February 07, 2005

LONGTIME READERS OF INSTAPUNDIT know that for a while I spent a lot of time on the Michael Bellesiles / Arming America fraud scandal. One of the things that burned me about that affair was that when professors of constitutional law started raising questions about Bellesiles' book, professional historians responded rather snootily that legal scholars didn't know anything about real scholarship, in real peer-reviewed journals. In light of that, this review by David Garrow in The Wilson Quarterly (of Peter Hoffer's Past Imperfect) sounds a cautionary note for historians:

In context, then, the most troubling questions concern not Bellesiles’s intentions or mental processes but the unquestioning credence other historians accorded his work. Hoffer, a history professor at the University of Georgia, states that it’s “almost impossible” for any journal or book editor to “double-check manuscript or archival reference notes” so as to confirm the content, or indeed the existence, of cited records. But anyone who has ever written for an academic law review knows that unpaid student editors at those journals painstakingly review photocopies of every footnoted source. A leading history journal supported by a major university could well do the same, even if a similar practice would be prohibitively expensive for most university presses and commercial publishing houses.

The same statistical presentation of supposed colonial-era probate records that proved to be the most fanciful part of Arming America appeared in Bellesiles’s earlier article, but no professional historians raised warning flags. When questions about his book finally mushroomed, Bellesiles magnified and compounded his misdeeds by concocting a succession of increasingly implausible excuses for why he could not produce supportive documentation. The many historians who had unquestioningly jumped to Bellesiles’s defense quietly slithered away as the conclusion that Bellesiles had “manipulated them and betrayed their trust” became inescapable. The Bancroft Prize was rescinded, and Knopf withdrew Arming America from publication.

"Painstakingly" is the word, as anyone who has written a law review article can probably attest.