What do you do when you are called out on your bullshit? When someone asks to see the raw data that your dubious claims are based on? This was one of many problems facing the American biologist and professor of Integrative Biology, Tyrone Hayes, in the early 2000s. At the time, Hayes was a member of a panel of experts conducting studies for a company called Novartis (later Syngenta) on the safety of one of their herbicides, atrazine. He claimed to have found that the herbicide was negatively affecting amphibian development and hypothesised it may also be affecting humans in a similar way. As atrazine is the most widely used herbicide in Australia, and second-most used in the United States, alarm bells started to ring, and governments got involved. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Novartis, and the consulting firm who hired him, Eco Risk, all wanted to see his raw data and repeat his findings, however, Hayes’ resisted doing a duplicate study or answering questions about his data. Still to this day, he refuses to share any of his data with anyone outside his lab, which put the EPA in a difficult situation. They wanted to repeat his work, however, they deemed his published research on the subject as “methodologically flawed” and stated that it did not meet the criteria for legitimate scientific work. They took it upon themselves to contract two independent labs in two countries to determine what impact atrazine had on amphibian reproductive health and found….nothing! When confronted with this data, Hayes simply dismissed it as “industry-funded”, obviously forgetting the fact that his own initial research was industry funded.
So, what do you do when you are being called out, when your credibility is coming into question, and when you are on the verge of destroying your scientific career? In the case of Tyrone Hayes, you play the victim and conjure up outlandish conspiracies about Syngenta goons threatening to lynch you and rape your wife and child.
In 2014, Hayes was interviewed on “Democracy Now” following the publication of an article, which I can only describe as a puff piece in The New Yorker. The show was titled “Silencing the Scientist: Tyrone Hayes on Being Targeted By Herbicide Firm Syngenta”, and is another example of biased, poorly-schooled, lazy journalists helping charlatans to become victims so they can circumvent the scientific method and directly scare the public. The hosts, Amy Goodman and Juan González, abdicated their duties and responsibilities as journalists when they didn’t question almost anything Hayes said. They even amplified his bizarre conspiracies, implying that everyone who disagrees with him is in the pocket of some multinational corporation.
At the beginning of the interview, when asked what happed post-publication of his work, Hayes said the following.
“… as mentioned in The New Yorker article, they actually hired scientists to try and refute the data, or to pick apart the data, and eventually they hired scientists to do experiments that they claim refuted our data”
Unbelievably, Goodman and González don’t ask any follow up questions, but just buy into Hayes’ belief that any research that contradicts his findings that is industry funded can automatically be discounted. Yes, you should always be skeptical of research coming from a company that is set to benefit from said research, but to promote boycotting of a specific source of research shows a level of dishonesty from Hayes and a deep lack of understanding of how scientific progress is made from Democracy Now. This also shows that they didn’t do their research before the interview, as they would know that it was the EPA, not Syngenta, who designed experiments to confirm Hayes’ findings. Yes, they did make Syngenta pay for it, but why should the taxpayer have to pay for research into a private company product?
Things then get a little strange when Hayes begins to make some defamatory statements about a scientist working for Syngenta, Dr. Tim Pastoor.
“Tim Pastoor in particular, and others from the company coming to presentations that -, or lectures that I was giving to make handouts or to stand up and refute the data, and eventually even led to things like threats of violence. Tim Pastoor, for example, before I would give a talk would literally threaten -, whisper in my ear that he could have me lynched, or he would quote, said he would send some of his good old boys to show me what it’s like to be gay, or at one point he threatened my wife and my daughter with sexual violence. He would whisper things like ‘oh your wife’s at home alone, how do you know I haven’t sent somebody to take care of her. Isn’t your daughter there?’ So, eventually, it really slipped into some, you know, pretty scary tactics.”
Goodman, recognising the seriousness of these accusations, asked if Hayes brought criminal charges against the man threatening physical and sexual violence against him and his family to which Hayes responds by saying..
“Well, er, initially I went to my vice-chancellor here at the university, I went to my dean, I went to legal counsel here at the university, and I was told by legal counsel that-, well I was told first of all by the vice-chancellor for research at the time that, well you published the work, it’s all over, so I don’t understand what the problem is, and I tried to impress upon her, Beth Burnside at the time, that, you know, that it wasn’t over, that I was really being pursued by the manufacturer. Eventually, when I spoke with the lawyer here at the university, I was told that, well, I represent the university and I protect the university from liability – you’re kind of on your own, and I remember, I looked at him and I said, but the very-, University, from the latin, Universitas, is the collection of scholars, of teachers and students, so who is this entity, the Univeristy, that you represent that doesn’t include me? But clearly there’s some entity that doesn’t really include us, the professors and students, and doesn’t really protect our academic freedom the way that it should”
Did any of that make sense to any of you reading it? Once again, Hayes has been called out on his bullshit, as his response was quite clearly a dodge. He never provided any explanation to why he did not bring any criminal charges against Dr Pastoor, instead claiming to talk to his vice chancellor, his dean, and legal counsel, which makes zero sense to me. If someone threatened to lynch me and threatened my family with sexual violence, I would not be contacting my line manager at work, I would be contacting the police! Also, I find it very unlikely that a vice chancellor, dean, and attorney at Berkeley were informed that a professor was being threatened with lynching and rape, and chose to do nothing about it.
For some unfathomable reason, both Goodman and González seem content with Hayes’ explanation, and once again don’t ask any followup questions, believing him to be a credible source. Even The New York puff piece raised concerns about Hayes’ credibility and increasing paranoia, giving examples of him instructing his students to hangup the phone if they believe they are listened to by a third party, and that he is known to carry with him an audio recorder, which invites the question, where was this audio recorder when someone threatened to rape his daughter?
Naturally, Dr Pastoor and Syngenta were not very happy with Hayes’ far-fetched, unsubstantiated accusations, and wrote letters to Hayes demanding that he “immediately stop spreading lies” and to “issue a public apology and retraction”, to the hosts of Democracy Now asking them to remove the defamatory statements on their show, and to Hayes’ university requesting a meeting to discuss the situation. This was not the first time that Syngenta felt they had to contact the university to complain about Hayes’ behaviour.
The university responded by saying that they have met with Hayes to discuss the concerns regarding his increasingly bizarre emails, and that he acknowledges that “some of the language in the email communications was unprofessional”. He agreed to cease using any language that could be considered offensive or unprofessional, but soon after was once again up to his old tricks, sending nonsensical emails to the company employees.
Hayes would later once again sound the drum of persecution, when he claimed that Syngenta, in an act of “corporate-led retaliation”, persuaded his university to cut funding for his lab, forcing it to shut down in order to protect a grant. His story was picked up by The Chronicle of Higher Education who, like so many before them, took Hayes on his word and published a credulous piece titled, ‘Berkeley Researcher Who Questioned Herbicide’s Safety Loses Lab Financing’. The article got the attention of Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research, who stated that it…
“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, one of Novartis’s holdings. Given that these facts could have been easily obtained we cannot understand why they were omitted.”
The vice chancellor ended his letter with
Hayes’ lab funding was not cut by Berkeley, they ran out, and it had nothing to do with a grant that expired 10 years earlier. So, what is a professor to do for money and adulation when his reputation has been irreparably damaged by increasingly unbalanced behaviour towards atrazine and its manufacture, Syngenta? You sell yourself as a victim and as a “celebrity” speaker to activist, anti-science groups, and political organisations.
Hayes now makes up to a reported $10,000 per speech, where he perpetuates fantasies about the gender-bending properties of atrazine. Along the way, he has also interjected several other conspiracies into his schtick, including one about Novartis knowing that atrazine causes breast cancer, but they are reluctant to tell anyone because they also sell the cure. I personally find his talks to be manipulative, full of contradictions, and I find his shoehorning of perceived racism irrelevant and an example of Americentrism. Hayes also makes money working as a consultant for attorneys seeking big settlements from pesticide-makers and his “research” is now securely funded by science-distorting anti-pesticide activist groups.
So, is atrazine turning the freaking frogs gay? The answer is no, but that does not really matter. As Stephen Bradbury of the EPA once told Hayes, “The ultimate decision is much bigger than science…. It weight in public opinion.”. Contrary to popular opinion, atrazine is not banned here in the European Union, but has been de-registered as a result of a general groundwater limit for all pesticides. This was in response to campaigns by advocacy groups, fuelled in part by people like Hayes, over trace amounts found in groundwater, despite the fact that scientists here in the EU stated that when properly used, atrazine “will not have any harmful effects on human or animal health or any unacceptable effects on the environment”. The decision was made not to re-register the herbicide, and farmers now use the nearly-identical terbuthylazine which has nearly the same chemical and safety profile as atrazine.
Looking back, the story of the gay frogs is not really a story about outlandish conspiracies, sexually explicit and harassing emails, withheld research, unrepeatable results, gay bombs, or fully grown men dressing up as a homosexual amphibian. It’s the story of how biased, poorly-schooled, lazy journalists helped a man who cloaked his anti-science views in concern for the environment to become a professional victim, so he could circumvent the scientific method and directly scare the public.