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[Editor’s note: Jean Goodwin is an English professor at Iowa State University affiliated with the speech communication program. Her work is in rhetoric, focusing on civic argumentation and in particular on the communication of science in policy controversies. You can learn more about her at her website: http://jeangoodwin.net]
Dr. Kevin Folta is being targeted by McCarthy-style attacks. Considered broadly, McCarthyism is rhetorical form: a cluster of techniques that is reliably effective in achieving a specific result. McCarthyism involves:
a. Accusations of fundamental disloyalty.
b. An appearance of hard evidence; in McCarthy’s case, his famous “I have here in my hand a list…”
c. Guilt by association; for example, that having some association with an organization with some ties with the Communist Party means that one is a communist.
The attacks on Folta are following this rhetorical form:
a. The underlying charge against him is “professional dishonesty“ That’s got to be about the worst thing you could say about a scientist.
b. Extracts from a set of emails are produced to make it look like there is hard evidence against him; some quotations seem like “smoking guns.”
c. As soon as he is associated with the biotech industry, he is guilty.
The problem with McCarthyism is that it undermines the conditions we need to maintain in order to have an open, fair, free, well-informed debate on public issues. To borrow Dan Kahan’s phrase, McCarthyism “pollutes the science communication environment.”
I expect reputable news outlets like the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education to do better, but they did a poor job on Folta’s story, helping perpetuate McCarthyite attacks on a scientist who–unlike most–has bothered to reach out to the public. For shame!
Read full, original post: New York Times: Your reporting fed McCarthyite attacks on Kevin Folta