At first glance, Steven Newcomb’s alarmist headline, “Dehumanization and a Deadly Medical Experiment on the Yanomami People,” grabs you and functions as the “click bait” it’s meant to be. Other than that, there’s nothing substantial in Newcomb’s review of the book, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (2000) — by author Patrick Tierney, whose claims have been called into question, especially given that there is no actual evidence for them.
From Newcomb’s review:
A February 28 article by “Newpower” that was published by the Guardian in the United Kingdom reports that in the mid-1960s thousands “of South American Indians were infected with measles, killing hundreds.” Why? So that “U.S. scientists could study the effects on primitive societies of natural selection, according to a book out next month.” The phrase “primitive societies” is part of the tradition of dehumanization against original nations and peoples that made its way into the story.
Darkness in El Dorado, the book about this sordid story, is now scheduled for release this coming October. Authored by investigative reporter Patrick Tierny, it has taken him 10 years to complete. The study was apparently funded by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and conducted by a team of “scientists” headed by James Neel, who is now deceased. As the Newpower story reports: “The book accuses James Neel, the geneticist who headed a long-term project to study the Yanomami people.” Neel and his team, many of whom are apparently still living, used “a virulent measles vaccine to spark off an epidemic which killed hundreds and probably thousands.”
The problem is that the Tierney’s claims are nothing more than hunches without any merit, something that Newcomb could have easily cross referenced by doing a simple Google search. The following is from the book’s Wikipedia page:
A detailed investigation of Tierney’s charges by a panel set up by the University of Michigan found the most serious charges to have no foundation and others to have been exaggerated. The Provost’s office of the University of Michigan in November 2000 refuted almost all of Tierney’s claims. Sponsel and Turner, the two scientists who originally touted the book’s claims, admitted that their charge against Neel “remains an inference in the present state of our knowledge: there is no ‘smoking gun’ in the form of a written text or recorded speech by Neel.”
Alice Dreger, an historian of medicine and science, and an outsider to the debate, concluded after a year of research that Tierney’s claims were false. She wrote that the AAA was complicit and irresponsible in helping spread these falsehoods and not protecting “scholars from baseless and sensationalistic charges.
Of course, any skeptical view that counters the anti-science narrative pushed by conspiracists and pseudo-historians will always be found lacking and dismissed–the facts be damned! The least Newcomb could have done is –in one line– mention the controversy; not doing so calls into question the honesty and motivations of the author. Ignorance is no excuse, especially in the ‘interweb’ age. The ICTMN is notorious for this kind of un-vetted and shoddy “reporting,” and I’m done with it.