Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Daily Telegraph (London), Pg. 28, October 17, 2000
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The Untruths that Spread Like Measles Acid Test

By Matt Ridley

Having dipped a toe into both academia and the private sector, I am willing to coin a new rule about them both: the rows are much nastier in academia. By contrast with the way that university colleagues treat each other, businessmen are positively gentle.

And perhaps because it straddles the dividing line between science and the arts, anthropology is the nastiest discipline of all. Hence an outrageous "confidential" letter now circulating by e-mail among anthropologists, which has leaked into the press.

It concerns a book by Patrick Tierney, Darkness in Eldorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, which was due to be published on October 1. Two of those who saw the proofs of the book (and are sources cited in it) wrote to the president of the American Anthropology Association charging that "in its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption it is unparalleled in the history of anthropology. This book should cause the field to understand how the corrupt and depraved protagonists could have spread their poison for so long while they were accorded great respect throughout the western world."

The principal charge is that the late scientist James Neel and his group, funded by the United States Atomic Energy Commission, deliberately spread measles among the Yanomami Indians of Venezuela. One of the authors of the letter to the American Anthropology Association was later reported as saying that the only explanation was that he was trying to test controversial eugenics theories like the Nazi scientist Josef Mengele.

Some journalists have seen fit to repeat it: apparently radiation, fascism, epidemics and genocide cropping up in the same breath are too good to be true.

And true they turn out not to be. As anthropologists William Irons, John Tooby, Susan Lindee and others have shown in the past few weeks, the charges are baseless. The measles vaccine that Neel used has never caused infectious measles, and he used it in a desperate response to an epidemic that had already broken out, suspending his own research to do so. Far from supporting eugenics, Neel had written fierce denunciations of eugenics. The US Atomic Energy Commission, now called the Department of Energy, sponsors much research and is hardly a criminal organisation: it started the Human Genome Project.

Tierney, it turns out, failed to consult Neel's field notes. His blunder has belatedly been recognised by one of the authors of the letter to the American Anthropology Association, who has agreed that the measles accusation is false and now claims he was only passing it on so it could be investigated.

Do not journalists have some responsibility to check the factual basis of allegations before printing them?

It looks increasingly as if Tierney has been duped into retailing false allegations about Neel's project. So why am I publicising it? For this reason: the only newspapers to repeat the story in this country and the US have given the Tierney account without, so far, the news of its detailed refutation (although they mention that a member of Neel's group denies the allegations). This injustice has to be undone.