October 18, 2002

BELLESILES UPDATE: An article by Jon Weiner in The Nation portrays Michael Bellesiles as the victim of a gun-lobby witch hunt, concluding:

But the campaign against Bellesiles has demonstrated one indisputable fact: Historians whose work challenges powerful political interests like the NRA better make sure all their footnotes are correct before they go to press.

Unfortunately, the article also serves to illustrate that those who challenge politically powerful anti-gun interests will get slimed even if their footnotes are correct. The article is quite nasty to NWU legal historian James Lindgren, though it doesn’t seem to identify a single inaccuracy in his Yale Law Journal article on the problems with Bellesiles’ Arming America.

This is itself a problem, as I’ve written elsewhere:

When fraud is discovered, it is usually by another researcher whose skepticism is aroused. Yet uncovering fraud usually isn’t considered as valuable to an academic career as original research is; worse yet, some scholars who expose their colleagues as frauds face resentment from those who dislike seeing their field’s dirty laundry aired. But the absence of consequences for fraud can only make the problem worse. If we want to discourage fraud, we need to ensure that the people who discover it are recognized for their contributions – which, after all, spare other members of the field years or even decades of wasted effort based on fraudulent work – and properly rewarded. And, of course, we need to ensure that those who commit fraud are properly punished.

Those who complain that academics don’t do enough about fraud in their midst need to recognize that attack pieces like this one are one reason why that is so.

Some of the statements about Lindgren in this piece ring false to me. I’m going to see if I can get an email from him. If so, I’ll post what he sends. In the meantime, I invite readers to follow the link to the Yale Law Journal piece and to compare it with The Nation’s article and decide for themselves.

Meanwhile, there’s no word yet on what Emory plans to do about Bellesiles.

UPDATE: Lindgren sends the following via email:

As anyone familiar with the Bellesiles matter can plainly see, the Nation article has a large number of errors. Since the Nation was unable to find any factual errors in my scholarship, it instead attempted some rather crude ad hominems. Among them, it says that I urged people to retract their reviews of Arming America. If I had done so, that would indeed have been unusual, though not improper. But what I did was urge two authors to correct or retract one statement in their reviews merely by an online post to H-Net lists, which eventually they both did, because the particular statements were indeed factually wrong. I never said the words that one of those authors, Matthew Warshauer, attributes to me in the Nation article.

Referring to me, the Nation also says, “He accuses Bellesiles of bias . . . .” I have never accused Professor Bellesiles of bias (nor of prejudice). To the contrary, I have repeatedly argued that such claims of bias are incoherent in this matter.

In addition, Clayton Cramer has blogged some comments. (Eugene Volokh calls it “a very good response to The Nation’s rather weak defense of Bellesiles.”) I should note, too, that the Nation piece fails to mention that the big explosion in publicity over Bellesiles’ work came after the Boston Globe — hardly an NRA mouthpiece — published an investigative piece on Bellesiles’ work. And how come it links to Bellesiles’ website, but not to the Lindgren article — freely available on the Web in several places — or to any of the other criticisms on Bellesiles?

As Volokh says, rather weak. Even for The Nation. As that other NRA mouthpiece, The New York Times noted:

Without doubt, Mr. Bellesiles’s research would not have received such careful scrutiny if he had not stepped into the politically and ideologically charged struggle over guns. Yet the scholars who have documented serious errors in Mr. Bellesiles’s book — many of them gun-control advocates — do not appear to have any sort of political agenda.

They were struck by his claim to have studied more than 11,000 probate records in 40 counties around the country. He found that between 1765 and 1790, only 14 percent of estate inventories listed guns, and “over half (53 percent) of these guns were listed as broken or otherwise defective.” Those claims are featured prominently in the book and were cited in many positive reviews as the core of its argument.

But those who tried to examine the research soon found that they could not, because most of Mr. Bellesiles’s records, he said, had been destroyed in a flood. The records they could check showed an astonishing number of serious errors, almost all of them seemingly intended to support his thesis. In some cases his numbers were off by a factor of two, three or more, said Randolph Roth, a history professor at Ohio State University.

To use one example: in his book, Mr. Bellesiles writes that of 186 probate inventories from Providence, R.I., recorded between 1680 and 1730, “all for property-owning adult males,” only 90 mention some form of gun, and more than half the guns were “evaluated as old and of poor quality.”

At least three scholars have independently examined the same archive and found that 17 of the estates in question were owned by women; that some estates lacked inventories, and that of those that had them, a much higher percentage than Mr. Bellesiles reported contained guns; and that only 9 percent of the guns were evaluated as old and of poor quality.

“The number and scope of the errors in Bellesiles’s work are extraordinary,” Mr. Roth said. They go well beyond the probate record data, he added, affecting Mr. Bellesiles’s interpretation of militia returns, literary documents and many other sources. . . .

Those who have pressed him hardest for details say they have been led on a bizarre scholarly car chase, with Mr. Bellesiles offering new memories about where he got his records as soon as the old ones were discredited. (Emphasis added).

What, the folks at The Nation don’t read The New York Times?

UPDATE: Arthur Silber has a long post on Jon Wiener’s article, which segues into a lengthy discussion of bias on both left and right. But here’s an on-topic excerpt:

I hope you will read both Wiener’s Nation article and the Lindgren Yale Law Journal piece — and I think the difference in tone and approach will strike you as forcefully as it did me. (I also point out that the Lindgren piece contains an Appendix which discusses over 200 documents which Bellesiles misread or misinterpreted in basic ways in the first edition of his book.) But with regard to the Nation article, I will note two aspects of it: first, approximately the first third of the article is devoted to a personal reminiscence concerning a lecture by Bellesiles that Wiener attended — and he takes every opportunity to describe the pro-gun individuals who also attended (and who challenged Bellesiles’ findings) as “unusually large men” — in other words, and in Wiener’s view, pro-gun, NRA-type thugs. And this is apparently seriously offered as some sort of legitimate argument which, by implication and for “right-thinking” kinds of people, ought to make us question the legitimacy of a scholar such as Lindgren. Second, the entire article is remarkably, and inappropriately, “personal” in tone. It is, as Reynolds also notes, quite nasty to Lindgren — although, very significantly, Wiener does not offer even one substantive argument challenging even one of Lindgren’s conclusions.

Indeed. And he’s right that you should read the two pieces and compare their tone.

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