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Why Scientists Should Never Try to Intimidate Journalists

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFebruary 19, 2013 12:35 PM


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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.

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