Jared Diamond sued for New Guinea revenge article

1 minute read

Last year, I pointed to an article that Jared Diamond had written in the New Yorker on revenge cycles in Highland New Guinea. Now Diamond has been sued by two New Guinea men, claiming the article is false.

Henep Isum Mandingo and Hup Daniel Wemp say in a single-page filing in Manhattan's state Supreme Court that Diamond's article published April 21, 2008, accused them "of serious criminal activity ... including murder."
The article was titled, "Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?"
The New Yorker spokeswoman Alexa Cassanos said she had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment. She added: "We stand by our story; we stand by Jared Diamond."

There is a convoluted series of events behind the lawsuit. A media researcher named Rhonda Roland Shearer fact-checked the story, employing a team of New Guinea researchers to find the people mentioned in Diamond’s article. The research resulted in a long report, which has been summarized on the StinkyJournalism.org website.

If you want to know more, I can recommend Savage Minds, where Alex (“Rex”) Golub has written some detailed thoughts.

Shearer conducted punishingly scrupulous research on Diamonds story, which included contacting Wemp and having researchers in Papua New Guinea investigate Diamonds story. It looks like the New Yorker article is a hodge-podge of Diamonds recollections of the stories Wemp told Diamond when Wemp drove him around the Southern Highlands. The actual history of fighting in the area Wemp describes is quite differentfor instance, the man that Diamond says was paralyzed in a wheelchair is photographed standing and walking in Shearers piece. Diamond presents what appear to be verbatim quotations from Wemp which are probably Diamonds reconstruction of the conversation, and so forth. So both the facts and their presentation are problematic.

I don’t pretend to understand the legal issues, but it’s certainly a cautionary story for anthropologists. Many like to hold out Diamond as a know-nothing dilettante, but the main thing that distinguishes this case is that it was published in the New Yorker, which gets read by people. Monographs of fieldwork in anthropology don’t get read by people. They are peer-reviewed, but not usually fact-checked. The writers are often young scholars who need to publish a book for tenure.

Hopefully they have the sense to use fake names for their informants.