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The Challenges of Science Communication: An Interview with Kevin Folta

Susan Gerbic

September 15, 2016

Kevin Folta is a professor and chairman of the horticultural science department at the University of Florida. He is known for his work with strawberries and how light can be used to influence produce flavor, nutrients, and shelf life. He is a science communicator who hosts the Talking Biotech podcast and speaks about biotechnology with everyone from farmers to physicians, third graders to retirees. He has often drawn a lot of fire because of his visible public engagement in a contentious topic. Folta will be speaking at CSICon on Friday, October 28, in Las Vegas.

Susan Gerbic: So, Kevin, let’s start out on the right foot and get this out in the open. I understand that you do not like the term GMO because of the word modified; you prefer engineered. The reasoning you have used is that people would rather drive across a modified bridge than an engineered bridge. Is this an accurate assessment? And if so, do you think that we can make the public more acceptable to the idea if we change the terminology?

Kevin Folta: We made the mistake of adopting the terminology that is used to smear the technology. Scientists don’t use the term GMO in scholarly publication; we use the precise language of the discipline. You see words like transgene or cisgenic construct. That means something. GMO is rather vague and useless because unless you are a clone, you are a genetic modification of your forbearers. Every change from one generation to the next requires genetic modification. That’s really different (and far less predictable) than the engineered changes we install. Genetic engineering is truly engineering. It is devising new structures or functions to solve a problem, with great precision.

Gerbic: Apparently one of my Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) editors has a bit of a nerd crush on you, and my creds went up when she found out that I was going to be talking with you. She gave me some great questions to ask you. She said that you are famous for being an advocate of “letting the real story tell the tale” and not getting in the gutter with your detractors. I’ve heard you say something along this line also and think that maybe skeptics would have a better reputation if we did take the high road. Can you please elaborate?

Folta: Well it would be nice if it was always true. I used to love scrapping with science dissenters, trading barbs, and doing it with a dusting of vitriol. It was borne of frustration. I knew the facts, knew the science, and was livid that people would spend their time misinforming others. I was hardly a saint, and actually a few bad behaviors and regrettable phrases have come back to haunt me, as the folks that want to harm your reputation are awfully good at taking screenshots of your slip-ups.

The realization came when it was clear that I was speaking to the wrong audience. Those steeped in the religious fervor of nonscientific convictions are not going to change, no matter what evidence you give them. There are people that are unteachable. I’m a teacher. When I tried to teach them and they rejected it, I got prickly. Instead I learned to use the mute and block buttons and spend my time with those that just are searching for good answers. People are concerned. They’ve been lied to. They are being manipulated by marketing campaigns and Food Babes. I can be their trusted source of information, but that requires me to be kind, relatable, and ethical. Let those folks come off as brash and hurtful.

There still are many in the science and skepticism community that feel insults, personal attacks, and underhanded tactics are important weapons against pseudoscience. You can’t change pseudoscientific practitioners. However, we can make them irrelevant by swaying the majority of people that just want answers they can trust. We win them with our character, transparency, and integrity. That earns trust, and we need trust before any information will flow effectively.

Gerbic: She also felt that your discussion on Bt brinjals (eggplant) in Bangladesh is starting to make people rethink their distrust of genetic engineered foods. I haven’t heard this story. What is it about these eggplants?

Folta: The brinjal (eggplant or aubergine if you are French) is a world food staple, the second most important non-grain vegetable in Asia next to the potato. But its cultivation is challenged by insects that require up to eighty insecticide sprays a season. The sprays consist of old-school pesticides, typically sprayed from backpack sprayers with no protective equipment. This is what it takes to protect the crop, and when you are a poor farmer that needs that food and profits from the crop, insect protection is a necessity.

The brinjal has been engineered with the Bt protein. This protein only affects target insects, those that feed on the plant. The protein is not toxic to humans, other animals, or even most insects.

India was prepared to accept this technology, but at the last minute the government blocked it, caving to protesters fueled by Western cash. However, the Ag Minister of Bangladesh decided she wanted the technology for her country “to help people and the environment.” What started off as two growers with small fields has spread to many farmers and great acreage, cutting sprays from eighty a season to two. Farmers make more money, invest in better homes, and live with fewer chemical hazards.

This innovation is important because it shatters all of the myths. Pesticide use is cut, farmers can give away or sell the seeds, and the product has no ties to multinational corporation control. This is why the activists are so enraged and why Greenpeace has spent $100 million to fight this innovation. It very well could be the first domino that triggers widespread acceptance, as the poorest farmers in the world now have a safer, profitable crop. What’s not to like?

Gerbic: Another question from my team is about your thoughts concerning the open letter to Greenpeace about getting them to rethink their position on genetic engineered foods.

Folta: Writing a letter to Greenpeace (ironically, if you rearrange the letters it spells “a creep gene”) is like writing a letter to Mt. Rushmore. It ain’t gonna change much. Greenpeace has done a lot of good things over the years, but their stance on GE crops is wrong and purely financially motivated. The letter to Greenpeace was not actually to Greenpeace but rather to the huge number of people that need to understand the good things we can do with technology. People don’t understand that genetic engineering can provide tremendous solutions to contemporary problems and help people and the environment. The average citizen needs to realize that we spend tons of public money to solve problems—that Greenpeace and cronies block. They literally have a body count. We need the average person to erase the Greenpeace halo and understand that blocking beneficial technology from the poor is neither green nor peaceful. It is a breach of social justice to deny the best crops from the people that could use them to live healthier, more productive lives. Those are the people and technologies I want to fight for.

Gerbic: What’s been happening with your other podcast, Science Power Hour? You have an alter-ego Vern Blazek as the host, but apparently it has been a while since releasing a new episode.

Folta: Vern Blazek’s Science Power Hour was meant to be funny—a Colbert Report of science where I played a character in a parody of the Art Bell Show. Whereas the actual overnight AM show was lame topics by a real host, the Science Power Hour was a clearly fake bumbling host dealing with real topics. I have written comedy for actual comedians and performed stand up and sketch back in college, so I like to flex my thespian muscles now and then.

The Science Power Hour (always about thirty minutes) was my first attempt at a podcast, and I didn’t want anyone to know it was me. I have overdue reports, papers to write, and my dog is way past due for her Frontline treatment. The grass in my yard is a meter tall and my house looks abandoned. I figured I’d draw a lot of heat if it was Kevin Folta’s Science Power Hour, so I did it with a funny voice and made it a clear parody. So I thought.

The problem is that when you are a lightning rod people will make a huge deal out of nothing. That’s exactly what happened. The anti-GMOers, aided by a legit science journalist, made something meant to be funny and entertaining into a scandal of epic proportions. I begged her not to do it, but for some reason she felt it was such an important story that it had to be told. She tied it all to Monsanto right in the title of the piece (and as her moral compass maybe kicked in a bit changed the title) when it was me doing a podcast with a funny voice on science topics.

That ordeal almost made me quit a thirty-year science career. The hate was that thick, and portraying something meant to be funny and entertaining as underhanded and deceptive was pure gold to my harshest critics. The way I was destroyed online for making an entertaining and sort of funny podcast was horrible. I still think of cool topics for Vern to approach. Maybe he’ll do it again someday.

Gerbic: Science communicators in the biological sciences are rare. What got you interested in communication?

Folta: Back in high school I wanted to join the speech team. I had a gift for gab and thought it would be good training. Our school’s group was really cliquey, and I never fit in. Instead I took a job selling typewriters and film, training that gives me zero benefit today. In college at Northern Illinois University I was welcomed to a great forensics team (that’s speech and debate, not dead bodies) with amazing leadership and coaches. I learned from experts about persuasion, how to use humor, how to read poetry and interpret prose, and eventually ended up a national finalist. All of those writing and performance skills were so helpful in college and grad school. My grant writing and presentations today have a foundation in the skills I learned there.

I came into the professor job with a formal communications toolbox and was excited to use it. I’m thrilled to perform at the public interface, sharing science with third-grade classrooms, League of Women Voters, local dietitian groups, all the way up to Congressional committees. It makes me so happy to share the beautiful science of our time with those that want to know more. We have such a gap between the amazing stories of science and the public’s knowledge of them. We need more scientists stepping into that space, working with journalists and other communicators to reach an audience that wants to learn and is looking for trusted answers.

Gerbic: I live in Salinas, California, the Salad Bowl of the World—Steinbeck Country. It is all about lettuce and strawberries here. I know you focus on all kinds of foods, but you are from Chicago and now live in Florida. What got you interested in strawberries?

Folta: It was the first logical step after my failed efforts in the Deep Dish Pizza Tree. Actually, it is a funny story. I interviewed with a little suite of skills in the model plant, a critter called Arabidopsis. I didn’t know crops at all. When I first was hired at University of Florida and found out that I should work on strawberries, I was excited and asked my boss where I could get some strawberry trees. Yep, it was that bad.

Our industry here is awesome, and I went to the farmers with an open mind and willingness to help. University eggheads like to go to the farm and tell folks what they are doing wrong. I went there and said that I’m a guy with a big toolbox; I have answers, but I don’t know the questions. Those were my words precisely. I listened a lot, learned about the industry and needs, and then started to take questions back to the lab to develop technologies to help. Six years later, I was the senior author on the paper in Nature Genetics that published the strawberry genome.

The lesson is that a good scientist should get rabid and turned on about any topic. The world is nothing but jillions of Rubik’s cubes looking to be cranked on. Right now my lab is working on everything from strawberries to sprouts to S. aureus (the bacterium that causes MRSA). I’ve never had more fun.

Gerbic: Now the really fun questions. I’ve added the good stuff to your Wikipedia page. We GSoW editors are hoping to not only support our spokespeople by writing strong pages, but we want readers to be able to relate to you, to see that scientists aren’t just academic, but some of you are fun. So tell us about Insane War Tomatoes please?

Folta: In the late 1970s everyone loved disco. Except me. Naturally, I gravitated to the polar opposite: the anti-disco beats of edgy new wave and punk rock. Before long I was playing music with friends and was surrounded by really talented kids that could play the hell out of their instruments and loved writing funny lyrics. We played under many banners—Red Lobster Cult, Flock of Smegma, and Dangling Units, just to name a few. Insane War Tomatoes sprouted from those efforts.

We had an elaborate stage show with home-made pyrotechnics—not just puffs of smoke, but propane-fueled fire columns that blew ten feet in the air. We had a stage show that would take one day, twelve guys, and a keg of beer to set up. We’d wear elaborate costumes, had wild stage antics, and even started a show a few times by entering the stage out of a giant butt on a stolen playground slide. We’d blast the place with solid music and mayhem, leave it covered in confetti, water, and gallons of fake vomit. The sixteen people that showed up loved it—every time.

The problem was that this elaborate production emerged at a dud spot in music history. Metal guys hated us because we were too punk; punk fans hated us because we were too metal. We pioneered a sound that would be welcomed a decade later, only played by other people. We don’t have the original master tapes because back then we could not afford the $75 to buy them, and they ended up in a dumpster after the engineer that gave us middle-of-the-night discount recording sessions died way to young. All we have left are mountains of VHS tapes of shows, a pile of red vinyl records, and great memories of something nestled perfectly between clever and stupid, a bit before its time.

Gerbic: I know you are going to be speaking at CSICon about how best to communicate about science. Can you give us a bit more?

Folta: I’m so psyched about this opportunity. I’ve always been in the skeptics’ movement and feel so grateful to be contributing on such a level. We do stand on the shoulders of giants like Carl Sagan and James Randi, and I’m grateful to have a little time on the platform they created.

Relevant to communications, I started thinking, “In what situation can you not afford to get contentious communications wrong, and what can we learn from that?” Hostage negotiation. Science is being held hostage, and we can learn from what law enforcement teaches us about first connecting to the hostage takers before trying to convince them to take action. It is super cool psychology and relates well. We’ll talk about that.

I also want to talk about “SEO-icide” and “e-sassination.” These terms relate to the perils of science communication, as those that want to stop your message use the Internet and search-engine optimization to harm the careers of science communicators. If you analyze the results of Google searches you can learn a lot. Bad people and activist groups use search-engine optimization to get defamatory information placed into top queue for scientists and communicators they need to silence. It takes out effective people and scares others away from entering the discussion. I’ll show some great examples.

All is not lost. There are things we can all do to fix it, and I’ll talk about that too. Most of all, I want everyone to walk out with a basic handle on how to effectively communicate a few central topics of genetic engineering. We’ll cover a few central themes that work. I’m staying for the whole conference and really look forward to helping folks one-on-one. I want to answer their questions, work on some skills, and maybe even add them to my Rolodex of experts. We need people trained and ready to talk to the media and to interested groups. I’d be glad to culture those opportunities for others.

Gerbic: I’ve heard you talk about the Ugly Food Movement—getting people to purchase the not-perfect food in the produce section in order to not waste food. So I’m wondering if at the Halloween costume party on Saturday night at CSICon you might be dressing as an ugly eggplant or something?

Folta: When you see people in great poverty or extreme nutrition deficit it changes you. I can’t stand seeing food wasted. Fifty percent of what is harvested goes into a landfill or spoils. That’s horrible when people need food. When I shop, I buy the produce that nobody wants, sort of like pre-dumpster diving. I go home from the store smiling with my bag of rescues. I don’t know about coming to the party in an ugly eggplant outfit, but the fire-breathing tomato suit from Insane War Tomatoes days that isn’t getting much use. Maybe I’ll have to resurrect that.

Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic's photo

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. You can contact her at