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 Journalism.org”:http://www.stinkyjournalism.org/aboutus.php entitled “Jared Diamond’s Factual Collapse: New Yorker Mag’s Papua New Guinea Revenge Tale Untrue… Tribal Members Angry, Want Justice”:http://www.stinkyjournalism.org/latest-journalism-news-updates-149.php. 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”:http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&ct=res&cd=1&url=%2F2008%2F05%2F04%2Fvengeance-is-his-jared-diamond-in-the-new-yorker%2F&ei=1EvvSemiGZb8swPs8LHhAQ&usg=AFQjCNEd0-gDpTtootHXezSPeCtHJ7EMUw, 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”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/22/new-guinea-tribe-sues-the_n_189841.html and “Forbes”:http://www.forbes.com/2009/04/21/new-yorker-jared-diamond-business-media-new-yorker.html?feed=rss_business_media 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.