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Galileo’s Middle Finger and the politics of science

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Jesse Singal has an interesting essay on Alice Dreger’s recent book Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activsts, and the Search for Justice in Science. Singal argues that a conservative = anti-science/liberal=science frame is simplistic, given several incidents from the academic world that Dreger’s book catalogs. I haven’t read the book yet, but Singal describes a couple of what sound like very disturbing cases. Here’s his description of one of them:

At its core, Galileo’s Middle Finger is about what happens when science and dogma collide — specifically, what happens when science makes a claim that doesn’t fit into an activist community’s accepted worldview. And many of Dreger’s most interesting, explosive examples of this phenomenon involve liberals, not conservatives, fighting tooth and nail against open scientific inquiry. . .

The first involves Napoleon Chagnon, an extremely influential anthropologist who dedicated years of his life to understanding and living among the Yanomamö, an indigenous tribe situated in the Amazon rain forest on the Brazil-Venezuela border — there are a million copies of his 1968 book Yanomamö: The Fierce People in print, and it’s viewed by many as an ethnographic classic. Chagnon made ideological enemies along the way; for one thing, he has long believed that human behavior and culture can be partially explained by evolution, which in some circles has been a frowned-upon idea. Perhaps more important, he has never sentimentalized his subjects, and his portrayal of the Yanomamö included, as Dreger writes, “males fighting violently over fertile females, domestic brutality, ritualized drug use, and ecological indifference.” Dreger suggests that Chagnon’s reputation as a careful, dedicated scholar didn’t matter to his critics — what mattered was that his version of the Yanomamö was “Not your standard liberal image of the unjustly oppressed, naturally peaceful, environmentally gentle rain-forest Indian family.”

In 2000, Chagnon’s critics seized upon a once-in-a-career opportunity to go after him. That was the year a journalist named Patrick Tierney published Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. The book — and a related New Yorker article by Tierney — leveled a series of spectacular allegations against Chagnon and James V. Neel Sr., a geneticist and physician with whom Chagnon had collaborated during his work with the Yanomamö (Neel died of cancer shortly before the book’s publication). Among other things, Tierney charged that Chagnon and Neel had intentionally used a faulty vaccine to infect the Yanomamö with measles so as to test Nazi-esque eugenics theories, and that one or both men had manipulated data, started wars on purpose, paid tribespeople to kill one another, and “purposefully with[held] medical care while experimental subjects died from the allegedly vaccine-induced measles,” as Dreger writes.

These charges stuck in part because Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, two anthropologists who disliked Chagnon and his work, sent the American Anthropological Association an alarming letter about Tierney’s allegations prior to the publication of Darkness in El Dorado. Rather than wait to see if the spectacular claims in the book passed the smell test, the AAA responded by quickly launching a full investigation in the form of the so-called El Dorado Task Force — a move that led to a number of its members resigning in protest. A media firestorm engulfed Chagnon — “Scientist ‘killed Amazon indians to test race theory’,” read a Guardian headline — and he was forced to defend himself against accusations that he had brutalized members of a tribe he had devoted his career to living with and studying and, naturally, had developed a strong sense of affection for in the process. A number of fellow anthropologists and professional organizations came to the defense of Chagnon and Neel, pointing out obvious problems with Tierney’s claims and timeline, but these voices were drowned out by the hysteria over the evil, murderous anthropologist and his doctor-accomplice. Dreger writes that Chagnon’s “career had essentially been halted by the whole mess.” (Chagnon’s memoirs, published in 2013, are entitled Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.)

There was, it turns out, nothing to these claims. Over the course of a year of research and interviews with 40 people involved in the controversy in one way or another, Dreger discovered the disturbing, outrageous degree to which the charges against Chagnon and Neel were fabricated — to the point where some of the numerous footnotes in Tierney’s book plainly didn’t support his own claims. All the explosive accusations about Nazi-like activities and exploitation, and the intentional fomenting of violence, were simply made up or willfully misinterpreted. Worse, some of them could have been easily debunked with just a tiny bit of research — in one case, it took Dreger all of an hour in an archive of Neel’s papers to find strong evidence refuting the claim that he helped intentionally infect the Yanomamö with measles (a claim that was independently debunked by others, anyway).

In the end, Dreger published the results of her investigation in the journal Human Nature, recounting the full details of Chagnon’s ordeal at the hands of Tierney, and the many ways Tierney fabricated and misrepresented data to attack the anthropologist and Neel. Darkness Is El Dorado is still available on Amazon, its original, glowing reviews and mention of its National Book Award nomination intact; and Tierney’s New Yorker article is still online, with no editor’s note explaining the factual inaccuracies contained therein.

I haven’t read Dreger’s book and know nothing about the Chagnon affair, but obviously Singal’s description of the events is very disturbing, as is his recounting of Dreger’s analysis of the J. Michael Bailey controversy at Northwestern.

Singal argues that in the new social media environment created by the internet age, ideologically-motivated witch hunts are easy to start and very difficult to combat, in part because very few people, either in the academic or journalistic worlds, have the time and the resources to get anywhere close to the bottom of complicated stories.

I would add that in many cases they may lack the inclination to do so as well. For example, last summer Singal did some cursory investigations into the Alice Goffman affair, and failed to confirm the veracity of any of the incidents in the book that critics had brought into question, but oddly enough absolved Goffman of any serious misconduct, declaring the book to be “at the very least, mostly true.”

In my view the Goffman affair represents the obverse of what, on Singal’s account, Dreger is cataloging, in that it reflects how fraudulent academic work can short-circuit academic and journalistic gate-keeping mechanisms, if it supports a narrative the gate keepers find congenial.

Leaving that irony aside, Singal’s essay is well worth reading in full, and it sounds as if the same is true of Galileo’s Middle Finger.

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