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April 22, 2003

THE QUOTE THAT WON'T DIE: Back in August of 2001, Dave Kopel and I wrote
this column about a National Academy of Sciences study panel on guns that seemed rather biased to us. We noted that the study was funded by the anti-gun Joyce Foundation, the anti-gun Packard Foundation, and the Centers for Disease Control, noted for anti-gun junk science. We also noted that the panel appeared stacked, with no obvious pro-gun scholars, with anti-gun non-scholar Benjamin Civiletti and others. And we noted that one panel member, Steven Levitt, had been described to us by another scholar as "rabidly anti-gun."

Levitt emailed me to say that he wasn't anti-gun, and I posted that here the very same day. Levitt seemed happy with that, and I've never heard from him since. A few days later I noted a report by Sam MacDonald of Reason who attended the first meeting of the panel and who thought it seemed reasonably fair.

Over a year later, Brad De Long and Mark Kleiman noted the original piece but didn't notice that it was a year old. I posted on that here.

Now John Lott's new book apparently recycles the quote about Steven Levitt without mentioning my followup post. (I haven't actually read the book, but this has been the subject of considerable discussion on an email list that I belong to.). Lott shouldn't have done that, since he should have been familiar with the whole Levitt flap (he was reading InstaPundit at the time, I believe, since he emailed me a link to an oped he had on the same subject), and to mention the NRO article, but not Levitt's response, is rather disingenuous. Perennial Lott critic Tim Lambert has been spamming me trying to get me to say whether or not Lott is the source of the Levitt quote, but of course I can neither confirm nor deny that, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has ever played "Twenty Questions." Accidentally outing someone who asked for anonymity is, as Henry Copeland notes, a serious breach.

Kopel has already sent NRO -- over a week ago -- an update to the original piece making clear that he has great admiration for Levitt's non-gun scholarship, something that repeats an email that he sent Levitt at the time, and responding to the rest. I don't know why it's taking so long, but NRO still hasn't made the update, so I'm going ahead and posting this now.

Personally, I think it's entirely proper to look into the makeup of important policy panels of this sort, and I still think that -- entirely aside from Levitt, who was hardly the subject of the article to begin with -- there is reason for concern where this panel is involved. The equivalent would be a panel on, say, purported links between abortion and breast cancer, funded by the Catholic Church, the National Right to Life Committee, and a government agency that had been consistently and openly anti-abortion, with a membership that seemed unbalanced and about which some people were voicing suspicions. Wouldn't that be relevant? I certainly think so. Kopel talked to the panel head, who admitted that such concerns were reasonable, but promised a fair study. I certainly hope so.

UPDATE: Kopel has more over at The Corner.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Dr. Brendan Dooher, a reader and engineer, emails:

I worked with the study director at the National Academy of Sciences (he is actually in the National Academy of Engineering) when I was a Fellow there last year. I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the study is heavily biased. I made myself persona non grata there over my year because of my conservative (but always scientifically based) views. The committee's first meeting had multiple speakers from Hand Gun [Control] Inc and other anti-gun types giving testimony - but no one to speak of the positives. I asked him if he would have Professor John Lott speak and the reply was a sneer. [Unrelated remark removed later at Dooher's request.]

Interesting. I don't know Dooher, but I checked him on Google and found this, which would seem to establish his bona fides.

We shouldn't let the Levitt side-issue distract us from the real question, which is whether the study is an honest one.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Now Dr. Dooher sends this email:

It has been pointed out, correctly, that an NRA spokesman and Dr. Lott did
indeed speak to the committee. I cannot apologize enough (and am somewhat
embarrassed) for not checking the web site. I am often the first one to
tell my friends to look at snopes.com to make sure that what is being
stated on the web is accurate. I should have done so with my own
memory. My comments to the responsible staff member were upon seeing the
first (and draft) meeting agenda. At the time, there were none from the
NRA. I asked at the time why there were no speakers from the NRA and also
asked why Dr. Lott was not invited (initial meetings at the NAS often set
the tone for the later meetings and the final product). His response was
non-committal. I didn't follow up on it, as I had my own program on energy
systems to work on. I still believe that the study had a bias at its
creation. I apologize for misleading anyone, and for perhaps placing Dr.
Reynolds in a bad light.

Well, there you have it. Perhaps Dooher's comments actually changed things, which would suggest a degree of open-mindedness that I, for one, would welcome.

At least blogs make updating this stuff easy, which -- with this story in particular -- seems to be an especially useful thing.