And the Dead Claims Shall Rise

I was more than a bit incredulous yesterday when a stranger on Twitter sent me news that anti-vaxxers are passing around a particular Guardian article from 14 years ago as if it contains fresh and accurate “vaccine harm” news. The hat-tipper knew that I’d written about this article—“Scientists ‘Killed Amazon Indians to Test Race Theory’”—in my Human Nature account of the American Anthropology Association’s incredible mishandling of the claims made in Patrick Tierney’s book, Darkness in El Dorado.

In fact, I refer to this Guardian article in my new book that comes out this Tuesday, and to be honest, having this article come back the same week my book comes out seemed almost impossible to believe.

But sure enough, that ancient piece of WRONG has been “shared” and tweeted thousands of times in the last few days by anti-vaxxers as well as by various liberal would-do-gooders. The rat is out of the bag, again.

If you read the article cursorily, it looks pretty powerful—full of “factual” claims about what amounts to a sick Nazi-like experiment using a “dangerous” vaccine. I’m guessing that’s why it can still grow fresh legs. But if you read it carefully, what you see is that it’s all based on claims made by Patrick Tierney and his buddy Terence Turner. And those claims are wrong.

I’m not going to bother to pick apart every false claim relayed in that article. Instead I’ll just note that these claims have been debunked by numerous top-notch historians (before I came along) as well as by the National Academy of Sciences, the American Society of Human Genetics, the International Genetic Epidemiology Society, and the Society for Visual Anthropology. To my knowledge, no scholarly society has ever endorsed the claims as true. (How could they?) Much to Turner’s displeasure, even the “report” issued on this “story” by a task force of the American Anthropological Association ended up being rescinded by a vote of the membership, the whole scene was so ridiculously absent of factual basis.

Here’s what I find creepy about the whole scene, though: Through the efforts of anthropologists Tom Gregor and Dan Gross, in 2003 the membership of the American Anthropological Association specifically passed a referendum essentially condemning Tierney and Turner for spreading falsehoods that could hurt worldwide attempts to protect people—especially vulnerable people—through vaccine campaigns.

That referendum resolved: “The American Anthropological Association repudiates the accusations or insinuations of starting or abetting a lethal measles epidemic by vaccination among the Yanomami made against the late James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon, and recognizes the harmfulness of false accusations regarding vaccine safety.” The referendum noted that it was critically important “to properly recognize that the [false] charges…are themselves dangerous, in that they undermine the public trust that is essential for the success of immunization campaigns and thereby for the health and safety of the Yanomami and all peoples.”

And sure enough, fourteen and a half years later, it looks like Tierney and Turner’s “false accusations regarding vaccine safety”—as repeated by the Guardian—seem to be doing just what the sensible membership of the AAA had feared, i.e., harming vaccine campaigns!

Normally I don’t like having news stories withdrawn; as a historian, I feel it is important that we not remove from the record what has been put there. But in a case like this, it certainly seems important for The Guardian to slap some kind of warning on this article—to make sure people see that it is not just old, but that its claims are dead. I’ll be writing to the editors asking for just that, and encourage you to do the same. (You can refer them to my peer-reviewed, open access article on the subject, if you like.)