When criticism becomes libelous

Dr. Cregg is on vacation for a few weeks so I thought I’d post something today by trolling the web for discussion of my horticultural myth columns.  And when you go fishing, you know you might catch something you didn’t really want.  In this case, personal and professional attacks.

Like the rest of the GPs, I relish vigorous debates on different horticultural practices and products.  Ideally, these debates are based on science, so that we’re all friends afterwards and could go out for beer if we all lived in the same community.  But when criticisms become personal, malicious, and in some cases out-and-out untruths, what should one do?

I have a relatively thick skin and ignore most of the nasty comments, but when my integrity as a scientist is challenged, I really have a problem.  For instance, one blogger states “The fact that some – not all – of her articles have very little basis in reality and are widely disputed and even denounced in horticultural circles should be pointed out before anyone takes them immediately to heart.”  Another blogger remarks “What little I’ve read about this Chalker-Smith person leads me to believe she is an “opinion for hire” much like some “expert witnesses” one sees in courtrooms.”  How about this?  “She tried to prove compost tea is bad by PURPOSELY using E.Coli infested compost (without telling anyone about it) and proclaimed it as unsafe product to use.” And so on.

I can guarantee you that if I didn’t base my publications in reality, or if I were an “opinion for hire” I would be in serious trouble with the university.  The truth is I research the science behind topics and then have at least one colleague review them.  (Sometimes that colleague is my husband, also a PhD in horticulture and one of my most honest critics.)  The compost tea diatribe is so outlandish it took my breath away.

So onto my question:  what should one do when one’s professional reputation is libeled?  Do I continue to ignore it?  Do I wade into these debates, thus giving credibility to the libeller?  These people hide behind their anonymity – none have the courage to simply email me and voice their criticisms.

I’ll be curious to hear from my GP collaborators as well as non-academics.

(Hurry back, Bert.  This was a painful experience.)

Published by

Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and a Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - www.facebook.com/TheGardenProfessors "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors Books: http://www.sustainablelandscapesandgardens.com

31 thoughts on “When criticism becomes libelous”

  1. Sounds like you stumbled upon the breeding grounds of future “TheJustin’s”. Care to provide links to the various blog posts quoted above?

  2. I wouldn’t take it personally, Linda.

    Wingnuts abound on the internet. The quotes you included are merely an indication to me that these people are pig-ignorant at worst, and intellectually indolent at best – all they’re capable of doing is engaging in hyperbolic libel.
    If it were me I’d leave the wingnuts alone.
    You’re a horticultural scientist oozing with integrity, wit and good grace, Linda, with a huge brain to boot. The best support I can give you is to rise above it. 🙂

  3. Linda, I just di
    scovered your blog and am so grateful for your work. Your honest, critical thinking and scientific attitude are a terrific alternative to hype and nonsense. Don’t let the nasty critics discourage you. Others among us really appreciate your contributions.

  4. Just because Cyberspace has democratized the public expression of opinion does not mean that everyone’s opinion has merit. In this case, the wise should not engage the foolish in dialogue. Ignore your critics.

  5. 3 points – the first is that the comments are on a forum rather than a blog. Trying to do “something about it” is one long legal batttle to identify the individuals and then prove libel – rather than opinion (which is protected under US law). Good luck with that! 😉

    2) Suggest you join the rest of us and develop a thick skin to trolls or “informed opinion”. Ya just can’t please em all (whether you’re right or wrong is not the issue here) and it’s a wild west out there on forums where folks will write something they’d never say. If you want t
    o publish directly to the general public (via a blog) you get to take the slings and arrows that come along with it. Welcome to our world. LOL!

    3) On my subscription-only website, last week I labelled your blog as a must-read one. So – right or wrong in your interpretation of data, imho this is a blog that must be read by serious gardeners.

    Bottom line – take a deep breath – keep on doing what you do best. I – for one – appreciate it.

  6. I’ve been told to my face that I haven’t got a clue, I’ve had Amazon reviews which say that I select sources, I’ve received a letter from the Peat Association of Canada (or whatever it’s called) telling me that what I’ve said is wrong. I once had a person write in a published article that he didn’t believe that I actually read the literature (I wrote him a personal note — and he apologized). Here’s my two cents. I chose to make myself a public figure, now I have to deal with the consequences. If someone is really interested in what I have to say they’ll do the research, or they’ll ask me why I wrote (or said) what I wrote. If they just want to spout off and use me as a convenient target — more power to them. That said, the compost tea remark was truly incredible — If it were me I would probably post on that forum just for fun — see what the person who posted says when confronted by the person who they slandered.

  7. The best thing about this blog is its fearlessness in responding to critics, lending even more weight to the positions it takes. Hoo-Ray for Prof. Gillman’s comment. There is too much misinformation running around in gardening circles and I have yet to see an issue tackled here that isn’t backed up with links to the science. I don’t have the constitution to do what he suggests, but I’m also not a tenured PhD in the field, either, so the idea has merit. If the critics were serious in their criticisms, they’d make them here, and offer an opportunity to discuss it. Invite them over.

  8. Confirmation bias will cause people to do and say strange things. Or perhaps those comments are being made by individuals with a financial stake in the game. I just read this yesterday:

    “Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”

    The fact that the posters choose to remain anonymous indicates to me that they are weak. Please keep up the good work. I’d ignore them for now.

  9. Linda, anyone who’s read enough of your work will know who the nuts are, and that you’re certainly not one of them. Your work has tremendous integrity, and it really does speak for itself. While being on the receiving end of the slings and arrows is infuriating and painful (and sometimes even funny, but not always), I’m with Jimbo and the others in thinking that engaging with each arrow is futile and a waste of time. What you’ve done so far — taking the worst, or a compilation of the worst, and writing a post about it, seems to work best. That way you can rebut some of the most ridiculous claims if you need to, but don’t have to get sucked into the vortex of needless argument if you don’t want to. Please keep doing the good work you’re doing, and know that what Joseph says is true.

  10. Honestly, the internet (and particularly on forums) is one of the places where arguing with idiots is most likely to bring you down to their level.

    Think about the sort of person who would write something like that … imagine they have a lot of free time on their hands? They will drag you down by sheer volume.

    Pick your battles. If someone who looks at least vaguely competent, with a reputation of their own they’re actually interested in, correct them. Leave the trolls on the forums to eat each other up.

  11. All I can do is second the great advice offered in previous comments. Can you imagine living with the level of nastiness some of those forum commenters spewed? A very wise woman once reminded me you can’t reason with crazy. This wisdom becomes clear when reading through the forum.

  12. Linda, please ignore them. Your integrity as a scientist is better served by the venom of the ignorant than it would be from their praise.
    You are well respected by those who matter.

  13. The topic of “gardening” has become as controversial and polarizing as politics and religion. At least you haven’t (yet?!) been called a fascist or a nazi, but then you’d be able to claim to be a victim of Godwin’s Law.

    Keep on keepin’ on Linda!

  14. I don’t know what it is about these faceless interactions that brings out the worst in people, but I’m pretty sure Jesus couldn’t log onto a evangelical bulletin board without getting told to go to hell.

  15. Just to let you know I view your blog a breath of fresh air. Recently there was a bill here in Hawaii to make it against the law to engage in research of genetic modification even tho the local papaya crop was saved by such research. The wingnuts abound. Research which validates by belief system Good Research which disagrees with my beliefs is of course funded by evil corporations or their lackies. Keep Up the good work. You can have a beer at my house any time/

  16. Linda,
    You and the other Garden Professors have a reputation that really dosen’t need defending. Don’t waste your time with unscientific rants. I appreciate your rebuttlals because they clarify my thinking but serious gardeners know where to go for science backed information. I never miss a Garden Professors post. Thank you all very much.

  17. Linda, my experience has been that when people say (or in this case write) such things, they have no desire to engage in a healthy conversation – they only want to hear the noise of their own voices. While my response ought to be compassionate, knowing that they haven’t learned some very vital lessons yet, my best response is to not engage them and become an enabler who only makes it easier for them to hear their own voice even more. I can only agree with the folks who have already put in their response, and leave you with this quote from Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Engage the folks who are willing to hear you out. Leave the others to listen to the drone of their own voices – they deserve it. And for the record – I love your blog, and SO MUCH appreciate the insight you provide and the help you have given me in debunking myths. I engage in many a teachable moment because of the information you have made available to me. THANK YOU!

  18. Do. not. engage. Nothing will come of it but the extension of another tedious thread, particularly on Garden Web. That first quote came from a woman who spends a great deal of time on that site and who gets into it on occasion with another ubiquitous poster who happens to cite your work (as a supporter). She has chosen sides and her words have become so much jibberjabber because of it.

  19. Linda, it’s like comparing “Nova” to “Dr. Who” – while both might be extremely entertaining, only one is based in science. The other (like these forum trolls) just makes up things as it goes along to get out of its current jam.

  20. Interesting that they are so offended that scientific research contradicts their opinions or feelings about something. It’s not like Dr. Chalker-Scott (or Chalker-Smith, as the case may be!) ends her studies with: “And in conclusion, you are a complete idiot if you use compost tea!” Hey, if you think it works, keep using it. No need to cast aspersions!

  21. pfft… Don’t let the turkeys get you down.
    We appreciate you a great deal. I hunted a long time for a garden information site that was consistent and provided sources for what they said…then I found yours!
    Thanks for all the time you put into sharing what you have learned with us!

  22. As a GardenRanter I agree with the suggestion to grow some thick skin, and maybe also to ignore people like this – they don’t even HAVE a blog.

    Though really, it’s much more interesting when you respond to these creeps. Keep it up!

  23. Think about the sort of person who would write something like that … imagine they have a lot of free time on their hands? They will drag you down by sheer volume.

  24. I don’t know what it is about these faceless interactions that brings out the worst in people, but I’m pretty sure Jesus couldn’t log onto a evangelical bulletin board without getting told to go to hell.

Leave a Reply