Charles Seife is a professor of journalism at New York University. Though he has a prestigious title, and a salary over $200,000 per year to go with it, his history as a writer is mediocre. He calls himself an investigative journalist but has no real victories there. Instead, Seife is best known for manufacturing conspiracies and libeling scientists online. Working with a cadre of activist academics and other figures in science media, Seife abuses the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to pilfer the emails of prominent researchers and attack them publicly, usually under the guise of promoting transparency and exposing corruption in science.
Charles Seife: A Case Study in Agenda Driven Journalism
In August 2015, Seife and former journalist Paul Thacker co-authored a blog post for PLOS Biology (enabled by fellow political activist and part-time blog editor at PLOS Biology Liza Gross) defending their use of FOIA requests “to uncover scientific wrongdoing.” In the post, Seife and Thacker attacked several scientists for failing to disclose that they had received industry funding for their work, including the University of Florida’s Dr. Kevin Folta. After outcry from the science community, their smear piece was taken down and Gross was rebuked for publishing it.
Folta, according to the now retracted blog post, received funding from biotech giant Monsanto for educational talks he gave on GMOs, as well as talking points to help defeat a GMO labeling initiative in Colorado. Moreover, Seife and Thacker alleged that Folta failed to disclose his financial relationship with Monsanto.
Folta responded to the accusations in a blog post of his own where he noted that Seife and Thacker quoted him out of context and supplied the wrong dates for his emails–in order to make him look like a “confidential-email spin meister with a master plan on defeating a bill that had been voted on two years before this email string took place.” Had the pair provided the necessary background information, their post would have revealed that Folta was criticizing Monsanto in his email to their government affairs rep. Folta further explained that he has always advertised who funds his science talks.
Seife Style: The Anatomy of a Hit Job
In his rebuttal, Folta also revealed that the email Seife and Thacker cited in their hit piece was provided by a corporately-funded anti-GMO group called U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), which filed a FOIA request with the University of Florida in February 2015 to acquire thousands of Folta’s emails.
This collaboration between duplicitous non-profits and the media is all too common. Folta elaborated on this point in a recent interview, noting that Seife is just one of many journalists USRTK relies on to promote their anti-science conspiracy theories.
The group requests emails from scientists, quote mines the content, then hands off the selected passages to a supposedly objective journalist like Seife, who covers the invented scandal in reputable media outlets. USRTK continues to smear researchers with stolen emails, political scientist Dr. Peter Phillips being the most recent example.
Criticism of Charles Seife by the Scientific Community
Seife says he’s fighting for transparency by holding publicly-funded researchers accountable for their misdeeds, but the science community isn’t buying it.
Months before Seife and Thacker’s hit piece appeared, Science magazine contributor Keith Kloor broke the story that USRTK was requesting the emails of researchers they wanted to attack. Kloor subsequently argued that Seife, Thacker and USRTK were probably colluding to write the blog post for PLoS, based on Kloor’s online interactions with Thacker.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), certainly no friends of Monsanto, said Seife and Thacker crossed the line between promoting transparency and harassment in their assessment of Folta’s work, and asked them to substantiate their charges. But when questioned by UCS about errors in the PLoS Biology post, Seife simply replied that “he was ‘swamped’ and had to stop short of addressing those points. ‘I’m afraid I’m out of time…if I get a chance before your deadline, I’ll see if I can answer more questions,’ he said.”
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) likewise tore into Seife and Thacker for the pair’s sloppy journalism and failure to acknowledge that their source for Folta’s emails was an industry trade group created to harass scientists. ACSH also criticized Seife for accusing scientists of corruption, challenging him to back up his libelous claims with evidence, while engaging in his own unethical behavior.
Seife has yet to address any of these substantial criticisms of his work, yet continues to accuse scientists of impropriety with absolutely no justification. He is a bad journalist but a good reason why you should not pay tens of thousands of dollars per year to get a degree in journalism at NYU.