Freedom of Speech and Departmental Seminars

“It’s true, I’ve never given birth, and never will, so my wife says I don’t know real pain, but I would guess that if I had eggs growing in my testicles, that would be as bad.” That, or something close to it, is what Tyrone Hayes said in his recent seminar in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Rice University. The seminar was in their weekly series and was entitled “From Silent Spring to Silent Night: A Tale of Toads and Men.”

This was an unusually good talk, and also unusually accessible. Professor Hayes gave the mechanisms and chemical pathways that backed up his story, but did not dwell on them. He focused on the story, and the story was disturbing. Atrazine is a herbicide with terrible toxic effects that have been demonstrated on amphibians and other animals. It is a feminizer that results in more estrogen production in males. Male frogs should not produce ovaries, and should not have eggs in their testes. It has effects at dosages we take in with our water and foods every day. The European Union banned its use years ago. The good old USA continues to pour over 70 MILLION POUNDS on our landscape for crop yield increases well under 5%, according to the Wikipedia article.

This is nuts. It is crazy. Why does our government not pay attention to this? How does the Syngenta lobby con our government into continuing to allow this poison on our landscape? These last four sentences are not in the usual form of scientific discourse. But maybe they should be, when based on evidence. There is a huge gulf between science and action, and it is a shame. One of my former students, and an excellent science writer, Wendee Holtcamp, has the following in her statement box on Facebook: “A man of sincerity is less interested in defending the truth than in stating it clearly, for he thinks that if the truth can be clearly seen it can very well take care of itself. –Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island.”

I agree that this captures what most scientists do. But what if it is not enough? What if there are fortunes to be made by backing false positions? What if those folks hire the lobbyists, know how to capture the attention of the decision makers? What if those people understand that enacting change in policies is just as slow and takes just as small steps as scientific discovery itself?

I advise students all the time, and I tell them to find something they are passionate about, first. But if they came to me saying they want to save the environment (students do talk like that), then I’d advise them to go into policy. We know so much that is not being applied. The bottleneck is not in scientific knowledge so much as in what we do about what we know. What are the big issues? That’s material for a much longer piece, but you know what they are, climate change, habitat loss, poisoning our environment (fraking, atrazine, mineral extraction, etc.). How can they be fixed? Regulation, laws, policies, but also changing mindsets, living simply so others can simply live, as the Friends say. Neal Lane, who was scientific advisor to Bill Clinton, and head of our National Science Foundation says we can’t leave it to others, and that we all need to become citizen scientists. It is an interesting use of the term since it is usually used for amateurs engaging in science. I think Neal means we scientists should also be more active citizens, and learn how to impact policy.

But back to departmental seminars and atrazine. Tyrone was initially hired as a consultant for the atrazine producers. When they saw what he discovered, they tried to block its release. They failed. And we get to hear the story because a professor like Tyrone cannot be fired from Berkeley for what he says.

Are all departmental seminars this interesting? Sadly, no. But they are all open to the public and form a crucial part of academic discourse. Find one in a subject that appeals to you and go. If you go to several, you can get a feel for how arguments are constructed in different fields and learn the nature of the conversation. You can even hear fledging scholars defend their Ph.D. research. Events at Rice tells everything going on at Rice, and what is open to the public. I’ll miss many of these events when I leave Houston, the college theater most of all (subject for another time).

I couldn’t find a CC image of frogs and atrazine easily, but I did find this great copy of Tyrone’s talk:The Talk of Tyrone Hayes.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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