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Surprising Science

What’s More Dishonest: Scientists Taking Corporate Cash or Mudslingers Attacking Them?

Personal attacks on a speaker, especially about their funding, are a sign that the attacker can’t dispute the facts the speaker is presenting. Beware the attacker too.

I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.

                                                   Mahatma Ghandi

Few men have virtue enough to withstand the highest bidder.

                                                  George Washington

Much has been said about FoltaGate, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the emails of University of Florida professor Kevin Folta, a scientist who advocates for genetically modified food technology. Most of the commentary has been about whether the FOIA request was a valid effort to find out if Folta had been corrupted by funding from Big Ag or just phishing for mud to sling, to undermine what Folta says. The selective way the phishers used the massive amount of information Folta and his university handed over — nothing only that Folta had received financial support from Monsanto to support his public speaking, to say the same things he’d been saying for years before he got that support — seems to answer that question. That and the fact that the FOIA request was initiated by an avowed anti-GMO group funded in part by the organic industry, operating under the disingenuous name US Right to Know.

In general, FOIA requests like this, and anything else journalists can do to find out whether someone claiming the trustworthy mantle of scientist/expert has been corrupted by funders, are a good idea. But they are being used more and more not by journalists, but by advocates on all sorts of issues (climate change, vaccines, obesity, gun control), not to honestly investigate whether someone’s views have been bought and paid for, but just to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of what that person says.

This should be a Bright Red Flag to any journalist, and any reader with an open mind who isn’t already on one side or the other of any controversial issue. Mudslinging is generally what you do when what someone says, and their facts, can’t be attacked directly. It should automatically alert the journalist and reader to be skeptical not only of the person being attacked, but of the bias of the attackers. Journalists need to be a little more critical of the mudslingers, as has been the case in FoltaGate. (GMO Controversy: When Do Demands for Scientists records turn into harassment?)

Money doesn’t always corrupt. Mostly the money finds those already saying what the funder likes. The views are honestly and sincerely held, and predate the cash.

There is another issue in FoltaGate that hasn’t been discussed too much. Of course money can corrupt, and journalists are right to dig into any source’s funding to look for such corruption. But it is simplistic, unfair, and frankly not very mature journalism, to simply say “Aha! He got money from some presumed bad actor (usually a corporation), and therefore you can’t trust anything he says.” There’s more to it than that. Money doesn’t always corrupt. Mostly the money finds those already saying what the funder likes. The views are honestly and sincerely held, and predate the cash.

Did the organics industry funding to Washington State University to support the work of Charles Benbrook turn him into an anti-GMO advocate? Of course not. His beliefs predated the money. It’s as unfair for pro-GMO advocates to attack Benbrook this way as is the hatchet job on Folta. Both of these people are sincere and committed to their views of the evidence. Their time may have been paid for. Their ideas and opinions are their own.

To be sure there are plenty of Merchants of Doubt examples of companies funding scientists and pundits and think tanks to say whatever the company wants; on tobacco, on acid rain and DDT and climate change (on climate change, read Ross Gelbspan’s books The Heat is On and Boiling Point). Of course there are many examples on the “green” side of environmental issues too — scientists and think tanks and advocacy groups funded by environmentalist sources to say only what those sources want them to say. James Hansen, a fierce advocate for action on climate change, talks in an op-ed in the Des Moines Register about the major environmental organizations that wanted to come out in favor of nuclear power as part of the solution for climate change … but didn’t because their major contributors said they’d stop funding them if they did.

But there are also many scientists and organizations that have spoken out on controversial issues, and either taken money from whatever side their views support or published something in conjunction with that side with absolutely no money changing hands, where the sincerely held views came first, and the contact from the other side came second. Dr. Paul Offit on childhood vaccines. Calestous Juma on GMOs. Climate change skeptic Richard Lindzen. The views are sincere. The people are honest. They just offer views, or facts, that the other side doesn’t like, or can’t dispute. So the other side throws mud at the person/organization, hoping to undermine the credibility of what these people/organizations say.

The mudslinging makes a lot of scientists leery to speak out. It muzzles some of the voices we need to hear from, to learn from, if we’re going to make informed choices about complicated issues.

This mudslinging is harmful in many ways. It worsens the polarization around the issue, which makes progress tougher to achieve. GMO opponents jumped all over Folta (with some really nasty personal stuff), while the pro-GMO advocates attacked the credibility and honesty of the journalists who broke the Folta story/hatchet job.

It makes funders leery of supporting work that could move these heated issues forward. The Gates Foundation gets huge pressure for funding honest independent research into GMOs as a way to help feed billions of people. The Rockefeller Foundation stopped funding GMO work after relentless pressure on their board from environmentalist/GMO opponents (and all Rockefeller was trying to do was open a dialogue on the issue, funding both sides.)

The mudslinging makes a lot of scientists leery to speak out. It muzzles some of the voices we need to hear from, to learn from, if we’re going to make informed choices about complicated issues.

And it lures journalists toward an easy story angle that distracts them from reporting on the substantive factual questions the public needs to understand to make more fully informed decisions about the issue itself.

So, yay for digging into and reporting on any source’s funding. But boo for the naïve assumption that journalists, and you and I, make that any funding from any suspect source automatically makes everything someone says suspect. Advocates will continue to use this ad hominem mudslinging to attack their opponents. We can’t expect that to change. But we can demand that our journalists provide the public a more mature analysis of whose positions seem to be honest and whose facts seem to be well-supported by the evidence, regardless of who paid the speaker to speak out.  

David Ropeik is an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You. He runs a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk and was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which he was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.

Getty Images, sarahwolfephotography


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