The Risk-Monger

 

Are you now, or have you ever been a Monsanto shill???

  • I’m a plant biologist.

Answer the question! … Never mind, we already know the answer! Nobody could be pro-GM unless paid by Monsanto.

August is a month known for its irrationality … perhaps it is the heat of the long summer, or the absence of political leadership during the holiday period, or the time when those who have to work are busiest, but strange things tend to happen in August. Historically wars and aggression between countries begin quite often in August, and so it seems with the organic lobby’s war on science and GM technology.

Twitter and Facebook have been abuzz over the last eight days with blitzkrieg attacks on pro-GM scientists or anyone that questions the claims of the pro-organic lobby.

Kevin Folta

Open, communicative, intelligent, energetic and kind: these are character traits of University of Florida professor, Kevin Folta, that made him Public Enemy #1 for the organic industry’s attack on GMOs. The American Organic Consumers Association has funded a pit-bull political operative by the name of Gary Ruskin to form the US Right to Know organisation. They have been using the US Freedom of Information Act to troll through millions of personal emails of 40 pro-GMO academics (provided to Ruskin at US taxpayer expense) in the hopes of finding some juicy information.

On Folta, they found that Monsanto funded University of Florida a total of 25,000 USD earmarked to organise and travel to 12 science communications events. So out came the attacks that Folta was a liar, hypocrite and Monsanto shill. Folta had said in the past that he had never received funding from Monsanto for research, and these travel expenses for science communications events were clearly not part of research funding (and for anyone who has ever organised events, 25K is actually peanuts). But the organic industry hyenas smelt blood and they were not going to let a few facts get in the way of their prized reputation carcass.

Kevin Folta though is an experienced communicator and a scientist, so he was prepared to debate his inquisitionists with facts and reason. He held a brilliant Ask Me Anything session where the stupidity of the organic industry witch-hunt was laid out for all to see. Sadly, as expected, the activists knew well enough to not engage a scientist on a debate over facts so they had all wandered off to claim their victory and move to the next opportunity.

The hypocrisy from the organics lobby exudes relentlessly, absent of introspection or self-worth. Ruskin and his organisation receive far more from the Organic Consumers Association, and nobody seems to know who is funding the OCA’s activism and 28 staff. They are paid to attack plant biologists, not according to their science, but to try to discredit their funding sources. So a credible scientist like Folta is not allowed to enjoy an airport submarine sandwich and coffee on Monsanto’s tab (this was actually his only personal expense) while organo-campaigners like Vandana Shiva or Jeremy Rifken fly first class and charge tens of thousands of dollars for 15 minute appearances to try to flog some books about the evils of the capitalist system. I deeply respect not only Folta’s integrity, but also his courage and perseverance to engage the mudslingers. But as it is said on the farm, if you want to wrestle a pig, prepare to get muddy.

The Black Swine

There is no bigger wrestler in the shill-pit than Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He took his shots at Folta on twitter, calling him a liar, shill and a despicable person (see Taleb’s twitter feed on August 8). Taleb has been on an emotion-laden campaign against Monsanto (perhaps to promote a paper he had published last year on precaution that has not been well-received) and has reduced the debate to name-calling anyone who disagrees with him. The Risk-Monger was banned last year from Taleb’s Facebook page after a question on his comparison between nuclear and GMO risks. It seems many have been banned for even less challenging disagreements as Taleb builds an army of followers who now go out and attack pro-GMO advocates like Folta or Scibabe.

The irony is that the author of the Black Swan had, in that seminal work, very clearly articulated the risks of confirmation bias, so his unwillingness to listen to other ideas or those who disagree with him is surprising and quite disappointing. Many on social media have tried to reach out to Taleb during his “You’re a shill” breakdowns and his frequent use of the word “retard” for those who disagree is not becoming of a professor at an esteemed university. See the screenshot of one rant that shows Taleb’s complete loss of scientific analysis and decorum. I think NYU must act quickly to protect its reputation … perhaps a long sabbatical.

Taleb's breakdown
Would you want your professor to behave in public like this?

It is shocking to see famous academics reduced to publicly insulting and name-taunting others – this in no way promotes the reputation or class of science. That Taleb is a mathematician with no expertise in plant biology makes this an unwanted sideshow (except for the organic lobby, which seems to engage very few biologists).

Neo-McCarthyism

The Risk-Monger Facebook page has had several discussions comparing this organic lobby’s war on science and biotech as a type of Neo-McCarthyism. US Senator Joseph McCarthy (in the late 1940s and 50s) had many personal failings that I see in today’s leaders of the anti-GMO debate (a latent insecurity, an impatience with process, a disrespect for hierarchy and an intolerance for open debate … see Robert Griffith’s analysis of McCarthy in The Politics of Fear). The attack on biotechnology resembles the political campaigns in Cold War America: attack the people, not the idea; create a culture of fear; keep on the offence to make others answer your leading questions; make the institutions appear as part of the cause of the problem … These are activist tricks now used against industry on a daily basis. Like McCarthy’s campaign of intimidation, with the organic lobby’s fight against GMOs, free speech, open thought and public discourse suffer in the endless barrage of zealous allegations. Civil liberties and the right to pursue research have succumbed to pressure from the moralistic mob waging war on science.

McCarthyism bred and festered in the 1950s because of the perception of evil in association with a political fear. Today the argument is as follows: if we, as a society of concerned individuals, do not destroy Monsanto, then it will destroy the world. In a world of well-manufactured fear, rational arguments drift into the ether, not seen, not heard, not important to the pressing crisis at hand. Monsanto is perceived as today’s source of all evil and this collective campaign of irrational distrust may take a generation to put right. Folta is the first show trial … I fear there will be many more.

The haunting thought is that unlike McCarthy’s Washington in the 50s, today we have social media to amplify any crank’s microphone. More room for the motivated Talebs and Ruskins of the world to create fear, mudsling and discredit science in their own little kangaroo courts.

Welcome to the Age of Stupid!

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Addendum, 16 August 2015: I have just learnt of a petition to NYU to have Taleb’s association with the university terminated. Apparently I am not the only one to find his behaviour offensive. Please see the petition and some telling comments from other academics at change.org.

 

 

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