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Why did Nature's editors select Jared Diamond to review Questioning Collapse, when the book is solely a negative critique of Diamond's book Collapse? Did the book review editor really think a glowing review or even a lukewarm one, was even possible? (Credit: Jim Hunt)

EXCLUSIVE:  There are many things that writers, and the publications that publish their work, can do to lose the trust of readers. One is to write about subjects that present clear conflicts of interest. Another is to fail to be transparent about those conflicts with their readers.

The February 18 issue of the journal Nature provides a clear case in point. In the issue, Pulitzer-winning scientist Jared Diamond reviews a book of essays called Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire. The review, “Two views of collapse,” is largely negative. What Diamond doesn’t disclose to readers of the review, however, is that Questioning Collapse is not just a book about “collapse”… It’s a book about his bestselling book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.. Even more, it is a book of essays directly criticizing and critiquing Diamond’s own work and writings.

There’s nothing subtle about it. “Wrentit,” a reviewer on Amazon.com, summarizes the book this way: “Questioning Collapse is a collection of reviews of specific chapters of Diamond’s book Collapse. The whole point of Questioning Collapse is to attack Diamond’s arguments.”

This may not be the only time the subject of a critical work has reviewed the book that critiques them.  But, by failing to disclose that Questioning Collapse is a critique of his own research, Diamond misleads readers into viewing his book review as something it is not–the dispassionate opinion of an outside observer.

nature diamond collapse

Diamond–the subject of several StinkyJournalism investigations into errors and ethical lapses in his reporting on Papua New Guinea, and of a libel lawsuit by Daniel Wemp, the single source for his New Yorker essay “Vengeance is Ours”–is the author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

Questioning Collapse, published by Cambridge University Press, features a group of essays collected from and after a meeting of the American Anthropological Association that were directly intended to address “issues swirling around the popular writing of Jared Diamond.” The essays critique specific passages and arguments of Diamond’s book, as well as argue against the more general themes of human history Diamond describes.

Yet, Diamond’s review in Nature, a prestigious journal of science and medicine, makes no mention of this. It might, then, appear to a reader of Nature with no prior knowledge of his relationship to the book under review, to be the opinion of an independent expert. Given that Questioning Collapse is a refutation of his own work, Diamond cannot be considered as such, and he is ethically responsible not to–purposefully or accidentally–masquerade as such.

The arguments Diamond offers would not have been problematic published as an academic response to Questioning Collapse. Critiqued by other researchers, scientists should and do routinely respond with explanations and further critiques.

However, when readers see a book review, they expect an expert opinion on the quality of a book. Because Questioning Collapse is critical of Diamond, his relationship with the book’s subject matter and authors calls into question Diamond’s ruling on the quality of this book.

If Diamond had disclosed the relationship, readers would have been able to, at least, use that knowledge to evaluate the fairness of the negative review. As it stands, the review is ethically problematic as a piece of critical journalism.

jared diamond

Questioning Collapse, on left, is a book that is solely a critique of Jared Diamond’ s book, Collapse, on the right.

Anthropologists Deborah Gewertz’s and Frederick Errington’s contribution, “Excusing the Haves and Blaming the Have-Nots in the Telling of History,” is among the essays in Questioning Collapse. They plan to write to Nature editors to protest.

Further, Gewertz and Errington addressed the principles involved in an email to iMediaEthics,  “If a scientist reviews a book critical of his own work without revealing his relationship to that book, it renders questionable his integrity; if a scientific journal encourages the scientist to do so, it renders questionable its legitimacy.”

iMediaEthics’ view? Nature needs to disclose to their readers the conflict of interest between Diamond and the book he reviewed. A correction and apology should also be made. Finally, in fairness, Nature should ask a truly objective and dispassionate expert to review Questioning Collapse as remedy.

When Nature’s editors chose Diamond to review this book, they predetermined the outcome–a negative review–which is exactly what they got. Furthermore, by not disclosing that the “Collapse” in the title of the reviewed book refers to Diamond’s own book, Collapse, Nature failed to be honest and open with its readers.

We have called and/or emailed Nature, Jared Diamond, Questioning Collapse authors, and Cambridge University Press, the publisher of Questioning Collapse, and will update with any responses we receive.

*Hat tip to PublishingArchaeology and commenter Ryan Bauman, for pointing out that Diamond’s Nature review existed.

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UPDATE: 02/28/2010 10:33am EST: One of the authors of a chapter in Questioning Collapse, Carl Lipo, just posted his thoughts about Diamond’s Nature review on his blog, see “Diamond on Diamond,”  EvoBeach.com.

Lipo writes: “…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?”

UPDATE: 02/28/2010, 12:20pm EST:  Contrast Diamond’s negative book review in Nature with anthropologist Krista Lewis’ positive review in Science. (Krista Lewis, Did They Fail? Could They Choose?” Science 22 January 2010: Vol. 327. no. 5964, pp. 413 – 414).  Full citation for Diamond’s review: Jared Diamond, “Two views of collapse,” Nature 463, 880-881 (18 February 2010)

UPDATE: 03/1/2010 11:25 EST:  In response to feedback from one reader — iMediaEthics does not take issue that Diamond is not identified as the author of “Collapse.” (He is identified as the author of “Collapse” in the author box at the end of the review). We are responding to the fact that Diamond does not make clear that “Questioning Collapse” is a book directly critiquing his own book. This fact is not disclosed anywhere in the review.

UPDATE: 03/04/2010  06:11 am EST New Post on iMediaEthics  — Go to:  Nature (Journal) responds to charge that Jared Diamond’s book review had undisclosed conflict 

UPDATE: 03/06/2010: 2:00PM EST:  Ann Altman, PhD in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, who commented below about her experience with Jared Diamond, wrote in the blog, Evolution Beach, that she isthe translator of “Early Visitors to Easter Island” and “Easter Island and Its Mysteries,” which is available for free at www.chauvet-translation.com.

UPDATE: 03/17/2010  7:13PM EST – Jessica Palmer at the science blog, Biophemera, mentions our coverage of Diamond’s Nature review. She writes,

“I think it’s unlikely that Nature readers, particularly those readers interested in a book review on this topic, would not know who Jared Diamond is. Assuming they do know who he is, they know precisely what they’re getting. But what if they don’t know? Is Stinky Journalism right that the risk a Nature reader would not know Jared Diamond was writing a biased review – more of an op-ed than an objective analysis – makes failing to disclose his personal views on the topic unethical?”

Palmer says she doesn’t think so, making the justification as did Nature, namely, that Diamond’s author-bio states he is the author of the book, Collapse, and that is good enough.  She writes, “That [the bio] sounds like pretty typical academic-speak for ‘ I don’t agree with these people.’ What more would Stinky Journalism want? A separate page-long bio of Diamond outlining his general beliefs about defunct societies?”

Actually, all that iMediaEthics (and a range of science and ethics experts) would want is a clear disclosure in the review that Questioning Collapse was a book critical of Diamond’s work.  Simple as: “Questioning Collapse is a book of essays critiquing specific issues and general themes in my work, specifically my book ‘Collapse’.” Unless this is specifically stated or one knows the book, you would believe that Questioning Collapse was a generic book on societal collapse–not specifically about Diamond work.

Palmer also writes that she didn’t think this lack of disclosure was misleading, saying:

“Given that this review is in a specialist journal, and its readers should know better than to take an academic’s assertions about their direct competition at face value, I don’t think Nature needed to do more than they did.”

To this, iMediaEthics has two responses: one, Nature is not Anthropology Today, a true “specialist journal.” It’s a general science journal. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that, for example, the average material science physicist reading Nature is up on Jared Diamond’s fights with anthropologists; and two, how is that same physicist even to know that Diamond is reviewing a book that is all about him and his work?

But as Bruce V. Lewenstein, a professor of science communication at Cornell University, explains above, scientists and journalists do need to clearly disclose such conflictsto protect all their readers and to avoid reproach for hiding their biases. He told iMediaEthics , “the whole point of disclosure is to put it out there so even if there’s just one person who doesn’t know, they’ll be notified.” (Note: a version of this update was also posted in Biophemera comments).

 

Update: 03/17/2010, 7:48PM EST-  Alex Golub (Rex) at SavageMinds discusses the theoretical back and forth between Questioning Collapse and Collapse.

GDF Director’s Blog-  Gary Martin, Questioning Collapse,” Feb 3, 2010
John Hawks’ Blog- John Hawks, “Collapsing reviews,” Feb 2010
Ke Kaula Blog- Ghostraptor, “Update (Rats, People and Rapa Nui),” Mar 11, 2010
Cambridge University Press Blog, “Puttin’ the Objective in Objectivity,” Mar 8, 2010
Nanopolitan Blog- T.A. Abinandanan, “Fail: Why Do Some Book ‘Reviews’ Collapse and Self-Destruct?”, Mar 6, 2010
Adventures in Ethics and Science Blog- Janet D. Stemwedel, “Objectivity, conflicts of interest, and book reviews,” Mar 4, 2010
Bioephemeara Blog- Jessica Palmer, “Disclosing (obvious) biases in book reviews: were Nature and Jared Diamond wrong?”, Mar 17, 2010
Savage Minds Blog- Alex Golub, “Questioning Collapse,” Mar 16, 2010
Evolution Beach- Carl Lipo, “Diamond on Diamond,” Feb 27, 2010
Cambridge University Press Blog, “From the Editors of Questioning Collapse:  Requesting Full Disclosure,” Mar 22, 2010

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

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5 Responses

  1. Ann Altman says:

    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 🙂

  2. Don Williams says:

    Stinky argues that : "What Diamond doesn’t disclose to readers of the review, however, is that Questioning Collapse is not just a book about "collapse"….It’s a book about HIS bestselling book Collapse " But is this true? 392 pages seems like an awfully long book review. Diamond’s review , in comparison, only took ..what??.. 1500 words?

    It seems to me that Questioning Collapse is addressing broad issues of concepts and theory in the same subject area as Collapse –not going through Jared Diamond’s book in paragraph by paragraph. ( Although there are obviously differences of opinion and ,in some cases, disagreement over facts.) If Diamond did not fully disclose all of his interests in this discussion — well, did the authors of Questioning Collapse do otherwise?

  3. Rhonda Roland Shearer says:

    @Don. You ask above: "Stinky argues that: ‘What Diamond doesn’t disclose to readers of the review, however, is that Questioning Collapse is not just a book about ‘collapse’….It’s a book about HIS bestselling book Collapse ‘ But is this true?" Yes, Don. It is true.

    The Questioning Collapse book presents the background for its content and origins starting on page 2 –see "How This Book Came To Be." It clearly states, for example, that Questioning Collapse features "issues swirling around" Diamond’s two books, Collapse and Guns, Germs & Steel.

    Furthermore, unlike the Nature book review by Diamond (who has an ax to grind), the Science book review of Questioning Collapse by Krista Lewis (who is independent in her views) summarizes what the book is about in her first paragraph. See Krista Lewis, "Did They Fail? Could They Choose?" Science, Jan 2010, Vol 327).

    Lewis writes: "Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire began as a conference session at the 2006 annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, where scholars came together to discuss the massive popular appeal of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse ( 1, 2). Their discussion expanded and developed into a volume that brings together archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, and historians to reanalyze and reinterpret Diamond’s case studies and conclusions."

    Diamond fails to state anywhere in his review the single most important conflict of interest– that the Questioning Collapse book is criticism of him and his work. Unless a reader knows the Questioning Collapse book, there is a great chance that they will be unaware of this important undisclosed conflict of interest. There is NO possible way that Diamond’s review would have ever been positive. This book "review" would have been fair if labeled Diamond’s "response" to a critique of his work or if some sort of clear disclosure would have been made.

  4. Don Williams says:

    1) It is generally understood that editors choose people working in the same field to review books — and that such reviewers often professionally compete with and partially disagree with the writers of the books. To some extent, that is their value.

    2) If "Questioning Collapse" was solely about Diamond’s Collapse, then it would have been

    titled "Refuting Diamond’s Collapse" and should have been organized as a page by page,

    citation by citation review of Diamond’s book: Where he got facts wrong, where Diamond got the facts RIGHT, where the reviewer AGREES with Diamond’s interpretation of the facts, where the reviewer disagrees and has an alternative explanation and why, etc. And where the disagreement is one of semantics and different viewpoints of what collapse is — and the underlying value structure on which that definition is based.

    My impression was that the writers of "Questioning Collapse" were primarily focused on enlightening the people re this general subject area– and if there is some ambiguity there, it is not Diamond’s. Given that Diamond had 1500 words to work with –vice 392 pages — I think he did right to focus his critique on the subject — and not waste words on an extended background piece on academic politics.

  5. Rhonda Roland Shearer says:

    @Don –you write: "It is generally understood that editors choose people working in the same field to review books — and that such reviewers often professionally compete with and partially disagree with the writers of the books. To some extent, that is their value." This is all true. It is still also true that when there is a conflict of interest that this is disclosed. 1500 words leaves plenty of room to inform readers that the book he is reviewing is based of criticism of his work. About ten words would have done it.

    Don, you also write "If ‘Questioning Collapse’ was solely about Diamond’s Collapse, then it would have been titled ‘Refuting Diamond’s Collapse.’ " Since the book is, in fact, a book solely featuring criticism of Jared Diamond’s works, you are wrong. Namely, the book did not need to be titled Questioning Jared Diamond’s Collapse— the authors may now think it may have been a good idea –but I have not asked them. However, this is a question (no pun intended) of which title is a better summary or description of the book –it’s a completely different question than what the book is, in fact, about.

    As to how the book should have been organized (you don’t say if you have even read or own the book?). Again, this was up to the multiple notable and distinguished professors and Cambridge U Press editors as to how they wanted to present their materials, evidence and discussion of Diamond’s errors. And again, the quality of the organization is a different question than what the book is in fact about.

    Don, you state, " My impression was that the writers of ‘Questioning Collapse’ were primarily focused on enlightening the people re this general subject area." But their book and the Science review state otherwise. The focus was a critique of Jared Diamond’s works.

    10 words–that’s it –is what Diamond needed to state for a disclosure–"The book I am reviewing features criticism of my books." Even you mention a belief that Questioning Collapse is a general book on societal collapse and not one that features criticism of Diamond’s works…which is simply untrue. Read the Science review. The author has no ax to grind.

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