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Medicine Science

A Corporate War Against a Scientist, and How He Fought Back 253

Posted by timothy
from the tools-at-his-disposal dept.
AthanasiusKircher writes "Environmental and health concerns about atrazine — one of the most commonly used herbicides in the U.S. — have been voiced for years, leading to an EU ban and multiple investigations by the EPA. Tyrone Hayes, a Berkeley professor who has spearheaded research on the topic, began to display signs of apparent paranoia over a decade ago. He noticed strangers following him to conferences around the world, taking notes and asking questions aimed to make him look foolish. He worried that someone was reading his email, and attacks against his reputation seemed to be everywhere; search engines even displayed ad hits like 'Tyrone Hayes Not Credible' when his name was searched for. But he wasn't paranoid: documents released after a lawsuit from Midwestern towns against Syngenta, the manufacturer of atrazine, showed a coordinated smear campaign. Syngenta's public relations team had a list of ways to defend its product, topped by 'discredit Hayes.' Its internal list of methods: 'have his work audited by 3rd party,' 'ask journals to retract,' 'set trap to entice him to sue,' 'investigate funding,' 'investigate wife,' etc. A recent New Yorker article chronicles this war against Hayes, but also his decision to go on the offensive and strike back. He took on the role of activist against atrazine, giving over 50 public talks on the subject each year, and even taunting Syngenta with profanity-laced emails, often delivered in a rapping 'gangsta' style. The story brings up important questions for science and its public persona: How do scientists fight a PR war against corporations with unlimited pockets? How far should they go?"
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A Corporate War Against a Scientist, and How He Fought Back

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  • Fight with numbers (Score:4, Insightful)

    by halcyon1234 (834388) <halcyon1234@hotmail.com> on Sunday February 09, 2014 @07:06PM (#46205893) Journal
    Every single scientist should fight it. Make them execute every single scummy plan they have on the books. If hundreds of thousands of scientists fight back, you'll see just how "unlimited" corp's pockets actually are. When the majority revolts, the corporate overlords quickly discover pushing their agenda gets costly and isn't worth it anymore...
  • sdfasdf (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @07:23PM (#46206019) Journal

    The correct place is to battle it out in scientific journals. Corporations should not be doing this, but legion are the talking heads and book promoters tearing down things from GM food to Olestra to any number of other things with little or no science backing them.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 09, 2014 @07:29PM (#46206071)

    Are you fucking kidding me? Are you a shill or just stupid?

  • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @07:33PM (#46206105)
    Part of the problem is that publicly-funded science hasn't necessarily been public-access anymore.

    What good is it to be an activist when your research shows something bad, when the journal you published it in copyrighted and paywalled it, and the public has no ready access?

    Obviously, some research should be classified. But that's such a minuscule percentage that it is hardly worth considering. Other than that tiny amount, publicly funded research should be public. Period.
  • Re:Oh, come on. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @07:34PM (#46206109) Homepage Journal

    I thought I was being obviously over-the-top, but Poe's Law strikes again; it's impossible to satirize people who actually think that way.

  • by Threni (635302) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @07:44PM (#46206163)

    > Damage by a corporation to an individual's peace of mind should be assigned statutory damages based on the
    > greater of $10 Milliion, and 5 to 10% of the perpetrating company's annual revenues.

    I had to work late last week - I missed EastEnders. Where's my yacht?

  • by Etherwalk (681268) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @07:47PM (#46206185)

    Are you fucking kidding me? Are you a shill or just stupid?

    Neither. I am guesing (s)he is an IP lawyer. Used to thinking about how the company can get its way within the bounds of the law rather than asking whether things like investigating a scientist's wife in the hope of discrediting his research should be permissible in a civilized society. Maybe she does have a bias--maybe she got dumped by your company's CEO. But there's a big difference between *knowing* she has a bias and trying to cook one up.

    The company's POV may be valid, but not all of the actions it intended in support of them--whether legal or not--are moral.

    The real issue is that any reputable company in response to science that is bad for their products should be saying "this science showed that maybe there's a problem here, we'd better make sure we're not hurting our customers or their neighbors, let's do some research and legitimately see what the deal is." Resorting to discrediting the other guy should only come up, maybe, when and if you've established that his research is wrong, that the product is safe, that the guy's data is wrong, and that he's basically a crackpot. Unfortunately economic incentives make most people feel free to allow their product to poison or even murder despite the science. (See, e.g., cigarettes.) This is actually a good reason for broad diversification--the smaller a percentage of revenue is dependent on one product, the more willing a company is to do the right thing when one product proves unsafe.

  • by NapalmV (1934294) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @07:56PM (#46206249)
    I've heard something about forex, drag queens and gay stallions. Would that work for you Sir?
  • by AK Marc (707885) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @08:23PM (#46206437)

    damages based on the greater of $10 Milliion, and 5 to 10% of the perpetrating company's annual revenues.

    We'll have shell companies created with zero revenue acting as harassing entities. So if you find them out and sue and win, you'll get no damages, other than the $10,000,000 awarded, and they'll just close the doors if it looks like that would happen.

  • by lexman098 (1983842) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @08:34PM (#46206507)
    Look man, I hate the beta in its current form as much as the next guy. I was going to participate in the boycott, but they did respond in a positive way to user feedback. Classic will still be available for the foreseeable future, and that's good enough for me. When they fix the comments system in beta I'll be fine moving there as well. Nothing lasts forever. Be happy they're not forcing shitty beta on you now, and enjoy slashdot as you always have.
  • by AK Marc (707885) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @08:54PM (#46206607)
    Not when those with the money make all the rules. Then the knife only cuts one way. People like Donald Trump argue that students shouldn't be able to wipe out student loans with a bankruptcy, while he's declared bankruptcy 5 or more times.
  • by jader3rd (2222716) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @09:20PM (#46206755)

    How far? The full distance. Anything less, and it shows you don't really care in the long run.

    Is there anything wrong with having the correct knowledge, and not really caring?

  • by AK Marc (707885) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @10:37PM (#46207101)
    US tax payers aren't on the hook for most of the loans that students have. It's not just government loans that are "protected". "Smart" students would get as many of those credit cards offered like candy they can, advance or buy stuff to sell (gift cards, iTunes cards), and declare bankruptcy the moment they graduate.

    There's nothing stopping you from borrowing for other reasons, using the cash to pay off loans, then bankrupting youself out of the new debt. That would be the appropriate civil disobediance for the non-dischargeable loans.
  • by AK Marc (707885) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @11:06PM (#46207267)
    The non-dischargability of loans pre-dates the ACA, so your assertion that they are linked, and pointing them all to Democrats, when it was the Republicans who removed the dischargability seems odd to me. Are you sure you have your facts straight? Or did you align your recollection to justify your politicla stance?
  • Re:Oh, come on. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rtb61 (674572) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @11:34PM (#46207413) Homepage

    How much did the habit of fining the shareholders of a company for the criminal actions of the companies executives do to prevent the British Petroleum disaster in the gulf? You can bet your bottom dollar if they started sending corporate executives to jail for life when their decisions illegally kill people a whole bunch of disasters would be avoided. Time to stop fining the shareholders and start holding the psychopathic killer executives responsible for their actions.

  • by AK Marc (707885) on Sunday February 09, 2014 @11:37PM (#46207433)

    Since bankruptcies are public record, they will show up on a background check, and a number of the negative consequences can be lifelong.

    They don't seem to have hurt those with 5+, like Donald Trump and others.

    Personally I think that there should be a return of the WPA. How many city halls were built under that, giving jobs to people that needed/wanted them, and gave us results around for almost 100 years? Instead, our modern idea of a bailout is to pay a private company to do something they would have done anyway. Paying a real estate developer to build a building, or paying a telco to pay cables. That's not stimulus, that's welfare for the rich.

    Want to saddle a student with a lifetime of debt? Give them a job, so they at least have a chance to pay it off.

  • Re:Oh, come on. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dbIII (701233) on Monday February 10, 2014 @01:43AM (#46207885)

    Hayes's quest for fame by bringing down a big corp might be.

    Once they start writing memos like "investigate his wife" it's probably not about fame anymore. If it was me it would be about making sure that whoever drafted that memo doesn't get a chance to work again without adult supervision.

  • by Ex-MislTech (557759) on Monday February 10, 2014 @10:27AM (#46209613)

    The merger of government and corporate power is fascism per Mussolini, and
    I'd say he might know a thing or two about it while he was around.

    We have not had a free market in the US for a very long time if at all.

    The monopolies and cartels crush any competition they consider a real threat
    if they do not sell out a price considered reasonable by the Robber Barons.

  • Re:Oh, come on. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dywolf (2673597) on Monday February 10, 2014 @11:33AM (#46210001)

    Timeline:
    Company has a pesticide, second in use only to Monsanto's roundup.
    Concerns begin to grow about the chemicals effect
    Scientist is hired by company to join panel of scientists evaluating chemical
    Scientist notes that frogs are being born hermaphroditic, or with multiple (excess) malformes testes.
    Scientist begins to feel uncofortable, held back, and pressured at company
    Scientist leaves, returns to university lab, and replicates experiment, getting same results
    Scientists presents findings to company again
    Company disputes findings as flawed, by using flawed arguments
    Scientist is warned to be paranoid because giant companies with billions in revenue have no problem squashing annoying bugs (pun intended)
    Company begins smear campaign against inconvenient scientist, buying search terms, following him, harassing him
    EPA holds hearings
    17+ studies are presented.
    12 from the company, all show no effect on frogs
    Scientist presents his fidnings, showing effects on frogs
    Other independent scientists present findings, corroborating the scientists findings
    Company settles class lawsuit, where details about its smear campaign come out

    Sorry, there's more here than just someone trying to get famous.
    Essentially ANY STUDY done by a company with a financial stake in the result, showing the outcome the comapny favors must be considered suspect.

    Logically, it isnt automatically (100% certainty) invalid...but historically they have consistently been invalid more often than not,as companies attempt to buy out the scientists and fund fraudulent studies. Tobacco is the most famous example.

    And btw, when the hearings were over? The EPA proposed further study must be done...and told the company with a finanical stake in the outcome to do it.

  • by stenvar (2789879) on Monday February 10, 2014 @12:02PM (#46210159)

    You can't see a more appropriate response than a campaign of dirty tricks and character assassination? Well, lets start with what they shouldn't do if they want to avoid looking manipulative and guilty: they should't harass people and invade their privacy.

    No, actually I can't see a more appropriate response. After the EPA and other agencies looked at his data and rejected it, the scientific debate was over. If Hayes wanted to make more contributions as a scientist, the only way to do it would have been to produce more scientific results.

    Instead of producing more scientificdata to convince others, Hayes apparently went on a personal crusade and PR campaign. At that point, Hayes ceased to be a scientist and started being an activist without sufficient scientific data to back up his claims. At that point, his character and motivations became valid issues; he might well have had a financial motive for hurting the company, or a personality problem.

    It's not a pretty situation, and the company could probably have handled it better. But it doesn't fit the narrative of innocent scientist being hounded by big, bad company. This is not a "corporate war against a scientist".

Computers are unreliable, but humans are even more unreliable. Any system which depends on human reliability is unreliable. -- Gilb

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