Monday, October 29, 2012

Leaving the Limbaughs of the Left: Parting Thoughts on Prop37

Over the last month I've had a lot to think about.  I visited several 3rd grade classes to teach kids about plant biology.  They all learned what makes plants unique from animals and how plants grow and develop.  In each class we did a simple experiment with two test tubes, two seeds, and two pieces of foil. Each tube contained a milliliter of water/agar. The kids would add one seed to each tube. They would wrap one in foil, leave the other uncovered, then scrunch up the other piece of foil as a base.

Thirty minutes, a few cents of science surplus, and a huge retreat from book science for the kids. The elegant simplicity of plant development. The happiness that comes when someone that is not their teacher brings them stuff!

They went nuts, as always. They loved the test tubes, the seeds, and any science stuff you could give them. They were all excited to participate in science. In third grade science is still cool.

Special guest talks at local schools remind me about how there still
are minds out there that are willing to think critically, consider evidence, 
and learn. Many adults need to learn from them.

Every single time, I leave the school feeling like I have relevance and impact, like I've contributed to changing minds.  I feel that I taught science to willing participants that wanted to learn something new.

It is a great feeling to be welcomed for what I know and how I teach it.  It is great to be appreciated for what I voluntarily give and how it can shape future decisions in children, where STEM disciplines will be in high demand.

Too bad the world is not full of third graders.  Instead we have self-entitled whiners that have coalesced into a body of experts with expertise that no true expert can approach.

I'm out of the GMO/prop37 discussion.

Reaching Out to the Unreachable

After thousands of discussions on blogs and comments, emails and in-person talks, I'm hanging up my efforts.  After patience, kindness and reaching out, I'm now just reaching in. Why?  After all, I've studied the field for 25 years, I understand it and can communicate it.

It is because I am deflated by those I engage. I cannot teach the unteachable, and I've wondered why I even bother to try.  These are not wide-eyed and eager to learn third graders. These are angry ideologs, steeped in misinformation that reject expert testimony and informed discussion. They have made up their minds, and no amount of evidence will change that. Limbaughs, all.

Now maybe the insulting comments, nasty emails and even veiled death threats might stop.  I'll have more time to serve my real clients-- my students and postdocs in the lab, the students I serve as Graduate Coordinator, the students at UF, my colleagues, my field and growers in my state.  And of course, third graders.

Anti-Intellectualism Runs Wild

I don't really have any hard vested interest in GMO policy. I have no corporate licensing, no commercialized materials. Despite the unending accusations, I have no funding to lose.

My interest was to use the whole GMO discussion as a vehicle to teach science and the scientific method.  Pure and simple.  What is good evidence, what does the evidence tell us, and how should we react to it?  Over the years I've used climate change and vaccination as similar platforms to teach about science too, so it is not just GMO.

But in a world obsessed with "I have a right to __________.  I don't care what you say or what you know, I demand to have it my way", can education get any traction?  How can I change hearts and minds when hearts are hard and minds are locked? 

Everyone feels like their opinion needs to be honored, that they "have it right", that they know the facts.  It is wholesale anti-intellectualism at its finest.

Disappointed in the Lefties

In the last seven days I've been called everything from nazi, to a scumbag, to a criminal to a corporate shill.  I rode a bike with a guy and when he learned I was a professor he called me "another overpaid liberal".  I can't win!

I swing from left to right on issue to issue, so my political philosophies don't fit conveniently in a box.  However, I absolutely relate to a more left-leaning mindset, especially on social issues. It is a shame to witness the people I agree with on so many levels go completely off the deep end on the science of transgenic crops.  I expect this from the evolution hating, stem cell bashing, earth cooling goofballs on the right, but from those that allegedly embrace learning and education?

I've found many that oppose biotechnology to be some of the meanest, nastiest, narrow-minded people  I have ever encountered.  Those that say they honor nature, reason, and peace are such hypocrites. They too can be pointy, ignorant, arrogant and unchangable, anchored in the mud of lies and misinformation that they refuse to be pulled out of. They blatantly shun the lifeline of logic.

In many ways they are more bitter people than other science deniers. Back in May of 2009 when vaccination issues were hot I got a lot of angry emails for criticizing Oprah and Jenny McCarthy, but they were nowhere near as aggressive as the anti-GMO correspondences.

Not Quitting, Shifting

Rather than waste my time trying to influence those that have already made up their minds in the religion of GMO=bad, I'm going to invest my time where it can make a difference.  I cannot change the present-- that train has left the station.  I can influence the future. I'm going to put my two test tubes, seeds and foil in as many little fumbling hands as I can.  I'm going to start a YouTube video series on science fair projects. I'm going to teach science and reason to the willing, rather than beating my head against the wall against the inertia of belief in an anti-science fantasy.

Changing My Position-- Yes on 37!
I'm flipping on this issue and now fully support labeling.  I hope the initiative succeeds and that the labels are affixed, that the kind supporters of Prop37 put Seralini's rat tumor pics on every box, jar and can.  I hope they run a campaign of fear, steering consumer sentiment, collapsing current farming options for corn, soy and canola.  Let's switch to dangerous old herbicides, send those spray planes out in droves to dump their poisons and burn that fuel.  Make farmers pay more for fuel, labor, pesticides.  Hand those costs down to consumers and make the poorest of the poor even poorer with higher food prices.

Let's further empower the Big Ag corporations they hate by forcing them back into production of hybrid seeds, costing more, performing less, and still not able to be replanted in subsequent seasons.

I feel bad saying that, but let's use this opportunity to show the angry mobs that alter law by mass ignorance that there are consequences for their actions. Just like we are turning a blind eye on any real energy policy, let's just let the anti-GMO folks have their way and push their agenda to flip modern agriculture on its big dumb ass.  Yes on 37!

If you think it sucks to pay for foreign oil, wait until you get to pay for foreign food.

Stick a Fork In It. 

I'm about to say a selfish comment I never thought I'd say.  I just don't care anymore. Screw giving talks in public forums only to be shouted down as a "witch" or "corporate stooge".  Forget about providing facts and evidence to those that call me a liar. No more wasting my time with those that care only about a naturalistic fallacy, a narrow worldview that parallels the beliefs of creationists, climate deniers and birthers.

They cannot be changed.

Sadly I hope for the wheels to come off and for the worst possible outcomes from our ignorant anti-science decisions.  Let's heat up the planet until crops can't grow, people starve and there's no biotech solutions. Let's pay $21 for a tomato and $8 for an ear of corn.  I'm a freakin' cockroach, I'm remarkably low-maintenance, clever and resourceful.  I'll be just fine.

I just proofread that paragraph and I'm ashamed at what I've become.  I have to gracefully bow out of this conversation.

You Didn't Win
My retreat from this topic does not mean that the anti-GMO interests have won. In fact, they lost.  They lost a potentially powerful advocate when their interests are on the line, someone that can effectively oppose corporate science when appropriate.  Winners are those that respect my time and scientific ability, as now I can apply it to issues that matter most.

In Conclusion

Maybe it all needs to collapse before it will get better and we start to trust science and scientists again.  In the anti-GMO, pro-prop37 circles Seralini is a god and I'm a fool.  They can have him and his pseudoscience  to speed our slide into idiocracy.

I see why scientists don't engage the public.  The public is maybe not deserving of our time.  Public perception has kept science funding stagnant, as if we're viewed as flimsy frauds that will trade truth and integrity for a few shekels and Monsanto cap, nobody is going to demand we get more resources to do public science.  So we sit sequestered in our offices, pounding keyboards 80 hours a week, fighting for a few hyper-competitive grants and getting turned down 90% of the time if we are really good. If you think that's not the case, then why am I one of a sliver of scientists out pushing for public outreach and interaction?

There are people that do appreciate the effort, the folks in retirement communities, the interested students and of course the third graders. Maybe by teaching science earlier in a climate where science matters, where food is precious and increasingly rare, we'll start to welcome the informed thoughts of those that have them.

Thanks, I'll still be around. I'll answer questions at  Always glad to help, but I'm not going to be Seralini-worshiping activist punching bag.  Done. It has been said that the only thing you get from arguing with an idiot is two idiots.  Time to excuse myself from this discussion.

Please click on this link and read the lyrics carefully.  It was written in 2002 in response to our nation's leadership at the time, but the lyrics apply to any situation where the least prepared to make decisions are making them. Read and think about scientists vs. prop37... 


Anonymous said...

Oh please! Kevin you left me the nastiest message on my blog that I have ever received. It was not "patient, kind, polite or engaging".

Kevin M. Folta said...

What blog was that, Anonymous? Gosh, I can't say I didn't do it... If talking science is offensive then maybe I did... please inform.

Kevin M. Folta said...

Anonymous, you have me intrigued. I know I got really mad at a psychic once and also maybe got prickly on your anti-vaccination blog.

But if you look at the discussions I've had in this area I've tried really hard to keep it gentle. It does not always work.

I do come in with a kind heart, but once you jam a pencil in it I might get a little surly. If pushed, I can be intensely awful. I don't think I go there very often, I'm sure I do/did/will.

But overall, look how I deal with anti-science dealers. I try to catch more flies with honey....

Timberati said...

Darn. I will miss your voice in the mix.

Lindsay said...

Kevin, I'm so sorry to see you go. You are a great scientist and science communicator, and young scientists like myself need great role models like you. But you have to do what's right by yourself, and I understand that. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Not my blog, but an excellent entry about arguing (primarily) online... >> But there's not only small-minded ideologues out there. Fully agree that there's no point arguing with those, but many, many people are simply insecure and easily agitated by those with malicious intent. Communicating with those is worth it, or at least putting out the information could help people find different voices... Follow a take-it-or-leave it approach without succumbing to the temptation to argue with every commentator and to try to convince those who cannot be convinced. Humans are not rational beings and some in some fields are simply not open to rational arguments...

Skepteco said...

Thanks for all your writings and explanations, they have been really helpful and interesting; I have to say you have expressed very well what anyone who tries to argue with woo-merchants will end up feeling.

Anonymous said...

Ok, so it's all about open-mindedly embracing science and the scientific process. Now let's cut to the chase regarding GMOs: It's been a consumer deception from the start. Just because the GM biotech folks covered all their based with cozy relationships at FDA, USDA, EPA and congress which enabled them to slip patented unique DNA proteins in the food supply without warning or labels, and with the blessings of all the paid-for academic reports supporting the aforementioned efforts, the fact that it all happened with a 100% consumer blackout is enough for me to call BULLS#IT on the entire operation. And, the fact that there's not a single published human health study showing GMOs are safe, please, take yourself out of the discussion because it's completely void of all scientific and ethical merit.

DaveDandelion said...


Just this past weekend Vegan Chicago hosted our third speaker and this time the topic was vaccines. It was almost if not more contentious than the GMO topic you presented as our first speaker! Afterwards I was telling the presenter, Dr. Alexander, about the GMO talk we did and the how we continue to get mileage out of that recording posted as a podcast. I hope to do the same with this recent vaccine talk. For the record here's a couple of ripples from the talk you did back in December of 2010:

Anyway, I have my bad weeks and better weeks but the trajectory seems to be a downward slope so I'm likely to join you at the bottom here. Thanks for all you do and I look forward to sharing some xmas brews with you.

Steve Darden said...


Thank you for your huge contribution to enlightenment. You know you have contributed, so do not get depressed.

For now, teach the third-graders whose minds are still open.

When you are recharged I hope you will continue to try to reach the adults.

Ena Valikov said...

I understand the anger and frustration at illiteracy and stupidity.

I disagree that plant scientists should be making policy on this issue.

Having lived in a non-democratic regime, I absolutely believe in democracy even when totalitarianism and dictatorship are being proposed and supported by scientists / "intelligencia"

I'll take democracy any day...warts and all.

Ena Valikov said...

PS. I will REALLY Miss You!


Kevin M. Folta said...

Ena, I'm just moving sideways. I'm going to contribute to the discussion but I'm not going to try to engage the unteachable.

I'm much more for a democracy as well, or more precisely, a representative republic. It does work. The problem is that it relies on an educated populace that can shape good policy.

We are at a watershed of evidence vs. emotion and that's such a bad place to be. Someone always gets upset.

I'm always around and will continue to write blogs. If everyone was like you it would be a different story. We can have a good conversation here, talk about evidence. You make me better at what I do.

Check in anytime. Take care.


Kevin M. Folta said...


I don't think you could make my point any better.

The uninformed, misguided comments coming from someone too fragile to even use their fake internet name is quite telling.

I use my real name in every opportunity (with one exception where I came up as a handle on an old account) to keep it transparent and real.

Take care. I'm glad to read your opinions. Unfortunately the truth is still there, even if you don't believe it.

Anonymous said...

Kevin I perceive you as unteachable, don't get defensive, just listen for a moment. There are no long term studies on gm crops. The one review that everyone references that are pro gmo actually shows t cells and b cells decrease. If you want to eat gmos then fair enough, but alot of people don't want to. I am not into chocolate so should I be forced to eat it? Sometimes in life we have to take a look at what we believe and how we act toward others. You are passionate about something but if you try to push it on others you only push them away. You were very, very rude to me. That is not kind or worthy of a professional person. You need to take stock and stop acting like a bully. I think there is hope for you thought. :)

Greg Maloney said...

I just recently discovered your blog, and have learned a good bit from it and the discussions. But you are right. Why waste time with politics when you only fuel the fire of those who already disagree with you?

I think what you do with elementary outreach sounds great, so why not blog about that? It sounds like you already have a working model for teaching kids about plant science as an outsider, which could be a valuable resource for others who want to do something more rewarding than sitting in a lab all day. People like me, and my wife, who want to contribute to quality education in a country where such a thing is deteriorating, but are not really sure how to get started. I am curious to know how you set up such an outreach program on your own, get the proper permissions, design experiments that are simple, interesting, and informative for kids, etc. Maybe you already have this information out there somewhere, but to make it public and recurring in this same format would be useful and inspiring.

Kevin M. Folta said...

Anonymous. First, I'm sorry if I was rude. I don't normally go there. I'm sure that I have, especially when poked. I do breach professionalism when confronted with monumental, insurmountable stupid, but in a civil discourse (like you shoot for here) I don't get too out of line. Again, sorry if I was prickly.

Please let me address your points. First, there is no way that I'm unteachable. I always tell you first thing, I could be wrong. No doubt. I do make decisions on evidence, not on opinions and predictions. I will change my mind, but that's dependent upon the evidence presented.

The other thought in this issue is that there has to be high quality evidence and a lot of it to eclipse the evidence of no harm. It is like evolution. Some people feel one study overturns everything we know, but that just isn't the way science works.

Please post a link to the t/b cell paper. I don't know this one off the top of my head. If the differences are statistically significant with appropriate numbers and the experiment was done right, then it is a start. If it was real, it would be repeated and a mechanism would be determined. If we don't have that it is a correlation or influence we have not accounted for. Post the link, we'll talk.

Please don't confuse stern enforcement of a scientific standard as "bullying". I get angry at nonsense. Actually I don't get too bent about the GMO or climate anti-science, but I do get overbearing on vaccination. That affects the weakest among us.

You do have a choice to not eat transgenic crops. Buy organic or the foods the the GMO Project label. That's voluntary and defines exactly what you want. Done!

Again, please give me the benefit of the doubt. My record of politely and professionally discussing science in unfriendly and even hostile forums stands up well. I think I would be embarrassed if I was really off base. Coulda happened, but not the norm.

Travis Idol said...

I sympathize with you, but biotechnology is a complex issue that ranges far beyond plant biology and the scientific method. The motivations of the pro-labeling crowd may ostensibly be about food safety, but there are deeper and more complex issues at play. Continuing to argue with people over that is, as Kevin has realized, futile because they are not really arguing about that. It's the same with evolution and climate change and childhood vaccines and the fear of flying and driving while intoxicated and gambling. The "scientific facts" of the issue are only part of the motivation for why people make decisions or take positions on policy choices. These motivations are often subconscious, so the arguments you hear often seem ill-formed or at odds with empirical data and accepted scientific theories. As Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, learned in a course on hypnosis, the rational part of the brain usually doesn't become active until AFTER we've made up our mind about something. The best we can do is to ensure that policy decisions by expert bodies are grounded in the best available information and understanding. GMO labeling is about everything but whether the food is safe to eat.

Michael said...

I totally sympathize; but not fighting against True Believers is not a loss: It just allows you to focus your energies better. You will do a lot more with those third graders than with the acolytes of Mercola.

Why, just today Portland Maine's Press Herald newspaper published an obscenely ignorant column by its resident "Foodie." I usually compose long rebuttals to be published in the editorial section to this kind of ignorance...

She gets paid to write crap. I get paid nothing to rebut her crap. So I chose to ignore it!

You can't argue people out of religion.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your message. Regarding mechanism, frankly it is often futile to search for one and certainly is not a requirement for a recommendation. For example, we know that red meat is linked with colon cancer. But we do not know why. We still tell people to eat less red meat.
This is the pro gmo article that I mentioned. Although the abstract says that gmos are safe, there are a lot of outcomes reported within the review which are worrisome.
You can see it here:

Anonymous said...

Labeling is labeling pure and simple. It won't kill the food industry. Most consumers want to know what it's in their food and who makes it. Organic is labelled but it's health benefits are still in question. it is up to Monsanto et al to convince the public through good science that GMO's and the pesticide roundup is safe. As a former wildlife biologist I am not convinced by the current research. Why do they label starch as modified? when they could it just starch right?

Anonymous said...

I agree, it would not kill the food industry to label. I am not convinced either. The snell review is hardly proof that gmos are safe, to the contrary it leaves many unanswered questions. It is irresponsible to continually add more and more gmo crops without research that demonstrates that they are safe and effective for humans and the environment.

Anonymous said...

And when I say effective, I mean that we need to have more reason to use them than just profit for multinational companies....

Megan Brown said...

Dr. Folta,
I'm deeply saddened to read this post. But I get it. Please know, though, you've had a great and deep impact on many "regular" people like me. I'd just like to thank you for the time you dedicated to teaching and talking to people like me. It's much appreciated.

BedaUnisem said...

Kevin, I can understand how you feel. I can't understand how you can claim to be a scientist, to give preference to the scientific method but completely miss to apply it to the phenomenon at hand, skepticism and opposition about GMO. I think the field that studies this is called political economy. It might be worthwhile to look over the fence, once a while, instead of just calling names those you don’t (want to) understand.

Bucove said...


I have debated various issues for years on Usenet, and have gained endless experiences with trolls, bandits, sock puppets, and shills.

Eventually you learn something you thought you already knew: you can't change people by putting things into their minds, unless those people are reaching for the new things that fit into their minds.

The trick is to feel inside of yourself. You are already beginning to get this, the discussion about feeling good about a course of action, the negative feelings that weakening words bring to your soul...this is your discovery: You must not do this for others, you must do it for yourself.

When you leave the K3 classroom, you digest and assimilate the appreciation of those little minds who want to know how things happen... and who are SO excited when they FINALLY meet an adult who ACTUALLY STILL uses critical thinking...

That is the most precious thing they take home with them, you know... that it IS actually possible to grow up and still have a mind of your own.

Here is my point. Do only things that enrich your life. Say only things that make you feel stronger and better about having said them. Polarizing all the way across the field into a 'grapes are sour' position is just your trauma response to the abuses you have suffered in this GMO argument.

I for one am glad you are hanging up the bat so bloodied with prion streaked grey matter... Your efforts, your time, are precious resources. Your direction, your inspiration, must not falter in the face of the mob of psychotic shills and trolls yanking your chains just to see you dance....

Yes, do turn away from that mob. But no, do not let your reason for becoming who you are falter for one instant. Yes, the K3 kids are your angels of the future, and I hope they become the gift to you my own grand daughter is to me.

But also remember who it was who originally inspired you with such strength as your life describes.

Let these thoughts serve to lift you above the rabble of ignorance. Then you may forgive them, for in truth they do not know what they do. Ignorance is not something they wished upon themselves, any more than an addict seeks to become an addict.

Every single one of these idiots was a third grader once upon a time.

Each one of them, in their own way, surrendered to the ignorance of some pathetic adult who used force whilst refusing to explain why, to make them surrender their critical thinking skills; usually before puberty.

The childhood guardians of these idiots of today themselves had similarly once been traumatized by war, ignorance, poverty, a bully or some drunk parent or perhaps an abusive religious person.

What you witness here in your GMO battles is one facet of a much larger failure, the failure of western politics to realize the promise of post-WWII social potential.

Ideals of progress have been lost in Ike Eisenhower's post-war "Military Industrial Complex". America has continued to serve her domestic interests abroad at the expense of local cultures around the world. Instead of leading the world to an educated and healthy future, she has engaged in an oft repeated cycle of sending a few underpaid undergrads on humanitarian missions to prepare locals for the politically enabled corporate corruption which would then follow once desired resources were quantified.

Critical thinking is but one casualty of the war on humanity which has been waged by the leadership of trolls, bandits, sock puppets, and shills...

These bandits, having ripped off the third world, are now coming home to practice their well honed skills in the domestic arena. Please don't become their cannon fodder.

We live in Pepperland, and Blue Meanies are everywhere. We keep practising music in the hopes Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band will return soon.

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