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. Good response to an interesting and unfolding story. I have one quibble, though: do you really _believe_ the “Sour Grapes Hypothesis”? I mean, I can’t think of very many anthros who have even tried their hand at some kind of public-oriented anthropology, and I know that I personally don’t care much that Diamond has been successful — the bookstore is packed with authors who have been more successful than me! I end up recommending _Guns, Germs, and Steel_ pretty often to people who are “kinda” interested in anthropology, despite the many concerns raised here and elsewhere about Diamond’s scholarship, as an introduction to the kind of thinking that anthropologists and other social scientists do. I recommend that other list-titled book, _Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches_ for the same reason, despite thinking it’s a bunch of hogwash.

    I guess what I’m saying is the “aah, you’re just jealous” defense seems all too facile. Geertz, Mead, and Montagu were all fairly popular writers (maybe not bestseller-list popular, but certainly _New Yorker_ popular) and I don’t know that I’d take someone seriously who dismissed criticism about their work citing the critic’s wnvy of their success. Does it matter that Diamond is a bird anatomist and not a “real” social scientist? It seems to me the problem isn’t that he’s been successful where anthros have not (which I’d chalk up to lack of trying more than anything else) but that he’s not very good at doing what social scientists do.

  2. I totally believe that many anthropologists’ dislike of Diamond is rooted in envy. But this is merely to speculate on the motivations people have for making claims about his work, not an analysis of the adequacy of those claims. As I said in the piece (and you seem to agree with in your comments), the debate gets less interesting the more it becomes about taking Diamond down and the further it gets from issues regarding the ethics and accuracy of Diamond’s work.

  3. Yes, perhaps it’s envy. But on the other hand, perhaps you haven’t been held ‘captive’ in some doctor’s office while he spouts on about how much he loves anthropology, how he’s always wanted to be an anthropologist, and proceeds to tell me all about anthropology — according to Jared Diamond. How would they react if I told them all about endocrinology or neurosurgery on the basis of my reading WebMD? (Which is a pretty useful site, but still …) Diamond’s work perpetuates the myth that we’re just travelers, the EveryMan, with a cool job but no real body of knowledge. Part of this is a prevalent idea that humans in culture and society are inherently un-knowable, so one explanation is as good as another.
    My main concern is that who we are as professionals has been defined by someone who we always suspected (and now know) to not be trained according to our standards, whether standards of knowledge or standards of ethics. And then there’s the using of others’ work without full citation.
    I guess we have only ourselves to blame for not writing those broad, exciting books. I think Savage Minds actually serves an important purpose is making our kind of knowledge more widely accessible.

  4. I’d really like to hear more about the whole practice of journalists using professional anthropologists to “fact-check”. Sounds like there is an intriguing disciplinary difference between what is involved in “checking” a peer’s work for publication. Not to mention a pretty costly one at $10 million!

  5. Would it not be amusing if a requirement for ethical standards were to require the discipline to bring a ‘rule of experts’ through the back door?

    Very interesting reflection nonetheless: what makes an anthropologist? A PhD, an ethical commitment, field experience, publishing track, membership of a professional body…???

  6. I was in touch with Rhonda about a year ago when she came across my articles on “Collapse” and “Guns, Germs, Steel” at:

    I am not a trained anthropologist, but I have been trained in Marxism. I regard Diamond as a very good writer, but as a thinker only second-rate.

    I admire Rhonda’s dedication to this cause enormously. Clearly, since the deployment of anthropologists in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has become more and more ethically challenged. I am grateful for a website such as this that can keep a spotlight on the profession.

  7. The fact-check question is interesting, and perhaps somewhat explanatory. If Diamond had published this in a social science journal, say American Anthropologist, it would have been peer-reviewed in a way that the New Yorker is not, fact-checking or no (no offense meant to the author of this article). But he clearly wanted his pontifications shared with a more broadly “public at large” audience, which includes as many who readers who also subscribe to the trade journals as others who subscribe to the New Yorker for the cartoons. In such a case, extended references to theory and other scholars in the field would seem more of a distraction than a way of accreditation. Writing for such an audience, he probably had less in mind the ethical dimensions of his piece than the popular or novel or “exotic” expectations of a public which thinks PNG sounds more like a resort where one can acquire lovely bowls and masks to hang on the walls of their condos than an interesting case study for mid-range theory.

    That aside, Diamond is not alone in his style of long-winded semi-fictional “ethnographic” writing, a genre which has more in common with ghost-written “autobiographies” of public figures than anthropological scholarship. It’s just unfortunate that this is the strain of “ethnography” that publishers and editors seem to assume the public wants to read. As someone with some anthropological training (and a Masters to show for it), I would be curious to see if Diamond tries to publish (or has already) an article on the same or a similar topic in an established scholarly journal.

  8. Sam, you might find an article called “The Torso in the Thames” by Todd Sanders interesting (sorry, I don’t know where it was published off the top of my head and I’m currently away from my books). Sanders talks about his experience trying to provide a little anthropological context for newspapers when a fairly gruesome murder was discovered and attributed to immigrants’ witchcraft beliefs.

  9. Pingback: More on Diamond
  10. Most of the points are excellent in this post. But for the record, I need to clarify and correct some points

    The title here–“Vengeance is hers”–suggests I have some sort of grudge against Dr. Diamond. This is untrue. I don’t know the man. For those who wonder if my late husband Steve Gould, had any conflict with Diamond –if he did he never mentioned it to me.

    I was interested in the facts. The principle: that it is only “methods not people” that are objective is what I live by. That Diamond’s accuracy is flawed is best exampled by Isum – who Diamond described as in a wheelchair from an arrow to the spine – who was walking and carrying a heavy bag a dirt when we first saw him at his home. But accusing innocent men of crimes using real names and without any verification and placing him in danger–because he could–cuts to the core of what we believe is the apex of intellectual life in our culture.

    In my view, Diamond’s fundamental disregard and depersonalization of his informant and his safety is chilling. (After all, Diamond SAYS right in the article how dangerous it is to use real names linked to murders and then proceeded to use real names! [It is notable that Diamond did, in fact, hid the name of his white friend (the former policeman who cowered a local with a knife with only his body language that he referred to. We found the friend and he confirmed that it was him] ).

    Since April 30th last year I (and his informant, Daniel Wemp) have tried to speak to Diamond –he refuses. The rude and outrageous personal attacks that (behind the scenes) I have put up with from the New Yorker will be part of our forthcoming report. (They accused me IN WRITING, of being so litigious, that I sued or threatened to sue…wait for it…”Rudy Giuliani”, “The 9/11 Commission” and “The Harvard Crimson.” Weeks later they wrote again to correct the previous letter but not with an apology that I deserved. This erroneous attack when combined with the Diamond debacle are suggestive of a real problem with New Yorker research efforts. I mean really. Lawsuits are public records, a key stroke away…yet without fact-checking The New Yorker was willing to charge me with crazy–and false– accusations, in writing, without first checking…stay tuned for the documents.

    I think it is wrong to, what Alex (aka Rex) says is to “speculate on the motivations people have for making claims” without evidence to support them. We do not speculate in our reports about why Diamond did what he did…I have no idea… and would just be guessing and I don’t think such speculation without backing is fair.

    Once our team learned in July 2008 that Diamond never spoke to his informants before publication; the stakes became extremely high for us, as well as for Dr. Diamond and The New Yorker. It was our duty to be rigorous to the nth degree as people’s jobs and reputations were at stake– which morally and legally requires us to cross t’s and dot i’s not once, but five times. So our rigor, I would think should be appreciated, not suspect!

    I was stung by Rex’s statement: …”… powerful white outsiders, (relatively) supine brown people. I admit that L’affaire Shearer does have a whiff of that dynamic.”

    This does not have a basis in fact. I work with people who are victimized by the press all the time–the very key and method of my work efforts is to work as a team. Finally the sub-head where it claims “Shearer is the Story” is a typical stratagem (completely unbeknown to Rex) that people use who want to silence facts that our group StinkyJournalism uncovers. Personal attacks hurt but much worse, they distract from the truth and corrections of false factual claims–which is exactly the intent.

    How Diamond treated innocent men and tribes and how to prevent this from happening again is the story. Let nothing distract from that.

  11. Please note: in the comment above the crossed out text–“who Diamond described as in a wheelchair from an arrow to the spine” appears in error. There should be not cross out appearing.

    [Strikethrough corrected by Editor. The Textile engine used for formatting comments interprets the two dashes people typically use for am “emdash” as a strikethrough.]

  12. The hilarious part of this is that Diamond is primarily an evolutionary biologist. He doesn’t claim to be an anthropologist although he incorporates bits gleaned from anthropology into his work when useful.

    His popular works combine evolutionary concepts, biology, and history in a macro-scale explanation of human development and the modern world. If you’re instinctively thinking environmental determinism or social Darwinism, it’s probably because you haven’t formally studied in ecology and evolutionary biology. He’s specifically drawing on population dynamics and interactions based on biogeography, climate, and locale. Individual success and “culture” is largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of human development and proliferation. Seriously the accusation of environmental determinism towards Diamond is annoying because culture is not a terribly important in his reasoning for why, for example, Europeans dominated the Americas during the colonial period. It’s not because European culture is superior, or better suited for “working harder” or whatever simplistic notions. It’s because Europe was in close proximity (on an East-to-West axis) to the Fertile Crescent (a region with the highest concentration of the most productive domesticable plants and animals i.e., pigs, goats, cows, grains) and lies in a temperate zone better suited for agriculture. Since agriculture emerged earlier in Europe and the Fertile Crescent by about 2500 years (than the rest of the agricultural centers) those peoples had an earlier head start in developing state societies, specialized labor, and heavy technologies due to the advantages of agriculture such as long-term food surpluses, supporting more people per square mile, etc. It has nothing to do with shaping cultures to be “more hard-working” or whatever drivel environmental determinism espouses.

    I’m unfamiliar with the charge of Diamond’s lack of citations since I’m reading his “Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal domestication” Nature article from 2002 and it has 67 references.

    On the issue of the New Yorker article, Diamond frequently goes to New Guinea because he studies birds there, and most of his recent rigorous work has been in evolutionary biology, publishing in that respective field’s scientific journals. The New Yorker article was likely a hobbyist article for him to write, a side musing drawing from his experiences working in New Guinea. I’m guessing his driver told him some tall-tales which Diamond ate up then felt like writing about some years later not really concerned about the safety of Daniel Wemp because he believed that Wemp really exerted that kind of power. Diamond is kind of a goof like that. In addition, he isn’t a trained journalist or anthropologist, so he probably made the mistake of not being familiar with the rules he transgressed. Unfortunately, he also apparently fell within the realm of REAL ANTHROPOLOGISTS who are now using this to castigate Diamond.

  13. Ms Shearer-
    I read and deeply enjoyed your piece at I should note, also, that it seems Mr Wemp should also be careful to note that not only does the New Yorker publication–which amounts to an accusation (apparently unfounded) of murder against him–place him in potential danger at home, it may potentially limit his ability to travel outside his home country. I am, as a point of fact, quite shocked that the New Yorker published a piece with so much potential not only to completely destroy an individual’s life and reputation, but, and perhaps in the proper register, with so much potential for a libel suit.

    The case is, as a whole, quite troubling.

    I sincerely hope that Mr Wemp’s case continues forward in the courts. Accusations of murder and rape published in a major magazine (and online no less!) are to be treated seriously, no matter how easy it might be to imagine the person accused as whatever kind of savage might suit one’s fancy (pocket god, much?).

  14. There are a couple of points worth making here, and since I gather most of you are academics rather than journalists, I guess I’ll try to make them. Indeed, the confusion begins at the very top of your post.

    You say you “served as a fact-checker for the New Yorker”, but surely you mean that you served as a source, no? ‘Fact-checker’ refers to someone employed by the magazine to double-check a reporter’s research, which they would do, for example, by calling anthropologists (among others).

    1. It may be that in anthropology it is standard practice to anonymize your sources: in journalism it is quite the opposite. Ordinarily, you need to have a good excuse to omit someone’s name (and yes, this includes private citizens). It often happens that you end up writing something offensive to your subject, in which case they will inevitably accuse you of being unfair, distorting the facts, taking things out of context, and so on. This is the price of admission. It is, of course, important to get your facts right, but not because it makes the subject’s life easier. As a journalist, you work for your readers, and you owe them the truth. If this makes those of you who are not journalists uneasy, consider the fact that you read stories in the newspaper every day about people who did not ask to be written about, and I suspect you rarely flinch at doing so. Occasionally — with, for example, rape victims, although even this is controversial — there is value in protecting someone’s identity. But not often.

    2. Despite Ms. Shearer’s reliance on this or that Professor of Journalism, the fact is that there are absolutely no formal professional standards for being a journalist — there is no licensing body. This is, of course, deliberate, and to my mind at least, valuable. The First Amendment is, in many ways, an experiment in anarchy: it is not illegal to insult someone in print, or even to lie about them. There is no equivalent to, say, being disbarred, or denied tenure. The hope is that better journalism will drive out worse; the principle is that even if it doesn’t, it’s not against the law to be an asshole.

    3. By the same token, ask yourself how often you read about successful defamation or libel suits. In the United States, at least, it almost never happens. It’s not un-heard of, but it’s very, very rare, especially when you consider how many stories are published every day. And why? Because, again, the courts are extremely reluctant to limit anybody’s right to say anything they want. This does not, of course, mean that everyone should. But it does suggest, to me at least, that Ms. Shearer is misleading and exploiting the very people of PNG that she purports to champion, when she files $10-million lawsuits on their behalf. This is hot-dogging. They would have to prove (a) that Diamond wrote things that were not true, (b) that he did so knowingly, (c) that doing so damaged those he wrote about, and (d) that he did so out of malice. Needless to say, (d) is kicker.

    4. I find it particularly interesting, though not all that surprising, that it is precisely you, in the anthropological community, who seem to have such a hard time accepting the fact that, even with the United States, there are cultures from your own, with different standards and practices. Journalism is one. And while each culture may have its advantages and disadvantages, neither has a monopoly on the truth.

  15. Johnso: I think you make some great points, but for one thing — Jared Diamond is not a journalist, either. He is, by his own self-definition, a scientist, albeit one that often publishes in mainstream journalistic outlets. I don’t think most of us are all that concerned with the outcome of the legal case here, but rather with the accuracy — or, in this case, potentially gross inaccuracy — of Diamond’s science, especially given that Diamond’s reach is quite large and that Diamond’s work is incredibly influential in shaping American audience’s views of how the cultural world works.

    I would venture so far as to say that if Diamond were acting strictly as a journalist, his work would have been subjected to stricter controls than was, in fact, the case. As an eminent expert on matters Papua/New Guinean, and as a beloved writer with a sizable following, I’m inclined to think that he’s given much more leeway than would otherwise be the case.

    I think, too, that since the people involved are a) distant, and b) allegedly “primitive” (they shoot each other with arrows, after all!), there may have been less sense that factuality needed to be confirmed — after all, how could something in a mainstream American literary outlet matter to bow-wielding highlanders in a distant Third-World country, right? Had Diamond’s allegations concerned, say, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, they might have been much more closely examined. In that sense this whole case might be bringing home a lesson anthropologists have known for decades — that the “faraway” and “Exotic” aren’t all that isolated from the global flow of information that makes us feel oh-so-modern.

  16. [NOTE: This was incorrectly marked as spam and the author submitted a new, shorter version of the same comment. In the interest of completeness, I am posting this, though some of the points may have been remade by the author. –Dustin]

    Thanks — but part of my point was that, in an important sense, there’s no such thing as a journalist. Or, let’s say, there are no de jure journalists, only de facto ones. So Diamond has as much right to the title as anyone else.

    Having written long articles about far-off places (DRC, for example) for a number of magazines, myself, I can assure you that Diamond’s stuff was far more thoroughly checked at the New Yorker than my own was at other magazines. (I should point out that I did the best reporting I could, that a member of my immediate family is an anthropologist, and that I have absolutely no doubt that any specialist in any area that I wrote about would object to much of what I wrote. But then, you object to each other’s work pretty regularly, too.) Most responsible magazines have some fact-checkers, but few are especially vigilant about it. And of course, newspapers don’t have fact checkers at all. Reporters are supposed to be their own damn fact checkers, and I myself would be embarrassed if more than a date or two had to be changed in my copy because a fact-checker caught something.

    You know, newspapers and magazines have to trust the people who write for them. Occasionally that trust is wholly misplaced, and everyone is mortified, but the fact is that the New York Times, for example, publishes something like 220,000 words, every day. That’s their job; that’s what we ask them to do. It’s simply unrealistic to expect them to approach things the same way as someone who’s spent 10 years conducting fieldwork. I mean, look, if there’s a fire in the henhouse, I don’t send two guys to cover it, one with a PhD in Fire Hazardry, and the other a long-time professor of Poultry Architecture.

    That said, no one likes making mistakes, and everyone should be accountable for the ones they make.

    It is certainly true, and I have encountered this myself, that a story reported from, say, Northern Mali is going to be harder to check than one set in New Jersey. There’s only so much you can do, given obvious limitations on budgets, schedules, cultural differences, and so on. One does the best one can, and it’s almost always better than the alternative of not saying anything about Northern Mali at all.

    It is also true, I’m afraid, that the more notionally ‘distant’ a culture is, the more people are going to let certain kinds of issues slide. Did I always use exactly the name that the locals use? Well, I tried… If I’m writing about North Lorea, should I put the family name first? Or should I do it as we do it? Should I explain to readers why I chose whichever one I chose? I dunno: how much space have we got?

    OK, you’d have to be a fool not to think that a story about a CEO is going to be checked more carefully than a story about a Pakistani farmer. Hell, it’ll be checked far more carefully than a story about me (I’ve been on both sides of this thing, quite a few times). And yes, no question, that’s about who can create bigger problems for the magazine. Does anyone seriously doubt that the world is hugely unfair? And I have absolute no problem — none whatsoever — with someone with a little more clout coming in and advocating for the Pakistani. I frankly think Shearer does more harm than good, but on the whole I think the impulse is a laudable one.

    But after all, who fact-checks anthropology books? Peer review? Are you kidding? Isn’t that like having my index finger check up on my ring finger? At a certain point, you have to print what you have, encourage people to be skeptical about it, and prepare to be called out, in my experience anyway, by just about everyone: the people you write about, your readers, your peers, your editors, your friends and enemies… At the risk of sounding glib or risibly hard-boiled, I take it as given that I’ve done my job well when absolutely no one is happy about what I’ve written.

    And I do have to say this, with apologies for putting it so bluntly. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that anthropology is by its very nature an imperialist enterprise, and that a lot of the criticism that comes out of the community stems from an attempt to expiate this original sin. I mean, say what you will about journalism: at the very least, it runs a little bit in both directions. There are certainly, for example, African journalists based in the US, reporting on our doings for their own people, and, presumably, making exactly the same kinds of mistakes that American journalists make in Africa. I’m sure there’s someone in PNG spreading the word about Obama, formally or informally, and I’m sure much of what they say would seem preposterous to us. The distance thing cuts both ways. And yes, indeed, there are massive imbalances in power, but, as I say, there’s this consolation: for better and/or worse, anyone can be a journalist — including any Papuan.

    But are anthropologists from the PNG doing ethnography in, say, Altoona? Reporting back to their own people about kinship relations among Kansans. Anthropology is *always* a matter of stronger people representing weaker people. Journalism is only like that about 98% of the time (when you’re doing stories about, you know, actual people, anyway: when you’re writing about politicians, celebrities, and so on, it’s almost invariably the opposite).

  17. JohnSo, you write: “But it does suggest, to me at least, that Ms. Shearer is misleading and exploiting the very people of PNG that she purports to champion, when she files $10-million lawsuits on their behalf. This is hot-dogging.”

    You are wrong. I did not file the lawsuit Wemp and Isum have their own lawyers in PNG and are arranging for one in NYC. Wemp has directed his lawyers and once the one who strategically made a key judgment to demand the article be removed from the Internet. A fellow Handa tribeman, John Mako Kuwimb, has been called the “power broker” by the Australian newspaper in the case –so please take better care before making false and inflammatory statements about me.

    See,25197,25382849-7582,00.html . There is a link to a long letter in the article where Mako provides a detailed history of the Tribes and a paragraph by paragraph rebuttal of Jared Diamond’s New Yorker article.

    I am not a lawyer but the bar is much lower for private people than for public figures in US law. Malice does not have to be proved only negligence.

    If you recall the famous Red Lion case where secret cameras were brought into a store. They sued and won.

    Wemp was not informed there would be a New Yorker article in May 2006. There is no evidence that they made any attempt to contact Isum before publication. Diamond wrote about Isum as a violent leader of Ombals (objectively not true, he is not an Ombal!) and about his health status (albeit false) without ever he, or the New Yorker fact checkers, speaking to the man or even trying to find him. Mysteriously Diamond did not try to locate Wemp’s by simply asking the two workplaces he was aware of –World Wildlife Fund and Oil Search Ltd, the very place he found Wemp May 2006.

    It seems that case involves libel per se: “Some statements are so defamatory that they are considered defamation per se; and the plaintiff does not have to prove that the statements harmed his reputation. The classic examples of defamation per se are allegations of serious sexual misconduct; allegations of serious criminal misbehavior; or allegations that a person is afflicted with a loathsome disease. The historical examples of loathsome diseases are leprosy and venereal diseases. When a plaintiff is able to prove defamation per se, damages are presumed, but the presumption is rebuttable.”

    ” For example, the Minnesota Supreme Court has held:
    We hold that a private individual may recover actual damages for a defamatory publication upon proof that the defendant knew or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known that the defamatory statement was false. The conduct of defamation defendants will be judged on whether the conduct was that of a reasonable person under the circumstances.”

    I don’t believe Diamond can not meet the following criteria:

    “A. Due Diligence
    1. Investigate the Facts.
    Even basic investigations can go a long way towards reducing defamation liability. Publishing material as “fact” without doing any investigation by itself might amount to reckless disregard for the truth. To avoid liability, you don’t have to establish the truth of the statement for all time; rather, you should do enough to satisfy yourself that the facts alleged are probably true in your reasonable judgment.”

    Since New Yorker crows about its high standards of fact checking –This is also a problem for them apparently:

    “3. Follow the Criteria You Establish.
    Failure to follow the criteria you establish might be viewed as recklessness. If you do depart from your guidelines, make sure you have a good reason to do so.”

    Not contacting the named sources is big problem so it seems:

    “B. Confirm the Identity of the Subject of Your Article.
    Many defamation problems may be headed off by calling the subject of the article for confirmation or denial. If the subject chooses to talk to you, you will get their side of the story. Getting this information may cause you to modify the article you are about to run. Certainly you can claim a good faith effort to determine the truth if you contact the subject. If the subject refuses to speak with you, at the very minimum you’ve made a good faith effort.
    Attempting to contact the subject helps avoid any identification problems about the subject. Many names are quite common, and contacting the subject will confirm that you’re dealing with the right person. At a minimum, you might try to get the subject to confirm the exact spelling of their name, which also acts as a check on identity.”

    Finally, about the quotes that Wemp denies are his wrods and Dr. Biber’s analysis states measures up as academic writing not speech.

    “C. Use Quoted Material Whenever Possible.
    Often more controversial material should be presented in the form of a quotation. The person being quoted takes the risk of a defamation claim. You should not use a quote if you believe that that quote is false, and you can’t knowingly or recklessly print false information simply by putting the words in someone’s mouth.”

    Above from

  18. Ms Shearer:

    I’m frankly not sure if English is your first language, but in any case we will all be better off if you take at least a little care to check your prose. A sentence like “I don’t believe Diamond can not meet the following criteria” is almost impossible to parse, and to the extent that it is, ostensibly says the opposite of what I assume you mean it to say. This is part of what I mean when I suggest that you are doing Mr. Wemp no favors.

    As for defamation law: they are certainly welcome to try. I think that any lawyer who genuinely had Mr. Wemp’s interests at heart would discourage him, and I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that he’ll win. The First Amendment is just too strong. After all, the New York Post prints worse crap than this just about every day; if libel were a live issue in the US, they’d be out of business. That doesn’t make printing falsehoods right, but then, lots of things are wrong without being illegal. (And the material that you cut and paste from Megalaw — whoever they are — is utterly irrelevant, and without its original context, almost incoherent. Last time I checked, self-help websites don’t run prisons, and truisms about what you “should” do are very far indeed from a conviction in a court of law.)

    Whatever legitimate complaints Mr. Wemp et al. may have, I can guarantee you that they will not win a case in a court of law, and whoever encourages them will look silly at best, and at worst grotesque. I would very much like to be on your side, but you’re making it very, very difficult.

    Nor should they win a case — not here, anyway. If PNG law allows them to sue there, godspeed. But in America we’ve decided that it’s not the government’s job to protect us from calumny: we don’t send the cops in for name-calling. As they say, the only good response to bad speech is more speech.

  19. Dustin, I wrote a very long and wonderfully witty reply to your post, above, which was eaten by savageminds (I do like the sound of that…) It’s possible that I violated a rule and this was done intentionally. If not, here’s a summary of what I argued:

    (1) Sure, Diamond is a jorunalist. Anyone can be a journalist. That’s the point.

    (2) Having written stuff, myself, for many magazines, and from far-off places (DRC, for example), I can assure you that the New Yorker checked his stuff much more carefully than most magazines check anything. But at a certain point, the checks have to stop and the presses have to start. This is true of both newspapers and anthropology books, though they place the point at different places.

    (3) Everybody makes mistakes. (Trust me, I was really eloquent about this.) Everyone deserves to be called out on them. That said, I, as a journalist, am satisfied that I’ve done my job if my subject, my readers, my editor, and my peers, are all complaining about what I’ve written.

    (4) Yeah, powerful people get treated more carefully. No, they shouldn’t be.

    (5) Yeah, you get a little more wiggle room when you’re writing about ‘distant’ people, for all sorts of reasons, some good, some not so good. You’re not allowed to make stuff up, though (which doesn’t mean no one tries).

    (6) As far as I can tell, anthropologists don’t agree with each other much, either. Which doesn’t mean everything is up for grabs, but may help us all dispel the high-horse, turf-war air that threatens to overtake this whole matter.

    (7) All of this is to say nothing about what Diamond may or may not have done right or wrong.

    (8) You weren’t saying that you, yourself, were an “eminent expert” and “beloved writer”, were you? (I know, dependant clauses are a bitch.)

  20. Thanks Rex for an enlightening summation of the issues here. I’m a Papua New Guinean, I am not a scientist of any form and although I am not a journalist as a writer of a blog as well I do understand the journalistic aspects of crediting sources etc.

    As someone from PNG, I feel at times that our country has been, and is still, over analysed, yet not very well understood. That is a broad statement I know, but as a layman within this blog, I can only go by what I perceive in my part of the world.

    Popular media mentions and depicts PNG in various films and books and I always have to cringe or shake my head, especially for movies, when I notice that the headdress being used is African or Polynesian and so on.

    So if Diamond has taken the route that he will be the popular media spokesman for anthropology and studies in PNG , then he has already set himself up on a podium for questioning. I am happy that this case ended up being an issue in PNG, it will warn others who tread this way to be on guard ethically.

    But my wider hope is that the spotlight encourages popular media to respect and accurately portray my people and its cultures more fairly. Maybe Mel Gibson needs to do an ‘Apocalypto’ version in PNG.

  21. Johnso: You’re right, I was bitten by a dependent clause.” I don’t think that, as an expert, Diamond…” is the gist of that statement. As long as we’re talking grammar, Shearer’s double negative is entirely understandable — she doesn’t believe that Diamond can’t meet those criteria. Easy as pie. Granted, she wrote a lot in what I presume was a short time, and there are errors in her comment, but that wasn’t one of them!

    My point about Diamond being a journalist is that, well, he’s not one. He is, of course, a freelance writer — as am I. He may act in the capacity of a journalist from time to time (this, I’d argue, is not one of them) but he very clearly writes pieces closer to op-eds than to formal journalism. That doesn’t mean he’s not protected by the First Amendment, of course, but it also doesn’t make him a journalist — and I doubt very much you’d find “journalism” among his list of pursuits were he to draw one up.

    However, that’s semantic. At issue here is not his right to write freely but the content of what he wrote, as seen through the lens of people who know his topic apparently much better than he does. He did, apparently, make stuff up — stuff that assumedly is meant to illustrate or act as evidence for the overarching theoretical positions that he’s taken about how society works. The factuality of his reportage directly impacts the believability of his theory-making. Whatever his obligations as a journalist — and telling the truth is, I think we’d agree, one of them — at issue here are his obligations as a scientist. It’s not as if he’d accidentally said some figure lives at 214 Elm St when they really live at 412 Elm St. — he portrayed the history and nature of Papua New Guinean peoples in a way that seems not to match at all with the reality of their lives. This has implications for individuals — publicly accusing a man of a crime he apparently did not commit — but also for peoples.

    Let the journalism sites discuss whether this is good journalism or bad journalism. Let the legal sites discuss the merits of the libel case. What’s important here is that it’s bad social science.

  22. I guess, then, my question is, what exactly is the difference between his obligation as a scientist and his obligation as a journalist? He may be judged by different groups of people, but I would hope that they would use the same criteria (allowing for inevitable differences in details and presentation). It seems to me like a distinction without a difference, and I don’t think it behooves any of us to balkanize ourselves. It sounds to me, for example, like the checkers at the New Yorker consulted a number of social scientists, including one of the ones who maintains this site, who writes elsewhere:

    “In its factual reporting, Diamond’s account of tribal fighting in PNG more or less rings true to me, and the things that don’t ring true are most likely simply variants between what is done in Nipa and what is done in west Enga, where I lived. ”

    Now, maybe they didn’t ask the right questions, or consult enough people. Clearly, something went wrong. But I’m not sure if it’s useful to chalk it up to the differences between journalism and science. In fact, any such differences would clearly be to the detriment of both. By which I mean, in part, that you guys — like, say, absolutely every other subculture in the world, including mine — have a little bit more confidence in your own peer review than I think is entirely justified.

  23. And — apologies for nitpicking here — but you’re mistaken. Ms. Shearer didn’t mean to say that “she doesn’t believe that Diamond can’t meet those criteria”. In fact, she meant to say that she doesn’t believe that Diamond *can* meet those criteria.

    I think. The fact that I’m not entirely sure (and neither, it seems, are you) is part of what I was trying to point out.

  24. Johnso: Journalists don’t have theoretical aspirations. This isn’t about fact-checking, not for me anyway. The New Yorker dropped the ball — and they probably shouldn’t have. But as an anthropologist, that really doesn’t concern me.

    Jared Diamond *does* have theoretical aspirations. He writes to promote a particular scientific understanding of the world and of its people, not simply to report on what’s happening where to whom and how. Granted, much of his writing is for the mainstream press and thus outside the realm of peer-review — big whoop. Peer review simply establishes whether work is worth publishing, not whether it is true — it is left to the work of other scientists to replicate or fail to replicate findings.

    The problem here is that Diamond is putting forth a representation of a group of indigenous people that is a) hurtful to the people described, and b) bears little relation to the facts on the ground. Hence the criticism. Nobody here will stand jury on his trial, nobody here will determine whether his next article will our ought to be published. What we can do as anthropologists is determine the extent of the misrepresentation, and correct it with the facts as presented in the work of other anthros who have worked in the field.

    Because Diamond’s work fits into an overarching (and quite popular) theory of how societies function, we can and should also be considering what kind of damage Diamond’s shoddy reportage does to that theory. And inasmuch as we’re committed to a better understanding of the world by people beyond our own disciplinary boundaries, we can and should attempt to explain what Diamond gets wrong and how (for instance, by fabricating details).

    The point is, what Diamond writes and how it’s received is a lot more important than whether the New Yorker fact checks well. The distinction between journalist and scientist is, as I said, somewhat semantic — Diamond is, I suppose, acting in both capacities when he writes for the mainstream press — but the issue here isn’t whether his article is simply bad journalism.

  25. “What we can do as anthropologists is determine the extent of the misrepresentation, and correct it with the facts as presented in the work of other anthros who have worked in the field…. we can and should attempt to explain what Diamond gets wrong and how (for instance, by fabricating details).”

    Where did Diamond misrepresent what Wemp told him and what details did he fabricate? How many of these claimed misrepresentations first arose after Wemp had decided to sue Diamond?

    It is clear that Diamond got his facts wrong, however it is far from clear that he unfaithfully recounted the stories that Wemp told him. Yes he probably did not reproduce quotes in their exact form, but that is a common journalistic practice. Relying on one source is also not the best journalistic practice (though far from uncommon), however the main point of the piece was to compare the psychological impact of committing or not committing violence between Wemp and his father. As far as Diamond believed that Wemp was telling him the truth, I don’t see how that is inappropriate for a literary magazine such as the New Yorker. If Wemp didn’t want to be seen as a murderer, he shouldn’t have gone around telling ornithologists how much he enjoyed killing people.

  26. I’m with afu on at least part of this: all journalists rewrite quotes, all the time. Anyone who says it isn’t done, or shouldn’t be done, is fooling themselves and others. A transcription that exactly mirrored the way people speak would be unreadable, full of ‘um’s and ‘like’s, and grammatical forms abandoned halfway through the sentence and new ones brought in to serve, and clauses that lead nowhere and then trail off, and false starts, etc. About the only things you will ever read in a newspaper that transcribe speech word for word are presidential news conferences and flight box recordings from plane crashes.

    Everything else, you clean up. For newspapers, you remove obscenities.

    It’s when you stop doing this that people complain. Athletes, for example, and especially black athletes, will charge you with trying to make them look stupid or illiterate (though some others will charge you with trying to rob them of their culture if you don’t transcribe their speech patterns accurately — this is one of those controversies that you can’t really settle to everyone’s satisfaction). Politicians will accuse you of trying to make them look stupid, too. And so on.

    Of course, you clean up without changing the meaning, which is not as hard as you might think. So in this regard, which Ms. Shearer seems to make heavy weather of, I don’t think Diamond did anything wrong at all. I mean, maybe he put Wemp’s stuff through the Standard English Machine once too often, but it didn’t jump out at me. Indeed, I think some of Ms. Shearer’s own stuff could use a pass through that machine.

    Do anthropologists really reproduce speech verbatim? I mean, without any allowances for the generally sloppy way that all people speak?

  27. Oof sorry for my long absence from this conversation (I’m very busy w/professional commitments atm). First: hamamas lo redim comment blo yu Emmauel! The more PNGians who read and comment on this blog the better. Also just to clarify JohnSo’s question, I think I misspoke — I was not a ‘fact-checker’ for Diamond’s piece in the sense that I was hired by the New Yorker to fact check it. Rather, I was interviewed by a fact-checker over the phone. Sorry for the confusion.

    It really is gratifying to have some very interesting and substantive developments come up in this thread. It seems to me that we have moved to broader issues of whether there are institutionally-defined standards for anthropologists and journalists (this issue has arisen in anthropology when people found there was one than one opinion about HTS), and whether their actual practice ever met those standards.

    I think it is interesting that while there is broad agreement that Diamond got the facts wrong and that this is a bad thing, there is no broad consensus as to the standards we might employ to judge him.

    I’ve often been impressed by the quality of work journalists do, and their similarity and difference to anthropologists –they often are much more answerable to and less powerful than the people they report on, and often have much less time to conduct research. I’m seriously thinking about including books on journalism and ethics in my fieldmethods and research design courses.

  28. Johnso: “Do anthropologists really reproduce speech verbatim?”

    The answer is, it depends. If an anthropologist is doing some sort of linguistic analysis, absolutely. Otherwise, it depends. Many “clean up” thelanguage as aprt of the “translation work” that defines anthro for a large number of anthros.

    One big difference is that anthros often hide identities, either using pseudonyms or even composite characters. This is especially the case where major crimes are alleged by their subjects.

  29. I wonder what UCLA would be doing now if Jared Diamond had written an essay on the Internet a week on September 11, 2001 calling people in the WTC “little Eichmann’s”. Hmmm.

  30. Louis:

    If the guys working the cleaning crews at WTC had a history of vitriolic anti-Semitism, and told Churchill a bunch of stories about gassing Jews, you might have a point.

    Don’t be a buffoon. And don’t do it in the voice of a 12 year old.

  31. Louis:

    If the guys working the cleaning crews at WTC had a history of vitriolic anti-Semitism, and told Churchill a bunch of stories about gassing Jews, you might have a point.

    Diamond is a Jewish last name: don’t be a bigot. Don’t be a buffoon. And don’t do it in the voice of a 12 year old.

  32. Rex:
    Thanks for having me here, I feel a bit daunted at engaging with Anthro’s in such heavy matters, but you only live once 🙂

    Regardless of whether Diamond is a journalist or an anthropologist or whatever standard you want to hold him up against. Wouldn’t any professional in such a position of literary influence be expected to have some ethics in how their work is sourced and written?

    With so much multi-tasking and multi-skilled people in today’s world, it would be impossible to start creating a standard for journalists alone and anthro’s alone. I’d say that the standard should fall not on who writes the paper but on what audience the work is to be heard by.

  33. Johnso, you probably didn’t get my point. Let me put it as soberly as possible. Jared Diamond’s scholarly lapses, like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s, Alan Dershowitz’s, and Stephen Ambrose’s, were far more egregious than Ward Churchill’s. In fact, his article on 9/11 never came up during his firing. The point is this. It is okay to write a deeply flawed article in the New Yorker or to plagiarize as long as you don’t rock the boat politically. If in the unlikely event that Jared Diamond, for example, wrote that Israel was an apartheid state, you can bet that UCLA would be on the phone getting the story about his misdeeds in New Guinea.

  34. Emmanuel: Yes, indeed, he would be expected to have some ethics. I’m not entirely sure what happened here, in large part because I haven’t heard a response from the New Yorker. (That’s one problem with $10 million lawsuits: when you get them, the first your lawyers say to you is “From now on, the only thing you say without a subpoena is ‘no comment'”.)

    It certainly sounds to me like Diamond screwed up, possibly badly, and if the allegations are true, his reputation should and will take a serious hit. If I were an editor, I’d be very wary of publishing him. — If, that is, all this criticism proves true. As is stands, I need to hear more from both sides before I’d feel comfortable taking a position.

    I’m not sure that the New Yorker is as culpable. Fact-checking isn’t an absolute obligation — some magazines don’t do it at all — and it’s always imperfect. It sounds like they took reasonable steps to confirm things; if they didn’t, they’ll take a spanking and hang their heads a bit. But ultimately, the buck stops with the reporter, not with the publisher (this is even more the case with commercial book publishing). The Times made their mea culpas, but Jayson Blair was the one who got fired.

    Unfortunately, as I say, the very existence of a lawsuit, frivolous or not, makes it much more difficult for them to publish corrections, retractions, or reconsiderations.

    But you’re right, and I agree: the standards should be very much the same, especially since it’s not at all uncommon for star academics to moonlight as journalists. In some cases, practices might conflict — the virtues, or lack thereof, of anonymity is a good example. But those are secondary, if not trivial. And in many cases procedures will be different: I don’t expect newspaper reporters to do 5 years of field work before publishing, and I don’t expect university presses to hire fact-checkers to confirm quotes and dates, and whether x is really north of y, or northwest. But on the whole something’s true if it’s true, and not if it’s not. Or, to use a less loaded vocabulary, that roughly the same kinds of things would be considered presentable in both fields.

  35. Louis: That’s closer, but I still don’t entirely agree. There are lots of anti-zionist academics in the US, including some Jews. I don’t think you get cashiered for that, though you’ll undoubtedly get a lot of agita.

    Goodwin and Ambrose admitted they were wrong and apologized: that counts for a lot. Churchill didn’t. Moreover, Churchill was a clown, with his fake Indian ancestry (to which he explicitly owes his job). My take is, they shouldn’t have given him tenure in the first place. He’s more like Nicholas De Genova, the Columbia anthropologist who called for “a million Mogadishus” right after the Iraq invasion. I don’t think the guys should be in jail or anything, but if it were my university, I’d think they were too stupid to have around.

  36. “There are lots of anti-zionist academics in the US, including some Jews. I don’t think you get cashiered for that, though you’ll undoubtedly get a lot of agita.”

    That’s true only if you have tenure. Just ask Joel Kovel about how much “free speech” he was allowed at Bard College to criticize Israel as a non-tenured professor. It does not stop there. William I. Robinson is being hounded at UCSB, even though he is tenured. He made the mistake of sending out anti-Zionist material in email.

    “Goodwin and Ambrose admitted they were wrong and apologized: that counts for a lot. Churchill didn’t.”

    The apology of course is a lot easier to accept when you are a stenographer to power as Goodwin and Ambrose. I listen to her on the Don Imus show from time to time and cringe at the intellectual decay at Harvard University she epitomizes.

    “Moreover, Churchill was a clown, with his fake Indian ancestry (to which he explicitly owes his job).”

    Frankly, I find the whole idea of blood quantum totally repellent. During the 19th century many whites decided that living like an Indian was preferable. Were they Indians? I’d say so.

    “My take is, they shouldn’t have given him tenure in the first place. He’s more like Nicholas De Genova, the Columbia anthropologist who called for “a million Mogadishus” right after the Iraq invasion. I don’t think the guys should be in jail or anything, but if it were my university, I’d think they were too stupid to have around.”

    You really are quite up on the rightwing talking points, aren’t you.

  37. You know, I read Shearer’s stuff again, and it seems even flimsier. She says — and we have assumed — that Wemp was put in danger by the NYer article, because all sorts of people in PNG would have access to it, and it would stir up matters. But as Shearer herself writes, Wemp himself didn’t know about the article until one of her researchers mentioned it to him, at which point he was ‘shocked’. So maybe PNG is indeed a little more distant than we’re assuming, and the ‘danger’ Wemp is in comes as much from Shearer’s team as it does from the New Yorker. It would be like deliberately releasing a western virus into an country that hasn’t experienced it, and then saying, “See: Western viruses are dangerous to the whole world.”

    Let me ask those of you who specialize in the area: If an article came out here and was noticed there, wouldn’t someone have gone to Wemp and said, ‘Hey, I saw you in some American magazine.’?

    Again, Shearer insists that Wemp didn’t know he was being interviewed. But then she points out that Wemp saw Diamond take out a pad of paper and start taking notes on their conversation. Isn’t this a pretty good sign that an interview is taking place? Is there anything in PNG culture which would prevent someone from realizing they were being interviewed?

    Say I have a couple of casual conversations with a guy, and then go back to him a few years later with a notebook, and say, “Hey, can you tell me those stories again?” That doesn’t seem unethical by my standards: is it by yours? If, indeed, I made it clear to the interviewee that I was asking him to retell me the stories he’d told me a few years previously, it may not even be so bad to describe the stories as being told at the earlier time. I wouldn’t do it, but I wouldn’t consider it a crime against the truth, either.

    Are your standards and mine diverging here?

  38. Louis: my politics are probably roughly like your own, if perhaps more moderate. I just prefer policing my own side.

    More importantly, we’re hijacking the thread here. Let’s get back to anthropology.

  39. Good questions JL. I’m not sure how Shearer or Wemp or Diamond or the New Yorker would respond, but I imagine that even if Wemp hadn’t heard about the story, the fact that it was available on the Internet indicates that it could have affected him in the future — particularly if one of his wantoks read about it in town. Since then, of course, its been splashed on the front page of the National so the genie is out of the bottle now. I imagine most Papua New Guineans (or anyone else for that matter) would not be happy learning that there is a potential time bomb sitting out there.

    As for interview standards, these days it is not at all unusual to begin an interview explaining to someone what you will be doing with their stories so that you can get ‘informed consent’. This summer, for instance, anyone who I will be interviewing and recording will have to read and sign an ‘informed consent’ sheet which they will get a copy of to keep so that they can have a record of my visit.

    It seems to me that in journalism, as you’ve described it, you use real names and sometimes ‘remember’ quotations. In anthropology you use pseudonyms and (supposedly!) gather ‘data’ which is supposed to be people’s exact words. Since you are doing research for a year or more in the field, you are also expected to really get to know a community and they are expected to have a very clear idea of where their stories are going to go after they are done telling them.

    And to get to Emanuel’s point, I think that beyond ethics and review boards, I do think that everyone who tells stories about someone else should really sit down and read the final draft of what they’ve written and think: what would the people I describe think about this? Would they be happy with it? Its a basic question of empathy. If you think they would be angry, that might be ok _if_ you think in the end your story is justified (I am sure corrupt politicians are angry when their foibles are revealed by journalists, for instance). I don’t know if Diamond did that or not, but it seems like good policy for anyone who is just plain human.

  40. Very interesting, and thanks for the response.

    I don’t know, it still feels a little to me like saying, “Look, a cholera epidemic would be extremely dangerous for these guys.” — And then giving one or two of them cholera, and saying, “See?”. I don’t think that’s mitigated much by saying, “Well, but if I hadn’t given it to them, they might have gotten cholera someplace else, anyway.”

    To clarify: I didn’t mean to say that its standard practice to use ‘remember’ quotations, in the sense of the reporter remembering it. You’re going to need at least notes. Tape is better if it’s likely to be controversial. I meant, if Wemp was comfortable saying, “Yes, this is what I told you then”, I’d be OK going with that — assuming he was an adult in full possession of his faculties, etc. In a sense, this is no more controversial than oral history: remembering a quote is no different than remembering a battle.

    That may be what you meant, too: I just wanted to be clear.

    As for informed consent, that’s a tricky one. I’ll always say, “Hi, I’m JL calling from So-and-So; I’m doing a story on X. Do you have time to talk to me?” Always, if I’m on assignment. And almost all editors would insist on it.

    On the other hand, it all depends on the context. If I’m writing a kind of literary essay, say for Harper’s, about my time in Tunis, it’s inevitable that I’m going to have some stories, and possibly even some quotes, that I collected either casually, or under assignment from someone else. I don’t think any editor would disallow that, though they might give me a long hard look before they ran it. Again, much depends on how controversial it’s likely to be (which, alas, partly means, how likely it is that someone who’s hurt by it is going to be in a position to cause trouble).

    So in the end, you know, a lot of stuff is negotiable and context-dependent. As I say, journalism doesn’t really have any rules (though individual outlets do). You just kind of figure you and your editors are responsible, more or less sensible people, trying to tell a good story honestly. After that, you hope for the best.

    The question of empathy is harder. On the one hand, yes, one does want to be a human being. There’s great value in being careful with other people’s stories. On the other hand, I work or the people who pay their 4 bucks, open a magazine, and expect me to tell them the truth. Sometimes, it can feel like, if I hold something back, I’m selling out a million readers, whereas if I print it, I’m only selling out one. This is true whether I’m writing about corrupt politicians, or babies with disabilities. This is part of the responsibility one takes on. Without it, there’s no such thing as journalism and no one knows anything about what’s going on around them.

    It can be a very, very difficult decision to make. There’s generally no reason to hurt someone gratuitously, but it’s also, generally, I think, a bad idea to wonder what the person you’re writing about is going to think about it. My job isn’t to make people look good — even if it’s the mother of a disabled kid. (Of course, my job isn’t to make them look bad, either.)

    Interestingly, this doesn’t come up very often, though people think it does. Hasn’t for me, anyway. For the most part, people with a story are absolutely desperate to have their story told, whatever it is; and most of them would be very disappointed not to have their names attached. Even more interestingly, a surprising number of people will appreciate, or at least respect, your telling the truth about them, even if it’s unattractive.

    If they don’t, they can always go off the record. And I can always say, ‘No, sorry — either we’re on the record, or I go talk to someone else.’

  41. So let me ask you this: What obligation do you feel you have to your readers? To your students? To people 100 years from now wondering what PNG was like in ’09?

    What do you do if that obligation seems to conflict with your obligation to your subjects?

  42. I found the thread begun by Louis fascinating, and I know what planet he inhabits. Academia today is a cesspool of anti-Semitism precisely because such people as Robinson and Churchill confuse the concept of free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment with the concept of academic freedom, and they use the classroom to recruit students to their political agendas. While I am opposed to censoring Robinson, one must read his January email to his students to understand the depth of his irresponsibility. Whatever one thinks of Israel, comparison of Jews to Nazis and Israeli policy to the Nazi project of exterminating Europe’s Jewry is to engage in antisemitism and a virulent form of Holocaust denial.

    What does any of this have to do with Diamond? Nada really, although by chance I was reminded recently by a colleague that quite a diverse group of individuals have it in for Diamond; they include, for example, those who (like a few writers of this very blog who went after him several years ago objecting to various ideas in Guns, Germs, and Steel) accuse him of supporting racism; they also include those who see him as anti-racist, including, ironically, the white nationalists at V-Dare and Stromfront.

  43. Ethics don’t apply here as much as law, because it’s a lawsuit. Based on my very flimsy knowledge of US media law, I think the burden is on the plaintiffs to prove that Wemp was not a public figure when he spoke about these topics. If a private figure speaks to a reporter, he or she automatically becomes a public figure with regard to the topic being discussed. If the reporter makes a damaging error, then the private citizen has two options: (1) prove that the reporter erred by revealing something on a topic that had not been a topic of the interview (the writer interviewed the person about a gas leak, and then in the story alleged that the person was sleeping with his sister); or (2) prove that the reporter’s error was made with malicious intent. This is extremely difficult.

    If the private subject never spoke to a reporter, then all the subject has to do is prove that the reporter made an error. Damages are a separate case–a false allegation about a parking ticket is worth less than a false allegation about murder. I’m not sure what “speaking to an anthropologist” does legally in the transformation from a private subject into a public informant.

    In any case, the defense of the publisher and author will always be that the allegation was true. So evidence that it was false will generally win the case, provided that the private status of the plaintiff is upheld.

    But please get a lawyer in here to set me straight!

  44. I know this is so upthread, but it finally occurred to me last night what sits wrong with me about the “Sour Grapes” hypothesis. It seems to me that if Diamond was publishing good anthropology, as anthropology (as in, “From the Annals of…” heading in the New Yorker), and getting a large popular following, anthropologists would happily claim his work as of their own. Off the top of my head, Lewis Henry Morgan, Durkheim (and any number of French scholars whose disciplinary lines don’t match up exactly with their Anglo counterparts), and a host of African writers of ethnographic novels have had their work taken as anthropology by anthropologists. If Diamond’s stuff were solid, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be the same for him.

    As for me, if I found a popular writer who I thought really represented anthropology, I’d be recommending them to every person who asks me what anthropology is, not sitting around wishing it was me and waiting for any excuse to discredit them.

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