February 15, 2010

A HISTORICAL OBSERVATION ON CLIMATEGATE: As this scandal runs on, it’s beginning to remind me of the Michael Bellesiles scandal. (Here’s a thorough dissection by Jim Lindgren in the Yale Law Journal — it’s a PDF; here’s a shorter summary from Wikipedia, and a thorough summary by Joyce Malcolm.)

Bellesiles, for those who don’t remember, was a historian at Emory who wrote a book making some, er, counterintuitive claims about guns in early America — in short, that they were much rarer than generally thought, and frequently owned and controlled by the government. Constitutional law scholars who expressed doubts about this were told to shut up by historians, who cited the importance of “peer review” as a guarantor of accuracy, and who wrapped themselves in claims of professional expertise.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Bellesiles had made it up. His work was based on probate records, and when people tried to find them, it turned out that many didn’t exist (one data set he claimed to have used turned out, on review, to have been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake). It also turned out that Bellesiles hadn’t even visited some of the archives he claimed to have researched. When challenged to produce his data, he was unable to do so, and offered unpersuasive stories regarding why.

Bellesiles eventually lost his job at Emory (and his Bancroft Prize) over the fraud, but not until his critics had been called political hacks, McCarthyites, and worse. But what’s amazing, especially in retrospect, is how slow his defenders — and the media — were to engage the critics, or to look at the flaws in the data. Instead, they wrapped themselves in claims of authority, and attacked the critics as anti-intellectual hacks interested only in politics. Are we seeing something similar with regard to ClimateGate? It sure looks that way to me.

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