The power of email

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Jan 9 12:25:22 MST 2001

Chronicles of Higher Education, January 12, 2001
Academic Scandal in the Internet Age

When a furor broke out in anthropology, e-mail was more powerful than peer


Last summer, when Terence Turner and Leslie E. Sponsel received the page
proofs of a book alleging scientific misconduct in the Amazon, they thought
it would roil academe as soon as it was published. What they didn't
realize, they say, was that the sensation was only a mouse-click away --
and their fingers were on the button.

As former leaders of the American Anthropological Association's
human-rights and ethics committees, they decided to e-mail a warning to the
association's top officers. The "impending scandal," their message began,
would "arouse intense indignation and calls for action among members of the
association. In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and
corruption it is unparalleled in the history of anthropology."

Based on 10 years of research by an investigative journalist named Patrick
Tierney, the message continued, Darkness in El Dorado would show that a
prominent geneticist and an influential anthropologist abetted a deadly
measles epidemic that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of Yanomami
Indians in Venezuela, among other misdeeds. The message invoked "fascistic
eugenics" and "genocide," secret experiments, and "corrupt and depraved
protagonists" akin to Josef Mengele.

Mr. Turner and Mr. Sponsel, anthropologists at Cornell University and the
University of Hawaii-Manoa, respectively, knew that the book's most
explosive charges would break in The New Yorker, which was planning to run
an excerpt in October. And they expected the book to appear in bookstores
soon afterward. The association's next step, they thought, was to give
scholars a forum for discussion at their annual meeting in November and
commission a fact-finding team to review the charges, a process that would
take months.

Instead, their e-mail message ignited a swift and furious debate that left
scholars with nowhere to go for information but online. Mr. Turner and Mr.
Sponsel hit the send button on August 31; within days of entering the
Internet's bloodstream, the message was spreading like a virus. By
mid-September, it had burst onto popular academic e-mail lists and caught
the attention of the media. On September 20, The Chronicle described
scholars' fears that "alleged misdeeds" would taint the "entire
discipline," and days later the Guardian of London reported that a
"Scientist 'Killed Amazon Indians to Test Race Theory.'"

Fierce and inconclusive debates on e-mail lists are nothing new in academe,
of course. But in this case, reports, research memos, and press releases
sent by e-mail and posted on Web sites became the primary source of
scholarly grist. While academics wondered, "Can this be true?,"
Internet-savvy scholars fed that hunger for information.

Mr. Tierney's charges were challenged so quickly, in fact, that he revised
parts of the book before it reached the printer. But he and his publisher,
W.W. Norton, did not respond to attacks on the book as soon as they were
launched. While the Turner-Sponsel message prompted critics to create Web
sites and pillory the book in the electronic press, Mr. Tierney and Norton
stuck to a leisurely publicity schedule and printed no extra page proofs
for the journalists and scholars clamoring for them.

Once upon a time, the book's publication would have been the starting point
for a deliberate discussion refereed by academic journals and scholarly
panels. But the Yanomami affair demonstrates that, for better or worse,
those gatekeepers cannot keep up with more nimble combatants on the Internet.

Separating fact from falsehood in the Yanomami case is no academic
exercise. James Neel, a renowned human geneticist who died last February,
stands accused of administering an obsolete measles vaccine to a vulnerable
indigenous population for the sake of eugenic experimentation. The book
suggests that Timothy Asch, a documentary filmmaker and anthropologist who
died in 1994, helped stage scenes to trump up images of Yanomami customs.

By far the book's main preoccupation, however, is Napoleon Chagnon, an
anthropologist whose swashbuckling account of his travels among the
Yanomami people in the 1960's became a bestseller and a staple of
introductory anthropology courses. Darkness in El Dorado charges him with
harming the Yanomami people and disrupting their culture in a variety of
reckless or unethical ways.

The book has already put the integrity of anthropology under a microscope,
perhaps imperiling scientists' future access to indigenous peoples. But the
Internet debate also reveals that Darkness in El Dorado is part of an
academic feud with long roots.

Mr. Chagnon has long been a controversial figure. To neo-Darwinist
scholars, who contend that biological impulses shaped by evolutionary
forces strongly influence human behavior, he has been an icon.

His critics accuse him of distorted interpretations and callous behavior in
the field, such as paying his informants with weapons and other steel
goods. Mr. Chagnon counters that his critics are "leftists" committed to a
romantic notion of the gentle, noble savage. Scholars in his field either
revere him or despise him. Mr. Turner and Mr. Sponsel have long been in the
latter category.

Much of Mr. Tierney's critique of Mr. Chagnon is old news. This time,
however, the sensational allegation in the Turner-Sponsel message that he
and Mr. Neel had helped cause a measles epidemic in 1968 drew in even
scholars with no particular stake in the Chagnon feud. Susan Lindee, a
medical historian at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote a scholarly
book about Mr. Neel in 1994, first heard about Mr. Tierney's book last
summer, but paid little attention. In mid-September, colleagues began
bombarding her with copies of the e-mail message and alarmed inquiries:
"Have you seen this?"

"I didn't look at Neel as one of the most wonderful human beings who ever
lived," she says. "I had many disagreements with him." But the idea that he
would deliberately start an epidemic, or use a vaccine he knew to be
dangerous, she says, struck her as "implausible."

For several nights, she had difficulty sleeping. "I felt that I knew Neel
pretty well," she says. "I thought maybe he had some dark, sinister
underbelly I didn't know about." She decided the cure for her anxiety was
research. She knew that Mr. Neel had deposited copies of his papers and
field notes at the American Philosophical Society, in Philadelphia, so she
began poring over boxes of research from the 1968 vaccination program.

"The field notes completely contradicted the claims that Turner and Sponsel
made," she says. "Not only was it not an experiment, but it was done as a
humanitarian gesture."

Based on the archives, she concluded that Mr. Neel had, in fact, sought
advice on administering the vaccine from the Centers for Disease Control.
He had given gamma globulin to all who received the vaccine to minimize
adverse reactions. He had given medicine to Yanomami already suffering from
measles. And he had mapped out his travels among Yanomami villages
according to where he thought the disease would strike next.

Furthermore, she discovered, Mr. Neel had written that he had heard reports
of measles in Yanomami territory just after he arrived in Venezuela, and
before he entered the field with his vaccines. And, she said, he had
secured the permission of Venezuelan authorities before vaccinating.

She wrote up her findings in a memo dated September 21 and e-mailed it to
colleagues. "I knew it would go to the same ether space that the original
e-mail had," she says. Within a couple of days, people began calling for
permission to post her memo on Web sites.

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Louis Proyect
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