Scratch the surface of any public affairs standoff and you'll find one side complaining that the other is backed by academic "experts" who are the opposite of the objective sources they claim to be. It has become a matter of course that any decent campaign must include some effort to get your messages into the hands of a few PhDs.
It has also become standard practice to try to illustrate how biased your opponent's academic allies are. You'll often hear complaints that the professor in question is bought and paid for, or an activist in academic attire, or just plain nuts.
But trying to explain this to wider audiences is usually a hopeless task. Most of the time, the strained cries about bias or nuttiness falls on deaf ears. Even when you're dealing with a professor who has twisted logic and facts into hideous shapes, the cachet of his or her title often carries the day.
One PR battle underway today is going to provide an interesting test of this pattern. The makers of a pesticide in common use for decades has been hounded by a vocal detractor from UC Berkeley, Dr. Tyrone Hayes. I'll leave the details of the scientific argument to more capable hands, but the upshot is the agriculture lobby says the stuff is safe and Dr. Hayes says it isn't -- a perfectly normal situation.
Except this situation isn't so normal. It seems that Dr. Hayes has ways of communicating his thoughts on the subject that are, um, unusual. The pesticide's maker, Syngenta, has gone public with excerpts of emails Dr. Hayes has sent over the years to staff at the company. The excerpts suggest messages that are a bizarre cocktail of taunting and attempts at hard-core rap. I'm not including any passages here, but you can see some on the Center For Global Food Issues' site: www.cgfi.org/2010/07/the-strange-case-of-dr-tyrone-hayes/
Will Hayes' emails make any ripples in a summer already featuring Mel Gibson's phone messages and Shirley Sherrod's edited speech video? The public affairs question is whether Syngenta and its agribusiness allies can capitalize on this to discredit a key opponent. If they think the revelations themselves are enough to do this for them, they're underestimating the public's capacity for overlooking weirdness.