[Paleopsych] CHE: Anthropologists Rescind Report That Examined Allegations of Misconduct by Researchers in the Amazon

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Anthropologists Rescind Report That Examined Allegations of Misconduct by
Researchers in the Amazon
News bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.6.28


    The American Anthropological Association has voted to rescind its
    acceptance of a 2002 committee report that reviewed allegations that
    two prominent American anthropologists had committed serious
    misconduct in Brazil and Venezuela between 1967 and 1990.

    The reversal is the latest twist in a complex dispute that had been
    simmering for decades but exploded into prominence in 2000, with the
    publication of Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists
    Devastated the Amazon (W.W. Norton), by the freelance reporter Patrick
    Tierney ([68]The Chronicle, September 29, 2000).

    In his book, Mr. Tierney charged that Napoleon A. Chagnon, who is now
    a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California
    at Santa Barbara, and the late James V. Neel, a longtime professor of
    human genetics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, had badly
    mistreated an indigenous group, known as the Yanomami, in the upper

    Among other things, Mr. Tierney asserted that during a 1968 measles
    epidemic among the Yanomami, Mr. Neel's research was driven by
    scientific curiosity rather than sound medical practice and that
    dozens of indigenous people had needlessly died. (In prepublication
    galleys, Mr. Tierney even suggested that Mr. Neel had spread measles
    himself by administering a certain vaccine.)

    Mr. Tierney also charged that Mr. Chagnon had tacitly encouraged
    violence among the Yanomami and that he had staged violent scenes in
    several famous ethnographic films.

    Mr. Tierney's book received a huge amount of publicity, and leaders of
    the anthropology association felt a need to respond. In 2001 they
    appointed a small committee, known as the El Dorado Task Force, that
    was instructed to assess the issues raised by the controversy and to
    recommend ways to improve anthropologists' practices in the field.

    The task force was dogged by its own controversies. Critics complained
    that two of its members had prejudged the case by publicly criticizing
    Mr. Chagnon's conduct. Another member, Raymond Hames, a professor of
    anthropology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, resigned from
    the committee because he believed that his past professional
    association with Mr. Chagnon raised the appearance of a conflict of

    The low point may have come in November 2001, when the anthropology
    association released a preliminary report by the committee. Two of its
    six members promptly objected, saying that the report contained
    material that they had neither read nor approved ([69]The Chronicle,
    December 3, 2001). At the association's annual meeting that month,
    several scholars complained that the report appeared to ignore certain
    serious allegations in Mr. Tierney's book.

    The committee's [70]final report was completed in May 2002 and
    released to the public two months later. Like other investigative
    bodies, the committee found that Mr. Tierney's most sensational
    allegation -- that Mr. Neel had acted negligently during the measles
    epidemic -- was false. The report found merit in several of Mr.
    Tierney's other charges, however. The committee encouraged the
    association to take steps to improve scholars' ethics in the field and
    the discipline's relationship with indigenous people ([71]The
    Chronicle, July 2, 2002).

    The final report came under immediate and heavy criticism from several
    scholars. Chief among them were Thomas A. Gregor, a professor of
    anthropology at Vanderbilt University, and Daniel R. Gross, a staff
    researcher at the World Bank. Mr. Gregor and Mr. Gross charged that
    the committee's report amounted to a formal inquiry into Mr. Chagnon's
    and Mr. Neel's behavior, and that, as such, it violated a 1998
    resolution in which the association vowed that it would not adjudicate
    charges of misconduct against its members.

    The critics also said that the panel's composition was biased, that
    Mr. Chagnon had not been afforded due process, and that the
    association's Web site had propagated (in "comments" pages associated
    with the task-force report) a new stream of lurid and unsubstantiated
    allegations against Mr. Chagnon.

    Last fall, Mr. Gregor and Mr. Gross offered a resolution to rescind
    the association's acceptance of the report. The association's members
    voted on the resolution by mail in April and May, and the results were
    announced late last week. The resolution passed, 846 to 338.

    The resolution requires the association to widely publicize the
    decision to rescind the report, and to explain the reasons for doing
    so. It also affirms that "the association will follow its own policies
    prohibiting ethics adjudications."

    Reached by telephone in Uruguay on Monday, Mr. Gross said that he was
    very pleased by the vote. "The association wasn't equipped to carry
    out adjudications," he said. "It didn't have the machinery, it didn't
    have the procedures in place. In any of these cases where grave
    accusations are made against a colleague, we need to have fair
    procedures in place."

    Mr. Gross suggested that the institutional review boards at Mr.
    Chagnon's and Mr. Neel's universities were better placed to assess Mr.
    Tierney's allegations.

    Mr. Gross said that he would have no objection if the association
    continued to post the report on its Web site. He simply wanted it to
    be made clear, he said, that the report is "the opinion of a group of
    people, and not the association's official position."

    Jane H. Hill, a professor of anthropology and linguistics at the
    University of Arizona, who was the chair of the task force, said on
    Monday that she was very disappointed in the referendum's outcome. "We
    should have done more work to educate people about the meaning of
    this," she said.

    Ms. Hill said that she could have accepted a narrower resolution that
    affirmed the association's prohibition on adjudicating ethical
    allegations against its members. But she believes that Mr. Gregor and
    Mr. Gross's resolution, which rescinds the task force report in its
    entirety, goes much too far. The committee's recommendations for
    ethical reforms in anthropological fieldwork have now been struck from
    the record, she said.

    "I think this sends an appalling message," she said. "I'm afraid that
    the resolution will be read in Latin America by our anthropological
    colleagues and by politically aware indigenous people as a direct slap
    at the kinds of agency that they're trying to achieve with
    international science."

    Another scholar said the saga had much to teach the field. "I hope we
    can move on now to really get a good sense of where ethics lie in the
    discipline, and how we can evaluate anthropologists fairly and
    honorably," said Robert Borofsky, a professor of anthropology at
    Hawaii Pacific University and the author of Yanomami: The Fierce
    Controversy and What We Can Learn From It (University of California
    Press, 2005).

    Mr. Borofsky, who was not a member of the El Dorado Task Force, said
    he agreed with Mr. Gross that the committee's due-process procedures
    were inadequate. But he strongly disputed the notion that the
    association should not adjudicate cases of alleged misconduct among
    its members. He said that he and a colleague would like to revisit
    some of the material in the report. "We would like to find exact data
    -- criteria that everyone can agree on -- that we can use for
    evaluating the accusations against Chagnon," he said, "and decide what
    might be a fair and honorable way of evaluating Chagnon's actions."

    "We need to have procedures in place before the next storm, before the
    next time the media hounds us with another crisis," Mr. Borofsky said.
    "We cannot take an ostrich-like view of ethics."

    Mr. Borofsky also said that he was startled by how few people voted in
    the referendum. The association has more than 10,000 members.

    Background articles from The Chronicle:
      * [72]Anthropological Association's Report Criticizes Yanomami
        Researchers and Their Accuser (7/2/2002)
      * [73]Anthropologists Dealing With Yanomami Report Take Steps to
        Improve Work With Indigenous Groups (5/23/2002)
      * [74]Anthropologists Criticize Release of Preliminary Report on
        Controversy Over Research on the Yanomami (12/3/2001)
      * [75]Anthropology Panel Accepts Some Findings, Rejects Others in
        Controversial Book on Study of the Yanomami (11/27/2001)
      * [76]Academic Scandal in the Internet Age (1/12/2001)
      * [77]Allegations of Misconduct Roil Anthropologists (9/29/2000)

      * [78]Charges of Wrongdoing by Anthropologists (8/9/2002)
      * [79]Anthropology and the Search for the Enemy Within (7/26/2002)


   68. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v47/i05/05a01601.htm
   69. http://chronicle.com/daily/2001/12/2001120303n.htm
   70. http://www.aaanet.org/edtf/index.htm
   71. http://chronicle.com/daily/2002/07/2002070202n.htm
   72. http://chronicle.com/daily/2002/07/2002070202n.htm
   73. http://chronicle.com/daily/2002/05/2002052302n.htm
   74. http://chronicle.com/daily/2001/12/2001120303n.htm
   75. http://chronicle.com/daily/2001/11/2001112701n.htm
   76. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v47/i18/18a01401.htm
   77. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v47/i05/05a01601.htm
   78. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v48/i48/48b01301.htm
   79. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v48/i46/46b01101.htm

E-mail me if you have problems getting the referenced articles.

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