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Natives Telling Stories
April 29, 2009 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Last year, best-selling biologist Jared Diamond (prev) published an article in the New Yorker describing a cycle of revenge in Papua New Guinea, contrasting the conflicting human needs for vengeance and for justice. (Mefi discussion). Now, the subjects of Diamond's article are seeking their own revenge, suing the publishers for $10 million, claiming Diamond's story amounts to false accusations of serious criminal activity, including murder.

Behind the lawsuit is a lengthy investigation by the Art Science Research Laboratory, a media criticism organization founded by Rhonda Roland Shearer. The ASRL investigation points to several significant errors attributable to Diamond and a lack of serious fact-checking by the New Yorker. It appears that Diamond may have relied on a single source, who may have been more of a raconteur than historian, and his reputation as a science writer will surely suffer as a result. Of course, the larger question of verifying anthropological studies remains. As a New Guinean notes, "When foreigners come to our culture, we tell stories as entertainment."
posted by CheeseDigestsAll (65 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have no idea if this is pertinent, but it is interesting: "Rhonda Roland Shearer [founded] Art Science Research Laboratory with her late husband Stephen Jay Gould."
posted by billysumday at 8:08 AM on April 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


Complicating Wemp's case, perhaps, is an interview he gave to Shearer's researchers, in which he stated that the stories he told Diamond were in fact true.

So this guy wants 10 million because Diamond took him at his word? Sounds like, if anything, Diamond should have a case against Wemp.
posted by FatherDagon at 8:09 AM on April 29, 2009


The last graf of your last link is my favorite:

"...But a Wemp friend and legal adviser, Mako John Kuwimb, explains: "When foreigners come to our culture, we tell stories as entertainment. Daniel's stories were not serious narrative, and Daniel had no idea he was being interviewed for publication. He has never killed anyone or raped a woman. He certainly has never stolen a pig." "

That's going on my tombstone: 'He never stole a pig."
posted by mojohand at 8:18 AM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sounds like, if anything, Diamond should be ashamed of himself for relying on a single source, and then he should be shamed into never publishing anything again without exacting footnotes with multiple source verification of the shit he gets told. But of course that would take time and who has time for journalism anymore?
posted by spicynuts at 8:19 AM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


"'Rhonda Roland Shearer [founded] Art Science Research Laboratory with her late husband Stephen Jay Gould.'"

I was very disappointed in Diamond when I first read about this (and I still am), but the Gould connection suggests it may be an extension of Gould's (and Lewontin's and Rose's) really vicious ideologically motivated slanders of Sociobioloy and Evolutionary Psychology.

(Which Ullica Segerstråle makes highly entertaining in her very well researched, even-handed, and lengthy Defenders of the Truth.)
posted by orthogonality at 8:22 AM on April 29, 2009


I guess they could use ten million dollars.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:26 AM on April 29, 2009


Sounds a little like Margaret Mead's experience in the South Pacific.
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:26 AM on April 29, 2009


Oh, anthropologists. Will you never learn?
posted by DU at 8:27 AM on April 29, 2009


Double comment!
posted by y2karl at 8:35 AM on April 29, 2009


Diamond tells a good story, but on every occasion when his story has overlapped with my expertise I've found him to be at about C+ undergraduate level. Not to say his biog picture isn't stimulating and even important, but at some level facts matter as well, as this post exemplifies.
posted by Rumple at 8:49 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Daniel's stories were not serious narrative, and Daniel had no idea he was being interviewed for publication. He has never killed anyone or raped a woman. He certainly has never stolen a pig."

I like the emphasis in that sentence. Calling him a rapist and murder is one thing but to suggest he'd stolen a pig as well!
posted by delmoi at 8:51 AM on April 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


Right but has he raped any pigs?
posted by spicynuts at 8:53 AM on April 29, 2009


Oh sure, he *says* he's never killed or raped a woman. But that's exactly what a pig thief like him would say.
posted by DU at 8:56 AM on April 29, 2009 [13 favorites]


What does this mean in regard to his other work, namely Guns, Germs, and Steel?
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 8:57 AM on April 29, 2009


The Diamond article is now behind the subscription wall at the New Yorker link, so if people want to look at it, you can read it here.
posted by dgaicun at 9:05 AM on April 29, 2009


Complicating Wemp's case, perhaps, is an interview he gave to Shearer's researchers, in which he stated that the stories he told Diamond were in fact true.

So, let me get this straight. This organization stepped forward to fact-check an article which they were not involved with writing or publishing, interviewed the primary source who verified the veracity of his statements, and THEN proceeded with further investigation?

Where the fuck have these people been for the past 8 years of lies about science and other fact-checkable topics we've been forced to swallow?

Seems like there's more going on in their dogged pursuit of this author than mere interest in "getting the facts straight".
posted by hippybear at 9:12 AM on April 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


"I was very disappointed in Diamond when I first read about this (and I still am), but the Gould connection suggests it may be an extension of Gould's (and Lewontin's and Rose's) really vicious ideologically motivated slanders of Sociobioloy and Evolutionary Psychology.

(Which Ullica Segerstråle makes highly entertaining in her very well researched, even-handed, and lengthy Defenders of the Truth.)
"

That's a bit of ad hominem reasoning.

Really, I'm kind of amazed at this. I'v enever had anything published in the New Yorker, but even local magazines make me provide contact info for all of my sources and call to double-check quotes, etc.
posted by klangklangston at 9:15 AM on April 29, 2009


The ASRL investigation certainly suggests some grave errors in Diamond's account and, arguably, his investigative practice. What it really doesn't establish is that Diamond seriously misrepresented what Wemp told him, or that it is in fact true that Wemp had no idea that this story would ever be published. I find it a bit hard to see how Wemp could have had a fact-checker calling him from the New Yorker to say "so, did you really say these things that are going to be in this article we're about to publish" and honestly claim that the appearance of the article took him by surprise.

There's a measure of "gotcha" glee in the ASRL's report that undermines, for me, the claims they're advancing. For example, the way they painstakingly set out to prove that the quotations attributed to Wemp are too polished to actually have been produced by him. No competent reader of that article would have assumed that Diamond was presenting us with word-for-word transcripts in those passages; and had he written it in a kind of Kiplingesque "native speak" he would have been rightly criticized for patronizing his subject.

I think the ASRL has certainly made a strong case here, but we should wait to hear the case for the defense before writing Diamond's work off.
posted by yoink at 9:18 AM on April 29, 2009


[hippybear]: So, let me get this straight. This organization stepped forward to fact-check an article which they were not involved with writing or publishing, interviewed the primary source who verified the veracity of his statements, and THEN proceeded with further investigation?

Seems like there's more going on in their dogged pursuit of this author than mere interest in "getting the facts straight".


[billysumday]...Rhonda Roland Shearer [founded] Art Science Research Laboratory with her late husband Stephen Jay Gould...

[orthogonality]...the Gould connection suggests it may be an extension of Gould's (and Lewontin's and Rose's) really vicious ideologically motivated slanders of Sociobioloy and Evolutionary Psychology.

Veeery interesting, scholars. Very interesting, indeed.
posted by billysumday at 9:18 AM on April 29, 2009


"I was very disappointed in Diamond when I first read about this (and I still am), but the Gould connection suggests it may be an extension of Gould's (and Lewontin's and Rose's) really vicious ideologically motivated slanders of Sociobioloy and Evolutionary Psychology.

But Diamond is not into sociobiology and evo-psych.
posted by grobstein at 9:25 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Really, I'm kind of amazed at this. I'v enever had anything published in the New Yorker, but even local magazines make me provide contact info for all of my sources and call to double-check quotes, etc.

Diamond is money. He's brand name, uptown. Which editor would dare risk his or her job by asking a celebrity writer for verification?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:29 AM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


The New Yorker's fact checking is supposed to be the industry standard. They recently had an article about the process and some of the issues that come up. [abstract] One of the biggest challenges that come up is around the "on author" facts, those experiences of the author that make it into the article. But, it is my understanding that if a fact is in any way verifiable outside of the experiences of the author, then it is.
If this comes down to a failure on the part of the New Yorker fact checking team, it will be big news indeed.
posted by slickvaguely at 9:30 AM on April 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


When foreigners come to our culture, we tell stories as entertainment. Daniel's stories were not serious narrative

Diamond has also reluctantly admitted that the Papua New Guineans may not all be "hung like fuck, bro" and have "totally hot model girlfriends" that just happen to be on vacation in Canada right now. He also stressed that they may not, in fact, completely know a guy who can get you some killer bud.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:33 AM on April 29, 2009 [11 favorites]


Sounds like, if anything, Diamond should be ashamed of himself for relying on a single source, and then he should be shamed into never publishing anything again without exacting footnotes with multiple source verification of the shit he gets told. But of course that would take time and who has time for journalism anymore?

A multi-million dollar suit for libel is not the best way to accomplish this. It's naked greed on the part of a few liars.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:36 AM on April 29, 2009


Oh, anthropologists. Will you never learn?

Actually, we have. Hell, that was the whole point of the postmodern turn in anthropology. There's a great book about it actually, They Lie, We Lie by Peter Metcalf. Jared Diamond, however, is not an anthropologist; he's a biologist. It annoys me how often people assume that he's an anthropologist just because of what he writes. Mistakes like these give anthropology a bad name when done by anthropologists, let alone biologists.
posted by swashedbuckles at 9:42 AM on April 29, 2009 [6 favorites]


Diamond is money. He's brand name, uptown.

He's a girl's best friend.
posted by DU at 9:43 AM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Jared Diamond is *not* a cultural anthropologist. Please be clear about that.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:51 AM on April 29, 2009


Or what swashedbuckles said.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:52 AM on April 29, 2009


"...and then when he woke there was an arrow embedded in the wall above his bed, and on the arrow was written the message: ANTHROPOLOGICAL SUBJECTS HAVE LAWYERS TOO."
posted by Artw at 9:58 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like the emphasis in that sentence. Calling him a rapist and murder is one thing but to suggest he'd stolen a pig as well!

I get the impression that there were eras in American history when the same sentence, with "horse" instead of "pig," would have made perfect sense.

Wait, you mean reading "Lonesome Dove" twice doesn't count as responsible fieldwork either?
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:07 AM on April 29, 2009


Sounds a little like Margaret Mead's experience in the South Pacific.
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:26 AM on April 29 [+] [!]


Oh, anthropologists. Will you never learn?
posted by DU at 8:27 AM on April 29 [+] [!]


Not so fast you two.
A new biography of Mead - addressing that controversy and what her legacy is worth - by one Nancy C. Lutkehaus (an anthro prof) was published last year. I've only just got it - but a skim read suggests I'll find some thoughtful debunking of Mead's debunker!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:11 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Complicating Wemp's case, perhaps, is an interview he gave to Shearer's researchers, in which he stated that the stories he told Diamond were in fact true.

So this guy wants 10 million because Diamond took him at his word? Sounds like, if anything, Diamond should have a case against Wemp.




If you slog through Shearer's 10 000 word report (which as an interested anthropologist, I have), you will see that Wemp told the New Yorker's fact checker that the stories he told Diamond were true but that Diamond's quotes and uses of his stories were "inaccurate".

At issue here are two distinct problems. One is a series of serious factual errors. The second is a serious ethical breach, from the perspective of both social science and journalism.

The report is unfortunately not very clearly written, but the factual errors that emerge from Shearer's research are seriously disturbing and difficult to attribute to mistakes or carelessness on Diamond's part. For example, Diamond has an extended quote from Wemp that describes Wemp's (alleged) happiness at the revenge he has achieved in the paralysis of another man (Mandingo). The quote goes on to say that he occasionally feels sorry for Mandingo, and goes and tells him so. Shearer found that Mandingo is not paralyzed and had never met Wemp at the time the article was published. This suggests to me that Diamond simply made his quotes up. The New Yorker admits that all of the notes for the article come from a single phone conversation in 2006, four years after Wemp originally told the stories to Diamond. It is from time of the stories and not the phone conversation that Diamond attributes his quotes.

Both Diamond and The New Yorker made a serious ethical breach. They published people's real names. So when DU calls Wemp a pig thief, he is (jokingly and unknowingly, of course) attributing a serious crime to a real person by a real name on an international medium that can be read by Wemp's peers and community members. (And yes, pig theft is serious. Things can sound weird out of context. Identity theft... hilarious, right?)

The article claimed that Wemp started a tribal war, and attributed to him and others murders and rapes committed in the process of that war using real names and without verification. No matter what, this is an ethical breech, but the severity has been compounded by the factual errors in the piece.


The real importance of this case is in the effects that the article has on the people involved and on the concerns it raises about journalistic writing. However, as an anthropologist, I would like to point out a few things about how this relates to my discipline:

Diamond is not an anthropologist, he is an evolutionary biologist. He went to PNG to study birds, not people. His source was the man who drove him around. He did not interview the man under the auspices of a research ethics board, he did not tell the man he might use what he said in an interview. To take this situation as reflective of what anthropologists do is misleading (although it is reflective of the things we have to take into consideration when doing research). Anthropologists are well aware of the fact that the stories that people tell range in accuracy and should not be taken as fact independently of verification from other sources, oral, written, scholarly or otherwise. We generally operate under the auspices of research ethics boards and use informed consent processes. Many anthropologists these days send their writing to the people they worked with before publication for verification and to allow people to comment. It is not a perfect system, of course, but I would hate for Diamond's carelessness and/or willful fictionalizing to become the mental image that people carry of how social science research is done.
posted by carmen at 10:11 AM on April 29, 2009 [31 favorites]


Hypnotic Chick, there is plenty of criticism for the book, and he has since responded to some. The issues in the book weren't based on sourcing of the material, but the broader picture.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:27 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hypnotic Chick: What does this mean in regard to his other work, namely Guns, Germs, and Steel?

Diamond is rather too attracted to the "Big Idea" concept, where one most important cause is found for pretty much everything. This sort of "Just so" story is endemic to amateurs in the history and anthropology fields, and opens up Diamond to some fairly serious criticisms.

For a start, Garrett Hardin from my old alma mater has some critiques, and it isn't hard to find more. Basically, in his attempt to disprove the classic deterministic European superiority scenarios, he comes up with a new scenario of European superiority that's equally as deterministic. Basically he's still saying Europe was destined to dominate the world, and if the clock you'd still get similar results.
posted by happyroach at 10:46 AM on April 29, 2009


Thanks Carmen. Comments like that are why mefi doesn't suck.
posted by sarcasman at 10:52 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


having travelled and lived in remote islands of the south pacific, i would emphasize to any aspiring writer that the huge difference between these areas and western civilization is that nothing gets written down. it's a culture of oral history, which is recorded by repetition around campfires in the evening, often accompanied by drug use. any story from any source is suspect. the first time i witnessed this was with a group of fijians around a fire on galoa island, off the coast of neighboring kadavu. we were well into the kava and local bud when one of the guys told a story about a fellow from another village that was struck by a falling coconut. shortly, the story was repeated by another guy but a few of the pertinent facts had morphed. this went on through the night until the last repetition, when the story bore little resemblance to the original. basically, this is an adult version of a child's party game called "telephone". the results are not to be trusted.
posted by kitchenrat at 10:58 AM on April 29, 2009


...also they eat each other.
posted by Artw at 11:16 AM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


It is refreshing to know that those rather unsophisticated people, living so remote from civilization have discovered the courts, lawyers and major lawsuits.

As for the rights and wrongs, I reserve judgement till such things are decided by judges and courts of law.

Just last night in a bar I told stories to people who stopped by and asked questions.
posted by Postroad at 11:18 AM on April 29, 2009


...also they eat each other.

People like you give readers of popular anthropology a bad name:)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:27 AM on April 29, 2009


Both Diamond and The New Yorker made a serious ethical breach.

If The New Yorker had commissioned a scholarly, academic study and Jared Diamond had presented his findings as such then I would be able to get on board with your comment above. But are you claiming that an author of popular science pens an article including his musings on vengeance and justice and it is published in a literary weekly, and the methodology should be reviewed by an ethics board? Really?

Leaving aside the possible inaccuracies in the article, as I understand you to be in your statement, I fail to see an "ethical breach".
posted by slickvaguely at 11:42 AM on April 29, 2009


filthy light thief and happyroach,

Thanks!
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 12:02 PM on April 29, 2009


What does this mean in regard to his other work, namely Guns, Germs, and Steel?

The theories about animal domestication are wrong. It turns out no pigs were stolen.
posted by freebird at 1:00 PM on April 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


Blazecock Pileon: "Which editor would dare risk his or her job by asking a celebrity writer for verification?"

It wouldn't be risking their job. I've worked as a factchecker from magazines ranging from Harper's to New Jersey Bride. Famous writers might get handled more gently but, in my experience, their articles get checked, too.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:28 PM on April 29, 2009


If The New Yorker had commissioned a scholarly, academic study and Jared Diamond had presented his findings as such then I would be able to get on board with your comment above. But are you claiming that an author of popular science pens an article including his musings on vengeance and justice and it is published in a literary weekly, and the methodology should be reviewed by an ethics board? Really?

Exactly, this was a literary piece of musings on the psychological effects of revenge and violence, it was never put forward as a piece of anthropological field work. Did the people go back and make sure that the story Diamond's dad told was completely accurate?

It seems that this guy did tell Diamond this story, so I don't see how it was wrong for him to use it in this essay. It was kind of shitty of him to use his real name, but that is why they say you shouldn't be friends with writers.
posted by afu at 6:38 PM on April 29, 2009


It's a fascinating controversy but I do think there's got to be more to it than meets the eye. The NY'er fact checking department is the best in the world (and one of the few that still exists)-- and yes, they do check all articles, writer status doesn't stop that.

On the other hand, it's possible that Diamond had this stuff in his notes, they did their best to contact the relevant people-- possibly did get the one guy on the phone who confirmed it-- and that was that.

With anecdotes, there often isn't any realistic way to check with multiple sources. If I tell you I killed someone in a society where there aren't criminal records or news accounts to check and the fact checker calls and I repeat that story, how are you going to check further? The writer probably doesn't have anyone else's phone number there and there's translation issues etc.

Also, you don't expect someone to tell libelous stories about *himself*. And, if they verify those stories a second time, I don't think they are going to get very far in court by saying "I didn't realize my lies were going to be published and I was defaming myself."

And, if it genuinely is a cultural tradition to tell outlandish tales to outsiders, why would you sue-- why aren't you sitting around laughing at how you got a fake story into the NY'er via those gullible foreigners? You can't have it both ways.

Perhaps though Diamond got the pig thing wrong and they lie about the other stuff and it's laughable but stealing a pig is contemptuous and not something anyone would boast of falsely.
posted by Maias at 6:44 PM on April 29, 2009


For all the "ha, ha, pigs" people —

In PNG, pigs are of significant value and are an important part of compensation payments and important items during bride price, death, initiation and other traditional and customary feasts.
posted by Wolof at 6:53 PM on April 29, 2009


he comes up with a new scenario of European superiority that's equally as deterministic. Basically he's still saying Europe was destined to dominate the world, and if the clock you'd still get similar results.

This is an oversimplification of Diamond's big ideas. In an effort to dispel genetic notions of European superiority, he constructed something that looked like geographic determinism in Guns, Germs and Steel. But in response to just that criticism, that European geography was determinative of its success, he wrote Choice just to explore how cultural traits and collective choices caused societies to live or die. He wrote very favourably about Polynesian tribes on small islands, and very unfavourably about the Scandinavian colonization of Greenland. He lauded Iceland as a culture that has learned to live sustainably, and prophesied likely doom for Australia and Montana as cultures that refused to adapt to local environmental limitations. He's not quite the first world supremacist that you imply he is.
posted by fatbird at 6:55 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Diamond is money. He's brand name, uptown.

Yeah, but is he roadside?
posted by dhartung at 8:12 PM on April 29, 2009


Yeah, what fatbird said. Suggesting that
Basically, in his attempt to disprove the classic deterministic European superiority scenarios, he comes up with a new scenario of European superiority that's equally as deterministic. Basically he's still saying Europe was destined to dominate the world, and if the clock you'd still get similar results.
is pretty wildly off-base, as he repeatedly and clearly and annoying insists in the book itself that he is not arguing from any ideas of 'superiority' and that in fact he is aware that people might misread what he is saying as such. He spends a lot of time clarifying himself to avoid that end, in vain, clearly.

Diamond's certainly not completely right in all of the particulars, but GG&S is a fascinating and useful read, particularly when we keep in mind some of the objections that have been raised about its conclusions.

About the current issue though, I have no strong opinion.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:53 AM on April 30, 2009


carmen, that was an excellent comment.

I'm in the middle of filing for Institutional Review Board permission for a project working with a Native community in the Arctic. Nearly everything wrong with Diamond's article is addressed in this process -- protecting confidentiality of sources, obtaining permission and consent to do research and write about it, etc. It's a torturous process (the more so because we're federally funded by NSF). And I for one have never published anything about the people I work with that I did not share and collaboratively edit with my consultants.

Please don't let Jared Diamond represent "anthropology" in your imagination. He's not an anthropologist. He just plays one in the popular press.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:50 AM on April 30, 2009


Oh, and another thing: modern anthropologists would rarely conduct research with an indigenous community without formal permission to do so from the tribal authorities (or whoever has authority over such things, but it's usually a tribal government in the US). My own research is governed by a lengthy formal agreement with the tribal government that specifies what I can do when I conduct fieldwork, gives the tribal government the right to review publications before they are published, and specifies the purposes and value of the research for the tribe. Were I to publish an unverified oral account of an alleged but unprovable crime by a member of the community without proper sourcing and in such a way that I exposed my consultant(s) to legal risk or damaged reputation, I'd never be able to show my face on tribal lands again. And I wouldn't be surprised to be sued and called a liar in the press.

Professional anthropologists, as a rule, don't do shit like Diamond did. We'd destroy our careers if we did. If these allegations are true, Jared Diamond has violated anthropology's formal code of ethics, conducted bad scholarship, and damaged his own reputation and the ability of other Western researchers to work in PNG. Pretty bad stuff.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:58 AM on April 30, 2009


Leaving aside the possible inaccuracies in the article, as I understand you to be in your statement, I fail to see an "ethical breach".

The ethical breach was in using the real names of people without their permission or even awareness. "Protect your sources" is a fundamental ethical principle of both journalism and anthropological research. In this case, the article made claims about who was responsible for starting and funding a war. Whether or not those claims were true and whether or not the methodology was sound, that is the kind of statement that should require direct permission from each person named before their real name is used. Keep in mind that people were named who had never talked to Diamond.

I get the feeling that people have the sense that the name issue doesn't matter very much because the people involved were far away. But the article was published on the internet and internet is everywhere. I am currently writing these comments from Africa, and I am the only foreigner in the room. Even places that don't have internet have connections to people who do. Most indigenous peoples have scholars, politicians, or other elites who can find and then tell people about articles in internationally respected publications like the New Yorker, even if they themselves don't have internet or speak English or what have you. It's not like this was published in the unindexed, print-only Springfield Chronicle or something. The New Yorker is carried by several online distributors of print journals, not to mention subscribed to by international libraries.


For the record I was not implying that Diamond's work should have been conducted under the auspices of an ethics board. I was distinguishing his work from anthropologist's work because the OP and several commentors have suggested that this particular situation is somehow reflective of issues in social science research. But since the New Yorker published the article with the statement: "From the Annals of Anthropology" rather than "From the musings of a traveler" or some such, I think that some accountability is fair, even if it's limited to a simple adherence to the journalistic/anthropological ethic of "protect your sources".
posted by carmen at 9:18 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Can we not have an academic turf war here? Granted that Diamond is not credentialed or appointed as an anthropologist. Granted that he didn't follow the procedures and rules that an academic anthropologist would if they were doing a study. This could be said of every essay that appears in the New Yorker; it shouldn't matter that the subject matter is anthropological. Anthropology departments don't own the subject matter, thank god. A writer can talk to people without the approval of university bureaucrats. None of this anthro-inside-baseball matters. If the article contains falsehoods, then that is bad, for sure (maybe a violation of journalistic ethics, if you like).

But actually the worst accusations by ASRL amount to this: that Diamond was punked by his main source. Not only is there no particular reason to believe their version over his and the New Yorker's, but even if they are right there's essentially no wrong-doing.

ASRL is channeling a huge amount of antipathy towards Diamond in the anthropology community -- that's why they mustered a 40,000-word investigation of his little New Yorker essay, they really want to catch him on something. One could be forgiven for thinking this comes from resentment of Diamond's success -- how could an outsider get rich and famous on his anthropological insights? I trust the New Yorker fact-checkers over the ax-grinding academics, given what I've seen so far. Hopefully the New Yorker will respond specifically at some point. But I found this (from the Forbes piece) awfully telling:
Complicating Wemp's case, perhaps, is an interview he gave to Shearer's researchers, in which he stated that the stories he told Diamond were in fact true.

But a Wemp friend and legal adviser, Mako John Kuwimb, explains: "When foreigners come to our culture, we tell stories as entertainment. Daniel's stories were not serious narrative, and Daniel had no idea he was being interviewed for publication. He has never killed anyone or raped a woman. He certainly has never stolen a pig."
Even when the ASRL researchers were prompting him, the man said the stories were true. Then his lawyer says they're not true . . . and there's a lawsuit pending over the stories . . . hmmmmmmm. . . .

What's really unethical here is the escalation of academic sniping into a ridiculous lawsuit against a writer. If ASRL had any role in instigating the suit, then they've sunk to exploiting the very peoples they claim to defend.
posted by grobstein at 9:37 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


The ethical breach was in using the real names of people without their permission or even awareness. "Protect your sources" is a fundamental ethical principle of both journalism and anthropological research. In this case, the article made claims about who was responsible for starting and funding a war. Whether or not those claims were true and whether or not the methodology was sound, that is the kind of statement that should require direct permission from each person named before their real name is used. Keep in mind that people were named who had never talked to Diamond.

I don't know about anthropological ethics, but this is definitely not a firm principle of journalistic ethics. If his sources tell him that Dick Cheney instigated the Iraq War, does Sy Hersh need Cheney's permission to publish? In addition, in journalism, it's more ethically dangerous to hide the identity of your sources than to provide it.
posted by grobstein at 9:41 AM on April 30, 2009


"But actually the worst accusations by ASRL amount to this: that Diamond was punked by his main source. Not only is there no particular reason to believe their version over his and the New Yorker's, but even if they are right there's essentially no wrong-doing. "

You mean, aside from the fact that Isum Mandingo is pretty obviously not in a wheelchair?

Dude, part of journalism is the responsibility to get the facts straight. To hand-wave that with some bullshit about Diamond getting punked and a bunch of ad hominem attacks on the ASRL for being "axe-grinding academics" is to misunderstand fundamentally what it means to write NON-FICTION.

Not only that, but would you say no harm had been done if someone googlebombed your real name as a pedophile and child molester? No? Then can you understand why someone might be a little upset as being known as Daniel Wemp, homicidal maniac?

And that's leaving aside your dumb misunderstanding of "protect your sources."
posted by klangklangston at 10:02 AM on April 30, 2009


Dude, part of journalism is the responsibility to get the facts straight. To hand-wave that with some bullshit about Diamond getting punked and a bunch of ad hominem attacks on the ASRL for being "axe-grinding academics" is to misunderstand fundamentally what it means to write NON-FICTION.

This is my point. What's incorrect matters. Whether he is an "anthropologist" doesn't, along with seemingly everything about review boards. At least until the other side responds, we have to make credibility judgments about the accusers -- that's what my "ad hominems" are about.
posted by grobstein at 10:08 AM on April 30, 2009


You mean, aside from the fact that Isum Mandingo is pretty obviously not in a wheelchair?

Wemp told Diamond that Mandingo was in a wheel chair, Diamond did not make any thing up. Now I do think he was wrong to rely on one source when reporting on potentially criminal acts, but I don't see any reason to believe that Diamond was being intentionally dishonest.

Not only that, but would you say no harm had been done if someone googlebombed your real name as a pedophile and child molester? No? Then can you understand why someone might be a little upset as being known as Daniel Wemp, homicidal maniac?

If I went around telling everyone how much I loved to diddle the kiddies even if it was a complete lie, I don't think I could blame anyone but myself for being known as a child molester. I hate to bring up accusations of people carrying the "white man's burden", but their is something a little strange in the notion that Wemp has zero responsibility for the tales he has told.
posted by afu at 10:17 AM on April 30, 2009


It's an academic turf war-- or rather a defense of a discipline that has done a lot of soul searching and changing of its ways in recent decades -- if people start tarring the field of anthropology for what Diamond may have done here. There's a fair bit of it upthread.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:23 AM on April 30, 2009


Fair point.
posted by grobstein at 10:25 AM on April 30, 2009


Unfortunately the Shearer article is a bit disorganized and hard to read. The Forbes article misrepresents what is said by Shearer's report, perhaps as a result. Shearer asserts that Wemp says the stories he told are not what was printed in the article:
Wemp says, in one of dozens of phone interviews with StinkyJournalism since July 2008, “The facts are totally wrong in The New Yorker story. I have given all those stories to Diamond and those stories are very true and those names are not fake.” In other words, Wemp says he told the true stories to Diamond with real names but Diamond retold them wrongly by jumbling up information.
Shearer also quotes transcripts of the fact-checking interview which suggests that there was some problem with the quotes, even if Wemp does not articulate it very well:
At the start of the interview, Jennings [the fact checker] asked, “Are the stories in the article accurate? Is it true?” Daniel answered, “Not accurate, not accurate.” Later in the same interview, Daniel reasserts his stories are real but Diamond’s are not. Daniel said, “Those stories that I gave him, it is all those stories that I gave him are those true stories, what had happened, the real names of the people. (emphasis mine)
posted by carmen at 10:28 AM on April 30, 2009


(Actually, emphasis erased. Figured you could probably spot the important bit on your own.)
posted by carmen at 10:30 AM on April 30, 2009


Wemp says, in one of dozens of phone interviews with StinkyJournalism since July 2008, “The facts are totally wrong in The New Yorker story. I have given all those stories to Diamond and those stories are very true and those names are not fake.” In other words, Wemp says he told the true stories to Diamond with real names but Diamond retold them wrongly by jumbling up information.

I'm not sure how they derive their "in other words" version from what Wemp actually said. That is, I simply cannot make sense of what Wemp is saying, and if they had some version of the account from him in which he made it clear that he meant what they give as a paraphrase, they should have given us that version.
posted by yoink at 12:55 PM on April 30, 2009



Btw, journalists don't protect sources who speak *on the record*. When you are taking notes and you get the person's name (stopping to ensure correct spelling) or ask permission to tape an interview for a story you are writing, it's pretty clear that they are saying "Yes you can publish my name and what I say."

If you are dealing with someone where there are cultural/language issues, you need to explain this-- but it's not unethical on its face at all.

There are no IRB's for journalism-- and thank goodness for that. While IRB's are great in principle, in practice, they seem to put up a lot of barriers that are bureaucratic but do not actually protect subjects.
posted by Maias at 4:05 PM on April 30, 2009


In my opinion, many journalism projects *should* be IRB'ed. At least in journalism schools. I see J school projects at my university all the time that would require an IRB approval if my students were doing them. What are journalists, precious flowers of first amendment freedom?

Yes, they're a bureaucratic hassle meant to indemnify universities and granting agencies as much as protect people. But journalists cross ethical lines too, as Diamond did here (in what I insist is his capacity as a journalist).

No IRB? Fine. Risk a lawsuit.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:24 AM on May 2, 2009


Followup in Science magazine.
Whether or not Diamond got the facts of Wemp's case right, it is true that the tribes of PNG do practice revenge warfare, says [Pauline] Wiessner, who has studied war in PNG's Enga Province, just north of the region where Wemp and Mandingo live. In Enga, more than 300 tribal wars have taken the lives of nearly 4000 people since 1991. That's one reason Wiessner, who is active in local efforts to bring peace to PNG clans, is worried about the outcome of the case if it results in a large monetary award: She fears that the money could eventually go to buy weapons that would make the wars even more deadly. "When these wars first started, they were fought with bows and arrows, but now they have M-16s," she says. And although Wiessner faults Diamond for apparently taking Wemp's stories at face value, she also believes Wemp himself violated clan ethics by telling them in the first place. "For him to have given the names of tribes and implicate[d] other people than himself," as Diamond reported, "that was wrong," she says. "He should have sought approval of the clan elders beforehand."

In Wiessner's view, The New Yorker article gave a one-sided view of tribal warfare. Although the death toll often seems high, she says Highlanders are expert practitioners of what anthropologists call "restorative justice": the mediation of disputes in which aggrieved parties receive compensation from those who have wronged them, thus avoiding warfare. "Diamond did not put it into that context," Wiessner says. She thinks that Diamond should travel to PNG and engage in some restorative justice of his own. "Diamond has been wonderfully respectful of PNG and has done so much to raise the image of the country in the world, until that story," Wiessner says. "He should be taken to a village court; he should apologize; he should say that he was told this story and he should have checked it; and in compensation, he should give some money to each tribe, for their schools, a health center, or some community project."
posted by russilwvong at 4:32 PM on May 22, 2009


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