I was recently reading A Scientist’s Guide to Talking With the Media, a useful and clearheaded book by Richard Hayes and Daniel Grossman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Emphasizing the importance of science outreach, Hayes and Grossman praise the pop-sci luminaries who followed in the footsteps of Carl Sagan:
With his intriguing investigations into the activities of everyday life, Fisher joins a distinguished fraternity of public scientists that includes Barry Commoner, Jared Diamond, Sylvia Earle, Paul Erlich, and E.O. Wilson. These are some of the most famous of the hundreds of scientist foot soldiers who help improve public understanding and appreciation of science and help give public policies firm, scientifically sound foundations.
Scientist-authors like Jared Diamond (of the bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel) are why you see scientific titles on airplanes and beach towels. They’re ambassadors who bridge the culture gap lamented by C.P. Snow, proving that journalists are not the only ones who can research a story and tell it compellingly. Which is why it’s a complete shock to hear that Diamond has been accused of fabricating most of an article he published last year in the New Yorker. What happened? And whose fault was it?
Here’s the story. Last April, Diamond wrote an article for the New Yorker on tribal feuding in New Guinea, entitled “Vengeance is Ours.” I read the article when it came out, and I can remember being shocked at the violence in it. Diamond’s main source, a New Guinean driver named Daniel Wemp, told unrepentant tales of rape, murder, and theft committed during his quest to revenge himself on another tribal leader, Henep Isum. The article says Wemp’s quest ended when Isum was paralyzed by an arrow. A troubling story – but it was in the New Yorker, under the heading “Annals of Anthropology,” and more important, it was by scientist Jared Diamond. Despite my shock, I figured it had to be fact-checked and accurate.
Well, according to an expose by Rhonda Roland Shearer at stinkyjournalism.org, Diamond’s article is mostly false. Isum is perfectly healthy, not paralyzed. Wemp says he never committed the crimes attributed to him. Neither man is a tribal leader. And now both Wemp and Isum are suing Diamond and the New Yorker’s parent company for defamation, seeking $10 million in damages. According to the Australian,
The lawsuit threatens to expose the declining fact-checking standards in US publishing, but if a law lecturer and PhD student at Australia’s James Cook University, Mako John Kuwimb, gets his way, the case will never go to court. Mr Kuwimb, who yesterday described himself as “the principal guy assisting and advising on the lawsuit”, said Mr Mandingo and Mr Wemp were hoping for an apology and a cash settlement.
Shearer’s organization, the New York-based Art Science Research Lab, sent researchers to New Guinea to fact-check the story and interview locals. Shearer alleges that Diamond’s notes for the story are back-dated, that Wemp did not know he was being interviewed for publication, that Diamond’s story misrepresents basic tribal relationships, geographic and historical facts, and that Diamond fabricated quotes from Wemp. She enlisted linguist Douglas Biber to go over the lengthy quotes attributed to Wemp by Diamond and determine if they were consistent with spoken English (by comparing them both with transcripts of Wemp’s speech, and with databases of written and spoken language). Biber found that:
Taken together, the linguistic analyses indicate that it is extremely unlikely that The New Yorker quotations are accurate verbatim representations of language that originated in speech. To put it simply, normal people do not talk using the grammatical structures represented in these quotations.
Indeed, comparing the quotes from Wemp in Shearer’s article to the quotes in Diamond’s article, they don’t sound like the same individual at all. The quotes in Diamond’s article are much more fluid and complex. But the situation is admittedly confusing. Wemp told Shearer’s team that “The facts are totally wrong in The New Yorker story. I have given all those stories to Diamond and those stories are very true and those names are not fake.” So were the stories Wemp told Diamond accurate, and Diamond misunderstood or misrepresented them, or did Wemp mislead Diamond? Either way, how did both Diamond and the New Yorker fail to check the facts? (The geographic errors are particularly odd – Diamond’s academic background is in geography.) Diamond hasn’t commented publicly and the New Yorker stands by the story, although there are reports it has been removed from their archives.
If Shearer’s investigation turns out to be correct, and Diamond’s story turns out to be baseless, it will be a shocking failure for both a renowned scientist and a hallowed magazine with a tradition of conscientious fact-checking. This isn’t a case where either journalism or science can be held blameless. Instead, it could be a new nadir for both.