As scientists we generally aren’t renowned for our communications prowess, particularly communications with the public. Many of us would rather work away in our laboratories and communicate with our peers than actively seek out opportunities to talk to the public about our work. Particularly when our work is in the field of, to use the vernacular, “genetic engineering”.
Dr. Kevin Folta ─ Professor and Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences department at the University of Florida ─ is different. A geneticist by trade, Kevin has dedicated a huge amount of his own time and energy to educating the public about the science of biotechnology and so-called “GMOs”. He’s good at it too, as you can see here in a recent address he gave to a public audience at McGill University during the 2015 Trottier Science Symposium.
The downside to being good ─ really good actually ─ at talking about the science of biotechnology is that it annoys people. Specifically it annoys those people whose cause is served by preserving and promoting widespread ignorance on the topic of GMOs. These people, and the groups they represent, depend on the public not really knowing what GMOs are but being “fairly sure they’re a bad thing”.
Since the scientific consensus on the safety of currently deployed biotechnology applications is solid, these groups have had to resort to personal attacks on the handful of scientists, like Kevin, who have been brave enough to speak up. As noted skeptic David Gorski said, “Over the years, I’ve noticed many traits that various antiscience cranks share in common, be they antivaccinationists quacks, anthropogenic global climate change denialists, or anti-GMO activists, and that is an obsession with ad hominem attacks. They can’t win on the science because science doesn’t support them; so they attack the man—or woman.”
Which is exactly what they did to Kevin. As an outspoken advocate for science, Kevin became a lightning rod for the anti-science, anti-GMO community. Activists made death threats against him; posted false and defamatory messages to Craigslist inciting hatred against his family, home, and laboratory, even invoking the memory of his late mother; and attacked him endlessly on social media. Through all of this, he remained cool, calm, and classy, responding to malicious claims with the thoughtful and respectful tone that has become his hallmark.
But the attacks were relentless and everyone has a breaking point. Last week, Kevin announced he had reached his.
It was a sad day for science and a sad day for science communication. The bullies got their way. They silenced a good man for speaking the truth.
But the bullies won’t win. We won’t let them. We don’t tolerate schoolyard bully tactics in our children; we sure as heck shouldn’t tolerate it in our fellow adults. Kevin’s decision to step out of the science communication field sent shockwaves through our community and created a void that we need to step up and fill. It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be quick. But we have the weight of scientific evidence behind us and we will win.
Dr. Maria Trainer
Managing director, science and regulatory affairs, chemistry, CropLife Canada