Paul D. Thacker is an environmental journalist-turned-consultant for anti-science organizations. Once described by a former colleague as a “promising journalist who became a sadistic troll,” Thacker now spends his time authoring smear pieces about biotech researchers and harassing science writers on social media.
The Rise and Fall of Paul Thacker
Thacker began his career as a science journalist in 2000. By 2006, he had developed a reputation as an earnest watchdog with a knack for exposing corporate influence on science, according to PBS, after revealing undisclosed relationships between a handful of medical researchers and big pharmaceutical firms. But Thacker quickly went from credible journalist to anti-science hack when he began consulting for dubious nonprofit groups and parroting anti-GMO bromides in his opinion pieces. Journalist Keith Kloor was an editor at Audobon magazine and Thacker interned for him in 2000. Fifteen years later Kloor would write an article called The Once Promising Journalist Who Became a Sadistic Troll about Thacker’s decline into political anti-science activism and which details what other journalists think about his unbridled acrimony: “Some journalists say that they look at Thacker with both respect and wariness. “When he started working for Grassley, my feeling was: ‘My God, I hope I’m never on the other end of his gun.””
For activists, such word are worth funding. It’s just not journalism.
Paul Thacker’s Embrace of Anti-Science Activism
In early 2015, the organic industry front group US Right To Know began requesting the emails of GMO researchers at major universities around the United States using Freedom of Information Act requests to bog down scientists in paperwork and universities in cost, claiming that these scientists had unethical relationships with biotechology firms. By summer of that year, Thacker was shopping those emails around to science media outlets in order to create a scandal and build support for GMO labeling campaigns.
Before Thacker could find someone to pay him to write a story on the subject, however, science writer Keith Kloor wrote a piece for Nature detailing which researchers had come under fire and the nature of their relationship with the agri-chemical company Monsanto. In retaliation, presumably for spoiling his payday, Thacker lashed out at Kloor on social media and accused him of covering up pertinent details of the story to “flack” for the scientists US Right To Know was targeting.
Observing his vitriolic response on Twitter to Kloor’s article, multiple science journalists asked Thacker and his frequent co-author Charles Seife if Thacker’s consultancy work included projects for industry groups like US Right To Know or their funder, Organic Consumers Association, but they refused to answer. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a staunchly anti-science group, lists Thacker as a consultant on their website. Professor Michael Eisen, evolutionary biologist and co-founder of the open access science journal PLoS One, noted that Thacker likely has a relationship with US Right To Know since the trade group specifically chose him to shop around the FOIA’d emails.
A subsequently released email Thacker sent to U.C. Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes, a favorite academic of anti-science groups, also supports this contention. In the email, Thacker groomed a reply from Hayes, famous for his sexual aggressiveness and threats against women, about his thoughts on universities partnering with “Monsanto funded front groups.” The language in the email removed any doubt that Thacker is an activist masquerading as a journalist. Still another email revealed Thacker strategizing with activists about how to best attack scientists who challenge the organic industry’s agenda.
Paul Thacker’s Conflicts of Interest
In May 2016, Thacker made a passing reference to the suspicions about his conflicts of interest in a cozy interview with his friend, former journalist and by then US Right To Know’s Director of “Research” Carey Gillam, mocking the idea that he or his activist colleagues should be held to the same transparency standard they hold researchers to. Thacker has also been a frequent cheerleader for Gillam as she spreads misinformation about Monsanto’s popular weedkiller, Roundup.
Despite refusing to answer questions about his financial relationship with non-profits, Thacker has suggested that science journalists should never take compensation from sources they utilize nor from organizations with a vested interest in the subject they are covering. In a November 2015 piece for Columbia Journalism Review, Thacker spent 1,600 words documenting the inconsistent and incomplete disclosure policies of media outlets that allow their writers to take money from sources. In his own disclosure at the end of the article, Thacker claimed that he “has no ties to the GMO industry.” Since he is staunchly anti-GMO, that is true. His refusal to disclose financial payments from environmental groups is more telling.
The organization Sense About Science, a non-profit which exists to promote scientific understanding and defend scientific integrity, detailed the many conflicts of interest in Thacker’s work.
A History Of Carefully Crafted Spin
Previously Thacker also attacked science writer and Junkscience.com publisher Steve Milloy for questioning the health risks of secondhand smoke while working as a columnist for Fox News. Milloy was a consultant to the tobacco company Altria and failed to note his ties to the corporation. Thacker complained in a New Republic piece that “Milloy has a long history of taking payment from industries that have a stake in the science stories he writes.” The fact that Milloy’s arguments turned out to be scientifically sound was irrelevant. Thacker, however, is against science and ethics.
In February of 2018 editors at Stat News retracted parts of a Thacker article on corporate conspiracy theories. It’s hard to imagine the irritation editors had at being forced to retract a libelous unsubstantiated claim in an article they got for free. But free is all Thacker is worth these days.