The New Yorker on Atrazine

The New Yorker has a long article appearing online today about the controversy between a Berkeley professor (Tyrone Hayes), his research on the herbicide atrazine, and Syngenta - the company that makes it.  

I found this article disturbing in many respects.  I have do doubt Syngenta faces all kinds of chemophobia fear mongering, and constantly has to fight public battles with strategic activist groups who attempt to alter public opinion and public policy, sometimes based on shaky science.  I wish the New Yorker article would have discussed more of that dynamic.  Nevertheless, what it does reveal are allegations of internal memos from the company with  tactics (most of which were apparently never implemented) to smear and discredit the Berkeley professor.  That ought to frighten any academic working on controversial issues, and it unfortunately is likely to reduce the incentive to work on precisely those issues which need the most attention.  This piece focused on the tactics of a business against a professor (and a professor's enthusiasm for attacking the company) but I have little doubt the same can happen from interest groups on all sides of a debate.

More disconcerting still is what this says for the ability of science to resolve disputes about knowledge.  Whether atrazine causes abnormalities in a particular type of frog at a certain dosage should be one of those questions science can answer.  Either atrazine causes these effects or it doesn't.  This isn't one of the mysteries of the cosmos.  This isn't macroeconomics.  Yet, there are apparently findings on both sides of the issue (Note: I have't personally delved into the scientific literature on this particular matter in any detail).  Unlike some of the "science" that gets cited by the anti-GMO crowd, the work critical of atrazine has appeared in top journals like PNAS and Nature, as have articles finding no effect.  Still it appears that the biggest determinant of whether an effect was found is the prior belief about whether one exists.  I don't have a problem with Syngenta funding research on the topic (who, after all, will pay for such research?), but it is disheartening when repeated scientific experiments cannot ultimately settle a dispute that is empirical in nature.  

The last paragraph of the piece was an interesting quote from one of the professor's former students:

He had come to see science as a rigid culture, “its own club, an élite society,” Noriega said. “And Tyrone didn’t conform to the social aspects of being a scientist.” Noriega worried that the public had little understanding of the context that gives rise to scientific findings. “It is not helpful to anyone to assume that scientists are authoritative,” he said. “A good scientist spends his whole career questioning his own facts. One of the most dangerous things you can do is believe.”

In part, I agree.  But, I also fear this is part of an attempt to undermine the ability of scientific inquiry to settle empirical disputes.  I teach a graduate research methods class, and talk a bit about the definition of science, which is often described as a systematic process for discovering new knowledge.  Yes, we should question our facts.  Yes, we should question our biases (and where humans are involved, that will always be an issue).  But, I hold out hope that science can, indeed, provide knowledge for those willing to follow the evidence where it leads.  Otherwise, every issue is simply a PR battle.