Brian McKenna sent around to the EANTH Listserv a couple of blog posts today detailing the trouble that Jared Diamond has gotten in about a New Yorker story he wrote a year ago on the power of vengeance. This seems like a rather sordid affair but I think that Alex Golub should be commended for his very fair treatment of it in his most recent post on the Savage Minds blog. It certainly sounds like there were some major ethical lapses in the production of Diamond’s New Yorker piece, though I wonder about the motivations of Shearer, the muck-raker who has brought these issues to light.
Jeanine Pfeiffer, the director for social science at the Earthwatch Institute, posted a list of ethical guidelines from the International Society for Ethnobiology which I think are very relevant for understanding the apparent ethical lapses in Diamond’s work. Honestly, I can’t imagine publishing an article like Diamond’s and using the informants’ real names! Then there’s the issue of informed consent. People need to know that they are “on the record” — whatever that means in this (kind of) grey area of anthropology-meets-journalism. Seems to me that minimal twin standards that should guide anyone’s writing about the lives of people “in the field” include: (1) would you write this way about people in your own immediate community? and (2) would your article’s evidentiary and rhetorical standards pass muster if it was a paper submitted by an undergraduate for a class you were teaching?
As Golub notes, Jared Diamond is an easy target for academic anthropologists (or historians or geographers) because he writes well and clearly about complex topics and reaches a large audience. There are always people grumbling about Diamond’s originality, authenticity, and willingness to attribute ideas to others (in that vein, a highly recommended book). Diamond’s ecological work on community assembly of pigeons in New Guinea is top-notch and I still assign his chapter from the Ecology and Evolution of Communities volume he edited with Martin Cody in 1975. Regarding books like Guns, Germs, and Steel or Collapse, I take them for what they are: synthetic popularizations that maybe could have stood a little more attribution. It would certainly be nice if the popular spokesperson for Anthropology were actually an anthropologist. Alas, anthropologists, for the most part, have given up on the goal of writing prose that can be broadly read, appreciated, and understood.
This is a story I will be keeping my eye on.