Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 24, 2009

Savage Minds on the Jared Diamond affair

Filed under: anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 2:46 pm

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

by Rex on April 22nd, 2009

Rhonda Shearer, a cofounder of the Arts Science Research Lab and widow of Stephen Jay Gould recently released a long report on ASRL’s website Stinky Journalism.org 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.

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  1. I will say from the onset that I have never been a fan of Diamond’s work. Too often, he confuses the past with the present, and vice versa, treats data as secondary and occasionally as a handicap to the grand theories he posits, and dismisses serious scholars as seeing trees when he in his divine vision, sees the entire global ecological system. He has been a spokesperson for anthropology since the 1990s when he came up with the shoddy claims in GG&S and an article in Science (2002). I was one of the authors in the Domesticated Landscapes paper by Terrell et al (2003) who tried to disprove his idiocies with actual data and collaborations between scholars who knew what they were talking about. But you cannot counter a successful macro-“historian” with an academic publication. So far, we anthropologists have blown steam, ranted, and raved, decried the fact that he should be speaking for us, but we just roll over for him, for a man, who stated, in a public meeting, that if a theory explains 70% of all available data, it is good enough. I used to wish that this man would quietly leave and take with him his simplistic notions of history and social process. But, Ms. Shearer’s take down will be even better.

    That being said, please stop conflating what he did with what anthropologists do. He is to anthropology as Dinesh D’Souza’s racist NY taxi drivers were to ethnography: an unfortunate confusion! (In the 1980s, right-wing ideologue Dinesh D’Souza claimed that Taxi drivers who refused to serve African-American clients were in fact amateur ethnographers who made decisions based on real-life observations, as do ethnographers). Even our undergraduates who go into the field will not make the mistakes he has and know that to make up data is violating the very basic core of intellectual honesty. His early writings were not intellectually honest since he wrote “just-so” stories and dismissed any objections from scholars as academic jealousy. And that was not (entirely) true. I did not object to Diamond’s popularization of concepts that I study. I did not object to his bringing the narrative to the lay person. In that, I respect him. I do not think that investing in “simple” is wrong. But investing in “simple and wrong,” is truly wrong.

    In this case however, he has stepped over the line, endangered a man who actually (albeit inadvertently) helped him write an article for the New Yorker (for which he was no doubt handsomely recompensed), and made up data. And he is still out there admitting that he did no wrong. Intellectual honesty, more than anything, is defining the conditions under which you’ll accept you are wrong, and doing so when called upon. The actual nerve of a spokesperson for science, that he would even in the face of actual contrary evidence (in this case of a man “not” in a wheelchair), he still stands by his story?

    Take this man down. He did anthropology a great disservice by destroying any aspects of complexity in lay understanding of the outlined social and historical processes. Now, he is a liability at best, and an unethical pompous pseudo-intellectual at worst.

    Comment by Rahul Oka — May 25, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  2. […] Diamond has been under such fierce cricitism in recent years (particularly at the hands of anthropologists) that it is easy to overlook the crucial point made in this book: the urgent need for […]

    Pingback by Internet and cultural diversity: a brief annotated bibliography « media/anthropology — December 8, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

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