New York Times: Your reporting fed McCarthyite attacks on Kevin Folta


Jean Goodwin is an expert in rhetoric at Iowa State. Dr. Goodwin specializes in achieving useful communication among parties who deeply disagree.

My primary research/teaching focus is in argumentation studies; I study how citizens who deeply disagree can nevertheless manage to coordinate a worthwhile exchange of reasons. In the past few years, I’ve begun looking at the special problems experts face when they attempt to contribute the public sphere–a project with several threads under the general heading, Between Scientists and Citizens. While my social science colleagues can provide valuable perspectives on how scientists can communicate more effectively, as a humanities scholar I am focused on the values issues–why scientists should communicate, what they should hope to accomplish by doing so, what roles they can appropriately play in civic deliberations. Case studies of such issues of science communication ethics are available on the website of our NSF-funded project, Cases for Teaching Responsible Communication of Science.

If that sounds like good preparation to analyze what the New York Times did to Kevin Folta, then you would be right. If you explore Jean’s blog Between Scientists and Citizens you will get some comfort that you are around serious people. I look to see who else the writer links, finding another world-class science communicator, Roger Pielke Jr. And Andy Revkin. So I was frankly excited after I began reading her short essay on the Folta case:

So, follow below the fold to find my defense of these three claims:

  1. Folta is an outstanding science communicator.
  2. He is being targeted by McCarthy-style attacks.
  3. The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education failed to resist the McCarthyism.

1. Folta = Science Communication

Many have been calling for bench scientists to invest more time engaging the public. Having seen Folta present and having looked over some of his outreach efforts, it’s my view that he is a model science communicator and that any scientist wanting to jump into public communication should learn from him.* I may write another blog post about it, but to put it briefly, Folta shares his passion for his research and makes clear his respect for each and every member of his audience.§¶

*One thing they should learn right off is to be ultra-scrupulous in declaring all sources of funding–Folta has admitted sloppiness in this, and he is paying the penalty.

§ Folta loves his listeners; that sounds sappy, but it isn’t. Listen to the talk he gave at my university, paying attention his interactions with those skeptical of GMOs. Be aware, it’s over two hours long–because he was willing to stay there and respond, respectfully, to every single question and challenge. Or take a look at one story of what talking with Folta feels like from the audience point of view.

¶ Folta loves his listeners, with one exception: he clearly loathes those who he perceives to be a core group of science-distorting anti-GMO fanatics. This also is a mistake that he is paying for: he should love them, too; or at least, speak as if they did not exist.

My score on Jean’s defense of point #1 is “about perfect”. We could add a link to Talking Biotech podcast where it is so easy to access current talks and interviews that help the listener appreciate who Kevin Folta really is (try to match up the real Kevin Folta with the NY Times portrayal). If you are new to this topic you should definitely browse through Dr. Folta’s writings at Illumination blog. Especially read the comments, paying attention to the hostile questions and Dr. Folta’s remarkable patience in answering. If you find any evidence that you are reading a “shill for Big Seed” please let me know in the Comments.

Next comes the discussion of 2. McCarthyism and 3. Failures in the reporting, closing with this:

So in sum: The New York Times and the Chronicle did a poor job on this story, helping perpetuate McCarthyite attacks on a scientist who–unlike most–has bothered to reach out to the public. For shame!

Get on over there to Between Scientists and Citizens – where you can ask your questions or agree/disagree passionately in the comments.