Did The New Yorker botch puff piece on frog scientist Tyrone Hayes, turning rogue into beleaguered hero?

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Article Highlights

  • Shed no tears for poor beleaguered Tyrone Hayes. Now that he is a "celebrity" speaker and full-fledged victim, anti-pesticide groups are funding his research.

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  • The Hayes-New Yorker narrative does not square so easily with the public record.

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  • Almost completely discredited, the New Yorker piece breathed new life into Hayes fading career.

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Who Is Tyrone Hayes and what’s the real story behind the University of California researcher’s sensational claim that he and his family are targeted victims of Big Ag?

According to the amphibian scientist and as echoed in a recent 8,000 word mega-feature in The New Yorker by Rachel Aviv, Hayes is an addled but unfairly attacked whistler-blower, victim of a multi-year long campaign by the seed and chemical company Syngenta to discredit his research and personally destroy him. It’s diabolical if true. But the Hayes-New Yorker narrative does not square so easily with the public record.

The saga began in 2002, when Hayes published a blockbuster study claiming that the herbicide atrazine, hailed by scientists for decades because of its low toxic profile, caused sexual abnormalities in frogs. He speculated that it could harm humans. Hayes’ claims set off a firestorm, fanned by advocacy groups that view large agricultural companies as just this side of the devil. Millions of dollars has been poured into research to address his alleged findings. But a decade later, after numerous follow up studies by the Environmental Protection Agency and a score of scientists, industry and independent, evidence of endocrine related problems Hayes claimed to have identified in frogs and perhaps in humans are no where to be found.

Nonetheless, even as support for his research has dwindled among mainstream scientists and government oversight agencies around the world, Hayes has engaged in a relentless smear campaign against those who have challenged his one-off conclusions. The circus act wore thin, but was briefly revived last summer when it was announced that Hayes would be forced to wind down his atrazine related research at Berkeley. Hayes contended that he was in effect unfairly fired because of the ongoing conspiracy orchestrated by Syngenta, and that the compliant university was in cahoots. As I related in an article in Forbes last August, Hayes provided no evidence to back up his conspiracy claims and Berkeley officials fiercely denied Hayes’ characterization of what went down.

Almost completely discredited, the New Yorker piece breathed new life into his fading career. And this time he’s back with even more sensational charges. He’s claiming that Syngenta has hacked into his emails and has been tailing him. Explosively, he says one of Syngenta’s chief scientists has threatened to have him lynched and his family raped. Hayes presents zero evidence to back up these scary claims, which he is now shouting throughout cyberspace and on television. In fact, there is much on-the-record evidence that quite the opposite has transpired over the years: Hayes himself has issued repeated email and verbal threats, many of a sexual nature, against his critics, at Syngenta and elsewhere. Reams of his threatening emails have been reproduced online by Gawker in an article titled: “Dr. Tyrone Hayes: Biologist, Cock-Fixated Megalomaniac Email Addict” (the seriousness of these harassing emails was oddly downplayed in Aviv’s New Yorker piece).

After the latest attacks by Hayes, who has apparently been emboldened by the New Yorker piece, Syngenta responded last week, sending Hayes a cease and desist letter, demanding that he “stop spreading lies” and issue a public apology and retraction. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

What’s not in dispute are many of the basic facts of the saga. In a summary analysis posted last week on the website Academics Review–”Turning Science into a Circus”– Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and former Head of the university’s Department of Food Sciences, challenged the world-according-to Hayes (and the New Yorker). Chassy dissects Aviv’s reporting on Hayes and the bizarre blizzard of emails he sent to those who he perceived as masterminds of the alleged conspiracy to suppress his work.

“New Yorker author Rachel Aviv hardly acknowledges this 10-year long campaign of harassment, bringing it up in the article only to have it dismissed by a Hayes’s friend at U.C. Berkeley as “quite hilarious” (one wonders if sexual harassment is now considered “hilarious” at Berkeley as long the female victims happen to work for a “big corporation”),” Chassy writes. Even more damning, Chassy cites the litany of unsubstantiated allegations Hayes has made against his former employer.

"Hayes claims Syngenta and the drug company Novartis are engaged in a ghoulish conspiracy to create cancer with Syngenta’s herbicide in order to reap profits by selling Novartis’s oncology drugs to the victims.

When Hayes’s obscene emails became public as part of an ethics complaint to Berkeley in 2012, Hayes upped the ante with increasingly bizarre accusations of persecution by Syngenta. He has several times repeated the claim – most recently on a nationally syndicated radio and television show “Democracy Now!” — that a well-respected scientist who works for the company stalks him and “whispers” in his ear at public events. On one or more occasions, says Hayes, this scientist threatened to have him lynched and to send “good old boys” to rape him, his wife and his daughter.

Hayes’ claims that last year Syngenta pressured his employer, the University of California at Berkeley, to cut funding for his lab and that Berkeley complied in order to protect a grant made by Novartis in the late 1990s. Hayes’s lab funding were not cut by Berkeley. Rather they ran run out (spent by Hayes), and it had nothing to do with Syngenta, or the Novartis grant, which had run out over ten years earlier."

As Chassy notes, when Hayes’s allegations first surfaced in a credulous piece of reporting by the Chronicle of Higher Education--my Forbes article last August dissected that hit piece–Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research rejected the crude claim that the university cut off funds because of pressure from Syngenta. The CHS article, the Chancellor wrote, “supported a wholly false narrative by conveying without comment—and with no corroboration or supporting facts—the professor’s belief that we were motivated by a desire to protect a research grant with Novartis… There is just one problem: The university’s contract with Novartis expired 10 years ago and was not renewed, and we have no institutional relationship with Syngenta…” Hayes’ vice chancellor closed his letter noting, “We are utterly perplexed by his allegations that there exists some sort of conspiracy directed at him.”

Aviv’s selective reporting is perhaps understandable considering her biases–unmentioned in the piece itself but on display in an interview the reporter gave with NPR after the story’s publication.  As Chassy writes:

"The problem with the US regulatory process, according to Aviv, is that corporations have been conducting what she disparagingly calls a “sound science campaign.” At the heart of this campaign is the “Data Quality Act,” passed in 2000, requiring that regulations rely on studies that meet high standards for “quality, objectivity, utility and integrity.” According to Aviv, this is all part of a nefarious conspiracy on the part of industry to “delay regulation by kind of picking apart the science that would be used to support the regulation.” … Of course, what Aviv would call ‘picking apart the science,’ academics and researchers call the scientific method. “Picking apart” studies to see if they are replicable is how science is supposed to work. If science isn’t falsifiable, it is simply opinion or speculation."

Aviv’s views are classic anti-corporate agitprop: the belief that a massive conspiracy exists between government regulatory agencies and evil corporations. Such simplistic conspiratorial views may drive hits to The New Yorker site and land credulous interviews on NPR, but it’s shabby journalism–ideology masquerading as independent thinking. What in fact have scientists concluded about Hayes’ research, which Aviv never critically evaluates?

"The EPA has gone on record calling his work “methodologically flawed” and has twice publicly stated that Hayes has never made his full data accessible to them (in direct contradiction of Hayes’s own claims). Hayes’ sensationalized claims of frogs that are “chemically castrated” and turned “gay” by atrazine have simply not been replicated by other scientists and his assertions are contradicted by a vast number of studies in the scientific literature. Moreover, although atrazine has been used for over 50 years, field studies have failed to find any correlation with feminized male frogs that Hayes claims occurred in his research.

Perhaps this is because, in contrast to Hayes’s secret science, the massive, state-of-the-art studies conducted by Germany’s Werner Kloas – actually two identical studies conducted in separate labs, so they were replicated in real time, failed to establish the effects claimed by Hayes. These studies, which EPA considers definitive, show no harmful effects on frogs at an even wider range of doses than Hayes claims he tested.  EPA participated in the studies’ design, had full access to the labs, and audited and vetted every single data point in them. But because Syngenta was obliged by US law to pay for the studies (even though the company plays no role in the execution or interpretation) Aviv dismisses them out of hand as “industry funded.”

Shed no tears for poor beleaguered Tyrone Hayes. Now that he’s a full fledged victim and “celebrity” speaker, anti-pesticide groups are funding his dubious research. Forget peer review and the Environmental Protection Agency. Advocacy groups have a more effective strategy: circumvent the scientific method and directly scare the public, empirical evidence be damned. All you need is access to the Internet and an obeisant journalist at The New Yorker.

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