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Internet Source: American Anthropological Association, Anthropology News 44(3), March 2003
Source URL: http://www.umich.edu/~urel/darkness.html


The Yanomami Vaccine Resolution Vis-à-Vis Responsibilities of Anthropologists

Joe Watkins

Past Chair, AAA Committee on Ethics

During the AAA Information-Gathering Session at the New Orleans meeting, a resolution was submitted by Thomas Gregor and Daniel Gross (see Motion #1, Feb AN, p 17) concerning accusations presented in Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado, particularly the accusation that James Neel started or abetted a lethal measles epidemic through a program of vaccination carried out in 1968. While Gregor and Gross were satisfied that the El Dorado Task Force found no evidence to support such accusations, they were more concerned that such accusations could have negative effects on vaccine safety and on future and on-going vaccine programs among vulnerable populations. This resolution was passed by a close vote of attendees at the gathering, but, because there was not a quorum in attendance, the motion was forwarded as advisory to the Executive Board.

The resolution submitted by Gregor and Gross requests three actions of the AAA:

Repudiation of “the accusations or insinuations of starting or abetting a lethal measles epidemic by vaccination among the Yanomami made against the late James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon”;

Recognition of “the harmfulness of false accusations regarding vaccine safety”; and

A discussion by the Committee on Ethics regarding “the responsibilities of anthropologists with respect to these issues in their future deliberations and report back to the membership no later than Nov 2003.”

Gregor and Gross, in their resolution, state that, “Whereas, the [El Dorado] Task Force fails to properly recognize that the charges that initiated their investigation [i.e., that Neel and Chagnon started or abetted a measles epidemic among the Yanomami as part of an experiment in eugenics through the use of inappropriate vaccines] are themselves dangerous in that they undermine the public trust that is essential for the success of immunization campaigns and thereby the health and safety of the Yanomami and all peoples.” It is not for the Committee on Ethics to speak to the issue of whether or not the Task Force should or should not have “properly recognized that the charges that initiated their investigation are themselves dangerous . . .” (emphasis added) and defers any formal response on this issue to the Executive Board. Nor should it be a concern of the Committee on Ethics whether the AAA Executive Board repudiate “. . . the accusations or insinuations of starting or abetting a lethal measles epidemic by vaccination among the Yanomami made against the late James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon.” Rather, on behalf of the Committee on Ethics, I would like to respond to action number 2 above concerning the impact that false information might have on the anthropological enterprise and to action number 3 concerning the responsibilities of anthropologists in these regards.

The Committee on Ethics wishes to remind the AAA membership that the purpose of the AAA Code of Ethics (www.aaanet.org/committees/ethics/ethcode.htm), as stated in its Preamble, is not to adjudicate claims of unethical behavior. The Code recognizes that “(I)n a field of such complex involvements and obligations, it is inevitable that misunderstandings, conflicts, and the need to make choices among apparently incompatible values will arise. Anthropologists are responsible for grappling with such difficulties and struggling to resolve them in ways compatible with the principles stated here. The purpose of this Code is to foster discussion and education. . . .” In the Introduction (Part II), the Code recognizes that there will be circumstances where choices will confront the practitioner of anthropology: “No code or set of guidelines can anticipate unique circumstances or direct actions in specific situations. The individual anthropologist must be willing to make carefully considered ethical choices and be prepared to make clear the assumptions, facts and issues on which those choices are based. . . .”

In Section 2 of Part III (B), “Responsibility to scholarship and science,” of the AAA Code of Ethics, anthropologists are reminded that they “. . . bear responsibility for the integrity and reputation of their discipline, of scholarship and of science. Thus, anthropological researchers are subject to the general moral rules of scientific and scholarly conduct: they should not deceive or knowingly misrepresent (i.e., fabricate evidence, falsify, plagiarize), or attempt to prevent reporting of misconduct, or obstruct the scientific/ scholarly research of others.” Additionally, in Section 3, they are reminded that they should “. . . do all they can to preserve opportunities for future fieldworkers to follow them to the field.”

Moreover, in Section 1 of Part III (C) of the Code, “Responsibility to the public,” the researcher is reminded that they “. . . should make the results of their research appropriately available to sponsors, students, decision-makers and other nonanthropologists. In so doing, they must be truthful; they are not only responsible for the factual content of their statements but also must consider carefully the social and political implications of the information they disseminate. They must do everything in their power to insure that such information is well understood, properly contextualized and responsibly utilized. . . . At the same time, they must be alert to possible harm their information may cause people with whom they work or colleagues.”

This, then, is the philosophical foundation upon which the discussion concerning Gregor and Gross’ Motion should be based: the dissemination of known-to-be-false information to the public and the discipline and the impact that such dissemination has on individuals and the discipline. One phrase that causes concern within the Committee on Ethics in issuing a general condemnation of the Darkness in El Dorado accusations lies within Section III(B)(2) of the Code above: anthropologists “. . . should not deceive or knowingly misrepresent (i.e., fabricate evidence, falsify, plagiarize), or attempt to prevent reporting of misconduct. . . [about] the scientific/scholarly research of others” (emphasis added). This statement is the crux of this matter, for, from one perspective, Tierney’s accusations against Neel and Chagnon may be seen as an attempt to “. . . deceive or knowingly misrepresent (i.e., fabricate evidence, falsify, plagiarize) . . . the scientific/scholarly research of others.” Yet, from another perspective, Tierney’s accusations might also be seen to be an attempt at a “. . . reporting of misconduct. . . [about] the scientific/scholarly research of others” (emphasis added). On the one hand, we have an action that the AAA Code of Ethics warns anthropologists not to do, while, on the other, we have an action the AAA Code warns anthropologists not to prevent.

This situation presents an opportunity for anthropologists to again learn from the Darkness in El Dorado controversy. We must be concerned with the intended and unintended impacts that the anthropological enterprise has on those around us. We must continually strive to teach our students and remind our fellow anthropologists that they must, as the code states, “. . . consider carefully the social and political implications of the information they disseminate. They must do everything in their power to insure that such information is well understood, properly contextualized and responsibly utilized. . . . At the same time, they must be alert to possible harm their information may cause people with whom they work or colleagues”.

Therefore, the intentional spreading of known-to-be-false information by an anthropologist or any scientist goes against known scientific codes of ethics. It is the responsibility of the ethical anthropologist to guard against falsifying or knowingly submitting false information as part of the anthropological enterprise.

Joe Watkins is an associate professor of anthropology at the U of New Mexico. He was chair of the Committee on Ethics from 1999-2002, and is a former member of the El Dorado Task Force.