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Environment

From the Annals of the Science Wars: A Cautionary Tale

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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?

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