think some channeling and reflection is in order to help quell our discomfort.
The situation may seem dire. Personal attacks from antiGMO seem to be getting more vicious and companies are adopting cynical “no GMO” appeals as if it’s a good thing. But I would dare to say that we have never had so many science pro-GMO advocates fighting the good fight. Interest groups are swelling with members and every day yet another satirist is born under some pseudonym lampooning somebody like Food Babe3. Social media has exploded and we are shifting the culture. This is a movement.
This burgeoning pro-science movement4 is not a fluke. It’s something, a long time coming, that science defenders have been cultivating for us. They came many years before, fighting the good fight, diligently, enduringly. It is upon the shoulders of these giants for which we can now contemplate the state of affairs for which we find ourselves. As the years pass, these champions fall away, many nameless, never lauded. But their legacy is with us. We are bootstrapped with the tools needed to carry on the fight. Like anti-vaccinationists who have the privilege of not knowing disease we too can fall in a similar trap of not seeing the forest for the trees. Pro-GMO is not new, but it is different, it needs to be.
I mean not to downplay the fall of my own hero, Kevin Folta. While I risk sounding like a Folta fanboy, I, like many others owe their illumination to his tireless efforts. It’s his inspiration that has led me to build several advocacy projects. I do know he’s human, though. He’s surprised me both in positive and negative ways. I accept him still, for we all stumble. Yet he has made a huge impact before doing so. It’s not an excuse or justification of anything. But there is a debt to repay and we all owe it. Now this giant rests. Let’s respect that and constructively regroup.
What do we do now? We organize and take action. We launch grassroots efforts to reach the fence sitters and general public. We cultivate the soil making conditions optimal for positive growth. We do the hard work as many movements before us have done. We utilize the lessons they’ve learned honed by the social science we do.
Sometimes what we don’t do is just as important. We don’t mirror our adversaries. We don’t allow them to take the lead. To win the public we maintain our ethical high ground. We exemplify the moral standards of our cause because our cause is just.
I’ve seen lamenting and lashing out. Science denialists are being called hate groups and terrorists. This is a cathartic reaction that threatens to derail a trajectory to make a positive difference. I’ve seen personally how the word terrorist is painted upon my animal rights cohorts. People who in no way threatened any lives for an agenda. Hate group is also a term that means more than the sum of its parts. It’s not just a group that hates something. Words like these have given weight beyond an appeal to definition. Hastily employing them is a form of appropriation that will cost us valuable ethical currency. Wrong is wrong and we cannot justify bad behavior.
As the movement grows there will tend to be some who are disruptive to the cause. Often it’s unintentional and they are acting instinctively. But sometimes it can be intentional, agent provocateurs. We may not know which so it is up to us to call out (or call in) unethical behavior in our own ranks. As our detractors become more and more heinous, we must show it for what it is. Returning in kind will make us look indistinguishable to the public. They will try to unravel us with anger but let it instead fuel efforts to make change.
I believe in people. I do think many anti-GMO people are victims of manipulation. I think we will win this. But it is time for everybody, not only science experts, to rise up. There are grassroots efforts being planned and getting launched. March Against Myths, I believe, showed there is interest and potential to harness.
If you’re upset about Kevin Folta and want to do something I would suggest first sending him a message of support5. Then get involved with advocacy organizations6 or start one. Participate at your level of interest and expertise. But regardless, we can all have honest conversations with people in our social circles. We’re going to have to tackle this one conversation at a time. The same way Kevin Folta did, and they can’t shut us all up.
- The Buzzfeed article with the clickbait title “Seed Money: Confessions of a Monsanto Apologist” might be better titled as: “10 Things Kevin Folta Did and You Won’t Believe #7!” ↩
- Respectful Insolence: A sad day for public science advocacy
WIRED: Anti-GMO Activist Seeks to Expose Scientists’ Emails With Big Ag
Neurological Blog: How To Attack a Public Scientist
Pharyngula: Harassment by FOIA ↩
- Whether or not it’s helpful for the broader cause I would still consider it a measure of interest. ↩
- Not just pro-GMO mind you, it’s pro-science including issues of vaccinations, climate change, etc. ↩
- Facebook Page, Blog comment, email ↩
- Biology Fortified
Sense About Science
Alliance For Science
March Against Myths ↩