Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Yahoo News, November 17, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://dailynews.yahoo.com/h/nm/20001117/sc/yanomami_disease_dc_1.html

Anthropologists in Uproar Over Yanomami Charges

Andrew Quinn

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Did U.S. researchers spark a measles epidemic that killed hundreds of Amazon Indians? Or has a crusading author unfairly savaged the reputations of some giants in the scientific community?

A meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco this week has been gripped by those two questions in a scandal that cuts to the very heart of modern academic contacts with isolated and indigenous groups scattered around the world.

At the center of the crisis is investigative journalist Patrick Tierney, whose new book ``Darkness In El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon'' has riven the normally-staid world of academic anthropology with shocking charges and impassioned counter-charges.

``I know it was a wrenching book to read, and for me to write,'' Tierney told hundreds of anthropologists gathered last Thursday night for a marathon discussion of the book. ``I do appreciate how difficult it is to come to terms with some of these issue.''

An Epidemic Deep In The Amazon

The issue, according to Tierney's book, involves evidence that scientists during a 1968 expedition inoculated Yanomami Indians against measles and possibly contributed to an epidemic of the disease that killed ``hundreds, perhaps thousands'' of the isolated tribe in a remote region of Venezuela.

The expedition was funded by the former Atomic Energy Commission and led by the late geneticist James Neel of the University of Michigan and then-University of California at Santa Barbara anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, one of the world's most famous ethnographers of the Yanomami.

Since the book's publication, the charges against Chagnon and Neel have exploded through the academic world -- a seemingly horrific tale of modern investigators preying on defenseless and isolated people in the name of science and academic reputation.

But Tierney's charges have also drawn a firestorm of criticism of both his data and his methods, with colleagues and researchers accusing him of producing a piece of political propaganda aimed at destroying Chagnon and Neel's reputations and ultimately doing more harm to the Yanomami and other groups as they pull closer to the modern world.

``The anti-science views that Patrick Tierney promotes in his book have the potential to deny the native populations of South America access to health care,'' said Magdalena Hurtado of the University of New Mexico. ``Tierney suggests that only treatment, and not research, is justifiable.''

Official Probes, Academic Anger

The American Anthropological Association has reacted officially to the El Dorado scandal by forming special ad hoc task forces to probe Tierney's charges as well as more general questions of ethical guidelines for field research.

At a meeting Thursday, emotions ran high as Tierney faced critics who challenged his assertions that the scientists' decision to inoculate Yanomami with the Edmonston B anti-measles vaccine actually gave them the disease.

The Edmonston B vaccine did have side-effects and eventually was withdrawn from the market in the early 1970s, but was a standard treatment in 1968, and critics said Tierney was on dangerous ground with his theory.

``Tierney's unsupported insinuation that a vaccine caused the epidemic could have an impact on public health programs around the world,'' said Susan Lindee, a scientific historian at the University of Pennsylvania.

Other critics took on Tierney's research methodology, accusing him of ``cooking the facts'' to suit his thesis.

William Irons of Northwestern University, who appeared at the meeting representing Chagnon, urged participants to assess various defenses of his friend's work being mounted by teams at the University of Michigan, the University of California-Santa Barbara, and other institutions.

``Tierney says it took him 11 years to research his book, and it took a matter of days to prove some of his allegations were not true,'' Irons said. ``If Tierney says it, it probably is not true.''

Tierney acknowledged the strong emotions that his book has raised, and urged more research into the topic. ``I understand the anger,'' he said. ``They feel that I have recklessly destroyed the reputations of great scientists.''

But he said the greater question was to discover how the Yanomami had been mistreated in the past, and what the future holds for them. ``I hope that everyone can work together to find some light from this darkness,'' he said.