Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
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Internet Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 12, 2001
Source URL: http://www.chronicle.com/free/v47/i18/18a01401.htm

Academic Scandal in the Internet Age

When a furor broke out in anthropology, e-mail was more powerful than peer review


Last summer, when Terence Turner and Leslie E. Sponsel received the page proofs of a book alleging scientific misconduct in the Amazon, they thought it would roil academe as soon as it was published. What they didn't realize, they say, was that the sensation was only a mouse-click away -- and their fingers were on the button.

As former leaders of the American Anthropological Association's human-rights and ethics committees, they decided to e-mail a warning to the association's top officers. The "impending scandal," their message began, would "arouse intense indignation and calls for action among members of the association. In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption it is unparalleled in the history of anthropology."

Based on 10 years of research by an investigative journalist named Patrick Tierney, the message continued, Darkness in El Dorado would show that a prominent geneticist and an influential anthropologist abetted a deadly measles epidemic that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of Yanomami Indians in Venezuela, among other misdeeds. The message invoked "fascistic eugenics" and "genocide," secret experiments, and "corrupt and depraved protagonists" akin to Josef Mengele.

Mr. Turner and Mr. Sponsel, anthropologists at Cornell University and the University of Hawaii-Manoa, respectively, knew that the book's most explosive charges would break in The New Yorker, which was planning to run an excerpt in October. And they expected the book to appear in bookstores soon afterward. The association's next step, they thought, was to give scholars a forum for discussion at their annual meeting in November and commission a fact-finding team to review the charges, a process that would take months.

Instead, their e-mail message ignited a swift and furious debate that left scholars with nowhere to go for information but online. Mr. Turner and Mr. Sponsel hit the send button on August 31; within days of entering the Internet's bloodstream, the message was spreading like a virus. By mid-September, it had burst onto popular academic e-mail lists and caught the attention of the media. On September 20, The Chronicle described scholars' fears that "alleged misdeeds" would taint the "entire discipline," and days later the Guardian of London reported that a "Scientist 'Killed Amazon Indians to Test Race Theory.'"

Fierce and inconclusive debates on e-mail lists are nothing new in academe, of course. But in this case, reports, research memos, and press releases sent by e-mail and posted on Web sites became the primary source of scholarly grist. While academics wondered, "Can this be true?," Internet-savvy scholars fed that hunger for information.

Mr. Tierney's charges were challenged so quickly, in fact, that he revised parts of the book before it reached the printer. But he and his publisher, W.W. Norton, did not respond to attacks on the book as soon as they were launched. While the Turner-Sponsel message prompted critics to create Web sites and pillory the book in the electronic press, Mr. Tierney and Norton stuck to a leisurely publicity schedule and printed no extra page proofs for the journalists and scholars clamoring for them.

Once upon a time, the book's publication would have been the starting point for a deliberate discussion refereed by academic journals and scholarly panels. But the Yanomami affair demonstrates that, for better or worse, those gatekeepers cannot keep up with more nimble combatants on the Internet.

Separating fact from falsehood in the Yanomami case is no academic exercise. James Neel, a renowned human geneticist who died last February, stands accused of administering an obsolete measles vaccine to a vulnerable indigenous population for the sake of eugenic experimentation. The book suggests that Timothy Asch, a documentary filmmaker and anthropologist who died in 1994, helped stage scenes to trump up images of Yanomami customs.

By far the book's main preoccupation, however, is Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist whose swashbuckling account of his travels among the Yanomami people in the 1960's became a bestseller and a staple of introductory anthropology courses. Darkness in El Dorado charges him with harming the Yanomami people and disrupting their culture in a variety of reckless or unethical ways.

The book has already put the integrity of anthropology under a microscope, perhaps imperiling scientists' future access to indigenous peoples. But the Internet debate also reveals that Darkness in El Dorado is part of an academic feud with long roots.

Mr. Chagnon has long been a controversial figure. To neo-Darwinist scholars, who contend that biological impulses shaped by evolutionary forces strongly influence human behavior, he has been an icon.

His critics accuse him of distorted interpretations and callous behavior in the field, such as paying his informants with weapons and other steel goods. Mr. Chagnon counters that his critics are "leftists" committed to a romantic notion of the gentle, noble savage. Scholars in his field either revere him or despise him. Mr. Turner and Mr. Sponsel have long been in the latter category.

Much of Mr. Tierney's critique of Mr. Chagnon is old news. This time, however, the sensational allegation in the Turner-Sponsel message that he and Mr. Neel had helped cause a measles epidemic in 1968 drew in even scholars with no particular stake in the Chagnon feud. Susan Lindee, a medical historian at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote a scholarly book about Mr. Neel in 1994, first heard about Mr. Tierney's book last summer, but paid little attention. In mid-September, colleagues began bombarding her with copies of the e-mail message and alarmed inquiries: "Have you seen this?"

"I didn't look at Neel as one of the most wonderful human beings who ever lived," she says. "I had many disagreements with him." But the idea that he would deliberately start an epidemic, or use a vaccine he knew to be dangerous, she says, struck her as "implausible."

For several nights, she had difficulty sleeping. "I felt that I knew Neel pretty well," she says. "I thought maybe he had some dark, sinister underbelly I didn't know about." She decided the cure for her anxiety was research. She knew that Mr. Neel had deposited copies of his papers and field notes at the American Philosophical Society, in Philadelphia, so she began poring over boxes of research from the 1968 vaccination program.

"The field notes completely contradicted the claims that Turner and Sponsel made," she says. "Not only was it not an experiment, but it was done as a humanitarian gesture."

Based on the archives, she concluded that Mr. Neel had, in fact, sought advice on administering the vaccine from the Centers for Disease Control. He had given gamma globulin to all who received the vaccine to minimize adverse reactions. He had given medicine to Yanomami already suffering from measles. And he had mapped out his travels among Yanomami villages according to where he thought the disease would strike next.

Furthermore, she discovered, Mr. Neel had written that he had heard reports of measles in Yanomami territory just after he arrived in Venezuela, and before he entered the field with his vaccines. And, she said, he had secured the permission of Venezuelan authorities before vaccinating.

She wrote up her findings in a memo dated September 21 and e-mailed it to colleagues. "I knew it would go to the same ether space that the original e-mail had," she says. Within a couple of days, people began calling for permission to post her memo on Web sites.

Across the country, Peter Biella had a similar reaction. An assistant professor of visual anthropology at San Francisco State University, Mr. Biella had extensively studied the works of the late Mr. Asch, who had filmed several now-classic documentaries during Mr. Chagnon's various expeditions. One of the films, The Ax Fight, depicts ritual conflict between two Yanomami villages, and remains a cornerstone of the notion that violence is integral to their culture.

Mr. Biella, a former colleague of Mr. Asch's who has produced a CD-ROM supplement to a recent edition of Mr. Chagnon's book on the Yanomami, first received the Turner-Sponsel e-mail message from a former student living in South Africa. He was alarmed, he says, by the memo's suggestion that Mr. Chagnon, to bolster his ideological position, had "induced Yanomami to enact fights and aggressive behavior for Asch's films, sometimes building whole artificial villages as 'sets' for the purpose."

"The two films have been dishonored and their integrity challenged," he says. "I felt I had a moral obligation to respond." He decided to write a critique for the December issue of Anthropology News, the association's newspaper. Like Ms. Lindee, however, he felt a need for speed.

By September 19, he had drafted a 1,000-word version and e-mailed it to friends. Within a week, it appeared on an e-mail list on evolutionary psychology. His main argument: Mr. Asch would not have embellished his film to advance a point of view he rejected.

"I cannot believe that Asch would remain silent on the essential matter of 'faking data in order to film it,'" he wrote, "since he would have liked nothing better than to repudiate Chagnon's fierceness hypothesis (even if by doing so Asch might also implicate himself either for unknowing cooperation or cupidity). Asch had repudiated the impression of fierceness given by the film long since." In fact, he continued, the film is about ways that violence is "muted, restrained, and non-fatal."

While some scholars, like Ms. Lindee and Mr. Biella, applied their own expertise to some sliver of the book, others commissioned it. For instance, scholars tracked down two of the epidemiologists that Mr. Tierney had cited in his chapter on the measles epidemic and elicited letters, posted on the Internet, denying that Mr. Neel's choice of vaccine was questionable or dangerous.

By far the most comprehensive effort to examine Mr. Tierney's evidence is continuing among Mr. Chagnon's former colleagues at the University of California at Santa Barbara. As the president of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, the anthropologist John Tooby saw the book as an attack on both a former colleague and on the Darwinian perspective central to his research.

When he first read the Turner-Sponsel memo, he says, "I thought, 'Jesus, something really bad happened.'" If American scientists really had conducted deadly and nefarious vaccination experiments in the 1960's, he thought, immunization programs in developing countries today would be shunned. "But the more I talked to people, the more obvious it became that the story was false," he says.

One of the few early commentators to obtain the page proofs of Darkness in El Dorado, Mr. Tooby began to ask graduate students and instructors for help in checking the book's footnotes and sources. As the group began exchanging their findings by e-mail, their enterprise gradually evolved into an ever-growing "Preliminary Report" posted on the department's Web site. That research informed Mr. Tooby's October review in Slate, one of the first to appear.

At last count, the report comprised nearly 100 pages. The group still confers a couple of times a week, and plans to keep going well into the new year.

"It's really difficult to find the language to describe something that is systematically and comprehensively intended to be false," says Mr. Tooby. But the cover page of their online document manages it: "This book appears to be deliberately fraudulent."

Many participants in the debate so far have expressed hope that some impartial institution will investigate Mr. Tierney's claims and issue a report. But none has stepped forward.

Bruce Alberts, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, issued a press release on November 9 titled "Setting the Record Straight Regarding Darkness in El Dorado." But Mr. Alberts took issue only with those assertions that implicated the academy itself -- some of them rather minor.

Other professional societies confined themselves to brief statements of concern. At the end of October, the board of the International Genetic Epidemiology Society posted a statement that called Mr. Neel "one of the most eminent human geneticists of his generation." The rights of research subjects, it continued, "are paramount in research dealing with human subjects, but scientists also have the right not to be the subjects of reckless or unsupported accusations."

At its annual meeting, in mid-November, the American Anthropological Association organized a panel discussion that focused on the vaccine issue, and decided to investigate whether the book merited an investigation. But the group appears to see its task as determining whether Mr. Chagnon violated its code of ethics -- which has been faulted for being vague and ever-changing -- rather than testing the accuracy of Mr. Tierney's research. Considering its past reluctance to police ethical infractions, including those raised about Mr. Chagnon years ago, or even to define them, skeptics doubt the association will ever adjudicate the book's claims.

Perhaps the only major institution to launch a broad investigation was the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where Mr. Neel spent much of his career. "When the first e-mail came out of the blue, it caught us totally by surprise," says Fawwaz T. Ulaby, a professor of computer science and engineering and the university's vice president for research. He immediately organized a team of about 10 Michigan scholars and staff members to investigate Mr. Tierney's charges. "We felt we owed it to the community, because questions were coming from everywhere," he says.

In its report, the university says that it "carefully and thoroughly investigated many of the major claims made in the book" and that "the evidence supports the conclusion that these claims are false." It will not likely be seen, however, as the last word on the book's veracity. In fact, it reads as much like an indictment of Mr. Turner and Mr. Sponsel as an evaluation of Darkness in El Dorado.

Although the report concludes that "Mr. Tierney did not consult important original source material that was readily available for review," its authors appear to have committed the same sin. After Norton rebuffed their request for page proofs of the book, the investigators evaluated the Turner-Sponsel e-mail message. As a result, their initial version tilted at several assertions not found in the book. Among them: that Mr. Neel went to Venezuela to "conduct secret radiation experiments" and that Mr. Chagnon is responsible for "endemic warfare" among the Yanomami.

And the report offers several paragraphs to refute the claim that Mr. Neel had "refused medical care" so that he could "observe the epidemic" -- a claim that Mr. Turner, in an interview with The Chronicle, has said he was wrong to have attributed to Mr. Tierney.

Even after the university obtained a galley copy, its assessment hardly changed. In fact, a second version of the report, dated November 13, simply tacked two more criticisms onto the original.

Mr. Ulaby defends the report's brevity. "In hindsight, the book is not worth further investigation. It was sufficient to establish that it was not a credible piece of work," he says. "People criticize and respond and counter-respond within the usual literature, and we will leave it to the scientific community to sort it out."

At least one member of the investigative team didn't leave it at that. Kent Flannery, a professor of archaeology, wanted the university to publish what he calls its "final report." That 7,600-word document includes a history of the 20-year conflict between "scientists" and "activists" in anthropology and a lengthy exegesis of Mr. Turner, Mr. Sponsel, and Mr. Tierney's "agenda" in attacking Mr. Chagnon.

Mr. Flannery received permission to e-mail the document to Mr. Neel's family, with a cover note, "as a way of letting you know that the tide is turning." Although not "approved for release by any official organ," in Mr. Flannery's words, his message found its way to an evolutionary psychology e-mail list by the end of October.

Mr. Chagnon himself has kept a low profile. Now retired in Michigan, he has so far given interviews to only a few publications, including Time, Newsweek, and National Review. He declined to speak with The Chronicle, citing what he considered unfavorable coverage in the past. He turned down an invitation to appear on a Yanomami panel at the anthropology meeting in November. Instead he sent as his spokesman William G. Irons, an anthropologist at Northwestern University who speaks with him frequently.

But his presence has been evident in cyberspace. He has written several brief critiques of Darkness in El Dorado, which he has disseminated via e-mail and posted on his page on the Santa Barbara Web site, and he has urged former colleagues to contest the book's conclusions in public.

Most importantly, he has also been helping Mr. Tooby's "U.C.S.B. Team" fact-check Darkness in El Dorado. In a typical week, says Edward Hagen, an anthropology instructor at Santa Barbara, he talks to Mr. Chagnon several times by phone, fielding suggestions about the book's apparent weaknesses. But Mr. Hagen is quick to add that the retired scholar in no way directs the team's efforts.

It seems he doesn't have to. The first wave of Internet commentary has been very critical of the book. Mr. Chagnon's allies were quick to circulate letters from various scientists, including some quoted in the book, who endorsed Mr. Neel's choice of vaccine and disputed Mr. Tierney's suggestion that the vaccine could have led to contagion.

If the debate seemed one-sided at first, the publisher's marketing strategy is partly to blame. The publisher's agreement with The New Yorker required it to hold up publication and keep Mr. Tierney under wraps until November. Once Mr. Tierney began his book tour, he says, he was too harried to bang out thoughtful replies to his critics.

Neither author nor publisher has any regrets. They say that exposure in The New Yorker was worth the long embargo. And they don't think the weeks of unanswered criticism will hurt in the long run. After all, positive reviews have begun to appear in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other major papers.

If you missed them the first time around, don't despair. In mid-December, Norton finally created its own Darkness in El Dorado Web site. It offers links to favorable reviews and touts its nomination for the the National Book Award. In addition, Mr. Tierney has finally written replies to John Tooby's Slate article and Bruce Alberts's critical statement on behalf on the National Academy of Sciences.

In the midst of the brouhaha, however, the authors of the original memo were relatively quiet. "I was infuriated and embarrassed" when the memo spread beyond its intended recipients, says Mr. Sponsel. They say they were being "naive" about the dangers of Internet communication. They intended the letter to be confidential, never thought it necessary to say so explicitly, and never gave any thought to the ease with which e-mail messages can be forwarded exponentially.

Furthermore, "If we had intended it to be a damning indictment, we would have done it differently," says Mr. Turner -- removed the inflammatory language, backed up the claims with more evidence from the book, and sent it to a wide audience. They would also have been more careful about how they characterized the book's allegations, he says, acknowledging that Mr. Tierney never claimed that the research team denied medical aid to measles-infected patients.

Their first reaction to seeing their letter propagated, says Mr. Turner, was to investigate the epidemic charge themselves. As soon as epidemiologists offered a credible challenge to that allegation, he says, they acknowledged their agreement in an e-mail message sent to the evolutionary psychology e-mail list -- or as Mr. Turner calls it, "the heart of the enemy camp."

"I think that wipes the slate clean," says Mr. Turner.

In several e-mail messages since then, Mr. Turner and Mr. Sponsel have continued to defend their belief that Mr. Neel held "eugenic" views and to insist that their colleagues should judge the book for themselves. And despite "confidential" labels, recipients have circulated their missives and leaked them to The Chronicle.

So far, the Tierney episode suggests that the Internet has opened up academic debate to a large population of nimble and informed individuals and magnified their influence. Unfortunately, this boon sometimes comes at the expense of thoroughness.

For example, in her memo on Mr. Neel's field notes, Penn's Ms. Lindee made at least one significant error. She initially said that, contrary to the book, Venezuelan authorities had granted Mr. Neel permission to vaccinate in Yanomami territory. Although she found evidence that he had requested permission, she wrote a few weeks later, the Neel archives contained no direct proof they had ever responded. That in turn prompted her to write a new memo, explaining why her original conclusion was likely, if not proven.

David Hakken, an anthropologist at the State University of New York Institute of Technology at Utica/Rome who studies Internet culture and research ethics, believes the Tierney episode may have shown Internet discourse at its best and worst. "As an intellectual, I guess I have to believe that the more people know about something, the better off they are in the long run," he says. "On the other hand, there's a tendency when using e-mail to exaggerate the response."

On the Internet, he says, people tend to write the way they talk -- that is, more spontaneously and with less restraint. So the debate over Mr. Tierney's book seems to have provoked far more "flaming" -- or personal vituperation -- than, say, the furor in the 1980's over Derek Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth.

Of course, the flip side of a more democratic conversation in academe is that the well-informed are not exalted above the ignorant. "If the public as a whole takes seriously things that are stated without much peer review, there is a danger of really bad misconduct," says Daniel E. Koshland, a molecular biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and a former editor of Science. "People who are busy are still going to use old-fashioned peer review and selective review" to find reliable information, he adds. "And people who aren't busy are going to use chat rooms. I don't see how we can stop it."

One person who might share his fears is Patrick Tierney. "I am really surprised at what I consider to be the tawdry quality of the debate," he says. He has been disappointed, he says, to see the conversation revolve almost exclusively around the technicalities of the epidemic, instead of "Chagnon's personal history and ultimate expulsion from the reserve" by Venezuelan authorities. The Turner-Sponsel memo's speculation that the vaccination program was a eugenics experiment, he adds, "was wildly off and continues to get thrown back at me."

"Essentially the debate has been a footnote war," he says, but he acknowledges that war has uncovered some minor errors of citation that will be corrected in his next edition. And the furor over the Internet has been useful, he says, for understanding why his chapter on the epidemic has been so easily misread. Before the book went to press, he qualified one scientist's remarks about the possibility the vaccine virus was transmissible and dropped another quote that suggested the epidemic could have been deliberately caused.

Even those chastened by this debate see its advantages. "Tierney's book and our memo are going to end up getting a great deal of critical evaluation," says Mr. Turner. "It will be a much fuller and more open and more productive discussion."

Mr. Chagnon's supporters would likely agree with that. Although peer review provides quality control, "I probably fall more on the side of open debate and democracy," says Kim Hill, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico who has defended Mr. Chagnon on the Internet. "I think that control over a very small number of forums leads to a lot of elitism and cliquism and mild forms of censorship that I don't think serve the interests of academia."

"After everyone's read the book," he adds, "all this discussion is going to be great."

"E-mail really speeds things up," says Northwestern's Mr. Irons. "If you want to coordinate your activities and your thinking, you can do it much more quickly. Of course, so can the guy who's attacking you. I tend to think that actually that's basically a good thing. If people can communicate faster, that's better."

Despite the Internet's reputation for ephemeral chatter, the last four months have actually produced a coherent and accessible body of literature. Both the Anthro-L e-mail list and the evolutionary psychology e-mail list archive their messages. A graduate student of anthropology at the University of Connecticut has been compiling many of the major statements, articles, and reviews on his personal Web site. Some professors say they will relish the chance to assign those electronic texts, alongside Mr. Chagnon's book, in their introductory anthropology courses.

After years of criticism, Mr. Chagnon is writing a new book, tentatively called Noble Savage, about the controversies that have swirled around him for the past decade. The recent events have reportedly forced him to revise the manuscript, due to be published by Simon and Schuster sometime in 2002. But why wait? With so much material available online, onlookers can boot up, get connected, and make up their own minds.


Doug Hume's Anthropological Niche. In a labor of love, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut maintains a comprehensive and growing record of l'affaire Tierney. The original Turner-Sponsel memo is here, as well as links to dozens of position statements, press releases, newspaper articles and reviews, and message "threads" from e-mail discussion groups. Added bonus: A lengthy Yanomami bibliography.

W.W. Norton's "Darkness in El Dorado" site. Perhaps the only pro-Tierney site was created by his publisher. It contains Mr. Tierney's New Yorker excerpt, his responses to several critiques, excerpts from and links to favorable newspaper reviews, testimonials, and the book's nominating citation for the National Book Award.

Napoleon Chagnon/University of California at Santa Barbara. In addition to Mr. Chagnon's own statements and various articles and documents in his defense, readers will find a link to his former colleagues' "preliminary report" challenging portions of the book -- now 98 pages long, including references.

University of Michigan. Contains the November 13 version of the university's critique of Darkness in El Dorado.

Evolutionary Psychology e-mail list archives. This discussion list was a prime outlet for the dissemination of Yanomami material. Messages are archived chronologically, but not by topic. Hint: The Tierney debate began in September.

Anthro-L e-mail list archives. Anthropologists swap opinions and information. For easier reading, the Doug Hume site has collected several Yanomami message "threads" from Anthro-L under topic headings.


Section: Research & Publishing

Page: A14