Saturday, February 27, 2010

Diamond on Diamond

This week in Nature, Jared Diamond published a review of Questioning Collapse a volume of chapters published by various authors regarding the problems in Diamond's own "Collapse" book. With my colleague, Terry Hunt, I have a chapter in the book that details the numerous empirical problems with Diamond's account of Easter Island. Diamond's review is rather sour of the book as it refutes has major thesis -- that some societies collapse and others don't.

Overall, the book is a mixed bag. In our chapter, we chose to focus the details of the events that comprise the archaeology of Rapa Nui. We can plainly show that there simply is no evidence of a pre-European major population loss. (n.b. Our comprehensive and compelling account is part of a book that is in the hands of editors right now). Other chapters tended to address some particular details that Diamond got wrong or making claims that societies change not collapse. The latter part is on the money but most of the chapters approach the issue in an empirical way rather than addressing the concepts embedded in the statement "Why do some societies collapse?" In this regard, some of the chapters end up sounding a bit like weepy leftist academic slogans. Some of the comments in Amazon reviews hit on this point.

Ultimately, however, the problem with Collapse is that by using common sense terms such as "society" and "collapse" you automatically fall into having to defend whether or not there was a "collapse" in which ever "society" you study. Societies are taken as real empirical things. Collapse is assumed to be something that happens to them. But what is a society? Can you point to one? Can you draw a line around it? What is collapse? Point to a "collapse" Do you just "know it when you see it?" If you start with those assumptions you are playing Diamond's game -- and have already bought into the set of cryptic terms he asserts. But it doesn't have to be that way. Darwinian evolution showed that by not assuming species as a real thing we can explain why the appear and change. Historical ecology shows that ecosystems are historical accidents and that by not assuming them as real we can see that they change continuously The power of the same approach is possible for an understanding of "societies" -- but we cannot start by assuming the units we are trying to explain in the first place. It is this fundamental anti-evolutionary, anti-science approach taken by Diamond that is appalling and ultimately going to be his undoing. His willful ignorance, disinterest in getting the details correct and lack of anthropological training -- combined with his swollen headed academic accolades makes him an incredibly sloppy and essentialist researcher. Sadly, people take his "expertise" as a given when in fact he is spinning a yard just as commonsensical as Abraham Simpson-- maybe less so. .

However, the MAJOR problem with his review is that it makes no mention that the book he is reviewing is a critique of HIS book, Collapse. Of course he hates it! It largely serves to undermine his particular platform by pointing out the numerous problems in his own work. The editor of Nature is largely to blame for this -- it unscrupulous and dishonest. Based on this event should we believe *ANY* of Nature's book reviews? Are they all "inside jobs" designed to maximize sales for some book either by attacking competitors or playing up a favored author? Some coverage of this lapse of honesty and the conflict of interest created by Nature has been generated via a report by Molika Ashford of


Credit: Jim Hunt


RhondaRShearer said...

Just to let you know...We just published an update that includes response from Nature who defends their choice of Diamond as reviewer of Questioning Collapse and states there is no undisclosed conflict.

The book review editor of Science, Nature's direct competitor, and ethics professors also comment.


Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ann said...

As I posted on "Stinky Journalism", this morning...

I was on Easter Island, participating in an Earthwatch dig, when Jared Diamond came to do his "research." He came to the site of our dig and started to grill the archaeologist who was running the dig.

I climbed out of the hole that I had been digging and wandered over. Diamond waved me away with a comment to the effect that, "This is a conversation for men who understand science." I was appalled by his rudeness (he was basically a guest at our dig) and by his attitude both to women (and I have a Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry) and to those who were actually DOING archaeological research.

The only slight consolation to me, as I wandered, insulted and chastened, back to my hole in the ground was the he looked like a garden gnome with a handbag :)

(And, yes, I am the translator of "Early Visitors to Easter Island" and "Easter Island and Its Mysteries," which is available for free at )

Michael E. Smith said...

One of the most interesting things on the Jared Diamond front is the way that Rhonda Shearer finds all these things and sticks in her two cents, irrespective of its relevance. I agree with your comments on Questioning Collapse. Yoffee and McAnany got very cranky with me when I expressed some negative remarks about the book on PUblishing Archaeology (but of course they emailed me the remarks, rather than putting comments on the blog). I thought your chapter was the only solid scientific contribution to the book; most of the chapters are ideological treatises, not empirical studies.

RhondaRShearer said...

@ Micheal Smith: You write a compound statement. The first part: "One of the most interesting things on the Jared Diamond front is the way that Rhonda Shearer finds all these things."

The second part: [Shearer] "sticks in her two cents, irrespective of its relevance."

When I challenge Diamond's work, not his person, it is with concrete evidence and in-depth research and evidence.

Most importantly, I have been fair and have given both Diamond and his publishers amble opportunities to respond in advance of my publications or public comment for two reasons: 1. To be able to include any rebuttals; 2. To discover facts I may have missed that will be used to amend my work.

That said, I have never heard from you. Because you provide no specifics and only allude that I have done something wrong or something without "relevance", neither I, and likely readers of this permanent blog comment by you, have any idea what you are suggesting other than, it is negative.

I would never do this to you or to Dr. Diamond.

If you have a beef with me or my work that is fair, and I am open to share data, have discussions, amend my work and learn more about the truth of any matter.

In my view, to be fair you need to do better than you did here, in this comments section.

Rhonda Roland Shearer
director, Art Science Research Laboratory
adjunct lecturer, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Iowa