My "Demonic" Debut at the American Anthropological Association

9 Dec 2009

Note: You can read the peer-reviewed paper, based on this presentation and published by Human Nature, for free by clicking here. You can also read the Science magazine article about the session.

A lot of people have asked what happened at my session at the AAA in Philadelphia last Wednesday, so here’s a report.

First, some background: I'm working on a book on scientific controversies, and it is funded by the Guggenheim Foundation. It follows from my work on the Bailey book controversy and my own decade of experience as an intersex rights activist.

I have spent the last year researching the controversy surrounding Patrick Tierney's book, Darkness in El Dorado, which defamed James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon. I have collected well over a thousand source items, including unpublished material, and have conducted over 40 original interviews, not counting hundreds of inquiries conducted by email. When I've interviewed subjects, I have let them change the notes however they wish so that I have on the record only what they want. I use only the approved versions. This means interviewees cannot claim I have misquoted them.

When the call for proposals came out from the American Anthropological Association earlier this year, I organized a session at which I could present my findings. I invited as commentators the anthropologists Tom Gregor of Vanderbilt (who has been actively calling the AAA to task for their behaviors in this controversy) and Terence Turner of Cornell (who has been doggedly criticizing Chagnon for years, and who helped Tierney). Both agreed in advance to the format I proposed. At my request, Robert Hitchock from Michigan State University moderated and kept time. (Bob did a great job under tough circumstances.)

In my AAA presentation, I focused mostly on the egregious behavior of the leadership of the AAA, particularly in using Tierney's book to investigate Chagnon and Neel rather than defending researchers against false "journalism". I noted that Tierney's book is chock full of falsehoods. I added a few examples to the pre-existing pile, including that, though Tierney thanks Leda Martins for "her" muck-raking dossier on Chagnon (used to try to get Chagnon's research permits denied), Tierney in fact wrote it, at least according to Martins’ last claim to me.  (She first told me that she wrote it.) I noted that Brian Ferguson (who has been very critical of Chagnon) told me that Tierney misrepresented him in a draft of the New Yorker article, by downplaying what Ferguson sees as the negative impact of the missions on the Yanomamö.

I revealed what I'd learned from reading an unpublished book by Tierney (Last Tribes of El Dorado) about how he had behaved in illegal and ethically questionable ways during his "research" in South America. I raised the question of why anyone took Tierney seriously, given how many falsehoods his book contains, and given his questionable background. 

I said that the damage by Tierney might have been limited had the AAA not run amok in doing a botched ethics investigation under the guise of a scholarly inquiry. I noted ways in which the AAA behavior was bizarre, unethical, and tragic. I took the leadership of the AAA (including James Peacock, Louise Lamphere, and Jane Hill) to task, while noting that they were probably well-intentioned. We all know the road to hell is paved with such intentions, and in this case, that hell got inhabited by the Chagnon and Neel families.

My paper was 41 minutes long (I had allotted 45 minutes) and I read exactly the paper I had given the commentators two weeks before. The entire paper has been fact-checked and is, I believe, incontrovertible. (I'm considering publication options and am not posting it because I don't want to undermine publication options.)

The rest of this report is based on my notes so is not a perfect rendition of the events following my paper.

Tom Gregor then responded. He said two things I corrected in my response: first that Louise Lamphere (then president of the AAA) had "urged" Chagnon's departmental chair, Francesca Bray, to have UCSB investigate Chagnon. In fact, Bray told me that Lamphere suggested (not urged) UCSB might investigate or censure Chagnon. I noted in my paper that I had asked Lamphere to refute or explain this, and she has not done so on the record. In fact, she slipped out after my talk, missing an opportunity to respond.

Second, Gregor suggested that John Frechione of the University of Pittsburgh and Terence Turner had "manipulated" certain individuals, including Brandon Centerwall, who had recalled to them (and Tierney) a false, self-aggrandizing story his father had told him when he was a boy. That story had made it look like Neel was purposefully letting Yanomamö die to do scientific observations in service of a eugenics theory. I said that I did not think Frechione or Turner was "manipulating" Brandon Centerwall, but rather than they had been so led around by their conviction that Neel and Chagnon were guilty that they simply could not entertain alternative explanations, such as the logical one (that Centerwall senior had made the story up, as Brandon now reasonably believes).

Those two items aside, Gregor said many things I agreed with. He noted the infliction of pain on the Neel family and on Chagnon and his family. He noted that this entire affair has negatively implicated academic freedom. He noted that Turner and Sponsel were utterly irresponsible in their "memo" on Tierney's book to the AAA leadership. He noted that this witchhunt pursued especially against Chagnon distracted from the real sources of the Yanomamö's misery, and thus added to their problems.

Gregor also made a very important point that I had missed: He noted that Turner and Sponsel had not marked their muck-raking memo summarizing Tierney's book as "confidential," nor did they ask for it to be kept quiet. They emailed it rather than sending it on paper or by fax. Thus the idea that the memo was "leaked" is suspect since the memo seems to have been obviously designed for wide distribution. (It certainly reads like it was designed as a press release.)

Terence Turner spoke next. According to my notes, he spent about half his time complaining that he hadn't been given enough time to respond, and so that he couldn't adequately respond. (Mind you, he had had my paper for two weeks at that point.) He criticized the program committee for allowing the session as I had proposed it, because I had more time than him, even though he had in fact agreed to this format when I invited him to take the opportunity to provide a formal response.

He wrote me off as a "partisan" on Chagnon's side, and said that I should not be listened to because I was "partisan."  Turner then went on to say that my work was not scholarly, and that it was full of misstatement and tangential distortion. He provided no examples that I could ascertain.

I believe Turner went on to accuse me of having said, in the paper, that Tierney was "nutcase," and claimed that I had failed to read that line in my delivery. He said that I had not read the paper I had before me, the same paper I had provided him and Gregor, and that in the paper I called Tierney a "nutcase." In other words, he was accusing me of a bait and switch. I was stunned at this because this was an out-and-out lie. I never expected that, even after all my findings.

Turner said that I was wrong to call the book "trash" and that this indicated I was a partisan. He said there was much left of value in Tierney's book, and went on to rehash the usual charges against Chagnon, claiming that Chagnon's work had been used by the Brazilian military to harm the Yanomamö.

Turner claimed that the University of Michigan had changed its stance on Tierney's book, since their initial condemnation of the book.

Turner claimed he talked to Patrick Tierney the day before, and assured the audience that, contrary to my claim that Tierney lives with his parents, he's shacking up with a girlfriend. 

In my rebuttal, I told the audience Turner was being blatantly false in his claim that I had read a paper any different than the one I gave to him. I think I said that if he thought my work unscholarly, distorted, or misrepresentative of the facts, he had offered not a single example to support his claim. I said I had fact-checked every line in the paper and it was fully documented. (I believe he snorted at this.)

I think I said that his writing me off as a partisan was more of his attempt to use simple ideological categorizations to deny the truth. I think I said, in response to his claim that my work was "unbalanced," that, what it means to be a scholar is to take evidence and weigh it against other evidence. If I am "unbalanced" (as he said) because I don't bother with claims that are false, then I am proud of that unbalance because it is evidence of being a scholar. 

I said that, if Turner had access to Tierney, why didn't he produce Tierney and let him respond to questions about the lies in his book? I said that Tierney might now be living off a girlfriend, but his legal address remains his parents' address. As for his claim that only "Chagnon partisans" think Tierney's book is trash, I reminded him that in my paper I quoted Jane Hill, chair of the El Dorado Task Force, admitting that the book was "just a piece of sleaze" and quoted Janet Chernela, who served on both the Peacock Commission and the Task Force, saying nobody took Tierney's claims seriously. 

As for his claim about the University of Michigan changing its position (which Fernando Coronil also claimed during the discussion period), I said this was an utter (and offensive) misrepresentation of the University of Michigan and I pulled out of my bag and plunked down a stack of copies of the University of Michigan May 2001 statement and challenged Turner, Coronil and anyone else to show me where that statement showed any change of course on the part of the University of Michigan. I said I had quoted Ed Goldman (from general counsel of U Mich at the time) and Nancy Cantor (then Provost) on the reverse side of my hand-out indicating no discernible important change of course.

I said that Dr. Turner had performed conduct unbecoming a scholar.

I added a note (more towards the start of this) that Dr. Gregor had reminded us that, among the charges in the Turner-Sponsel memo, Chagnon had been accused of "using coarse and vulgar language." I confirmed that Chagnon is guilty of this, and said that I had found myself using far coarser and more vulgar language as I put together what had happened to him. I said that my nine-year-old son charges me 25 cents for every "s" or "f" curse, and that, while I was writing up what I had found, I was swearing so much about what had happened to Chagnon that my son offered me a flat rate until I finished the project. (Yes, this really happened.)

Several people -- known to me and not known to me previously -- came up to me afterwards to enthusiastically thank me for this work. One said she hoped never to meet me on the other side of a debate. A lot of folks at the meeting -- historians and anthropologists -- thanked me for doing this work and said they thought it incredibly important for everyone. I see it the same way. One person I won't name came up and said some nasty, bizarre stuff to me; this was a person directly implicated by my work.

All in all, I feel this went very well, considering how unpleasant it was (inevitably). I continue to feel fully confident in the scholarship I've produced on this, and feel strongly that the AAA leadership behaved in a perfectly outrageous fashion in this matter. It was obvious that everyone at the meeting who expressed an opinion to me, with the exception of those directly involved in the prosecution of Chagnon, agreed with my conclusions and had reached the same conclusion independently beforehand.

So many people asked me, "What's wrong with anthropology? Why is this discipline so into eating its own, into ritualistic displays of self-flagalation and witchhunting?" Interesting enough, that question came from some reporters even. Everyone seemed to agree this had something special to do with cultural anthropology.

The next day, a Chronicle of Higher Education blogger expected this to be the session everyone would keep talking about. And in the Inside HIgher Ed article on the session, Terence Turner called me "demonic." (Yes he did.) My departmental chair assured me that he has money in the budget for an exorcism. Maybe we can find a Salesian priest to do it.