Fifty years ago, on the spurious grounds that extreme sacrifices were required in the battle to prevent a Communist takeover of the world, the US government decided to use the citizens of Nevada as nuclear guinea pigs. Atomic testing continued there until 1955, but since notification would have alarmed people, they weren’t even advised to go indoors. According to declassified documents, however, some scientists studying the genetic effects of radiation were already concerned about the health risks of fallout.
For most of those committed to the US nuclear program, the need to keep such research secret was a no-brainer. If the public realized that the technology used to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki had led to experiments at home, future nuclear research – not to mention weapons deployment – might have met strong opposition.
The government badly wanted its nukes, and scientists yearned to unlock the secrets of human mutation. Thus, an unholy alliance was struck.
But US citizens, and the thousands of soldiers who took dangerous doses of radiation as part of various studies, weren’t the only victims of science run amuck. In South America, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) spent millions comparing atomic bomb survivors with an "uncontaminated" control group, the Yanomami, who live in the remote Amazon regions of Brazil and Venezuela. Without informed consent or government approval, thousands of blood samples were taken from the Indians, and extensive studies were conducted to provide crucial genealogical information on each tribe member.
That AEC research did nothing to help the Yanomami was bad enough. That it led directly to much needless suffering is a prime example of cultural imperialism at its worst. As Patrick Tierney explains in Darkness in El Dorado, his harrowing account of scientific and journalistic exploitation, the AEC study was but one step in a decades-long process that brought illness, death, and degradation to the Amazon.
To study iodine metabolism, ambitious researchers administered radioactive iodine to Yanomami tribes for 10 years. To prove questionable theories about aggression, anthropologists invaded countless communities, neglecting the sick and malnourished, while imposing their own agendas and setting inter-tribal conflicts into motion. Film crews and journalists soon jumped on the bandwagon, bribing tribes to stage fights and feasts for the cameras. The Yanomami became the most famous "primitive" people in the world, but with the attention came modern weapons and imported disease.
It’s comfortable for scientists and journalists to believe that they’re neutral witnesses who don’t affect the objects of their observation. But this is at best convenient self-deception, and at worst a callous lie. In the Amazon, a prime example is Napoleon Chagnon, the acclaimed anthropologist who made the Yanomami – and himself – famous through a series of expeditions, books, and films. He labeled them "the Fierce People." But in reality, the tribal warfare he chronicled was mainly sparked by his own invasive actions. Beginning in 1964, he brought shotguns, canoes filled with axes, and, later, helicopters packed with scientific tools, trade goods, and visitors. Playing villages and their leaders off against each other, he ultimately created the conditions he hoped to observe.
"Within three months of Chagnon’s sole arrival on the scene, three different wars had broken out," Tierney writes, "all between groups who had been at peace for some time and all of whom wanted a claim on Chagnon’s steel goods." Far from being neutral, Chagnon became a central – and much hated and feared – figure in Indian battles over trade goods and machetes. Yet, he was also part of a team. Along with other scientists, filmmakers, writers, and mining entrepreneurs, he stole Yanomami history, extracted countless vials of their blood, corrupted their culture, and manipulated them to prove pet theories.
A terrible tale to be sure, but not really unique. Every day, news crews and researchers descend on individuals and communities throughout the world, conducting themselves in similar ways. They arrive with embedded assumptions, carelessly conduct their "research," and usually find precisely what they’re looking for – whether or not it’s true. On TV, we see the products of this "field work," otherwise known as the news.
These days, we also witness the manipulation of perceptions weekly in experiments called "reality shows." Most of these programs are based on the assumption that competition and distrust are the fundamental truths of our time. But the contestants aren’t the only subjects of this research. In a sense, so are the viewers, closely watched to see if they accept the premise.
Finally, there’s the largest experiment of the moment, known as corporate globalization. Described by many experts as an indisputable fact of post-modern life, it’s actually another deadly project, a follow-up to the industrial revolution. And we know how well that one has gone for the planet. But like the victims in Nevada and the Amazon, we haven’t been told the real costs or objectives. The truth, after all, might lead to resistance.
As most scientists now agree, there’s no way to observe any event or phenomenon without somehow affecting it. Given that, the least a journalist or scientist should do is act responsibly – acknowledging bias, acting with compassion, and providing enough information to let us lab rats make our own, fully informed choices. Is that too much to ask?