Thursday, February 18, 2010

Jared Diamond: Yay or Nay ?

I have to admit that I am ambivalent about the value of Jared Diamond's books, particularly his bestseller, Collapse. On the one hand, he has applied a consistent and clear model to a variety of case studies, bringing to light a number of interesting findings. I wish I could write a comprehensive comparative work like this, something that the general public would read. On the other hand, Diamond is guilty of some serious empirical errors and omissions. So I read with interest the new book:

McAnany, Patricia A. and Norman Yoffee (editors)
2010 Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Collapse. Cambridge University Press, New York.

As I see it, the essays in this explicitly Diamond-bashing work make 3 main points:

(1) Diamond made some serious errors. The Easter Island case is particularly noteworthy for a case where the actual data contradict Diamond's information and interpretation. (I can't seem to get Joe Tainter's quip, about about the creature who cut down the last tree on Easter Island, out of my mind.)

(2) Ancient societies were resilient, and they didn't choose to fail. Well, some ancient societies were resilient, and others were less so. This is an important issue, but the essays in Questioning Collapse don't discuss the methods needed to address it, nor do they explore the variation among societies. Given all the hype surrounding the concept of resilience in some quarters, I am surprised at the lack of progress in applying it to ancient societies in a rigorous fashion.

(3) Collapse is a bad thing, and it is demeaning to descendant populations to say that their ancestors collapsed. We should say other things about past societies, or emphasize other kinds of changes, anything to avoid labeling a people (or their ancestors, or descendants) as "collapsers." Well, I disagree strongly with this notion. When millions of people die, and their political system ceases to function, and their cities are abandoned, and their culture loses much of its content, why not say that they collapsed? How can this possibly be insulting to their descendants? This theme of the book baffles me, and I think it detracts from the force of the critique.

Questioning Collapse was recently reviewed by Krista Lewis in Science (22 Jan 2010, page 413-414). Her review focused on themes #1 and 3 above. This is fine, I guess, although I must question her statement:

"Who is to say," asks Lewis, "that the Maya abandoning their monumental Classic period religious centers was a collapse rather than a political and social shift that was a good decision at the time?"

Wow, what a decision. This is as bad as Diamond asking, "How societies choose to fail or succeed." I can't imagine that the deaths of millions of people, with massive political and cultural disruption, was any kind of "decision at the time." Lewis clearly sympathizes with the Diamond-bashing of Questioning Collapse, but it is possible to be critical of Diamond without making silly pronouncements like this. (And speaking of demeaning statements, one could argue that Lewis's statement here is far more demeaning to the Maya people than is Diamond's discussion of the Maya collapse).

Here is my advice to Diamond-bashers. Drop the notion that collapse is demeaning. Collapse happens. Deal with it. Provide better data. Provide better models. And, when you have your act together, publish in places and venues that will be read by people other than academics.

A final comment. If you want to really piss off a group of academics, publish a book in a field that is not your own, applying a simple and elegant model that explains all kinds of disparate facts that the specialists in that field haven't managed to tie together. This was the fate of Edwin Luttwak's The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, which Romanists dumped all over in spite of the fact that it really illuminated many aspects of Roman imperialism (and Aztec and other imperialisms, for that matter). And I think this phenomenon may be responsible for some of the reaction of archaeologists and others to the books of Jared Diamond. Boy, I sure wish I had written those books.

Final note: There is a website on the book, Questioning Collapse.


RhondaRShearer said...

It's not anthropology or journalism either...

See "Jared Diamond’s Factual Collapse: New Yorker Mag’s Papua New Guinea Revenge Tale Untrue, Tribal Members Angry, Want Justice

by Rhonda Roland Shearer with Michael Kigl, Kritoe Keleba, Jeffrey Elapa

Michael E. Smith said...

Much as I find that case fascinating, it really has limited relevance for evaluating the scholarly quality of Diamond's books. Scholarship needs to be evaluated on scholarly terms, not through guilt-by-association in reference to factual lapses in non-scholarly, journalistic, works.

Ryan Baumann said...

You can read Diamond's review/response to this and another book in this week's Nature:

Michael E. Smith said...

Diamond's review is well worth reading. Thanks for the tip.

RhondaRShearer said...

Thanks for the tip about the Nature review. I am looking it up now.

Regarding your comment that the rigor of Diamond's "journalism" facts should not be judged in the same manner as "scholarship:" I have several comments.

First, No where I can find does a bio describe Jared Diamond as a "journalist." Diamond is a trained scientist writing popular science.

The public or colleagues naturally and correctly assumes then his science is right and ethically produced even if its in a non-peered magazine.

The fact is journalism ethics and goals for revealing truth are nearly the same as they are in science.

Protecting an inexperienced source (aka informant). Doing no harm. Informing people that an interview (aka study)is taking place and where it will be published--so the person can chose or decline to participate--are the same in science and journalism.

In the case of Diamond's New Yorker report, our research team expected to find that the facts were at least near accurate and that he verified information about the never-before-published war with multiple sources, documents (such as hospital records) and government web sites that list correct villages and their district locations...And yet, literally, none of this was done by Diamond or the New Yorker fact checkers as they have publicly and privately admitted.

Diamond's article states naming people in connection with killings in dangerous...and then he goes on to name individuals of tribal murders that if true (it's not), that could have sent them to jail. (See recent report where teen goes to jail in Papua New Guinea [PNG] for 15 years as punishment for tribal murders ).

Hup Daniel Wemp and Henep Isum Mandingo have been hurt and harmed by Diamond's provably false allegations of their criminal activities--that propagated into even more ugly publications in print and on the web around the globe. People believed Diamond.

Final point: In the real world, there is no bright line warning between journalism and scholarship, especially when produced by a top scientist with lots of prizes.

Mako John Kuwimb, a PNG Handa tribesman, the same tribe as Diamond's main source, Wemp, submitted a paper to a peer-reviewed journal as part of finishing his PhD in law at James Cook University, Queensland, AU.

Mako received a report from an anonymous peer-reviewer who suggested that Mako's statements about the peacefulness in his area were less than up to date or truthful...He then cited Diamond's un-peer-reviewed April 21st New Yorker as his authoritative source for his peer review of Mako's work.

Can you imagine how hurtful and galling this is? The great white man scientist who never did one bit of research about Mako's Komo-Margarima area, is considered more authoritative in his "journalism" than Mako, a PHd candidate who lives there and knows its history.(In fact, Diamond did not know, cite or name the correct area. He mistakenly states Handa and Ombal tribes as the same or part of the Nipa tribe who lives in Nipa-- when Handa and Ombal live hours away from Nipa in a completely different district as a quick Google search would have shown him).

Wrong facts in the age of the Internet--especially when presented as accurate science-- are a serious matter that can hurt reputations and potentially get people killed.

RhondaRShearer said...

I forgot to mention...

You write above that "Much as I find that case fascinating, it really has limited relevance for evaluating the scholarly quality of Diamond's books."

You might be unaware that the April 21, 2008, New Yorker article by Diamond was, in fact, part of a forthcoming book.

For example, see Michael Balter's report in Science, May 15 2009, Vol 324.

Balter states that Diamond's April 21, 2008 article about vengeance was part of Diamond's forthcoming book: [Diamond]"decided to excerpt one of the book’s chapters for The New Yorker."

We were also told this by New Yorker editors by email.

Thanks for this opportunity to have a say....

Louis said...

Actually, the worst thing about "Collapse" gets short shrift in the otherwise useful book reviewed here. I am speaking of Diamond's shilling for "environmental" corporations like the awful Chevron that is doing everything within the law (and arguably outside it) to avoid paying Ecuadorians for the mess that Texaco left. If the guy was really serious about avoiding environmental collapse, he'd stop functioning as mouthpiece for toxic dumpers. I understand that they give his mainstream environmentalist organization mega-bucks, but a man of principle would avoid the temptation to give quid pro quo. I guess in an era of corporations paying top dollar for the votes of swinish politicians, that's expecting too much. My own take on the boneheaded "Collapse" is in the link below (search for the word Collapse). I hope that people will look at it even though I am not an academic jealous of Diamond's success.

SNan said...

There is an article by Michael Wilcox on Diamond's books in the new issue of the Journal of Social Arhcaeology (10.1, February 2010, pp. 92-117: 'Marketing conquest and the vanishing Indian'). It's not online yet, but the printed issue is out.

RhondaRShearer said...

We posted a story today that links to and "hat tips" your site:

"Jared Diamond reviews book about himself in Nature (Journal) -- Without disclosing the obvious conflict"