Friday, April 24, 2009
Research Subjects Sue Jared Diamond, the Author and Professor, for $10-Million
“While acting on vengeful feelings clearly needs to be discouraged, acknowledging them should be not merely permitted but encouraged,” wrote Jared M. Diamond in an essay in The New Yorker last April.
Now two of the subjects of that essay are acknowledging their own vengeful feelings. This week a lawyer filed a $10-million defamation claim in a New York court on behalf of two Papua New Guinea men whom Mr. Diamond described as active participants in clan warfare during the 1990s.
Mr. Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author of the best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (W.W. Norton, 1997), andCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2004), based the essay almost entirely on accounts given to him by Hup Daniel Wemp, an oil-field technician who served as Mr. Diamond’s driver during a 2001-2 visit to New Guinea. (The full text of the essay is open only to New Yorker subscribers, but a long summary is available here.
Mr. Wemp is now one of the lawsuit’s two plaintiffs; the other is Henep Isum Mandingo, a man who, according to Mr. Diamond’s article, was attacked and paralyzed on orders from Mr. Wemp.
For nearly a year, Mr. Diamond’s article has been scrutinized by Rhonda Roland Shearer, director of theArt Science Research Laboratory, a multifaceted New York organization with a sideline in media criticism.Ms. Shearer, a sculptor and writer, is the widow of Stephen Jay Gould, who preceded Mr. Diamond as a widely esteemed public interpreter of science.
Ms. Shearer has collaborated with three indigenous scholars and journalists in New Guinea—Michael Kigl, Kritoe Keleba, and Jeffrey Elapa—in an attempt to verify and reconstruct Mr. Diamond’s accounts. In a new report, the four writers argue that Mr. Diamond botched the history of the conflict he described, and they say that his errors may have placed Mr. Wemp in danger.
They also present evidence that Mr. Diamond misleadingly presented his quotations from Mr. Wemp as if they were spoken during their car rides together in 2001 and 2002, when in fact they were all gathered during a single interview in Mr. Wemp’s office in 2006. And regardless of when they were spoken, the quotations are so polished that they were almost certainly not Mr. Wemp’s verbatim words, according to an analysis given to Ms. Shearer by Douglas Biber, a professor of applied linguistics at Northern Arizona University.
In a post on Wednesday at Savage Minds, an anthropology blog, Alex Golub, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii-Manoa who does field work in New Guinea, suggested that this affair was emblematic of “a fundamental ethical issue that anthropologists will have to face for decades to come.” The rise of the Internet means that whatever scholars write about their field informants—no matter how remote those people might seem—will inevitably be read by the communities they have described.
“While this should always have been important to us,” Mr. Golub wrote, “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.’”
Mr. Diamond has not replied to a request for comment from The Chronicle.