Turning Science into a Circus: The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv and Tyrone Hayes

  A recent 8000-word article in the New Yorker reaffirmed a trend in journalism of turning important scientific issues into a circus sideshow.

by Bruce Chassy, PhD

New Yorker Rachel Aviv Tyrone Hayes               Titled “A Valuable Reputation,” it purports to tell the story of Berkeley researcher Dr. Tyrone Hayes and how, after he supposedly revealed the harmful effects of a popular herbicide on frog development, the chemical’s maker attempted to discredit him. In subsequent statements by the author and other articles, this has morphed into allegations of a full-fledged corporate conspiracy one typically finds only in John Grisham novels, and Hayes’s paranoia (to use the New Yorker’s own term) and wild allegations have taken on the air of known “facts.”

                Beyond the sensationalism and distortions, however, lies a deeper agenda, which the New Yorker and its author seem now to be explicitly endorsing. At its core it is fundamentally anti-science. Wrapped up in a supposed concern for the environment and safety, it seeks to overturn the basic principles of how science is conducted and how regulatory decisions are made.

                I have written before about Tyrone Hayes, his obsessive vendetta against Syngenta (the maker of atrazine, the herbicide in question), his propensity for keeping his data secret, and how he sent hundreds of taunting, sexually abusive and threatening emails to Syngenta’s female employees and others – despite warnings from the Berkeley administration to desist.

                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”). Instead, Aviv weaves an extraordinary story out of Tyrone Hayes’ tales of phone tapping, stalking and intimidation – for which Hayes provides not a shred of evidence and all of which the company patently denies.

              In order to bolster Hayes’ credibility, however, Aviv apparently felt she had to omit some of Hayes’s nastier allegations – claims so outlandish that they certainly would have undermined his credibility with all but the most gullible of readers.   As Hayes makes these accusations in virtually every one of his public presentations, media interviews and anti-pesticide activist protest events, Aviv must have been aware of them. For instance: 

  • 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. But aside from the absurdity of the theory (and the fact that the science is clear that the herbicide does not cause cancer), Novartis does not own Syngenta as Hayes’s falsely and ignorantly asserts. The two are completely separate companies – connected only by the fact that they were both created by the mergers followed by spin offs of two larger agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies more than a dozen years ago.
  • 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.  Of course, Hayes has not one shred of evidence to back up this slander. I personally know the scientist about whom Hayes makes these repugnant allegations and it is beyond my and any other reasonable person’s belief that he would make such threats.  However, it is not beyond the belief of those who know Hayes that he would fabricate such claims to serve his own agenda. 
  • 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. When Hayes’s allegations first surfaced in a credulous piece of reporting by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the University was uncharacteristically forthright in its denials. The article, wrote Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research, “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.”[1]              

             Egregious as these omissions by the New Yorker are, the most disturbing aspect is the agenda that apparently lies behind the story, which author Aviv plainly revealed in a subsequent NPR interview. 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.”[2]

               Aviv and Hayes would have us think government regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are all in the pocket of big business and cannot be trusted.  This of course flies in the face of facts and history showing these regulators to be fiercely independent from and often hypercritical and highly demanding of industry groups.  This denigration of government regulators as industry pawns, like Hayes’ other claims, is not based in fact or reality.

              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. The New Yorker’s dismissal of this basic principle is especially ironic in the context of recent, shocking revelations about the vast amount of junk science published today that simply can’t be reproduced.  

               But probably no group of pesticide studies has been as thoroughly falsified as those of Tyrone Hayes.  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[3]  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 companies play no role in government’s final interpretation of these required studies) Aviv dismisses them out of hand as “industry funded.” 

(In fact, the largest and most recent studies to raise legitimate amphibian health concerns do not report causal links to agricultural practices, as most amphibian health problems occur in urban and suburban settings.  Still non-science journalists like Aviv conflate and confuse this legitimate research as somehow corroborative of Hayes’ claims.) 

               Syngenta may have good reason to feel it was treated unfairly, even dishonestly, in the New Yorker article. The real damage, however, is that such shoddy journalism debases the public’s understanding of how science should be conducted and the importance of non-politicized, sound science-based regulatory systems to protect consumers.

              Meanwhile, her so-called victim, Tyrone Hayes, is now billed as a “celebrity” speaker and is pulling down $10,000 a speech to spin his fantasies.  He promotes himself as a paid litigation consultant working for attorneys seeking big settlements from pesticide-makers.   And, Hayes’ “research” is now securely funded by science-distorting anti-pesticide activist groups.   Those of us who care about academic integrity and validated science, however, should continue to insist on “sound science,” no matter how much the New Yorker objects.  

[2] www.npr.org/2014/02/05/272100022/chemical-study-becomes-a-tale-of-conspiracy-and-paranoia

[3]  “When the EPA applied the test design elements retroactively to the 75 amphibian studies in the published literature (36 studies reviewed and presented to the SAP in 2007 and 39 new studies published since the 2007 SAP), only one study on one species was left that met all of the test design elements, the DCI study (Kloas et al. 2009 1)… only the DCI study (Kloas et al. 2009) met all of the EPA’s test design criteria…  (Kloas et al. 2009) showed that there were no gonadal effects observed in the strain of X. laevis tested at atrazine concentrations 0.01 to 100 µg/L. This one “no effect” X. laevis study was used by the EPA to conclude that atrazine has no effect on all amphibians at concentrations less than 100 µg/L…” (link p. 14)

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