KSJ Tracker February 7, 2014

New Yorker: A tale of herbicide $$$, deformed frogs, character assassination, and rap back atcha, mofo. .

   A long piece - on a long-running war between a feisty Harvard-educated (undergrad), UC Berkeley PhD and now-tenured biology professor with an interest in endocrinology and a huge corporation with huge profits at stake - has gotten a tremendous reaction over the last day or two:

   It is an engrossing yet puzzling piece. Its prime character, Tyrone Hayes, especially around here (The SF Bay Area), has been a science story for at least ten years. Many readers of the tracker likely have at least an inkling why. He has become a deep thorn in the side of Syngenta, a Swiss-based herbicide and pesticide manufacturer that is the descendant,  by merger, of the Novartis and Zeneca agribusinesses. Syngenta sells oodles of the weed-killer Atrazine on which many corn growers and other farmers have come to depend. Hayes is convinced the long-lived substance is not only a hazard to wildlife and especially frogs due to endocrinologically scrambled sex characteristics but probably to people as well. The EPA has so far not bought into Hayes's conclusions but some other countries are making it hard to sell atrazine within their borders.

   Read it. You'll keep going to the end. Aviv writes it in a terse, energetic, yet distinctly distant fashion. After one time through, I found myself wondering if she had actually interviewed Hayes, so little of the internal workings of his mind had come through to me. She had, of course. A more attentive read-through found several quotes clearly heard by her own ears. She slips briefly into first person, enough to write "he told me." The piece is light on the science itself. Incompletely addressed is why Hayes's results, while often corroborated in general ways by others, are so seldom fully duplicated in implication of severe hazard from atrazine.

   Where it hooked me was its bait and switch. It comes after opening passages that include a necessary biography: Born in a rough district in South Carolina, an African-American boy turns to science, reveals himself as brilliant and promising, goes to Harvard, feels an outsider and that includes to the generally more genteel black students there, survives and thrives with the help of a mentor, does grad work and Berkeley, joins faculty in Integrative Biology, wins awards for superb teaching and publishes productively. Then he studies this stuff atrazine on contract to Syngenta, tells his funders that their product is perilous, and the hellhouse of fun begins.

  Yet those opening passages soar deceptively in their depiction of Hayes, after he took on Syngenta, as paranoid to the extreme, grandiose, and erratic. Looks like a profile of a man gone mad with self-absorbed chest-pounding. Ah, but then. Like a tune that switches keys and accelerates the tempo gradually, Aviv patiently recounts recent unveiling (thanks to lawsuits and legal discovery) of Syngenta's furtive behavior. Maybe Hayes has gotten a tad unhinged or overly juvenile in his response to the company. But he was not delusional. Syngenta really has been out to get him. It did have long strategy meetings, with talking-points left to posterity, on ways to ruin his academic reputation. It did commission studies explicitly aimed at putting Hayes away. It gamed Google so that searches on Hayes first turned up screeds lambasting his intellectual honesty. Almost surely, its agents did follow him, perhaps tap his phone. Hilariously, Hayes has taken to responding directly to his tormenters, often in  hip-hop rhyming emails with a strong dose of gangsta-rap thuggishly vulgar language (commenters on the internet say his style is decidedly retro). One imagines Hayes's mischievous desperation as a giant company tries to kill him academically - I'll mess with them, come back at them in their cozy corporate cocoons like their worst nightmare.

   Just when one expects some sort of resolution, with either Hayes for whom most readers will be rooting victorious, or the company, or with some sort of horrid fate for the embattled professor, the story just .... stops. This piece does not pretend to follow a clear narrative arc. Events after all have yet to run their course. It is like a stage play, a morality tale in which imperfect heroics leave the audience pondering, wondering, replaying the key lines from memory.

   Hayes has gotten pretty good press around here over the years , although I can't recall without flipping through clips whether I've written on him. Probably not. But flamboyant as Hayes may occasionally be in dress and in his rhyming, chest-beating tactics in response to Syngenta, in typical conversations with the press I understand that he speaks, chuckles, speaks courteously and qualifies himself as soberly as do most good scientists. He is by all reports a pleasant, well-collected, informative and helpful interview. For persuasive evidence listen to this from a few years ago, at the local NPR station:

   Hayes himself is pretty happy about the reaction to the article. In a lengthy and analytical blog post by Ben Christopher at Cal's alumni association site, he said "It's been crazy. I've received hundreds of emails. It's all over Twitter, all over Facebook. Some anonymous donors have called the lab. I've got a lot of support from the academic community. The New Yorker really puts things out in the mainstream."

   Other large take outs on and explorations of,  this drama include:

A website (Syngenta's?) apparently set up to discredit Hayes:

   Other reactions to the New Yorker piece:


comments powered by Disqus