In his work, Tierney does come across as a man trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, carrying sick children out of the woods, rescuing them from criminals (Tierney 1994), and then rescuing them from a mythically evil Chagnon who bears a striking resemblance in Tierney’s representations to the gone-native Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In Tierney’s vision (2000), Chagnon even arrives in the death-bringing helicopters of Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” leaving villages of dead women and children in his wake. In Lindee’s words, “it was like [Tierney] saw himself as the sacrificial lamb, that he was willing to do this for them, that he was the Christ-like figure who would transform things for indigenous groups around the world. Instead of that, he did real damage” (Lindee 2008).
The damage might have been better contained if not for the AAA, whose leaders chose not to make a forceful statement about Tierney’s egregious falsehoods. The AAA opted to do nothing like what my own home organization, the American Society for Bioethics + Humanities, did in 2009 to defend bioethicists Ezekiel Emanuel and Robert Pearlman against false representations of their work by journalists (Lindemann et al. 2009). While the Peacock and the Task Force Reports contain some critiques of Tierney, both explicitly took Tierney’s book as the roadmap to follow for further inquiries. Both even essentially thanked Tierney on behalf of anthropologists. The Peacock Commission concluded this: “Patrick Tierney’s provocative book, Darkness in El Dorado, has contributed a valuable service to our discipline” (Peacock et al. 2001). The Task Force later concluded this: “Darkness in El Dorado has served anthropology well” (AAA 2002a:9). No other scholarly organization treated Tierney’s house of cards as constituting a valuable service to their discipline.
What’s really disturbing is that so many people who participated in the AAA’s investigations of Neel and Chagnon seem to have understood what Tierney’s book really amounted to. For example, Janet Chernela, who served on both the Peacock Commission and the Task Force, told me this: “Nobody took Tierney’s book’s claims seriously. I was surprised that James Peacock, who is a very careful and fair person, favored going forward with the Task Force” (Chernela 2009). This begs the question of why Chernela went forward with an investigation that followed the path of Tierney. Compare the words of Jane Hill, the former president of the AAA who chaired the Task Force. On April 15, 2002, after Hames resigned from the Task Force, Sarah Hrdy wrote to Jane Hill objecting to the situation and got this response from Hill:
Burn this message. The book is just a piece of sleaze, that’s all there is to it (some cosmetic language will be used in the report, but we all agree on that). But I think the AAA had to do something because I really think that the future of work by anthropologists with indigenous peoples in Latin America—with a high potential to do good—was put seriously at risk by its accusations, and silence on the part of the AAA would have been interpreted as either assent or cowardice. Whether we’re doing the right thing will have to be judged by posterity. (Obtained via email from Hrdy, November 6, 2009; used with Hill’s permission from November 6, 2009; emphasis in original.)
So, even though Tierney’s book was “just a piece of sleaze,” Chagnon, the late Neel’s legacy, the Chagnon and Neel families, and these two men’s colleagues were put through a major investigation to preserve the field for other American anthropologists? Why did Hill not say publicly what she said to Hrdy? Why not admit that Chagnon must be publicly strung up to save anthropology from “just a piece of sleaze”?
Let me be clear: I understand the desire—and the duty—on the part of people like Lamphere, Peacock, and Hill to try to preserve the ability of American anthropologists to study in South America. But this way?
Did the Peacock Commission really need to act like a grand jury, hastily issuing a sealed indictment, never pausing to really examine whether the evidence warranted an indictment, in spite of multiple authoritative and well-publicized denunciations of Tierney’s fakeries? I think not. Indeed, the Peacock Report should come as a shock to any scholar worth her salt. (A copy of it has recently been made available at the Hume online archive [Peacock et al. 2001].) Not only is it a mess in places in terms of reasoning and lacking basic formatting consideration, the report itself states that it was prepared so hastily that not all members of the Peacock Commission were able to approve the final version. One has to wonder, if the life’s work of your colleague is on the line, can you not take some extra time to produce a report you feel comfortable showing to the membership of your supposedly democratic scholarly organization? Apparently not if you think your job is utilitarian public relations damage control.
In the event, the Peacock Commission specifically called for an “investigation” into alleged ethical transgressions. Inconveniently, the AAA’s bylaws did not allow for adjudication of ethics complaints. Thus, the El Dorado Task Force was charged with doing an “inquiry” instead (Gregor and Gross 2004:688). Here, “inquiry” versus “investigation” was a distinction without much difference. The Task Force’s report basically begins in earnest with a statement summarizing which ethical violations Chagnon was found to be guilty of (AAA 2002a; see vol. 1 sec. 2.2). The media advisory from the AAA alerts the press to the ethics findings (AAA 2002b). Not an ethics investigation? And consider some quantitative data: Excluding pages that are front matter, methods statements, and c.v. reproductions, fully two-thirds of the pages of the Task Force’s Final Report explicitly involve investigations into whether Neel or Chagnon acted improperly. Finally, in her interview with me, Jane Hill stated plainly, “The final report did include an evaluation of Chagnon. We dismissed the charges against Neel” (Hill 2009). “Dismissed the charges,” and yet it was not a prosecution?
I want to be clear: The issues raised in the Task Force Report—including informed consent, the effects of gift-giving, the representation of vulnerable subjects, and so forth—are undoubtedly worth examining, and some of the examinations represented quality scholarship. But as an analogy, I would also say the issue of how monied interests and ethnic tensions contribute to terrorism are worth examining with quality scholarship, too, but I would not want to see those inquiries happen in response to some crackpot’s false claim that a Jewish conspiracy was at the center of the 9-11 attacks, no matter how many fake citations the crackpot sported. If the AAA leadership felt the AAA should have responded formally earlier to the Brazilian Anthropological Association’s complaints about Chagnon—and it isn’t clear they should have—that does not really excuse using Tierney as a roadmap. It certainly doesn’t excuse thanking him for “valuable service.”
I believe, and many others I spoke with agree, that Jane Hill worked hard and with good intentions chairing this Task Force. I admire her for going to listen for herself to the tapes of the expedition, wherein she, too, found that Tierney was misrepresenting sources (in AAA 2002a; see vol. 2 sec. 6.1.2). Joe Watkins took seriously the difference between ethical reflection and a personalized ethics investigation (see, e.g., in AAA 2002a, vol. 2 sec. 6.2.4). Trudy Turner, helped by Jeffrey Nelson, did an astoundingly good bit of historical research to refute Tierney’s and Terence Turner’s claims about Neel (in AAA 2002a; see also Turner and Nelson 2004). Indeed, Trudy Turner’s work on Neel represented the pinnacle of the scholarship required in an honest ethics investigation. But I think the job of the Task Force, as a whole, was bungled, badly.
As previously noted, the report does not defend anthropologists against the likes of Tierney by clearly, forcefully summarizing the extent of Tierney’s fabrication and condemning it. Moreover, the AAA had no provisions for the ethics investigation that a substantial portion of the Final Report clearly represents (Gregor and Gross 2004). One must wonder what scholar will want to belong to a professional organization which, rather than protecting her right to be fairly represented in the press, launches an investigation into her life’s work, producing reports—one even kept undisclosed, in the case of the Peacock Report—that take seriously an uncredentialed journalist whose major claims were shown, at the outset, to be false? I can’t imagine how any scholar now feels safe at the hands of the AAA, except insofar as the voting membership seems to have some sense of fair play.
The problems with the Task Force extend further: Though this process had many elements of an ethics investigation, never was Chagnon formally invited by the AAA to defend himself. This must have been because the AAA was doing an ethics investigation without being clear about that. Thus the Task Force had no clear procedures and seemed to make up the rules of the inquiry as they went along. Lamphere did invite Chagnon to attend the San Francisco meeting (Chagnon 2009), but once the Task Force was launched, no formal communications from the AAA leadership to Chagnon followed. Hill told me, “A decision was made not to talk to him. I don’t remember the circumstances” (Hill 2009).
And this failure to formally invite Chagnon to defend himself happened in spite of the fact that the Task Force chose to broadcast novel reputation-wrecking claims about Chagnon—for example, the claim from Yanomamö spokesperson Davi Kopenawa that Chagnon had paid his subjects to kill each other, and had offered to pay per killing (in AAA 2002a, vol. 2, p. 35). Janet Chernela’s reasoning for reproducing such an outrageous claim by Kopenawa—whose broadcasting could well have hurt Kopenawa even more than it hurt Chagnon—was that it was necessary to give voice to the indigenous peoples (Chernela 2009). But the AAA chose to “give voice” very selectively.
What’s even more troubling is that the Task Force seems to have read the Yanomamö testimonies selectively, too, using them sometimes to support prosecution of Chagnon, but not to exonerate him. For example, the Task Force seems to ignore the fact that, in replying to a question about Chagnon’s supposed misrepresentation of the Yanomamö as a violent people, Davi Kopenawa denounces Chagnon’s characterization—and then proceeds to give an account of Yanomamö aggression astoundingly close to Chagnon’s (in AAA 2002a, vol. 2, p. 32). Like Chagnon, Kopenawa even uses, as his hypothetical example for talking about fighting, the motivation of woman-stealing! If Chagnon made this stuff up—about elaborate Yanomamö duels with lethal weapons centered around sex—Davi Kopenawa must be guilty of plagiarizing Chagnon.
The problems go on: In spite of his letter of resignation (Hames 2002), which clearly stated he wanted his name off the report, Raymond Hames’s name was left in the report’s Table of Contents; his c.v. was reproduced therein, as if he remained on the Task Force; and his name was not removed from individual essays, even after material with his name on it was changed. This seriously violates norms of scholarly publishing, regardless of the fact that a discussion of this appears in the preamble. Of course, keeping Hames’s name and c.v. added legitimacy to the report, exactly the opposite of what Hames wanted when he resigned.
It is worth noting that Hames now admits that, though he only said in his letter of resignation that he resigned to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest, he really wanted to get off a train he saw as heading for a wreck. He told me the Task Force was “a kind of show trial” and he wanted no further part (Hames 2009). When I mentioned Hames’s resignation to Trudy Turner, it was obvious she had shared some of Hames’s concerns. Trudy Turner said to me, “[Hames’s resignation] left me in a very difficult position. If I had bailed, who would have been left? I felt like I couldn’t. Then they could have written anything they wanted about Neel” (Trudy Turner 2009). What a chilling situation for a scholar to find herself in.
On top of all this, the Task Force’s Final Report is riddled with basic formatting problems that make reading and understanding it a serious challenge. For example, the pagination starts over at page 53 three times in the second volume, and the Table of Contents has no page numbers. One wonders what exactly the AAA board was thinking when they accepted all this. Perhaps they all felt rushed, as some Task Force members said they were (e.g., Chernela 2009). Yet again, I’d ask, if you’re taking your colleagues’ reputations in your hands, shouldn’t you take your time and get it right?
In our interview, Jane Hill remarked to me, “we did not make an ethical accusation against [Chagnon]. But not everyone read it that way. I think [Chagnon] could have gotten a lot worse from us than he did” (Hill 2009). I am at a loss to explain what Hill is thinking here. Of course the Task Force made ethical accusations against Chagnon. And my conversations with Chagnon suggest, in fact, he could not have had it much worse from the AAA (Chagnon 2009).
Ironically, Chagnon might well have been better off had the institution where he is emeritus, University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), done a formal investigation of scientific misconduct rather than letting the AAA go off and run amok. Francesca Bray, who was the Chair of Anthropology at UCSB in 2000, recalled to me that the AAA’s President Louise Lamphere called her to suggest that Chagnon’s department take some kind of action to investigate or censure him. I asked Lamphere to confirm or deny this on the record, and she has not. But Bray remembers quite clearly Lamphere’s call to her, at Bray’s home. Bray wasn’t sure how Lamphere even got her home number. Indeed, considering this extraordinary situation, Bray said to me, “I never thought I’d feel sorry for Nap.” She added that Chagnon “certainly could be rough, but as a colleague at UCSB he was (if often provocative) reliable, straightforward, funny, and generous in his support to colleagues even when he disagreed with their theoretical bent” (Bray to Dreger, personal email communication, October 9, 2009).
If UCSB had mounted a formal inquiry, at least then Chagnon might have had a fair review as Neel did, posthumously, at Michigan, under the leadership of Provost Nancy Cantor and Ed Goldman in the General Counsel’s office (Cantor 2000). If done fairly, university investigations, even if mounted in response to questionable politics, can result in clear and convincing findings. Michigan’s outstanding response to Tierney matched in quality the University of Colorado’s top-notch work on Ward Churchill. (I’ll just note here, as a fascinating parallel to the accusations against Neel, that one of the findings of the Colorado team was that Churchill had wrongly accused John Smith of starting an epidemic among “virgin soil” Native Americans in 1616. Churchill’s claims against Smith stood in contradiction to clear evidence that the 1616 epidemic could not have been caused by Smith because Smith “left New England in 1614 and never returned” [Wesson et al. 2006:36].)
Gregor and Gross (2004) and others have argued that this whole Darkness mess was a battle between the scientifically-minded evolutionary anthropologists like Chagnon and anti-scientific postmodernists. Although I agree that Chagnon was often despised for his hardcore sociobiology, in fact, the critics of Chagnon and Neel have tried hard sometimes to appeal to documentary evidence, seemingly admitting that documentary evidence can constitute irrefutable, unambiguous proof of their claims. But they have done so selectively, as no scholar should. Indeed, this history raises questions about when sloppiness and selective source use reaches the threshold of misconduct, especially when what is at stake is another scholar’s life’s work. Truly, the fundamental problem here is not a school of thought that denies stable facts or documentation. Postmodernism may have contributed to this mess, but it is not the central problem. The central problem here is ideologically-driven pseudo-scholarship pretending it is real.