From the Annals of the Science Wars: A Cautionary Tale

By Keith Kloor | February 7, 2014 9:24 am

You’re a scientist who publishes research that suggests a certain product is harmful to the environment and public health. The company that makes the product disputes your findings and wages a campaign to sully your professional reputation.

How do you respond?

If you’re Tyrone Hayes, the Berkley biologist whose studies point to harmful impacts of a widely used herbicide (atrazine), you give as good as you get. And then some. And maybe you push back too hard and in lewd, weird ways, which makes you seem unhinged, prompting the company (Syngenta) to redouble its efforts to discredit you.

The mutual antagonism contributes to a dynamic that feeds on itself. Syngenta, feeling besieged and victimized, sees enemies everywhere and behaves like a Nixonian paranoid.

By now, the decade-long war between Hayes and Syngenta is well known to those in the environmental and science communities who have been following its increasingly bizarre twists and turns. Mother Jones in 2012 published an excellent piece on the saga. Last year, Environmental Health News unearthed court documents from a class-action lawsuit against Syngenta that reveals the company’s unsavory tactics against Hayes and other critics.

The latest attempt to shed some light on Hayes and his bitter feud with Syngenta (and their obsession with him) comes in this week’s New Yorker. Rachel Aviv has stitched together a pretty subtle chronicle of the affair. But you wouldn’t know that from reaction to the piece. Most commentators have focused on Syngenta’s bad behavior, pointing to revelations from those court documents as vindication of Hayes. But as Aviv makes clear in her story, Hayes’ findings remain highly contested (as do nearly all the studies on atrazine) and have yet to persuade the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to more stringently regulate the herbicide. (A third government review is underway.)

People are likely to come to the New Yorker piece with predisposed views. It has fodder for all sides. If you are inclined to always suspect corporate malfeasance and manipulation of science, then the New Yorker story will reinforce that suspicion. If you are put off by Hayes’ blustery conduct and his activism, you are likely to doubt his science; support for this view can also be found in Aviv’s piece.

One thing that seems clear is that all participants have been singed. My favorite passage from her story comes at the end:

One of his [Hayes'] first graduate students, Nigel Noriega, who runs an organization devoted to conserving tropical forests, told me that he was still recovering from the experience of his atrazine research, a decade before. He had come to see science as a rigid culture, “its own club, an élite society,” Noriega said. “And Tyrone didn’t conform to the social aspects of being a scientist.” Noriega worried that the public had little understanding of the context that gives rise to scientific findings. “It is not helpful to anyone to assume that scientists are authoritative,” he said. “A good scientist spends his whole career questioning his own facts. One of the most dangerous things you can do is believe.”

What does he mean by this and who do you think he is referring to?

  • dljvjbsl

    I have often heard people say that they “believe in global warming”. it is one of the reasons that I am very uneasy with the presentation of research results by “climate scientists”. I can’t help but feel that I am hearing advocacy of a belief system rather than the results of dispassionate research. I find Hulme’s point that the climate change debate should be more about politics and less about science very apt in this regard.

    Scientific theories are not something to believe in. They are tools for making predictions. They are neither true nor false They are either useful or not useful.

    • Buddy199

      The global warming, excuse me, climate change debate is a proxy for the larger political debate. Perfect example: Keystone pipeline. And when Keystone opponents utterly ignore the clear scientific evidence because it doesn’t promote their ideological agenda they take it beyond politics to good old-fashioned religious fanaticism.

  • https://twitter.com/Clear_Food Clear Food

    The Hayes science record appears relatively clear; he refuses to share his data and nobody has replicated it. EPA, while bending constantly to these kinds of pressures and requiring more reviews and burdens, hasn’t found any reasons to ban or restrict the product and the greater body of scientific literature supports it’s regulated use as safe.

    It’s easy to portray big companies as villains in these stories – typically they’re just dumb when it comes to dealing with these types of situations and handle them poorly but not with the oft proclaimed sinister intent. However, Hayes appears equally guilty of bad behavior and worse judgement with his sexually explicit emails and apparent insatiable need for publicity. Any academic who spends as much time engaged with advocacy groups and class action litigators exposes themselves to reasonable challenges of conflicts and bias.

    All of this is political theater. None of it moves either science or society forward, and the promotion of his story by Rachel Aviv on NPR the other day clearly reveals her lack of understanding of the peer review system of science and corresponding regulatory processes that are designed to protect consumers against bad science and sensationalism. Alternatively, in her interview, Aviv promoted the political agenda of adopting a European-style ‘precautionary’ approach in the U.S. In stating such she shows her poor understanding of our rigorous science-based approach to regulation and bias.

    Society needs more education and help navigating the actual science and facts and less salacious – often fallacious – polarizing tales that push us further to into ideological camps that have no responsible place when it comes to things as important as the safety of products used in production of our food.

    • RobertWager

      This is the quotes from the European Academies Science Advisory Council on the Precautionary principle.

      “The misuse of the precautionary principle has led to restrictive legislation and both a political and market mistrust of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)…This has had a profound chilling effect on both public and private investment for European agricultural research…Thus, there is a compelling case for the EU to re-examine its current policy governing the broad area of agricultural biotechnology” EASAC 2013

    • stevesavage

      Clear Food, well said. Many researchers have tried to replicated Hayes’ results of effects at super low rates and can’t. Rather than cooperate with others to figure out what is up, Hayes simply moves on to grand-standing. As with Don Huber he becomes a rock star for anti-technology folks, but destroys his respect in the science community

    • Agricultural Science

      The story about Hayes on NPR also shows that NPR is definitely no an objective source of information.

  • Tom Scharf

    A very interesting soap opera. Of course the only thing that should matter is whether the guy is right or not. The media spends most of their ink on the personalities and the fight.

    After 20 years of research they are still using words like “suggests”, “linked to”, etc. that usually “suggest” weak statistical correlations and no direct line of causation.

    Activism + weak correlations + no causation = confirmation bias = trouble for science.

    From a company point of view, what should you do if a literally crazy paranoid scientist has targeted you and the green movement holds him up as a victim and hero? Abandon your $2B product? Or defend it?

    In 2012, “the E.P.A. determined that atrazine does not affect the sexual development of frogs”

    And the canard of “industry funded studies” cannot be trusted is always part and parcel of the propaganda campaign. What is never written is that the EPA (or FDA) orders/requires studies to be funded by the companies producing the product so the taxpayer does not have to fund it. It is not a conspiracy. Most of these companies would be giddy to have the taxpayer pay for their regulatory work.

    Both sides likely agree to the following statement for completely different reasons.:

    “Citing a paper by Hayes, who had done an analysis of sixteen atrazine studies, they wrote that “the single best predictor of whether or not the herbicide atrazine had a significant effect in a study was the funding source.”

    • JH

      ” What is never written is that the EPA (or FDA) orders/requires studies
      to be funded by the companies producing the product so the taxpayer does
      not have to fund it.”

      Badabing!

      Suppose change the system to publicly-funded research. What then? The left would be hollering that we’re “socializing the costs and privatizing the benefits!”

      • Brian Schmidt

        Instead:

        Company writes a check to the government agency. Government agency goes out and hires the consultant who’s then loyal to public, not the company.

  • JH

    “It is not helpful to anyone to assume that scientists are
    authoritative,” he said. “A good scientist spends his whole career
    questioning his own facts. One of the most dangerous things you can do
    is believe.”

    Perhaps he’s not referring to anyone in particular.

    Perhaps, instead, he recognizes that most people advocating issues related to science rely entirely on the authority of a, or the, scientist(s), rather than on the results of the scientific work.

    • Matthew Slyfield

      “Perhaps he’s not referring to anyone in particular.”

      Really, what about “And Tyrone didn’t conform to the social aspects of being a scientist.”?

      Is that not referring to anyone in particular?

  • TIm

    I suspect that this blog piece and some of the comments are plants by Syngenta. The New Yorker article mentions how they regularly pay journalists and other third parties to write pieces that discredit their critics.

    • marque2

      Right. I hope I get a check in the mail.

  • marque2

    Sadly most of these food studies are gross examples.of junk science. You use some chemical name and dubious statistics and you get press. Saying scary things gets you more research money than saying things are OK and then you go on claiming more ridiculous associations between say dihydrogen monoxide and cancer.

    It is really sad how government funding has turned scientists into soothsayers and alchemists.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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