Academic Fraud Watch, continued
October 27, 2002 2:16 PM   Subscribe

Academic Fraud Watch, continued...Emory University professor Michael Bellesiles has resigned in the wake of a report finding him guilty of unprofessional and misleading work. His book had previously come under fire (no pun intended) from gun advocates. (more inside, and the first link is from the NYT)
posted by Vidiot (35 comments total)
Ex-Prof. Bellesiles responds here.

What does this mean in the wake of other academic fraud scandals, such as those involving Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose, to name but a couple? Does the system work, as evidence that these were caught? Are these aberrations? Or is there more and more tolerance in publishing shoddy research?
posted by Vidiot at 2:18 PM on October 27, 2002

and possibly I shouldn't be terming this "fraud" in Bellesiles' case...he was found to be "unprofessional and misleading", but the report doesn't find that he was intentionally so. He did not invent sources, nor was he accused of plagiarism. However, it does sound like should have taken better care with his notes and with his methodology.
posted by Vidiot at 2:36 PM on October 27, 2002

He did not invent sources, nor was he accused of plagiarism.

The report may not outright say that he made things up as he went along, but a review by the Boston Globe, last year found that San Francisco records he cited in his book had been destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire there, and that records in Providence and Vermont contradicted his book and explanations on his website. When asked for the notes he used for research, he told his critics that he had lost all of his research notes in a flood.

I am not a professor, but it seems very straight forward to me...
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 2:50 PM on October 27, 2002

When someone says (or types) "no pun intended", or something to that effect, they want people to notice how clever they are in making the pun. Unless it was accidental, in that case, they want to look like they deliberately made the pun.
posted by colinl at 2:58 PM on October 27, 2002

The phrase "no pun intended" is similar to the word inflammable.
posted by Wood at 3:07 PM on October 27, 2002

sheesh! I wrote it as "under fire" and only noticed it in a punlike context on preview. (and wouldn't that be a great name for a band? A Punlike Context?) Wanted to put the disclaimer in there so people wouldn't think I was trying to be clever.
posted by Vidiot at 3:15 PM on October 27, 2002

To call Bellesiles's book "shoddy research" is a gross overstatement. In fact, the major "charges" against him (in the media) are either spurious or not that serious:

- The California probate records (labelled "San Francisco County") were stored across the Bay, in a different county archive. (He's got copies on his web site.) They weren't invented.
- There WAS a flood at Emory that did serious damage to his office. This is not an invention.
- OK, so maybe he screwed up -- or worse -- in recording numbers from some probate records. (He claims that new research supports his numbers..) But the complaints from other historians mostly have to do with arguable methodology, not with wrong numbers. And regardless, as Bellesiles fairly points out in his response, that undermines a couple of tables, out of a 600-page book with thousands of footnotes. Hardly grounds to write the whole thing off.

For that matter, with all the scrutiny on this book, ever wonder why nobody really talks about other problems? I doubt whether most academic histories (let alone journalistic non-fiction) would stand up so well. Could it be that his argument is actually pretty solid?

The whole debate has less to do with academic standards, or incompetence, than with bullying from the cold-dead-hands right. The Ambrose or Goodwin cases -- which involve small-scale, but undeniable, plagiarism -- are one thing. This is a lynching. The man is an honest, non-ideologue, gun-owning (!) academic who dared to challenge some American myths. Guess he done learned his lessson.
posted by amb99 at 3:48 PM on October 27, 2002

I am not a professor, but it seems very straight forward to me...

did you read his response though? It does sound like the contentions are pretty weak and he's doing all he can to make sure his research is accurate. And there was a flood.
posted by mdn at 4:14 PM on October 27, 2002

And there was a flood.

Like I said, I am not professor, but I guess if I was writing a book, I would have a copy of my notes else were...

And not having read his book or have gone through the research material, I can only ask then: If the charges are so weak, why resign?
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 4:21 PM on October 27, 2002

The History News Network summary:
The committee:
  • agreed with James Lindgren, who found that Bellesiles's table one lumped data in such a way that "it is almost impossible to tell" where he got his information.
  • agreed with Randolph Roth that that Bellesiles's numbers were "mathematically improbable or impossible."
  • agreed with Gloria Main, who had asked, "Did no editor or referees ever ask that he supply" the basic information needed to understand his tables?
  • criticized the Journal of American History for failing to edit Bellesiles's original report on guns, which was published in 1996.
  • found that "no one has been able to replicate Professor Bellesiles' results [of low percentage of guns] for the places or dates he lists."
  • found that he conflated wills and inventories, thereby leading to confusion.
  • found that he had a "casual method of recording data."
  • found that his story about the infamous San Francisco probate records he allegedly found in Contra Costa County "raise doubts about his veracity." The committee noted that some of the records he claimed to have read at the Contra Costa History Center in 1993 were not transferred there until 1998.
  • raised questions about his story about reading probate records supplied by an unnamed friend who supposedly worked at a Mormon branch library.
  • found that there is "a serious discrepancy" between the numbers used in his probate table number one and the sources he listed.
  • an assistant to the committee found it was impossible to corroborate the claim that gun ownership increased in the nineteenth century; some critical Massachusetts records Bellesiles claimed to have relied upon did not exist.
  • found that he apparently "skimmed the surface" of sources related to militias and guns.
  • found that "we do not see evidence of outright deception" in his use of materials related to militias, "but we do see abundant evidence of superficial and thesis-driven research."
posted by adamsc at 4:28 PM on October 27, 2002

that's a summary of the first report - not a summary of the whole case, including the response linked to by Vidiot above.

you could publish the two texts as a piece of fiction - they're fascinating. i've missed out on whatever press coverage there has been of this (not living in the usa), but from those two documents i don't think any strong conclusion is possible.

the first document (the "case for the prosecution") seems to vary in its tone. after reading the second document ("the defense") i suspect that the initial formality may indicate that the people on the committe were uncomfortable with calling judgement on such a narrow area. and the voice changes again in the appendices, which read very much as though they were written by a less than impartial undergrad on a summer job. stomach churning reading for anyone who's worked in research...
posted by andrew cooke at 4:40 PM on October 27, 2002

ps. i write "no pun intended" when i notice an accidental pun and think other people might find it funny. it's called "sharing a joke".

pps. is anthing in Steve_at_Linwood's life complicated? i wish the world i lived in always had such easy answers.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:44 PM on October 27, 2002

What's going on in the Emory history department? Bellesiles is a fraud and Pulitzer Prize winning Professor David Garrow physically assaulted a colleague. Don't worry, $210 million ought to buy two new professors.
posted by Frank Grimes at 5:04 PM on October 27, 2002

andrew: things are only as difficult as you make them.
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 5:12 PM on October 27, 2002

posted by goethean at 5:15 PM on October 27, 2002

The man is an honest, non-ideologue, gun-owning (!) academic who dared to challenge some American myths. Guess he done learned his lessson.

This sounds like John Weiner's defense in The Nation. And it won't do.

1) As the report demonstrates in minute detail, Bellesile's data is a) not where he says it is, b) not what he says it is, and c) when it is where and what he says it is, nevertheless badly misread--in his favor. In addition, Bellesiles confuses different types of records (thereby altering the results) and makes large-scale statistical errors. The committee "exonerated" him to the extent that they decided that at least some of the errors were either unintentional or the result of his decision to switch research topics (meaning that he didn't collect totally relevant data).

2) The external committee responsible for the report is most assuredly not composed of right-wingers. If anything, the report is incredibly restrained in tone--far more than so some of Bellesiles' opponents will think is warranted, I expect. James Lindgren, the point man most responsible for exposing Bellesiles' book, isn't a right-winger: he's a liberal in favor of gun control. I think if you look at the historians who had a go at him in the William and Mary Quarterly, you'll see that they weren't NRA-card-toting right-wingers either.

3) This is the third major case of historical, ah, "creativity" to come up in the past two decades or so. The first one is discussed in Peter Novick's That Noble Dream (I'd be more precise, but the book is in my office); the second is the David Irving libel case in England (I just bought this book by the chief expert witness, Richard J. Evans). The case Novick discusses largely involved screwed-up transcription, IIRC; the historian left the profession. The Irving case comes a bit closer to Bellesiles, since, as Evans demonstrated in exhaustive detail, Irving intentionally manipulated, massaged, and otherwise misquoted his sources in order to distort the results. Irving, like Bellesiles, was supported by some surprisingly high-profile types, like Sir John Keegan (who thought the whole thing was "political correctness" run amuck--oh, dear). Unlike Bellesiles, Irving is a so-called "independent scholar," although such scholars command considerably more respect in the UK than they do in the US.

These three instances are far more serious than the plagiarism counts against Ambrose and Goodwin. Plagiarism misrepresents the author, but it doesn't misrepresent the facts (unless, of course, the author has been so stupid as to plagiarize someone who doesn't know what s/he is talking about). But archival research has to be taken largely on faith: the reader trusts the historian. As must the peer reviewer, who doesn't have time to travel to the archives to check the original documents. (For an article in a humanities journal, the reviewer may have somewhere between six weeks to three months to respond.) For that reason, I think it's silly to whack the peer reviewers for not catching Bellesiles' archival acrobatics, although it's possible that someone who was extensively acquainted with the source material from other work could have smelled something fishy. OTOH, the reviewers most assuredly ought to have checked the statistics. That failure may derive from the unevenness of statistical training in graduate schools.

4) I'm not sure who will be able to "lead" historians out of this morass, to the extent that we can verify that there is a morass. Too much contemporary criticism of historiographical method is, quite frankly, awful:
  • Too many critics toss around the word "postmodernism" in a way that has deprived it of all meaning (OK, to the extent that it ever had a meaning...). As a result, one gets "postmodernism" lumped in with feminist history, gender history, or any other kind of history that the critic dislikes.
  • Too many critics focus on historical theory without actually discussing historical practice. Gertrude Himmelfarb, for example, keeps denouncing feminist history without ever actually referring to, well, feminist history (see, e.g., the article in Reconstructing History); instead, she operates as though the feminist theory of history equals the feminist practice of history. But, at least in my and her own field, it doesn't. The feminist history of nineteenth-century Britain is, in practice, almost entirely social history of the sort Himmelfarb herself used to write. Indeed, I'd wager that contemporary historical theory has been most influential in the field of historical fiction--it's almost certainly responsible for the growing interest in historical novels about the practice of writing history or biography itself (A. S. Byatt being the most famous practitioner). As the Americanist Cushing Strout pointed out several years ago, finding an actual postmodernist historian is really quite difficult. After all, as my father--an old-fashioned political historian--once remarked to me, postmodern history is basically impossible to write, and its greatest advocates are not historians but philosophers (or "philosophers"?) like Keith Jenkins.
  • Last, but not least, too many advocates for "better" history have already given up on it themselves, and/or write jeremiads that fail basic methodological tests. Keith Windschuttle's The Killing of History, for example, never asks whether any of the historians he convincingly demolishes ever get cited. But that would be an easy undertaking, given the Social Science Citation Index and the Humanities Citation Index. Why didn't he do it? Richard J. Evans has been the most evenhanded, I think, of the history-defenders, especially since he's one of the few who distinguishes between practice and theory.
5) Money is an issue, but not the way you'd think. Put simply: going to archives costs a lot of money. This means that many graduate students and junior scholars may have theoretical training in archival research, but not practical training. I'm a literary historian, which is a different sort of beast, but even so I have to spend at least $2000 per year traveling to various places, usually to see rare books but, as was the case this summer, sometimes to see original manuscripts.

6) Peer review is and is not overrated. If you're working in an abstruse field, you may well get stuck with a reviewer who is, well, adjacent to you, but not on the same page. This can lead to disasters, some of which can be comical (see the Alan Sokal hoax). I've had some terrific readers, by which I mean they understood what I was saying and did their best to improve it; I've also had some really bizarre readers, like the one who thought I had done too good a job with my book's argument (!).
posted by thomas j wise at 5:24 PM on October 27, 2002

I wonder how many academic works would hold up to the level of scrutiny that Arming America received. Bellesiles may have been sloppy is some of his research, but nobody would have noticed if gun control weren't such a volatile issue. It's a shame that some innocent mistakes had such a serious personal impact, and I hope that future academic research doesn't become stifled.
posted by JulianA at 7:25 PM on October 27, 2002

Here's a Feb. 2002 story from the Chronicle of Higher Ed., for anyone interested in further background to the development of this story.
posted by Zurishaddai at 7:31 PM on October 27, 2002

Not sure if this adds to the discussion, but when I was an undergrad at Emory I spent a summer at Emory's Oxford program in England and Bellesiles was one of the participating professors. Though I didn't have any classes with him, I was able to observe a bit of his character during field trips and meals and racketball games, etc etc. Suffice it to say that these allegations are in no way surprising---the guy is extremely smarmy and egotistical. He hit on several of the students, inviting girls up to his flat for drinks, and just seemed a pompous ass who would very easily falsify data to support his writing career. It's a shame, then, that his book's thesis is so damaging to the NRA and that its questionable credibility now serves their cause.

[Interestingly enough, I'm now a student at Emory Law School and also privy to David Garrow's suspension. Why is it that all the professors I brush shoulders with end up in career turmoil?]
posted by adrober at 8:59 PM on October 27, 2002

The Nation has a good overview of the controversy.
posted by JulianA at 11:20 PM on October 27, 2002

adrober inviting girls to your flat for drinks [brings you closer to being an] ass who would falsify data.

this is just great. it's the kind of moral judgement / reasoning only a true American could pass.
but seriously - sorry for hijacking - mind explaining your logic?!
posted by bokononito at 2:27 AM on October 28, 2002

From the chronicle article:

Despite the dark cloud hanging over him, Mr. Bellesiles (pronounced Bell-EEL) is upbeat and engaging. Over margaritas at a restaurant in Chicago, where he is spending the academic year as a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Newberry Library, he talks excitedly about his intellectual and personal path, his passion for the enterprise of history, and the joys of being a father.

A diminutive man of 48, Mr. Bellesiles has a dry wit that flashes in a belt buckle he sometimes wears; it proclaims, "GOD, GUNS & GUTS MADE AMERICA FREE." But weathering the storm over Arming America has taken much of the pleasure out of the subject for Mr. Bellesiles. "I've lost my sense of humor about it," he says. Arming America, only his second book, and the ensuing furor, he says have burned him out. They have also forced him to reconsider a number of things in his life.

He was, for example, a registered Republican for decades, but recently switched to being an independent. He describes himself as a "Burkean conservative," which is to say a believer in tradition and authority -- as opposed to an individualist or libertarian conservative, a camp he now identifies with Second Amendment "fundamentalists" of the sort who have been on the warpath against him. A longtime gun owner and skeet shooter, he is now mulling over "what it means to be a Christian and own guns."

Ok, so the guy is a self-professed Christian who is proud of being a father. If he really is trying to boink his students, then that may demonstrate an ethical lapse which may or may not creep into his scholarly life.
For what it's worth, however, I think the guy is getting railroaded, and many, many academics I run across are smarmy and egotistical. Comes from the small salaries and years wasted in school. If you admit the truth about your job, it hurts too much.
posted by mecran01 at 5:56 AM on October 28, 2002

He describes himself as a "Burkean conservative"...

In other words, his alignment is Lawful Evil.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 6:11 AM on October 28, 2002

Clayton Cramer has a lot of information on Bellesiles available on the web. As the HNN article mentions, the independent committee was restricted as to what they could investigate. There are many more allegations against Bellesile and Cramer's discussion about Bellesile's misuse of footnotes is worth reading.
posted by maurice at 7:29 AM on October 28, 2002

mecran01: Small salaries compared to what or whom? You're assuming that you know the guy's salary. Historians are generally among the academics with the lowest salaries. But he was teaching at university with some of the highest faculty salaries in the U.S. That still doesn't meant he made much, but you can't assume that.

"Smary" and "egotistical" are never words you hear to describe, say, a top sales person, CEO, rock star, major sports figure, actor or anyone else making much more dough.
posted by raysmj at 8:54 AM on October 28, 2002

Well, I knew I didn't articulate my point well... I guess what I'm getting at is that his vanity was the dominant part of his personality. And inviting young girls up to your flat when you're in your 40s/50s, despite morality issues, bespeaks (in my opinion) a need to reinforce an inflated image of yourself. Similarly, falsifying data does the same thing in the academic world---it uses morally questionable tactics to build yourself up. This is all conjecture, of course, but its why I don't find any of this surprising.
posted by adrober at 9:26 AM on October 28, 2002

raysmj: "Smarmy" and "egotistical" are never words you hear to describe, say, a top sales person, CEO, rock star, major sports figure, actor or anyone else making much more dough.

Really, raysmj? I'd describe lots of salespeople, rock stars, CEOs, actors, sports figures, and rich people in general as egotistical.

There are egomaniacs and humble people in all sorts of professions. (I'd conjecture that in higher-profile occupations, you'd probably have a greater proportion of egotistical people, since self-promotion is a larger part of attaining those occupations.)
posted by Vidiot at 9:55 AM on October 28, 2002

thomas j wise: Thanks for an extremely thoughtful and informative comment. If everyone took that much care... but nah, then it wouldn't be MetaFilter, would it?

adrober: Unfortunately, there's no correlation between personal morality and professional morality (or competence, for that matter). If you spend much time in academia, you'll quickly learn that.
posted by languagehat at 10:07 AM on October 28, 2002

Vidiot: It's called sarcasm. I didn't think it was so hard to spot there.
posted by raysmj at 10:08 AM on October 28, 2002

I think the percentage of egotistical academics is a little higher because they're compensating for a lack of status when they believe they deserve more. This isn't universally true, but more common than I'd like.

This whole fraud thing bums me out. It does sound like he was flakey with the probate records. The response has been way out of proportion to the offense, in my opinion. I doubt anyone will have the guts to write a followup to his book. I wonder if he loses his book contract now.

So, to those of you who aren't rabid ideologues, do you think the Bancroft prize was mis-awarded?

disclaimer: I am a lefty, liberal mormon who leans toward some form of intelligent gun control.

Actually, this whole thing is part of a vast mormon conspiracy, from the mysterious geneology worker who lent him microfilm to the presence on the report committee of lauren thatcher ulrich, lds historian. And a vast number of Utahns are deer hunters. Need I say more? (I am joking).
posted by mecran01 at 10:46 AM on October 28, 2002

do you think the Bancroft prize was mis-awarded?

In hindsight, yes. But that wasn't clear until people started digging into Bellesiles' footnotes and methodology. There's a sense of shared trust in the historical profession that Bellesiles violated. While the profession has ways of dealing with that sort of dishonesty, those processes take time.

You can read through the archives of the H-OIEAHC mailing list to see some of that process being played out.
posted by maurice at 11:19 AM on October 28, 2002

If everyone took that much care...

Enough care to at least get Jon Wiener's name right. Sheesh... *kicks self*
posted by thomas j wise at 11:28 AM on October 28, 2002

mecran01: It's not so much a money question as an influence question, though, and I doubt the money issue was that big here. Who'd go into academia expecting to make a lot of money? No one. It's a decent living for plenty of people, though. Who'd go into it expecting to influence society in however small a fashion, or to have their words taken seriously by the culture at large? Plenty of people.

Meantime, "smarmy" implies "slick" or "oily" and a bit too agreeable, which is hardly a word that most people would apply to even the biggest academic a-holes.
posted by raysmj at 12:03 PM on October 28, 2002

Actually, though, he was quite "slick" and "oily"---not to add to the confusion.
posted by adrober at 4:56 PM on October 28, 2002

Oh, there can be outliers!
posted by raysmj at 5:23 PM on October 28, 2002

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