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

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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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