Vengeance is Hers: Rhonda Shearer on Jared Diamond’s ‘Factual Collapse’

Rhonda Shearer, a cofounder of the Arts Science Research Lab and widow of Stephen Jay Gould recently released a long report on ASRL’s website “Stinky”: entitled “Jared Diamond’s Factual Collapse: New Yorker Mag’s Papua New Guinea Revenge Tale Untrue… Tribal Members Angry, Want Justice”: I have more than a passing interest in this case because I served as a fact-checker for the New Yorker on the piece, have written “my own response to the piece”:, and have been in contact with Shearer as she has been working on her response. But this story is far more that just something I am personally interested in — it has already been reported on by the “Huffington Post”: and “Forbes”: shows. Most news coverage will focus on the more spectacular aspects of the case: Diamond publishes a piece in the New Yorker depicting a tribal fight in Papua New Guinea, Shearer produces documentation that his accounts are untrue, and the Papua New Guineans involve sue Diamond for US$10 million.

What I think is truly important about this case – beyond the obvious fact that Wemp deserves justice – is that it represents the fundamental ethical issue that anthropologists will have to face for decades to come. Anthropological collaboration with the army may directly impact more human lives, but collaboration is an old problem that we have talked about for a long time. The great ethical debate prior to HTS was the ‘Yanomami Scandal’ stirred up by Patrick Tierney, a debate that centered on anthropologists (and others) behaving badly in the field, and not being held to account by the powers that be in the metropole. Some people like Rob Borofsky want to fetishize this debate as the issue in anthropological ethics, since it involves what they imagine must be the paradigmatic anthropological situation: powerful white outsiders, (relatively) supine brown people.

I admit that L’affaire Shearer does have a whiff of that dynamic. But overall it is about a relatively new issue which will I think will become increasingly central to anthropological ethics in the future: the radical answerability that researchers increasingly have to the people they depict. While this should always have been important to us, it is a topic we can no longer ignore in a world where their ‘informants’ are more connected than ever before to the flows of media and communication in which ‘we’ depict ‘them’. If the Yanomami controversy was about anthropologists suddenly being held responsible in the metropole for what they did in the field, the Jared Diamond case is about an author suddenly being held responsible in the field for what they did in the metropole.

Shearer’s report is long and detailed and I will not attempt to do more than summarize it here. Basically, Jared Diamond wrote an article in the New Yorker in which he told the story of Daniel Wemp, a man he met in Papua New Guinea who described a tribal fight he had been in which allegedly involved killing dozens of people and paralyzing his enemy in a quest to seek revenge for the death of his uncle. What did Diamond do wrong, according to Shearer? We can summarize as follows:

Poor research and inaccurate facts
Shearer conducted punishingly scrupulous research on Diamond’s story, which included contacting Wemp and having researchers in Papua New Guinea investigate Diamond’s story. It looks like the New Yorker article is a hodge-podge of Diamond’s recollections of the stories Wemp told Diamond when Wemp drove him around the Southern Highlands. The actual history of fighting in the area Wemp describes is quite different — for instance, the man that Diamond says was paralyzed in a wheelchair is photographed standing and walking in Shearer’s piece. Diamond presents what appear to be verbatim quotations from Wemp which are probably Diamond’s reconstruction of the conversation, and so forth. So both the facts and their presentation are problematic.

Poor ethical standards
Separate from the fact that Diamond appears to have gotten the story wrong is the fact that he followed few of the ethical standards which anthropologists (and journalists, apparently) follow in writing about their research subjects. Calling someone a murderer in a venue like the New Yorker is a serious claim indeed. Add to this the fact that Diamond used Wemp’s real name in the story, and that Wemp had no idea that his stories would ever be published, and you have serious ethical problems. There was, in other words, no informed consent and no attempt to provide anonymity for informants.

Shearer’s points here are largely factual and perhaps in the future there will be more delving into the minutiae of this case — as someone who lived in the province just north of Southern Highland and who has visited this area I am extremely impressed with the quality of her research, the experts she has contacted, and her collaboration with Papua New Guinean journalists. But for non specialists the issues of what did or did not happen in 1992 will probably be less important than some of the wider issues raised by this piece:

Let’s hope this doesn’t turn into The Great Counterattack
Many anthropologists dislike Jared Diamond because he has done what they fantasize of doing — writing readable nonfiction for a general audience. One possible outcome of this case is that it turns into The Great Counterattack in which every possible error in Diamond’s reporting is used to trash him by people who care less about Papua New Guinea, geography, steel, collapse, etc. and more about getting the taste of sour grapes out of their mouths. To the extent this becomes a witchhunt, it will get more and more boring and, of course, more and more cruel.

Questions about scholarly competency and institutional licensing
Diamond is like some sort of great Victorian polymath — geographer, ornithologist, anthropologist, historian… in his books it appears there is nothing he can’t do, and to experts in each of these fields it appears that he can’t do any of them. While popular audiences love Diamond’s work, the scholarly consensus on it has been pretty firmly established: much of what the public thinks is Diamond’s original ideas are cribbed from other authors, often with the bare minimum of acknowledgments performed in footnotes to stave off accusations of plagiarism. Overall, what Diamond gets right, he gets from others. What he gets wrong tends to be the stuff he has made up himself.

It is one thing to have Diamond’s book show up on the shelves of airport bookstores, but quite another for it to be described as ‘anthropology’ in the subheading of a story in the New Yorker. Now that Diamond has tried his hand at some ethnographic ‘research’ in a public forum, I think we are beginning to see the differences between avocational anthropology and the real thing. So what is an anthropologist? Is it someone who follows the best practices of our discipline, or do we really feel there must be some sort of institutional licensing in the form of a departmental appointment of degree in order for someone to take up this mantle? Its an interesting question that Diamond’s piece raises.

Could anyone sustain this level of scrutiny?
Shearer takes Diamond to task for not meeting anthropological (and journalistic) standards of evidence, methodology, and ethics. Yet I have to wonder if Diamond is the only person who would be snared in a net as tightly woven as Shearers. After all, anthropologists have a long history of failing to meet their own evidentiary standards. Those of us who work in PNG can think of several authors whose work is not widely taught because we ‘all know’ about the quality of their fieldwork. It is important to hold Diamond to professional standards if he is going to act like a professional. At the same time, we must recognize that he is taking his place in a field where those who have come before him have often failed to distinguish themselves.

Shearer is not reporting the story, Shearer is the story
Anthropologists understand that social life is a constant process of narration and renarration — and I’ve always felt this is particularly true of highlands PNG, somehow. I am not Melanesian (obviously) but looking at this case through a Melanesian lens it seems to me that there is something complex and fascinating about the way Shearer’s report has elicited a whole series of responses from people in PNG and is yet another step in the ongoing reentextualization of events that happened a decade ago in Southern Highlands as it twists and turns into various forms of compensation/litigation.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, the central and most important point of this debate is that it is about what we write at ‘home’ circulating back to the ‘field’. But this is just another way of saying that the line between these two is increasingly porous (as Gupta and Ferguson noted some time ago). Diamond’s case is a cautionary tale for all anthropologists who write in the comfort of their homes imagining their fieldsite is far away. It is answerability that is at stake here — Diamond’s and our own. Answerability is something that journalists have been struggling with longer than anthropologists and I think what they have to teach Diamond offers lessons we ourselves will have to learn in the future (if we haven’t already): get your facts straight, report them fairly, and let people know that you are doing so. It is not only the right thing to do, but in a world where ‘they read what we right’, your audience is also your informants.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

57 thoughts on “Vengeance is Hers: Rhonda Shearer on Jared Diamond’s ‘Factual Collapse’

  1. JL:
    Well I’m out here in PNG and being from PNG and you’re right it hasn’t caused a storm. It has been discussed and it is annoying, but annoying in the fact that the general feeling is that ‘oh here we go again, another foreigner coming to do a study here and making some errouneos assumptions…yet again’

    A visitor to my blog put it this way:
    “…So I am sad. But also glad. I too am highly skeptical of the motives of cross-cultural researchers and also the value of the work they produce in terms of the veracity of the things they opine (esp in light of what I see as a constantly repeated portrayal of the Melanesian as the Modern Savage – Oli’s neo-colonialist point – its humiliating and patronising and propogates an utterly false image of us either dim-witted pacific islander coconut-tree climbing ukelele playing fuzzy-haired sing-song broken-English people by day and thugful mugful murdering raping pillaging tribal fighting degenerates by night. Both extremes from which there is no redemption except through being released from our own ignorance by the ‘other’).

    Clearly wider access to media and commuinication will make it harder for people outside of PNG to take advantage of our remoteness and heretofore lack of interconnectedness.”

    So yes it is absolutely frustrating, but in our typical Pacific fashion, we let it slide because we feel that its all too hard to try explain ourselves in our own words because we never get heard in our little corner of the world.

    The other issue would be that because the case is in reference to only one clan in PNG, the entire country does not automatically take ownership of the issue. They do in the sense that PNG is being falsley portrayed in a certain light, but they can just as easily say, ‘well that’s not my people and we don’t do things like that, so I’m not going to take to the streets, but I do want the guys to win that money though so we can show how we can take anyone on if they wrong us’

    Sorry does that sound like vengence?

  2. Emmanuel: Vengeance? I don’t really have any opinions about it at all. But I do feel strongly about this:

    As painful as your history may be, it’s even sadder to me to see you guys coughing up crap like this: “Both extremes from which there is no redemption except through being released from our own ignorance by the ‘other’”

    — A mindless regurgitation of western academic fluff, phrases which were cliches before, I’m guessing, you guys were even born, which never meant much to begin with, and which have been repeated so often, by now, that they’re completely empty.

    As hard as it may be to be exploited, it strikes me as worse to be unable to describe your situation except in your exploiters’ terms. I urge whoever posted that to your blog to find his or her own voice: it’s the first step to fighting back.

    Sorry to be so blunt about it, but you guys need to come up with your own way of describing what’s happening to you, instead of shipping our own nonsense back to us, and anybody who tells you otherwise is just another colonialist.

  3. (Ignore that ‘Vengence’ comment, that was me just trying to be smart.)

    Thank you JohnSo, I don’t think these issues could be discussed in any other way but by being blunt.

    Many of our generation in PNG grew up around ‘David Hasselhoff’ and ‘Astro Boy’ then went through school with ‘Public Enemy’ and ‘Midnight Oil’.So having grown up in two cultures, we automatically assume that using a foreign language is the only way to address an issue raised in that language. Unfortunately cliches become part of that arsenal.

    Is that an excuse? Maybe. I’d say we need more forums of discussion on these issues for us to find our own words. We need to talk more and think more about who we are. Our Identity needs to be intact before we can even recognise what we are losing.

  4. That’s interesting — so you’re fed (or you feed yourself with) both a culture and the forms of rebellion against that culture?

    I’m curious: are there forms of indigenous rebellion against indigenous culture? I mean, in PNG before western influence was pervasive, or in that side of it of that remains so, is there anything like, say, a teenager? — OK, that’s sort of a dumb way of putting it, but I’m wondering if there are local forms of chafing against — not western culture, but local culture. If you grow up in a tribe that has a practice that you don’t agree with, is there are a standard way of expressing it? Presumably all societies have power struggles, and political struggles but do all of them have the equivalent of what we would think of as ideological or aesthetic struggles? If so, how do they play out?

    Does this question make sense?

    I’m not sure about the identity thing: I don’t know anyone who has a clear sense of their own, and in America, anyway, the ones who do tend to be people I don’t like much. For the rest of us, it’s very fluid and ambiguous. We all think it’s something our great-grandparents had that we’ve lost, but I bet our great-grandparents though they’d lost it, too…

    Talk to me some more, Emmanuel. I like listening to you.

  5. JohnSo:

    Well yes, we carry two or more cultures with us wherever we go and in whatever we do. Now in terms of the forms of rebellion against culture, I’m not so sure. It’s not so much a rebellion more of what’s more convenient.

    Traditional power structures of a chief, clans etc have been eroded by the acquisition and usage of economic power, in other words ‘financial wealth’. And that’s a direct result of education and globalisation.

    So how does it play out when someone doesn’t agree with a traditional/cultural convention? Well it depends on their financial status. The richer they are the more allowance for them to create their own social norms, etc. And you’ll note that sadly this attitude and culture has carried on through into our government.

    But on a whole you then begin to start seeing a split in society, those that conform to cultural structures and those that don’t and because this runs along lines of financial wealth you create a frustrating situation for the one’s without wealth. The outcome of such frustrations become things like urban crime and other activities like that.

  6. I just wanted to let you know that Ms. Shearer seems to have banned my comments from her own board. I’m not sure why: I simply brought up the same points there that I’ve brought up here, and in the same measured tone of voice. I can only conclude that she only approves of dissent when it’s not directed at her.



  7. I don’t think calling me a “bag lady” here on this board indicates a “measured tone.

    While “JohnSo” was posting name calling here at SavageMinds as “JohnSo”, he was also simultaneously posting name-callings and personal attacks on as “JL” –both with the same email address.

    When he started also posting on StinkyJournalism as JL and JohnSo approx 15 minutes apart from the same email address–it became clear he was pretending to be two people. he purpose of this, of course, is to maximize his impact by giving the false appearance of more than one person (he can be JohnSo AND JL) having the same opinion instead of just one. This is clearly sock puppetry. rules for comments section: “No Sock Puppets: If you pretend to be two different people, using two (or more) different pseudonyms, when you are actually one person (presumably to give the false appearance that more people than one is commenting) your comment(s) and pseudonyms will thereafter be blocked.”

  8. [Comment deleted for the following reasons: 1. The claims it made were untrue. 2. It was off topic. 3. It was a personal attack. - Ed]

  9. I like what Rex has to say, but want to shift things slightly to another angle on this and its implications for a lot of ethnographic practice. There is a fairly straightforward sense in which the Diamond piece makes what are reasonably treated as factual claims that are subject to journalistic notions such as ‘fact-checking’. But a lot of ethnographic work is not susceptible to such a straight-line notion of verification (the idea that the events are there, you get corroborating accounts, and you’ve locked it).

    The problem arises in cases that were rehearsed by folks ranging from E-P to Ardener (one of my favourites), and later poked and probed by Sperber. Lots of the things we are interested in have to do with things people say about non-verifiable ‘events’ or states of affairs. (We can all fill in the blanks here.) Apart from this, even when we are talking about things that cause no epistemological vertigo – say, that Charlie went to the store (vs. Charlie is a witch) – much of what we trade in consists of renditions of others’ renditions of events.

    While I don’t want to get into a figment-of-a-figment regress here, there is always the question of what kind of claim one makes in reporting such a statement. If, for example, Sam tells me that Charlie went to the store (or that his grandfather burned down a village or met a masalai), is the claim that such and such took place, or is the claim that Charlie told me so? This points to something that is often as important to ethnography as the event-facts-on-the-ground: how someone talks about and sees the world. In such a context, the claim that Daniel Wemp may have exaggerated details of the tale has a different status and relevance depending on whether the focus is the event or the teller of the tale. As I say, for most ethnographers, the latter may be more important than the former.

    Most of those working in Melanesian (and, it turns out, also among many Native American groups) understand how scrupulous people are about their own knowledge claims and about reported speech (the use of evidentials, or other grammatical features, for example). Apart from whatever inferences one makes about epistemologies and so on, I think this conveys a real sense people have about the responsibility attached to talking about what others have said.

    I think at least one unlooked-for lesson embedded in Shearer’s attack is *not* that fact-checking and corroboration in the journalistic sense are the measure of all things, but rather that taking responsibility for reported speech – for talking about what someone tells us – is a serious matter.

    None of this should be news to us, but as Alex reminds us, we should all expect to be held to account on this score. Especially if we offer a temptingly high-profile target…

  10. I like what Dan says a lot. But to keep the conversation going, let me add a thought. The discussion so far remains within a journalistic frame, where the questions are whether X actually said Y and whether reporter Z summarized what was said accurately. One of the virtues of an older anthropological perspective, encapsulated in the notions of social facts and of culture conceived as a shared reality, is that what X is reported to have said is only one data point, only one piece of evidence in a case for believing that a population X believes or behaves in ways reasonably approximated by the ethnography. X may turn out to have been an extreme eccentric or the village idiot; what X said will thus be, evidentially speaking, an outlier. The ethnographer who is doing good ethnography will then either not use it at all or try to explain why the outlier occurs. Careful attention to outliers may yield sharper insights and turn good ethnography into great ethnography.

    From this perspective it is also possible to compare what X said with more than other observations that make their way into the ethnographer’s field notes. Thus, for example, people who study life in Chinese villages can now turn to a small but substantial library of studies of Chinese communities to pose questions about whether what X said is typical of what is reported in other studies or an outlier explainable by reference to geographical or other material circumstances. It may be worth asking if X’s distaste for the custom of secondary burial common in southern China reflects the fact that X is from northern China, where this custom is regarded as barbaric.

    I return, once again, to Clifford Geertz’s remark in the introduction to _Islam Observed_, where he notes that while anthropologists look for insights in microscopic settings, their value can only be tested in larger conversations. What X thinks of how Z construed his statement Y will then, anthropologically speaking, be a less interesting question than whether what Z is saying confirms or challenges received understandings about the population to which X belongs.

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