facts

Originally posted at Scatterplot. I just stumbled across the matter of Jared Diamond’s New Yorker article last year telling the story of vengeance fights in Papua New Guinea based on stories told to him by his driver.  As Diamond told the story, the driver Daniel Wemp and other real people whom he named by name and attributed to a specific tribal group — bragged about murdering and raping people in an ongoing vengeance war. The short version of what appears to be true (the case is still in process) is that Daniel Wemp told Diamond the stories when they were driving around in 1999-2002, but  Diamond did not take notes on them at the time but rather reconstructed them from memory and a follow up interview in 2006, and got the facts all wrong about who did what to whom and when and why and what tribes were involved, as described in meticulous detail byRhonda Roland Shearer at stinkyjournalism.org. The original article was pulled from electronic archives last year. The driver and purported murderer, Daniel Wemp, and one of his purported victims, Henep Isum (who was not, in fact, paralyzed by Wemp or anyone else), filed suit April 20 in New York for libel and defamation of character, asking for $10 million in damages. One of the commentators I read* said that if he had just changed everyone’s names and said he was telling stories that were a composite of stories he had heard, it would not have been a problem, but he claimed that his accounts were based on verbatim transcripts of interviews.  Fascinating issues are being raised about both the ethical standards of factual reporting and the ethical standards of the treatment of people and the ways in which some of the participants appeared to think it did not matter very much whether they got the exact details right when the story was about people in a far away place whom (it sure seems) they thought of as “not modern” people who would have no interest in something published in the New Yorker.  Some of the issues:

1) Consent. We social scientists fume at our IRBs and can’t talk to anybody about anything sensitive nor obtain identifying information without their formal consent. Journalists, by contrast, assume that you are always on the record unless you specifically ask to be off the record. Nobody at the New Yorker asked Wemp for permission to use his name, nor thought they needed it. If he told stories while driving a guy around, then he should assume he might find those stories in a newspaper one day, a viewpoint apparently shared by others in this rant that has extended comments by Shearer.  Jared Diamond is, at least in theory, an academic, not a journalist. Although his degree is in physiology (that’s a people science, right?), he spent most of his career studying bird ecology and, later, writing wildly popular books that really annoy anthropologists.** He is still on the faculty at UCLA where I assume they have an IRB. So what rules apply to us academics if we write for journalistic outlets?

2) Facts. Both journalists and social scientists care about getting the facts right, and the journalism scandal is the failure of the New Yorker to do more than cursory fact checking. The on-line report by Rhonda Roland Shearerat stinkyjournalism.org is just fascinating, as it meticulously develops both the initial basis for suspecting the facticity of the Diamond article (the purported quotes sounded like written English, not spoken English) and the fact-checking that revealed its errors as well as what had actually happened. According to her, many of the incidents at their base were real incidents that were well-known in the area, and could be cross-verified with multiple sources. This thoughtful and informative commentary at savageminds.org (a group anthropology blog) points out (as do other sources I’ve skimmed) that published peer-reviewed ethnographies are not subjected to that level of detailed fact-checking, and wonders how well the professional literature would stand up under such scrutiny. As a consumer but not producer of qualitative field research, it is my impression that there is often more concern in sociology (and perhaps anthropology) for using the qualitative data to illuminate important theoretical insights than for carefully documenting exactly what happened in each incident that is described. For one thing, sociologists and anthropologists are more likely to disguise their research sources, making fact-checking impossible.

3) Hierarchies. It is certainly my instinct that the New Yorker was less careful about publishing  with real names what most would understand as inflammatory materials (bragging about committing violent crimes) for far-away dark-skinned “tribal” people than it would have been about, say, college students in New York. In one of her comments replying to this blog, Shearer says that the only person’s whose name was changed in Diamond’s piece was a White Australian. And this piece by Clay Spinuzzi, a rhetoric professor, called “participants can respond – uh-0h” calls attention to the general researcher-subject hierarchy and the way that is changing. EDIT  Reading the Kuwimb letter (see next edit) really adds to this point, as you get in a dialogue about what the patterns are and what they mean.

4) Hierachies 2. Another one of the blogs I can’t find* gave an example of an PhD anthropologist — an assistant professor –– graduate student whose submitted article was rejected by a peer reviewer on the grounds that it conflicted with and failed sufficiently to engage  “the published literature on this subject,” by which was meant Diamond’s accounts of Papua New Guinea as published in the New Yorker! EDIT: I found this statement. And a lot more. It is here, which is a letter dated April 29  written by Mako John Kuwimb, a person from Papua New Guinea who is now (per Kerim at Savageminds)”a lecturer in law and a PhD candidate at Australia’s James Cook University.”  The document spells out the extreme detail the errors in Diamond’s account while it also provides a quite fascinating account of what the “rules” are.

* Sorry to the people I failed to cite as well as to those of you who’d like to follow up on these points. I did not expect to blog this when I first started clicking around following the story, and I can’t find all my sources. If you are one of those sources or know who is, please drop a comment with a link. EDIT:  I found one of them, see above.

** I should note that I am one of the Diamond fans, I’ve read all his books and found them fascinating synthetic thinking. I have thus also been interested in understanding what the profesionals in the fields he draws on think, which appears to be (as one source said), that most of what is right in the books is taken from the literature (sometimes with and sometimes without full attribution) — which I would have assumed given the character of the books — and that most of his original ideas are wrong. I have insufficient basis for judgment on that last claim.

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

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