[Paleopsych] CHE: Anthropologists Rescind Report That Examined Allegations of Misconduct by Researchers in the Amazon
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Tue Jun 28 18:42:00 UTC 2005
Anthropologists Rescind Report That Examined Allegations of Misconduct by
Researchers in the Amazon
News bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.6.28
By DAVID GLENN
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 (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 (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 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 (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.
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
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
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:
* Anthropological Association's Report Criticizes Yanomami
Researchers and Their Accuser (7/2/2002)
* Anthropologists Dealing With Yanomami Report Take Steps to
Improve Work With Indigenous Groups (5/23/2002)
* Anthropologists Criticize Release of Preliminary Report on
Controversy Over Research on the Yanomami (12/3/2001)
* Anthropology Panel Accepts Some Findings, Rejects Others in
Controversial Book on Study of the Yanomami (11/27/2001)
* Academic Scandal in the Internet Age (1/12/2001)
* Allegations of Misconduct Roil Anthropologists (9/29/2000)
* Charges of Wrongdoing by Anthropologists (8/9/2002)
* Anthropology and the Search for the Enemy Within (7/26/2002)
E-mail me if you have problems getting the referenced articles.
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