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The liability of inviting disinformation to academia

Dr. Kevin Folta | AGDAILY

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While we applaud cleansing false information from Twitter and YouTube, why do we welcome it to our trusted academic institutions?

Dr. Vandana Shiva is recognized as a divisive ideolog who is frequently invited to speak on college campuses — an anti-modern agriculture wolf cloaked in a faux halo of sustainability. Academic institutions defend the invitation as important in “teaching the controversy,” a scientifically bankrupt concept higher education properly rejected decades ago. We should always be open to debating the evidence. But we don’t invite flat earthers, anti-vaxers, or Holocaust deniers to infect students with their point of view– because their views have no scientific merit and no place in an academic institution.

When we give a revered stage to disinformation, we give it a sense of legitimacy that it does not deserve.

Shiva is speaking at the University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC) the evening of Oct. 7, 2021. She is frequently credited as an expert in science (the UMKC website describes her as “a trained physicist”); she holds an undergraduate degree in physics, and a doctorate in philosophy from Western Ontario University. An undergraduate degree in psychology does not make you a psychologist. The façade of a scientist is merely the first deception, as her message attempts to overturn a well-established, inconvenient scientific consensus with an appeal to nature and an anti-corporate sentiment that resonates with her audiences more than established scientific realities.

In protest, a letter was signed by a group of international scholars and journalists, including at least one Nobel Laureate, and sent to UMKC Chancellor C. Mauli Arawal. The letter voiced the objection of providing a platform for someone who has knowingly misrepresents scientific evidence, and maligns food and farming in her personal war against multinational corporations.

Here are just a few stunning examples of her dangerous inflammatory rhetoric:

  1. In July of 2014 Shiva’s website Seed Freedom re-posted a swastika-festooned endorsement of a call to execute scientists and journalists that supported agricultural biotechnology (described as “Monsanto Collaborators” and “Nazi perpetrators”). The solicitation was also published on the Seed Freedom Facebook page. Shiva’s “Monsanto Collaborators” website was taken down days after posting, after cryptic coding signatures identified the origin of the message as coming from a popular website repeatedly aggressive against biotechnology.
  2. She has long promoted the false narrative of a “genocide” orchestrated by Western corporate interests against India’s farmers. Shiva’s claims have been shown to be patently false, and that new seed technologies have a positive effect on farm income.
  3. Her rhetoric has banned needed seed technology in India that could greatly curtail insecticide use. The “Bt brinjal” is a genetically engineered eggplant that expresses a safe protein toxic to the fruit and shoot borer. The borer causes massive crop losses in India and escalations in insecticide use, and Indian farmers see the great benefit it has brought to farmers in neighboring Bangladesh. In protest, an Indian farmer’s collective planted the seeds in defiance of orders. Shiva referred to the farmers “acting at the behest of Monsanto” as criminals and called for their arrest.
  4. She regularly cites Gilles-Éric Séralini’s widely discredited work, including the retracted 2012 paper that claimed genetically engineered crops and glyphosate-based herbicide caused tumors in rats. The work was highly flawed with small numbers and missing controls in figures, and three subsequent independent studies by the European Union failed to replicate the results. Still she stands by the retracted Seralini claims, suggesting they were censored by “the biotech mafia.”
  5. She tells audiences that glyphosate is poison and related to autism, a claim that is not supported by any empirical evidence. She has little to no understanding of the technologies, or the importance of exposure in assessing risk. To Shiva, everyone is awash in a poison, despite copious evidence to the contrary.

These are just the tip of the disinformation iceberg. Her record of dangerous, inflammatory falsehoods is vast.

In response to the international protest letter, Chancellor Arawal defends the decision to invite Shiva. He describes Shiva as “controversial” and that his university values “the free expression of ideas and information.”

But here’s news for the chancellor. Yes, as universities, we absolutely have an obligation to debate the science, to invite multiple viewpoints, and to teach students how to analyze the evidence. We must teach how to sift through data and understand what constitutes good experiments. But this can’t be done with Dr. Shiva. In one expensive hour, she will strategically misinform the audience to the point where it will take a semester to unravel the untruths — and I don’t imagine those discussions have been scheduled, let alone mandated for those attending the event.

Instead, students and the public will attend the event, Shiva will fortify their biases and errant preconceptions, and they will retreat to their social media circles to spread false information about food and farming — all validated because their trusted university saw value in the speaker’s position.

Yes chancellor, invite controversy, but the controversy should be framed by the scholarly literature, not the regressive rants from a bookselling jet-setting activist’s agenda. We don’t bring in a YouTube “expert” that believes the Earth is 6,000 years old to publicly debate a university geologist. We don’t invite a Holocaust denier so students can enjoy “expression of ideas and information.” We don’t use taxpayer funds to teach students that the Earth is flat, that vaccines cause autism, or that COVID-19 is a hoax.

Then why invite someone with a decades-failed record of consistent disinformation about biotechnology?

Make no mistake, I align well with Dr. Shiva around climate, environment, and women’s issues. I applaud her positions on the importance of soils, the scourge of food waste, the potential downsides of industrial consolidation, human rights, and the inequities that are foisted upon the poor in the developing world. But I do not share her desire to deprive the Developing World of good technology, and I reject her lies about technology in food and farming.

In 2015, she was invited to Iowa State University. In protest, a campus scientific organization offered me an invitation to provide an evidence-based counter to her disinformation. A student journalist covered both talks and noted the contrast — “… my fellow students left Shiva’s lecture feeling scared, mistrustful and conflicted. … those who listened to Folta left knowing more … and feeling more reassured about the future of food.”

And her poisonous message of conspiracy, division and bad science will be welcomed at UMKC. Her hyperbolic rant decrying the dangers of a good technology ultimately harms farmers, the poor and the environment. Her words tug hard against the scientists and educators that invest their efforts in public understanding of science. It makes me question why the hell I continually fight to teach from evidence, when other universities are so willing to pay to unravel the progress we make.

 

Dr. Kevin Folta is a Professor of molecular biology and genomics at a public university, a keynote speaker, and a podcast host. The views here may not represent those of his employers or clients.

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