Adventures in Ethics and Science

Following up on an excellent post she wrote earlier this month, Jessica Palmer at Bioephemera brings us an update on the lawsuit against Jared Diamond and The New Yorker. You may recall that this lawsuit alleges that a story written by Diamond and published in The New Yorker defamed its subject (and Diamond’s source) New Guinean driver Daniel Wemp, as well as Henep Isum, another man featured in the story but never interviewed by Diamond nor contacted by fact-checkers from The New Yorker. As described in the earlier post at Bioephemera:

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. …

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.

Making stuff up is not something a scientist ought to be doing — at least, not in the context of relating what purports to be a true story.

There are further issues here, if Diamond’s work constituted anthropology or something like it, as far as what duties he had to inform the person or persons he was interviewing about the nature of the interview — and in particular, that he intended to publish information gained in the interviews — and to ensure that the research (including publication of material gained in the interviews) did not cause harm to his interviewees (who, if this was scientific research, were essentially human subjects). Identifying Daniel Wemp as a killer in print, and ascribing motivations of tribal warfare to him, put him at risk from the legal system and from other people in Papua New Guinea who might, on the basis of Diamond’s story, feel like exacting some tribal revenge against Wemp.

For talking to Diamond, in other words, Wemp gets a target painted on his back — especially troubling in light of the fact that Wemp and the others contacted by Shearer as they fact-checked the New Yorker article after the fact disputed the “facts” as Diamond presented them.

Now, Jessica considers the defense Diamond argues in an article in Science. This defense amounts to, “I wasn’t acting as a scientist then, so I wasn’t bound by scientific ethics.”

In the event that Diamond didn’t accurately report the facts from his interviews with Wemp, it’s not clear that this excuse gets him in the clear. Journalists reporting on real people and events aren’t supposed to make stuff up, either — they’re supposed to try to get the facts, and to evaluate the credibility of the people they’re interviewing about those facts (e.g., by interviewing others about the same events to see if the stories hold up to scrutiny).

Jessica’s analysis here is fantastic. You must read the whole thing, but here’s just a taste:

Whether “Annals of Anthropology” was the title or not, Diamond is a professor of geography, and on the basis of his previous books, Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, he is understood by the public to be a scientific authority who writes popular accounts of science. Any nonfiction piece he wrote was bound to be read in this light, and it’s disingenuous of him to suggest otherwise.

Anthropologists, unsurprisingly, want nothing to do with it:

“The New Yorker was wrong to imply that Diamond was an anthropologist or that what he wrote was anthropology,” says Dan Jorgensen of the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, who has worked in PNG since the 1970s. Cultural anthropologist Alex Golub of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, who says The New Yorker fact checker spoke with him for about 10 minutes while the story was being prepared, agrees. “This affects our discipline’s brand management.”

“This affects our discipline’s brand management” is a hilarious quote – but it’s also dead on. Because it’s not just the anthropologists who are concerned about their “brand”. Journalists are equally astonished that the story didn’t get properly fact checked or vetted. …

Blaming journalism as a field for shortcomings in Diamond’s story gets us nowhere, because his story doesn’t just reflect badly on the New Yorker, or on Diamond; it reflects badly on publications that cover science, on experts who write about science, and on science in general. Even worse, this comes at a time when scientific experts need to be trusted by the public to make some pretty darn important assessments: climate change, infectious disease, energy – all topics with vast policy implications.

When scientists are communicating to the public about scientific matters (even, I would argue, within the social sciences), we are not expecting just entertaining stories. Scientific insight is part of how they get our attention, and our expectation of their scientific credibility is part of how they keep it.

This is to say, if you’re known as a scientist, it’s not obvious that you can completely punch out where your ethical obligations as a scientist are concerned. You may not mean to speak as a scientist, but you ought to expect that people will hear you as a scientist.

Moreover, if the approach scientists take to journalism is that it doesn’t have a very high bar for what counts as a “fact”, then, as Jessica points out, they run the risk of undermining the very routes of communication through which most non-scientists get any information at all about scientific matters.

Unless scientists are ready to shoulder the burden of communicating directly to the public all that the public needs to know about science (as slowly and patiently as it takes to make sure that transmission of this information is successful), that’s a pretty dumb move.

Comments

  1. #1 Hap
    May 26, 2009

    1) What ethical standard did Mr./Dr. Diamond think he was following? Making up a story (or, at minimum, not bothering to check whether the facts he reported are accurate) and placing multiple people as a result in danger doesn’t seem to have as a motivation truthfulness or justice (seeing that people who committed crimes are given just and legal punishment for those acts). Other than increasing Mr. Diamond’s renown (and perhaps bank account), what motivation would his actions serve? None of the obvious reasons fit either a scientific or a journalistic ethical standard, so why he thinks claiming his writing wasn’t science but journalism absolves him of wrongdoing is unclear.

    2) I would be worried if I were a journalist. If Mr. Diamond believes that others will believe that being a journalist will excuse not bothering either to tell the truth or to check one’s facts, then the public perception of journalism as a method of gaining accurate knowledge about governments and events (to which most people don’t have either the access or the time to know deeply enough) must be really bad. That would explain the problems of newspapers and magazines in staying solvent, but leads me to wonder who will gather reliable information in the future.

  2. #2 Melinda
    May 29, 2009

    Unfortunately, the public perception of journalis is horrid and many mainstream journalists aren’t doing much to change that. In fact, they themselves are perpetuating this negative image by throwing ethical considerations to the wind and worrying only about getting a “good story” out under their names fast enough to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle and cheaply enough to satisfy the bean counters.

    One example: Media outlets will pick up a quote used in another outlet, even an unreliable or ideologically biased source, and spread it around without checking it or doing original reporting. This happened recently with SC Nominee Sotamayor, who has been blasted as a racist by right-wingers for a quote taken out of context. Many mainstream outlets have spread this quote without bothering to check its context and basically perpetuating notoriously unreliable, ideologically-biased right-wing smears against this woman.