Kevin Folta and the fallacy of inappropriately invoking the ad hominem fallacy

The Red Herring Ad Hominem

University of Florida employee Kevin Folta was recently exposed for misleading the public about his financial ties to biotechnology company Monsanto. An FOIA request of his email records demonstrated that he has received at least $25k in unrestricted gifts from the company — this after public claims of having “nothing to do with Monsanto” (here, for instance, on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast he makes such a claim at around the 3:10 mark).  Now he is backpedaling and claiming that that money was not used directly for research but for ‘outreach’, so therefore he was not technically lying. Personally, I find whether he was using the funds directly for research or for flying around the country to advertise immaterial — it is clear he intended for the public to believe he had no professional relationship with Monsanto, which was untrue.

In the Twitter fray that followed this news, several commentators have suggested that pointing out Folta’s dishonesty is a commission of the ad hominem fallacy. This is, however,  an inappropriate invocation of the ad hominem fallacy, and ultimately a red herring.

An argumentum ad hominem only becomes a fallacy when the character of an individual is invoked and it is irrelevant to what is at issue. If the person or some feature of the person is relevant to the issue at hand, there is no fallacy.

In the case of Folta, the issue at hand is his professional dishonesty. Examples and evidence of this dishonesty in a discussion about his dishonesty are entirely relevant. Moreover, it becomes relevant to his scientific argumentation due to the clear conflict of interest that he not only neglected to mention, but actively and aggressively denied. Conflicts of interest are serious business, and more so when one claims to be acting on behalf of the public.

When a discussion is about, or could be significantly altered by, an individual’s credibility, reliability, trustworthiness, conflicts of interest, etc., then argumentum ad hominem is not only not fallacious, but is precisely the material of relevance to the issue at hand.


7 thoughts on “Kevin Folta and the fallacy of inappropriately invoking the ad hominem fallacy

  1. Jen

    Thought I would throw out some more sources of Kevin Folta claiming not to have anything to do with Monsanto:

    ” I have never accepted a cent from any of these companies. ” comments section:

    “I have nothing to do with Monsanto and I don’t really care what they do or what happens to them.” Comments section of article:

    He was also flown out to Hawaii by the HCIA (funded by Monsanto, among others) to testify against Bill 2491, a proposition to create pesticide “buffer zones” around schools, residences, and hospitals from neighboring biotech experiment fields.

    And he still denies he lied or misled the public. What a fool!

  2. Brian Utterback

    I agree that it isn’t an ad hominem attack, however it isn’t an entirely relevant issue either. Having listened to Folta at the links above and to what was in the Nature article, it seems that while Folta might have been more forth coming, his ties to Monsanto are loose indeed. Funding is only relevant insofar as it inidicates bias, and Folta claims that the none of the money donated by Monsanto came to him being used to cover expenses only and has opened his records to prove it. Further, we might wonder how such funding might have biased what Folta says, but apparently Folta’s outreach program pre-dated the funding and has not changed its message from before or after.

    Really this seems to be more like the revelations from the East Anglia email leak rather than a smoking gun.

    1. Post author

      Hi Brian,

      As a member of the public that Folta claims to “shill” for, I feel I have been misled. He intended for people to believe he had no relationship to Monsanto, explicitly. That was a lie. Why should I trust anything else he says? I think we all know $25k a’int much (in industry terms). From my perspective, that makes his behavior even more damning. He is willing to mislead so many for such a small amount of money? I suppose he would lie about anything if he thought it benefited him, even a little.

      Recall also that this in no way demonstrates that this particular gift represents the entirety of his working relationship with said company — likely it extends deeper. I don’t want someone with financial interest in foisting products into my food supply and environment to be responsible for determining their safety. Clear conflict of interest — which have demonstrable effects on people’s judgments.

      Moreover, Folta misrepresents the state of the literature, and dismisses any concerns that fall outside his knowledge or expertise. There are numerous publications that point towards the possibility of harm from various aspects of GMO agriculture. See our working paper on the precautionary principle for my perspective on GMO safety issues.

      Overall, his behavior indicates he is an untrustworthy individual who manipulates public perception to benefit himself, who treats glibly the possibility he is putting others at risk, who can’t admit to making mistakes, and who continues to obfuscate and dissimulate. I take this issue very seriously, and I think your note downplays what is really at stake here.


  3. Brian Utterback

    Thank you for the link, Joe. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole paper yet, but I intend to. I have to ask, is Folta’s research on GMO safety? I think his outreach program is related to science education, so I don’t see how his funding source is that relevant. As you note, the money isn’t that much, so it would seem more like a politician who claims to have no ties with a group that donated to his campaign because it is one source among many and doesn’t really have an influence. Perhaps a relevant piece of information that I don’t have would be the level of funding from other sources.

    The thing is, I think that the PP is highly important in gauging the risk of GMOs, but I am not sure that it is really a slam dunk. Right now scientists are adding or deleting single genes or perhaps a small number and it seems like calculating the risk from that is doable. It is the second generation of GMOs that we are likely to see in the future that scare me. When we consider that in every generation of human beings, every single possible single base pair mutation occurs somewhere in the population, to rank all genetic manipulation as the same risk seems ludicrous. But as the modifications grow so does the risk.

    I have personally known scientists that were branded with the label “shill” when I know that they were completely honest. It is all too easy to just apply a label that connotes dishonesty and then to ignore all opposing arguments. I see this in politics in the “Fox News/MSNBC” split, allowing each side to ignore the other, creating an echo chamber rather than promote progress.

    I grew up reading “Infinite in All Directions” by Freeman Dyson and “Engines of Creation” by Eric Drexler, and the promise of genetics and nanotech are ingrained pretty deeply in my soul, but as Drexler covered in the chapters about “Grey Goo”, the risks are very great as well. I would hate to have both sides in this debate just refuse to engage with the other side just because each views the other as anything other than pristine.

    Okay, you don’t trust Folta. Is there another scientist that represents an opinion that is counter to your own that you are engaged with? Is that conversation in a public forum? I’d love to see something like that.

  4. StephenLaudig

    Only if his ‘credibility’ is another ‘person’ is an ‘ad hominem’ attack. He lied/falsehooded and now he’s lying about his falsehooding. I now have no reason to even ‘hear’ what he says about anything until he explains the falsehood honestly. Something he seems ‘constitutionally’ unable/willing to do.

    The credibility of a speaker/testifier is always a relevant issue and if the matter is opinion-based it may be the only issue.


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