One of my most important roles is explaining science to a curious public, especially in socially contentious areas like vaccines, evolution and genetic engineering. In 2001 I did my first public talk on genetically engineered crops, presenting at Willy St. Co-op in Madison, WI where I lived. I shopped at Willy Street Coop and was sad that they had such misinformed opinions on the technology.
Over the next fifteen years the number of talks per year increased, as the public had questions and wanted answers. Soon I was training scientists, physicians, dietitians and many others how to be better communicators and reach a concerned public.
On February 1, 2015 I received a letter like I had never seen before. It was from a well-funded activist group asking to see my emails, requesting over 5400 pages of email going back to 2012. It was a strange request. How was it possible?
Turns out that Florida has one of the loosest public records laws, so all documents were provided in a timely manner without resistance. I didn’t have anything to hide, and was certainly happy to tell the activists what they wanted to know. In fact, I called them and asked them to save the taxpayer a few bucks and just let me know, what they wanted to know.
“We want the emails,” they said.
In full compliance I provided >5400 pages of email, no big deal. Or so I thought.
Within weeks completely false interpretations began to spread quickly through the internet. False stories were generated from my words. Sentences were misinterpreted with the interest of causing the most damage. Even the New York Times joined in, publishing a story on the front page of the Sunday edition that got most of the facts dead wrong, even though they interviewed me for hours. The page featured deliberate misinterpretation of quotations pulled from my emails to build the story the author wanted to tell. The sub-head “Industry Swaps Grants for Lobbying Clout” was extremely damaging, suggesting that I did favors for money. That’s bribery, nothing like that ever happened, and it created a storm of hate toward me that led to health problems, break-ins and my distancing from public education.
Next, The Food Babe (Vani Hari) was using FOIA to confiscate my emails because I criticized her for spreading food fear when she spoke at my university. Many others have received them as well.
Then I make the mistake of digging in my heels and going toe-to-toe with folks sworn to harm my reputation. I tried to correct the record, offer evidence of the truth.
That does not matter. These folks are sadly financed to destroy reputations of those that step beyond the lab and talk to the public. If you are sharing facts about science, they figure that they are not actually facts, they are talking points by some company that you are paid to say. How crazy is that?
Since February of 2015 I have turned over more than 15,000 pages of private correspondence at massive taxpayer expense. In all of those pages they have not found one single case of anything illegal, unethical, or non-disclosed.
It is a sad reminder that we live in a world where activist agendas are more important than objective science, and that as public scientists we honor the highest transparency, yet it is weaponized to harm us.
This only happens because we are being effective in talking to the public about science. Ironically, those demanding a ‘right to know’ are those most excited to stop that communication, focusing on harming the reputations of those most appropriate to share that knowledge.
I’m always happy to answer questions. kfolta “at” ufl “dot” edu. And yes, your email will be discoverable by FOIA laws.