No, scientists should not be giving up their Email for activists to twist

corn silk
Corn silk

Paul Thacker, writing in Sunday’s New York Times, suggested that scientists cannot be trusted to be honest and that “the public” should be able to snoop through private Emails of research scientists, cherry picking and misinterpreting fragments of conversations for their political objectives.

If you think the tone of the sentence is extreme, you should take a look at the history of this “journalist’s” own work. He specifically cites an opinion piece that he and Charles Seife wrote for PLoS Biology Blogs. You will note that that link now shows that the article has been removed as not being consistent with their community guidelines. You can read the actual cached article here.

Thacker (and Seife) wrote about a series of Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests for public university scientists Emails fomented by US Right to Know, which he describes as a “small nonprofit,” completely neglecting to mention that USTRK is an activist group dedicated to GMO labeling and wholly funded by the organic foods industry, and hardly a unbiased organization. In fact, USRTK engaged in serious public misbehavior bordering on slander in criticizing various scientists working in biotechnology, including, most notably University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta. Eventually, the attacks became so intense that Folta withdrew from his public science education role.

Now, Thacker and Seife’s removed article made several false claims, notably that Prof Folta has a financial relationship with Monsanto (he does not, he only accepted one small subsidy for his science outreach program) and that  he has been consulting with Monsanto on political strategy to combat the GMO labeling movement, which is completely false.  Because of these egregious misstatements, the PLoS opinion piece was removed.

You can read Folta’s view of that opinion piece in his blog entry on Science 2.0. It has also been discussed at length by Skeptical Raptor here and again here.

If this is what Thacker believes is the role of journalism and of snooping through Emails, he has become an activist rather than the respected journalist he would like us to believe he is. And the New York Times should not have published his opinion piece unedited.

However, the entire idea that agenda-driven organizations should have access to scientist’s private Emails is preposterous. If a scientist publishes an article where the conclusions are to be questioned, they can demand the original data (which is often available with the paper as supplemental files anyway). Of course, analyzing that data require that they know some science, rather than drawing slanderous conclusions by taking private conversations out of context.

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