Why Scientists Should Never Try to Intimidate Journalists

By Keith Kloor | February 19, 2013 1:35 am

A good way to capture someone’s attention is to start off by saying, “I have a few things to get off my chest…”

This is how science writer John Horgan begins his latest post at Scientific American.  It works. I was leaning close to my laptop by the end of the first sentence, eager to lap up whatever Horgan was about reveal. And man does he have a goody from the memory vault. (More on that in a minute.)

What Horgan wants to get off his chest has to do with Napoleon Chagnon, who is lately in the news for, as Horgan puts it, “his score-settling memoir.” A recent New York Times magazine profile of Chagnon says he

may be this country’s best-known living anthropologist; he is certainly its most maligned. His monograph, “Yanomamö: The Fierce People,” which has sold nearly a million copies since it was first published in 1968, established him as a serious scientist in the swashbuckling mode — “I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, filthy, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows!” — but it also embroiled him in controversy.

Those who remember Darkness in El Dorado, the 2000 book by journalist Patrick Tierney, will know what all the fuss was about. Horgan explains:

In the summer of 2000, The [NY] Times Book Review asked me to review Darkness and sent me galleys. The book was packed with allegations of misconduct by scientists and journalists scrutinizing the Yanomamo, a tribe of Amazonian hunters and horticulturalists. Tierney chief villain was Chagnon, whose 1968 book Yanomamo: The Fierce People, depicted Yanomamo males as, well, savages mired in chronic warfare. Chagnon’s work was embraced by sociobiology and its repackaged successor evolutionary psychology, which emphasize the genetic underpinnings of warfare and other human behaviors and downplay cultural factors.

Tierney’s book was so explosive that some high-profile defenders of Chagnon tried to head off the damage. Horgan recalls:

I was still working on my review of Darkness when I received emails from five prominent scholars: Richard Dawkins, Edward Wilson, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett and Marc Hauser. Although each wrote separately, the emails were obviously coordinated. All had learned (none said exactly how, although I suspected via a friend of mine with whom I discussed my review) that I was reviewing Darkness for the Times. Warning that a positive review might ruin my career, the group urged me either to denounce Darkness or to withdraw as a reviewer.

That’s extraordinary. So what happened next?

I responded that I could not discuss a review with them prior to publication. (Only Dennett persisted in questioning my intentions, and I finally had to tell him, rudely, to leave me alone. I am reconstructing these exchanges from memory; I did not print them out.) I was so disturbed by the pressure from Dawkins et al—who seemed to be defending not Chagnon per se but the sociobiology paradigm–that I ended up making my review of Darkness more positive. I wanted Darkness to be read and discussed, to get a hearing. After all, Tierney leveled what I found to be credible accusations against not only Chagnon but also other scientists and journalists.

For those of you in the science world who have tried (or might one day be tempted to try) similar heavy-handed means, there are two takeaway lessons here: 1) Intimidation tactics can backfire, and 2) Journalists have long memories.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthropology, science journalism
  • Kuze81

    Imagine if climate scientists did this?

    • Joshua

      Imagine if some climate scientists did that – and based on that, groups of people singled out the work of more or less all climate scientists, among the work of scientists as all types, as being uniquely influenced by group-orientation bias.

      Imagine further that this group (oh, I don’t know, let’s call them “skeptics”) then went on to postulate specific reasons for the climate scientists to have those biases, such as wanting to destroy capitalism, establish a ONE-WORLD-GOVERNMENT!!!!1, line their pockets while indifferent to the millions of poor children would would starve as a result, etc.

      Imagine further still that this groups of “skeptics” was more or less uniformly aligned with certain political ideologies, and that even though they uniformly attributed the conclusions in the analysis of others to political biases, were nonetheless unwilling to examine their own conclusions for political bias.

      Too hard to imagine, right?

      • Kuze81

        Are you denying the secret plans of the One-World Government illuminati?

        • Joshua

          Bilderberg Group!!!11!!1!!!1

          Grab the women and children! Head for the hills! Don’t forget the alarm codes for the bunker!

      • Kuze81

        And shorter Joshua: “Mommy mommy, they do it tooooo!!!”

        • Joshua

          Touché

          .

      • harrywr2

        Unfortunately,

        As every produce managed knows…if you don’t aggressively toss out your own bad apples… the public will assume all your apples are bad.

        • Joshua

          I’m not sure that every project manager knows that. I think I’ve seen plenty of evidence that many don’t – but it’s hard to speak to what other people do or don’t know.

          What I know for sure is that I have seen many times in life where, regardless of whether project managers know that, they failed to act in a way that was consistent with that belief.

          A failure to “toss out bad apples” (at least on an expedient basis as opposed to pathetically after the fact) can be seen quite regularly in the business world. People make careers on trying to get business managers to implement that rule of management.

          One of the problems I have with some “skeptics” in the climate wars is that they take basic truisms and apply them selectively to confirm biases. An example would be the managerial criticism of the IPCC – which are often valid on face value, but unfortunately accompanied by free market fetishism in the form of unrealistic beliefs about the degree to which those same standards are practiced in the business world.

          • Nullius in Verba

            Bad practice happens just as often in the business world. The difference is that failure is punished by the company losing money or going bust.

            It’s evolution by natural selection, you see? The free market evolves efficiency not because their managerial mutations are necessarily any better, but because the worst of the bad apples do get tossed out – one way or another.

          • Joshua

            The difference is that failure is punished by the company losing money or going bust.

            As stated – that is a fantasy. Sometimes failure (as represented by “bad apples” is punished. And many times it isn’t. Many times, in fact, “bad apples” are rewarded. If the actions of the bad apples result in lost money, which does happen sometimes, then sometimes the “bad apples” are “punished” accordingly, and sometimes not. It is precisely this idealized notion of the free market that is the problem. The problem isn’t accurate identifications of “bad apples” or bad practice in the IPCC, or in the public sector, or in academia, or in scientific research, that is the problem. That is all part of reality, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just kidding themselves. The problem are the selective standards

            It’s evolution by natural selection, you see? The free market evolves efficiency not because their managerial mutations are necessarily any better, but because the worst of the bad apples do get tossed out – one way or another.

            Utopian nonsense. Have you bothered to research what the cost of outright fraud in the private sector is to our society? And that, basically, only considers the cost of fraud is discovered and accounted for. And it doesn’t measure the impact of incompetence.

            The “free market” has positive attributes – but fetishizing the free-market serves no purpose other than pushing an ideological agenda.

    • Buddy199

      Ever hear of Climate-gate?

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    Ouch. Marc Hauser. Teh irony.

    But scientists have long memories too.

  • thingsbreak

    I would like to see this supposed correspondence. I’m not saying Horgan is lying, but as we just saw with the Tesla vs. NY Times dust up, people have a way of remembering things that reinforce a certain interpretation, while the facts may be far less insidious to a third party.

    Anyone familiar with the critical attacks of The Selfish Gene can recall the rampant misattribution of positions and beliefs to Dawkins that he has not actually espoused.

    If what Horgan says is actually true, however, then shame on those who did the things he accuses them of.

    • Kuze81

      I agree with the Pinker et al. side of the science but agree that it’s shameful tactics to be so neurotic about controlling the message.

      • Joshua

        Lol! So despite shameful scientific practices, you agree with Pinker’s science.

        At least you’re honest!

        • Kuze81

          What shameful scientific practices?

          • Joshua

            Seriously? You’re going to argue that scientists using
            “neurotic” and “shameful tactics” to “control the message,” and and attempting to intimidate a journalist by suggesting his career will be harmed if he publishes a critical article of a scientist colleague, is not related to their scientific practice?

            Really? Is that where you’re going to go?

            Really?

            Really?

            You’re kidding, right? I mean I must be mistaken, right?

          • Kuze81

            This shouldn’t be this difficult.

            Does Peter Gleick or Michael Mann acting like d*cks invalidate the greenhouse effect? No.

    • Joshua

      I hate it when I “mis-remember” stuff.

  • JeffN

    I read the Times magazine piece over the weekend. It was rather brutal toward Tierney’s book, at one point letting up just enough to concede that “not everything was wrong” in it.

    The on-going fighting in Anthropology is really nasty and really fascinating. It’s a case study of what happens to the science when activists take over a field.
    We don’t have to imagine if climate scientists do this, they talked about it in regards to Revkin and editors of journals that didn’t jump high enough.

  • Tom Scharf

    Michael Schlesinger threatens Andy Revkin in 2009(?):

    Andy:

    Copenhagen prostitutes? Climate prostitutes?

    Shame on you for this gutter reportage. This is the second time this week I have written you thereon, the first about giving space in your blog to the Pielkes.

    The vibe that I am getting from here, there and everywhere is that your reportage is very worrisome to most climate scientists. Of course, your blog is your blog. But, I sense that you are about to experience the ‘Big Cutoff’ from those of us who believe we can no longer trust you, me included.

    Copenhagen prostitutes? Unbelievable and unacceptable.

    What are you doing and why?

    Michael

    • Kuze81

      I still haven’t forgiven Andy for giving space to the Pielkes. We’re trying to make a better world here! The audacity!

  • Isaac Schumann

    Hi Keith,

    I agree that the behaviour of Dawikins et al was bad, however many who have reviewed Chagnon’s most recent book have failed to mention that the most damning claims made by Tierney were utter crap, this is the real crime.

    Arguing that he was a bad anthropologist and his conclusions were wrong is perfectly fine, but the accusations that he intentionally precipitated and abetted a measles outbreak to practice eugenics and that he was a white supremacist was always politically motivated slander and should have always been treated as such. Sadly, they were/are not, i.e.:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/books/review/noble-savages-by-napoleon-a-chagnon.html?_r=0

    Taken as a whole, I cannot escape the conclusion that the crimes commited by the anti-Chagnon ‘tribe’ in this long running dispute are an order of magnitude more severe than those commited by Chagnon and his supporters. Pressuring a reviewer(bad form for sure) and (arguably) doing bad anthropology are not the same as publicly calling someone a racist and murderer and trying to ruin their career.

  • Joshua

    Heh. Just looked at who’s getting how many “votes.” Kuze has 151 for 31 comments. I have 7 for 29 comments. Buddy199 has 432 for 135 comments. Thingsbreak has 7 for 12 comments. NiV has 45 for 50 comments.

    Looking at those ratios, I should just give up. Buddy, and Kuze are obviously the clear-thinkers here.

    • Keith Kloor

      I hate the voting for all comment systems/threads. I have asked if we could get rid of it. Not sure it’s possible

      • BBD

        Please ask again.

        Thanks.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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