The Diamond Mess

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, 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.

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As a fan of Diamond's books, and as a fan of not giving gloating opportunities to those of an anti-science bent, I hope these allegations turn out to be false. If I had to guess at the truth I would surmise that Diamond heard the stories as he claims but might not have made it clear that they, and the identity of the participants, would be published. Now that they have been it would not be incredible for Wemp to recant about his alleged crimes. Anyway, hopefully the situation will become clearer soon.

Thank you for this post. I wanted to correct one point for the record.

You stated,"Shearer alleges ...that Isum did not know he was being interviewed for publication."

The New Yorker and Diamond NEVER spoke to Isum.

The only person Diamond spoke with was his driver, Daniel Wemp. Famed New Yorker fact-checkers never spoke to Wemp or any other of the named indigenous people before publication.

Wemp was never informed that he was being interviewed by a journalist. He only knows Diamond as a bird scientist. Yet Daniel Wemp's name, and others he named, were featured on the Internet as murderers, rapists and pig thieves--all untrue.

MattK, You might find this a useful quote from the AP article--It is accurate report about our team's research: "Author Jared Diamond sued for libel" By SAMUEL MAULL â Apr 22, 2009

"Shearer said Wednesday that her researchers in New Guinea reported that Daniel Wemp said he told Diamond bits of several true stories and the writer used them, along with things he simply made up, to create a composite, inaccurate narrative.

"Shearer said Wemp, a driver and a mechanic, denied killing anyone and would not have the financial wherewithal to hire a group for a revenge killing."

I'm an environmental historian and I am not surprised by these allegations. Diamond's historical methods are not great. For one thing, Guns, Germs, and Steel and the articles of his that I've read just refuse to engage in the already existing literature on his topic from my discipline. (There are other problems about claims of causality in the kind of grand narratives that he favors, but that aside...) Many of his claims in that book don't seem much updated from Crosby's groundbreaking Columbian Exchange or McNeil's Plagues and Peoples. And those books are from the 70s.
In any case, if he's not been willing to cite and acknowledge recent work in environmental history, it doesn't surprise me that he'd take liberties in quoting Daniel Wemp.

As per MattK, I don't think it's anti-science to fact-check Diamond. It would be anti-science to protect his criminally sloppy enthographic methods.

Whoops, thanks for the catch, Rhonda! Of course I meant Wemp. I'll correct the typo in the piece now, but leave your comment here for the record.

Diamond's academic background is in geography

Hardly. Diamond's academic background is actually in membrane physiology; his principal academic appointment for decades was at UCLA's medical school. He carried on a simultaneous avocational career in community ecology of birds (hence all the trips to New Guinea). When he decided to stop teaching and doing science and to concentrate on writing books, the UCLA Geography Department offerred him a courtesy appointment.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 01 May 2009 #permalink

His training is certainly not in geography, but in addition for being a geography professor in name, he says geography is one of his main research interests and has been making scholarly claims about geographical influences on culture for some time. Whether or not he is qualified to actually hold a professorship in geography and publish on the subject, I'm sure I can't say. My point is that his academic title and the credibility attributed to him in the area make the simple geographical errors Shearer points out quite salient.

m, I agree with you that it's not anti-science to fact-check Diamond. But I think MattK is right that this story could be used by anti-science factions as more ammunition to generally discredit science.

It's a big problem when the public or media associate individual scientists with the credibility of science itself; people are fallible, biased, make mistakes, and have lapses in judgment. That's why science is structured as it is - to cope with human weaknesses. Unfortunately, I don't think the mainstream media is very good at distinguishing between the scientist, their research, and science in general.

m: In any case, if he's not been willing to cite and acknowledge recent work in environmental history, it doesn't surprise me that he'd take liberties in quoting Daniel Wemp.

What an odd thing to say. He's egotistical, so you aren't surprised he is also dishonest?

As per MattK, I don't think it's anti-science to fact-check Diamond. It would be anti-science to protect his criminally sloppy enthographic methods.

Go re-read MattK. You've completely mis-represented his post. That is dishonest (or "sloppy" if you prefer).


I don't see what's so odd about my comment, Kevin. Diamond has misused the scholarly work of others in the past, and now he, apparently, has misused information from a New Guinean informant. I think its perfectly reasonable for me to note that someone who feels free to disregard the disciplinary rigor of fields other than his own (history) in one case, might be willing to do the same in another (ethnography). As Sven DiMilo pointed out, he's trained as a physiologist. I am pro-interdisciplinary work, but in my opinion he hasn't tried very hard to educate himself about good historical methods (including citing and engaging the work of others- also important in science!). So, all I'm saying is I wasn't surprised that he would allegedly do poor ethnography (i.e. rely on one informant, backdate interviews, misrepresent tribal relations etc.) Though, this is obviously a far more serious allegation than what I consider to be his faults in the past.

I certainly didn't mean to misrepresent, or attack, MattK. I was just trying to make my already overlong comment more brief. My intention was to point out that I think that it is worse for science not to expose bad science that to give Diamond the benefit of the doubt in fear of giving material to those who are anti-science. Its clear MattK is not opposed to investigating this further, he just hopes it isn't true. I hope it isn't, too. But I *honestly* won't be surprised if it is.

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Yikes! Incidentally, I have always found Diamond's arguments about geographic determinism to be appealing, but his writing absolutely execrable: repetitive, turgid, and demoralizing.

I've read Diamond's article. The article is about my clan and neighbouring clans. The article names real names of people and places, but the story is absolutely false and outrageous. Diamond's article is based on Daniel's casual conversation with him while Diamond was being driven around during his bird-watching trips in 2000-2001. Diamond never fact-checked that story. Diamond was WWF's director, and Daniel was WWF's employee. If what Diamond wrote reflects science or journalism, then I don't want to see any scientist or journalist in my tribal world. WWF has a case to answer for the mess its director and employee caused to my clan and our neighbours.

The Papua New Guinean names and places that Diamond uses in his essay are clearly irrelevant to his broader themes (about vengeance and violence in pro-modern societies and states, and how those in modern societies have surrendered retribution to formal governmental organs of criminal justice).…

Accordingly, one wishes that he had troubled himself either to more accurately report names and places, or to anonymize them as irrelevant.

"m, I agree with you that it's not anti-science to fact-check Diamond. But I think MattK is right that this story could be used by anti-science factions as more ammunition to generally discredit science."

If scientists aren't engaged in the scrupulous pursuit of truth, then they're not engaged in science.

Exactly. Diamond is not engaged in science if he is writing a fictionalized piece.

Mark: "If scientists aren't engaged in the scrupulous pursuit of truth, then they're not engaged in science."

Jessica: "Diamond is not engaged in science if he is writing a fictionalized piece."

Scientists and others are human and make mistakes all the time, and it is perfectly fine to both call them on it and wish they`d do better. But as I noted, the piece is primarily not at in the least "science", but Diamond`s personal musings on the tradeoffs involved when modern states surplanted the rights of men in pre-state socieites to seek vengeance.

That such a change has occurred (and is still underway) is indisputable (which is why Diamond`s inaccuracy on New Guinean tribal details are both regretable and irrelevant); views on what the tradeoffs are and whether they are worth it are almost entirely subjective.

This thread raises so many issues of interest (to me!); I'll keep it as brief as I can [much later: which is not very, which is partly why I generally just lurk]:

In the mid-late '80's, before he became rich and famous, Diamond was one of my favorite columnists (at Natural History) - even more than S.J. Gould, whose pieces were getting long & sloggish. But starting in the 90's he seems to have become increasingly muddled. In 1987 he wrote a provocative piece about Agriculture being humanity's worst mistake, but he didn't seem to romanticise the subsistence lifeway either - several years later in the opening chapter of GG&S he recounted the historically recent annihilation of one small island culture in Oceania by another. Good Science, I thought - see the world as it is and without vanity. But with each new article it became more apparent that the agriculture piece wasn't intentionally provocative, it was just confused. A Rousseuesque fantasy concocted by someone who couldn't - or wouldn't - carefully weigh the trade-offs between the agrarian and subsistence lifeways.

And finally, Collapse. I was waiting for a flight, bookless, and there was that fabulous black & white cover photo almost jumping off the shelf at me. But I should have been warned off by the critical hype: "Magisterial" (ie: desperately in need of a blunt red pen), "Saving the Earth" (yes, as late as 2005 a few puddin'head pundits were actually still writing that; maybe a few still are). I made it about 3/4 through and then stopped paying attention to Jared Diamond, although I did sadly shake my head when I heard about the New Yorker debacle last year. How irresistibly seductive are fame and adulation; I can't honestly say I'd have handled it better.


Speaking of the hallowed New Yorker and its vaunted fact-checking, I guess that means no one here has read any of the science fiction scare pieces by the reliably gullible Elizabeth Kolbert (but to be fair, and like the Diamond affair, it's hard to keep your head screwed on straight when people are heaping praise & awards on you). This is why I'm an unapologetic admirer of Michael Crichton, RIP - not because he was a great intellect or gifted writer, which by his own admission he wasn't, but because he kept his head screwed on straight. He at least tried to see the world clearly and without vanity.


Back to Diamond's collapse, Benny Peiser wrote a thorough critique of his rehashing of the Rapa Nui dominant narrative - the eco-cautionary tale of willful self-destruction - and makes a good case that the demise of this remarkable culture owed at least as much to European predation as to home-made resource exhaustion. I haven't the time or resources to fully check Peiser's assertions and references, but I suspect that it won't matter whether or not I (or a skillful scholar) looks into it, because Rapa Nui's dominant narrative resonates so well with the G8 Knowledge Class culture's current obsession with environmental pessimism - a microcosm of our fragile spaceship Earth! - so well in fact that even the most sensitive and enlightened Westerners are willing to paint the Rapa Nuians as being only slightly less greedy and rapacious than the deadest, whitest European male that ever lived. No matter how the facts shake out, this story is just too good to give up. As long as biblical environmentalism holds sway it will be a part of our mythology.


Tokyo Tom: Broad Themes are only as, um, robust as the details on which they rest. If the details aren't relevant, why include them?


Science, Anti-Science, and all that Jazz - Sadly, tragically even, Science lately doesn't need any help from the anti-science crowd with disacredidation; it's doing a bang-up job all by itself. From the long-standing arrogant self-righteousness of the macro-biologists (Paul Ehrlich an ambassador for Science? Indeed! With friends like this . . .), to the not-even-wrong mathturbation of the String Theorists, culminating (we hope) with Global Warming - the Science growth industry of the last 25 years - the practice of science is fraying on all edges (although the Platonic Ideal will always be there; the steady, serene flame of Reason lighting the way for all who . . . Gawd, it's getting late; better wrap this up).

At least we're starting so see a self-correct on AGW, with many of the rank-and-file now in open revolt; some almost in Madam Lafarge mode (re: the recent dust-up at the American Chemical Society, and others).

Or to stay with the Broad Theme of macro-biology, Science's Climatology Alpha-Male is wounded - not badly at present, but the pack smells blood.

I find it fascinating that so many commentators are fearful that any criticism of sloppy work will inevitably provide a broad-brush with which [insert favorite contemptable dead-but-don't-know-it white guy conservative commentator here] can smear the entire enterprise. This is the Internet Age; if Science can't keep its house clean, there are plenty of volunteer auditors who will cheerfully look in every last cranny, examine every last line of code. Perfesser, Perfesser, you have no complaint - this is how Science is supposed to be done.

Finally (finally), I'm really surprised to read the normally level-headed Mark Bahner using phrases like "search for the Truth."


When tempted to use the "T" word, I always force myself to recall an early scene from the original Indiana Jones, where Indy addresses a bunch of squirrely freshmen:

"If it's Truth you want, Professor Cant's Intro to Philosophy class is just down the hall. We deal in facts here."