Dispatch from the Science Wars


Earlier this year I wrote a feature story about science distortion by activists. I compared the truth-warping tactics of Donald Trump to that of anti-vaccine and anti-GMO campaigners. I discussed the methods used by the GOP to demonize Hillary Clinton over decades and how that laid the foundation for Trump’s “crooked” Hillary narrative in the 2016 Presidential campaign. This was, I argued, a media-made alternate reality that bore an eerie similarity to the anti-GMO and anti-vaccine alternate realities created in recent years. These are wholly manufactured universes that have their own unshakable truths.

The piece elicited a huge response. It seemed to strike a chord in the scientific community, or at least in those segments where distortion of the public discourse had become commonplace and difficult to combat.

A big part of what I’ve done as a journalist since 2012 is to interrogate embedded, uncritically accepted narratives in science discourse. I did this a lot at my old Discover blog, which is where, among other things, I examined common, long-standing anti-GMO tropes and misinformation. People took notice because, in part, I suppose I was doing something few in science (and especially environmental) journalism wanted to do, which was to shine a light on underlying biases that had long distorted media coverage of agriculture and GMO technology.

In retrospect, this was not a wise career move. There are days when I wish I could unwind the clock a decade and return to my old identity as an environmental writer and editor at a magazine where the focus was on wildlife, conservation and climate change. I belonged to a tribe of like-minded professionals all working towards the same goal: Unlocking the mysteries of nature while keeping industry polluters and powerful interests accountable. I was on the side of the good guys. I had a white hat. People in my tribe liked me.

I had a good thing going in that life. But after nearly ten years at a magazine with a narrowly defined editorial mission, I felt stalled, intellectually and creatively. So I went freelance in 2009 and soon expanded my portfolio to include argument-driven essays, commentary/analysis, and media criticism at my own blog, which eventually landed at Discover. But I also still reported on the same topics I was writing about in those over venues. So, for example, I would blog about Robert Kennedy Jr. and vaccines one day and then, six months later write a feature story for a magazine on his odd anti-vaccine crusade. In fact, my blog was often an incubator for complex issues I would go on to explore in greater depth.

In the age of the internet, it’s now routine for journalists to step back and forth between these different genres–quick but insightful takes online and more conventional reporting. It’s common in political journalism (see, for example, Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine) and science journalism (Michael Specter in The New Yorker.) In fact, it’s kind of interesting that the blog-like format of quick takes is still very much alive today, but people no longer view these as “blog” posts.

Anyway, this is what I did for years, until I discontinued my blog in 2015. I’d say it worked well for me overall–except when it came to one topic: GMOs.


In journalism, you go where the story takes you. The story on GMOs, after a decade-long hibernation in the United States, was heating up again around the time I started blogging and reporting on it in 2012. The GMO labeling campaign (piggy-backing on the ascendant food movement) vaulted the science back in the spotlight, prompting me to dive deeply into a subject I had pretty much ignored during my career. It didn’t take me long to realize that media coverage and public understanding of agricultural biotechnology was, in 2012, 2013, similar to where climate change and vaccines was in the late 1990s to mid-2000s–which is to say, pretty spotty, broadly speaking.

Here’s what happened between 2012-2015: In some venues, such as my Discover blog, I’d critique journalistic shortcomings and the scientific weakness of anti-GMO arguments, and in other venues, such as Science, Nature, and Issues in Science & Technology, I’d do conventional reporting on GMO-related news and research developments.

This became conflated in the minds of GMO activists. They didn’t distinguish between my critiques and my reporting.  To them, I had become the enemy. At his feverish website, Mike Adams has called me a “whored out” journalist.  At his equally whacky TruthWiki website, he says that I spin my “usual rhetoric on the leftist online magazine Slate, using all the tricky brain-washing industry jargon, lingo, diction and buzz words.” I know what you’re thinking: This is just Mike Adams, the junior league version of Alex Jones.

I do have slightly less hyperbolic critics. Tim Schwab, an activist with the Food & Water Watch organization, has characterized me as “always a busy beaver advancing the biotech industry’s agenda.” The  Organic Consumers Association (OCA) calls me a “Monsanto Cheerleader.”

In 2016, the effort to tag me as an industry stooge got a bit more clever, as I detail in my recent feature for Issues in Science & Technology:

Greenpeace, which has long been opposed to GMOs (and rejects the scientific consensus that they are safe), created a page for me on its PolluterWatch website. It’s a cunning mix of factually true autobiographical details, half-truths, and outright fabrications: “Kloor has repeatedly decried public records requests, some of which include his communications with GMO interests, by organizations exposing conflicts of interest between corporations and scientists.”

As I went on to point out in my piece, there is no evidence of this, nor is any provided. It’s even more absurd because I’ve used FOIA repeatedly myself to uncover industry misdeeds.

Days after the PolluterWatch page appeared, SourceWatch created a page on me, as well, saying that I was “best known as an advocate for genetically modified organisms (GMO) and biotechnology.”

As all this was playing out, I kept wondering if science journalists that are known to debunk persistent vaccine myths are “best known” as vaccine advocates, or if reporters and science communicators that often debunk unproven alternative health treatments are “best known” as advocates for conventional medicine?

Why the double standard for me?  How is what I have done–which is to journalistically address fear-mongering and myths about GMOs (and that’s just some of what I do, on one topic)–any different from what science journalists have done for years with agenda-driven distortions on vaccines, climate change, etc?

This is worth unpacking. To write about contested science–and watchdog those who are polluting the discourse–all but guarantees blowback, regardless of the topic. The angry squall finds you and your editor. Whether you can ride it out or not likely depends on the topic (and your standing). Debunking anti-vaccine rhetoric spouted by celebrities and climate denialism by politicians is often applauded and even encouraged; same goes for calling out woo by Dr. Oz, the Food Babe, and Gwyneth Paltrow. But if you happen to stand where Monsanto stands on the science of GMOs, heaven help you. That must mean you are parroting industry talking points for shill bucks. Monsatan has claimed your soul.

So have I, a card-carrying member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and life-long progressive liberal, gone over to the dark side? Have I become an industry stooge? Or is what I’ve been experiencing these past few years merely a campaign to discredit my professional reputation? If you really want to know the answer, then I encourage you to read carefully the charges against me, as they have been laid out by my critics. And you should not take my rejection of this charge at face value or anything I say about it at face value. As a famous journalism adage goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”


But you don’t have time to do that, right? Nor will you bother to click on web links and see if the sourcing matches up with the claim. Who has time to do that?

This is what SourceWatch and PolluterWatch are banking on. And as we saw in the 2016 Presidential campaign, cognitive bias makes us reflexively nod along agreeably to stories we are predisposed to believe, even if these stories contain information that may be only partially true or framed in a misleading way. Are you going to bother to check supposed facts if you think the story sounds right?

Which brings me to an article recently published on the Huffington Post Green blog. It is all about me (I’m in the headline) and it’s by someone who has had a creepy interest in me for years. The author’s name is Paul Thacker. In a very odd twist of events, I have gone from editing his pieces when he was an intern at Audubon Magazine in 2000 to now being the subject of his obsession these past few years. You can read all about his behavior towards me here.

But let’s put that aside for the moment and take the measure of his article, because it’s being billed in certain activist precincts as a potential black mark on science journalism.

Let’s start at the beginning with one of the author’s first claims: “Kloor has spent years championing GMO products…” There is no link for this claim, so it’s impossible to check. You’ll have to take the author on faith, right? Yes, I have periodically deconstructed various GMO myths, such as the famous Indian farmer suicide narrative, and have looked into the science behind agricultural biotechnology. But I challenge you to find a blog post, an article or even a tweet where I have promoted GMO foods, seeds, Golden Rice, or any commercial application of the technology.

Let’s also pause here for a second to note the tone of the piece. Perhaps that crossed your mind as you were reading it?

Back to the beginning, top of the third graph: “His curious form of advocacy includes bitter attacks on anyone who disagrees with him – a style that’s arguably generated more trouble than it’s been worth.”

First, this a remarkable bit of irony for anyone familiar with Thacker’s reputation and history. Now, I bolded “bitter attacks” because you should click on the links he provides to the people who he lists as my “targets.”  You might find that I took issue with some aspect of their reporting or writing–remember, I’ve done my share of media criticism, which lots of journalists do–but I think you’ll be hard-pressed to detect any nastiness or even rudeness on my part. (I have indulged in periodic snark, however, though I tried to keep that in check.) On the contrary, I have been very careful with my language. I wanted people to pay attention to my critiques, not recoil from them because of hyperbole or rudeness.

But again, don’t take my word for this. Click on the links and see for yourself. Remember, Thacker is expecting you not to bother.

I could continue in this vein, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, and point out to you the selective use of partial information, the false assertions, the conveniently conflated chronology of events he presents, but that would be awfully tedious. So I’m going to jump right to the parts that contain the essence of his main charge, which he lays out here in the third graph:

“The public has known for some time that Keith Kloor loves GMOs.” [I’m not sure my mother would know something like this, much less “the public.” I love my kids, my wife, long walks along the beach, reading the Sunday New York Times, but GMOs? Honestly, not a lot of feeling there, though I think they are safe, and have argued that, so presumably this makes me love them, in the author’s mind.] He goes on: “What they haven’t known until now, is how hard he’s worked with industry-funded ‘experts’ to present corporate talking points as journalism and then try cover his tracks.”

So this would make me a purposeful industry tool, and a sneaky one, at that! Does the author have the goods? Well, before we go any further, let’s recap a few things: 1) This particular person has been viciously trolling me for years on social media. (The troll card is played too much these days, in my opinion, but in his case, the shoe truly fits. Don’t take my word for it–read for yourself, in his words.) 2) We’ve already established that he’s using loaded language and making false claims–and assuming you won’t check his sources.

Back to the action.

The first piece of supposedly damning evidence relates to a 2014 blog post in the Huffington Post (surprise!) by a dietician, who published a piece titled, “Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs) Have NOT Been Proven Safe. Thacker writes: Bartolotto’s article upset Kloor, who later emailed Karl Haro von Mogel, a plant geneticist who runs a GMO advocacy website, and Kevin Folta, chair of the department of horticulture at the University of Florida.

No, it didn’t upset me at all. In fact, her article didn’t even surprise me. But click on the above link he provides (“upset Kloor”) for yourself and see if you can find a scintilla of evidence that even suggests I am perturbed. In fact, if you read the email he links to, you’ll see me noting a Twitter exchange the two aforementioned scientists had with Bartolotto. In my email, I mentioned that I was going to link to her article in an upcoming post at my Discover blog. In the email, I asked the two scientists if they wanted to lay out their scientific objections to her article, which they did in an annotated Google doc. But I felt they were unfairly harsh, so I prodded them to tone down their language.

Thacker writes:

Over the following two days, he [Kloor], Folta, and von Mogel exchanged a series of emails, collaborating on a strategy to discredit Bartolotto and win over opponents of GMO foods. To begin, Folta and von Mogel created a document that picked apart Bartolotto’s article point by point. Kloor then edited it.

You’re aiming for the fence-sitters, who may well be turned off by language that comes off as heavy-handed,”Kloor wrote.

There was no strategy to “discredit” (my emphasis above) the dietician, or “win over opponents” of GMO foods. In fact, I deleted a number of charged words and phrases from the critique by the scientists (which you can see in the email that Thacker embeds in his article). You can also see how I asked them to tone down their language.

In short, I wanted them to be respectful in their critique. This is in keeping with how I edited numerous guest posts and essays that I solicited on my blog over the years. Incidentally, many bloggers have done this: Inviting scholars and scientists as guest contributors. When doing so, I was always very careful to vet (and indeed edit) any material that appeared on my site.

There is more supposedly damning material Thacker provides in his article, which I will address in the next and final post tomorrow. This one is already long enough, and I feel that my rebuttal (and reflection on the multiple journalistic hats I’ve worn) is best served if broken into two parts. I’m also overseas for work and not in the U.S. time zone, so there’s that to contend with.

Also, in case you were wondering: After Thacker’s Huffington Post article appeared, I contacted editors there to let them know about his obsession with me and provided a link to this history. The response I got from the editor of the blog contributors platform:

“Can you outline any specific inaccuracies in the piece? I’ll be happy to review and pass on to Mr. Thacker.”

They have something to consider and digest until the second half is posted tomorrow. (Update: Actually, this is the first of what turned into a three parter.)

Update, 7/23/17: After I emailed links to parts one and two of my response to Thacker’s Huffington Post piece, here is the email I received from one of the editors there I’ve been in contact with:

“As a contributor, Mr. Thacker controls his own work and any opinions expressed in the piece are his. As I said already, if there are specific statements of fact in the piece that you believe to be false, I’m happy to take a look. Absent that, any revisions would be up to the author and Paul has let me know that he stands by the piece as written.”


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