Thanks to Cole for recommending this piece from the latest issue of Science about the Jared Diamond – Papua New Guinea flap by Michael Balter. Short version, Jared Diamond wrote a piece last year for the New Yorker about revenge warfare in PNG, then Rhonda Roland Shearer thought it was some nonsense, tracked down the original sources and got them to file a lawsuit. Balter does a good job summarizing the interface between Anthropology (aka SCIENCE) vs. Journalism (aka SCIENCE JOURNALISM), so I’ll leave that to him. But since we seem to be interested in Truth here at a Conservation Blog, that’s really what I want to address.
First to one of Shearer’s claims in her lawsuit: “[The lawsuit] also claims that Wemp’s life is now in danger from other clans that might want to avenge Mandingo’s alleged injuries, or even from members of his own clan for portraying them as ruthless killers.” Bummer! Then Balter talks to Pauline Wiessner, a Real Anthropologist, who says that, “young men in PNG often exaggerate their tribal warfare exploits or make them up entirely.” Balter also says that a report on the incident published by Shearer states that one of the participants in the case, “expressed surprise at The New Yorker article and claimed that Diamond had never told him about it.” So an article published in The New Yorker, an article that the litigant had never heard of, (you think they have a lot of subscribers in the highlands of PNG?*), has caused serious damage because of its inflated claims of violent exploits, which are extremely common to that area. Huh.
But don’t worry, there are liars on both sides of this story! This is journalism, Diamond and (NYer editor) David Remnick argue. JD: “In journalism, you do name names so that people can check out what you write.” DR: “Using real names is the default practice in journalism.” Except when Sy Hersh gets some awesome anonymous tips about what a ghoul Cheney is. Or every single article about psychology published in their magazine. Fine. But then Remnick takes us further down the rabbit hole. He has the audacity to claim that the fact checker on the story “is one of the best I have ever had the privilege of working with.” Except, “Remnick says that the fact checker was unable to find Wemp before the story was published. After Shearer’s team found Wemp, however, the fact checker did speak with him by telephone.” WHAT. THE. FUCK. The New Yorker‘s fact checkers are legendary. They’ve been called “second authors” on articles because they get so much new information in the process. This is the best fact checker Remnick has ever worked with? Who can’t track down the main source of the article until somebody else does the job for them? And, by the way, if it’s traditional practice to name names, what is the name of this fact checker? If Remnick had just thrown this person under the bus, that would have been fine. But doubling down just throws your whole operation into question. This is the best they can do?
I’m sure a court case will clear this all up.
“‘Vengeance’ Bites Back at Jared Diamond,” M. Balter. Science, 5929: 872-874. (doi: 10.1126/science.324_872)
*In fact, the idea that one tribe would go to war with another tribe because of an article published in The New Yorker sounds more like the premise for a cartoon in that very same magazine.