Fat Steve's Blatherings

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Bias in Media, Conscious and Unconscious

      Update, April 14th: Wow!  An Instalanche!  Double wow, literally: my lifetime number of visitors more than doubled yesterday.  Thank you, Glenn.  At this rate, I'll be an Annoying Insect in TTLB Ecosystem.  Look around, visitors, then go out and threaten strangers on the street with nasty things if they don't read this blog.

      And by the way, in case you don't make it to the bottom of this post (you'd have to be as obsessive/compulsive as moi for that), I just wanted to remind you that the watchword at Fat Steve's is:


      Last Wednesday, April 6th, Instapundit posted an item about the Bellesiles affair, James Lindgren, the Chronicle of Higher Education's coverage of the affair, and Wonkette (I am not making that up), with an update from a former CHE employee disputing the story.  Reynolds also received a link from the CHE where you could see all their coverage and judge for yourself.  That's just the kind of geeky think I like to do, and besides, it put off finishing the yearly Ides of April ceremony of getting anally raped with a red hot poker.  I haven't finished all the CHE articles yet, but I have read the early ones.  So, what do the they show?

      The short version: The Chronicle was heavily biased in favor of Bellesiles, probably because they shared his pro-gun control political views.  They trusted him even after they knew Bellesiles was accused of misrepresenting and fabricating quotes.  Their coverage was biased in favor of Bellesiles, and against his critics at least until Bellesiles was reprimanded by Emory University (this is as far as I've finished so far).  Further, Lindgren's version is backed by the available evidence.

      The incredibly long, smash-a-gnat-with-a-pile-driver version [note: all emphasis in quotations appears in the original sources, unless otherwise noted]:

      Lindgren wrote this about the CHE's coverage of the Bellesiles dispute:
    On Wednesday, I presented at the University of Wisconsin on the scandal involving Michael Bellesiles' Arming America.

. . . As I told the group, Ana Marie Cox (Wonkette) was the reporter assigned by the Chronicle of Higher Education to do an in-depth story on Bellesiles in late August/early September 2001. In 2001, the Chronicle was vigorously defending Bellesiles and was willing to print as fact ridiculous stories that he told them. Much later a Chronicle reporter privately apologized to me, and said that they were taken in and had gotten the story all wrong.

    At the time, however, they were Bellesiles's strongest supporters in the press. Cox is very smart and well educated, so despite the Chronicle's strong editorial bias, I decided to try to get her to examine the evidence, not just guess at what was going on, as most historians were doing. . . .

    I sent Cox copies of probably over 100 records that Bellesiles cited . . . [and] Cox interviewed me several times for extended periods of time, as she almost certainly interviewed Bellesiles as well. I believe that Cox was beginning to understand the major problems with the book, though she never actually said that to me. Suddenly, Cox called me crying, saying she had been fired and taken off the story for the rest of her time there. Although she said that the`stated reason was that they were unhappy with a previous story, I suspect that she didn't actually believe this, nor would that have necessitated removing her from the Bellesiles story before she left the Chronicle. I strongly suspected that Cox was fired because she was getting too close to writing the truth about Bellesiles. . . .

    The Chronicle story also claimed falsely that I was unavailable for comment, even though I had spent perhaps 90 minutes being interviewed several times by Cox in the 2-3 weeks that the story was in development, and no other reporter had left any messages for me, a fact that the Chronicle reporter whose byline appeared on the story admitted to me (though the new reporter said she called).

      As noted, The Chronicle of Higher Education disputes this account.  A former employee of The Chronicle wrote Instapundit:
I'm astonished to see you retailing the nonsense about the Chronicle's coverage of the Bellesiles affair,
and The Chronicle sent Reynolds their link to a list of links to their coverage.  Let's take a look at what The Chronicle published.

      The Chronicle of Higher Education's first notice of Bellesiles and his book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, was an article by Bellesiles himself in the The Chronicle Review issue of September 29, 2000Arming America had just been published, and Bellesiles article was adapted from the introduction to his book.

      Bellesiles's article opens with standard anti-gun propaganda, saying the U.S. is uniquely violent for an industrial society.

      How did we get into this foul state?  Bellesiles says:
The gun is elemental to America and therefore thought to be intrinsic to America's history. But although historians have colluded in the myth that gun culture has been with the republic since its beginnings, the evidence doesn't bear that out. It wasn't until the era of the Civil War that the gun industry, with the government's encouragement, became robust. We need to correct the historical record. But more urgently, we need to confront the fact that there is more than one historical template on which we might model our current gun policies.

      So, now we see where this is going.  The book is a tract for our times, telling us we should have more gun control laws, and offering as a reason the proposition that the populace had very few arms before around 1860.  The rest of the article expands on this thesis.  It has some citations to works quoted, but no page numbers.  Why is the The Chronicle presenting such an article on such a controversial subject, by a rather controversial author, without any opposing view, or even any convenient way of checking his citations?  And what does the thesis of 'few guns before the Civil War' have to do, logically, with 'guns cause violence, and civilians shouldn't have them' anyway?  Fat Steve says the The Chronicle was biased, and printed the introduction because it supported their political prejudices.

      A subsequent issue of The Chronicle Review, dated October 27, 2000, had letters reacting to Bellesiles's article.  First up was Clayton Cramer, who says that in the early Republic:
. . . guns were common, and so was hunting. "How did Bellesiles get this so wrong?" I asked myself.

Having just read Arming America, I picked some of the more amazing claims and decided to look up Bellesiles's sources, to see how they could have so misled him. I was shocked by what I found.

      Cramer then illustrates the way Bellesiles has distorted his sources.  Cramer gave at least two examples (there are triple dots indicating the letter was edited).  Here's one of the examples the Chronicle published:
Bellesiles claims that in 1803, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn conducted "a careful census of firearms in America, with the intention of demonstrating that the American militia owned sufficient firearms." After reporting that there were 235,831 guns, Bellesiles claims that "[h]alf of all these guns were in the hands of the federal government, with about one-quarter in state arsenals. The remainder were privately owned" (p. 240).

But when you actually go to the sources that Bellesiles cites, they are a "Return of the Militia" (and an incomplete one, at that) that asked the state governors to report on "the military strength of each State, the actual situation of the arms, accoutrements, and ammunition of the several corps, with the same, and every other thing which may relate to their government, and the general advantage of good order and military discipline." Nothing in the letter or reports cited by Bellesiles claims that this is a census of all firearms in the United States. There is nothing that distinguishes between those "in the hands of the federal government" and those in state arsenals, and nothing that indicates how many of the arms were privately owned, or how many other arms there were. ...

      Cramer's letter as printed closes:
I have found numerous examples of Bellesiles's fabrication and misrepresentation of sources -- and I have spent only about 12 hours at it so far [emphasis added both times by me -- S. St.O.]. I no longer wonder why the many eyewitness accounts of the early Republic continually mention that guns were common and hunting was widespread, and yet Bellesiles came to these radically different conclusions -- he is either unable to read, or he is counting on no one actually checking his footnotes. . . .

      Bellesiles was allowed to reply to Cramer, and in doing so showed how the "debate" would go.  Bellesiles starts with some anti-Cramer ad hominem, and a claim about the solidity of his research.  Bellesiles wrote:
In the months before the appearance of Arming America, Mr. Cramer flooded the Web with condemnations of the book, many of which completely misrepresented my work
but doesn't tell you where Cramer posted anything or give any quotes.  Bellesiles sneers at Cramer for stating that he first fabricated his sources, then misrepresented the fabrications (as you see above, that's not what Cramer said), and replies to the charge that he distorted the Dearborn report thusly:
I did discuss the limitations of any statistical source from the antebellum period, including computational errors made at the time. I also wrote that Secretary of War Dearborn's 1803 count was "certainly incomplete," and that William Eustis's 1810 census was "probably the most thorough and exact" (p. 263). These gun censuses were undertaken on order of the president by constables and militia officers throughout the country. Dearborn made a number of personal inspections and conducted a lengthy correspondence on this matter. I cited Dearborn's totals, so that any scholar can examine them. I remain confident that any fair-minded and unbiased scholar who looks at the complete record will be satisfied that I reported the material accurately.

      Note that none of this except the last sentence addresses Cramer's main points -- that Bellesiles has misrepresented a source in two different ways (saying it was intended to be a census of all firearms, and saying it distinguished the guns in state and federal arsenals).  Bellesiles last sentence just comes down to a combination of 'Trust me!', and more ad hominem.  Bellesiles then has two more paragraphs along this line, full of self-congratulation, and a lecture for "non-historian" Cramer about how real historians do their work.  Bellesiles's attitude is: 'It's only appropriate to disagree with a historian's interpretation of a source.  One mustn't charge fabrication or misrepresentation.  Besides, he, Bellesiles, has been peer reviewed, and he's been praised by other historians who reviewed the book, so there, smartypants.'

      This shows CHE bias.  A serious charge has been made against Bellesiles, by a man who self-identifies as a member of the academic community (Cramer has a master's degree in history, and had already published several books).  Bellesiles's reply presents Cramer as a fanatic (no evidence), a non-academic (no evidence), and says a fair-minded critic will agree with his interpretation of sources (no evidence, and no way to tell who's a fair-minded critic before asking them to examine Bellesiles's work and see if they agree).  It apparently never once occurs to the CHE to point out to Bellesiles that he didn't really answer Cramer's criticisms, or that he didn't document any of his charges against Cramer.  It doesn't occur to them to check out Cramer's credentials, and it especially never occurs to them to pick up Arming America, read what Bellesiles says, read the original sources Cramer mentioned, and make an independent judgment.  Bellesiles will be taken on faith.

      The next notice of Arming America comes in the three articles in CHE's Today's News and their Research & Publishing, from the issues of May 10th, September 21st, and October 12th, 2001 respectively. 

      The May article opens:
Book on America's Gun Culture Has Its Author Watching His Back


A historian whose recent book challenges the notion that Americans have always loved their guns has had to arm himself with secrecy after receiving anonymous threats.

Michael A. Bellesiles has changed his home telephone number and adopted a "stealth" e-mail address to avoid vitriolic personal attacks by people angry about his book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).

      Ms. Ruark (an ironic name that, if you about the other Ruark) takes Bellesiles claims at face value again (this is a continuing them in the CHE articles), and quotes Bellesiles but not his critics (another continuing theme):
"I've become a wee bit paranoid," says the Emory University history professor, whom The Chronicle contacted through colleagues. In the months just before and after the September publication of his book, Mr. Bellesiles received five computer viruses intended to destroy his computer's hard drive, and numerous threatening e-mail messages and anonymous phone calls, both at home and at his hotel room when he was attending a conference.

After making his argument about guns in an article in The Journal of American History in 1996, "I received a written death threat and someone set fire to my office door," he says. "I thought that was an isolated wacko, but now there's so much stuff on the Internet, and e-mail lends itself to tirades."

      If Ruark saw any of these threats, or attempted to confirm that the door was set on fire, she doesn't mention it.  In another Bellesiles quote, we get:
Mr. Bellesiles says the most common complaint he receives is that Arming America contradicts his first book, Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier (University Press of Virginia, 1995), by never mentioning Allen's band of militiamen, the Green Mountain Boys.

In fact, the new book spends several pages on them. "People have a lot of anger," says Mr. Bellesiles. "I don't think it has anything to do with me or the book."

      Gee, I was under the impression that the most common complaint against Bellesiles was that he was lying and distorting sources.  Did Ruark not know that?  As a matter of fact, she did.  Ruark wrote:
A computer search turns up dozens of Web pages, most linked to sites dedicated to gun-owners' rights, asserting that Arming America is at best shoddy and at worst a deliberate distortion of history. The book argues that colonial and frontier Americans did not regularly own guns, and that the country's gun culture developed only during the Civil War and with government encouragement.

Not only Second Amendment enthusiasts but also historians disputing Mr. Bellesiles' use of probate records have challenged that argument, and not always politely.

      But there is no comment on the fact that Bellesiles's quote contradicts what Ruark herself found on the web.  No one at the CHE, it seems, was ready yet to even think about whether Bellesiles was honest.

      There were also quotes from defenders:
John Saillant, a historian at Western Michigan University and the moderator of an electronic discussion group sponsored by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, says he took the unprecedented step of contacting some people who posted messages to ask them to moderate their language.

"People were accusing him of bad faith in a way that's at odds with scholarly writing," says Mr. Saillant. "The Listserv format lends itself to a shoot-from-the-hip style."

On Saturday, the Council of the Omohundro Institute adopted a statement that the group "considers personal attacks upon or harassment of an author such as we have seen directed at Michael Bellesiles ... to be inappropriate and damaging to a tradition of free exchange of ideas and the advancement of our knowledge of the past." The group is inviting other historical organizations to endorse that statement.

      I guess you're not supposed to accuse a professor of fraud under any circumstances, even if the evidence seems to warrant it.

      The CHE's September 21st Research & Publishing article opens:

Historian's Book on Colonial-Era Gun Ownership Is Challenged


SHOOTING FROM THE HIP? A historian's heralded book arguing that gun ownership wasn't as pervasive in colonial America as previously assumed has come under new attack from critics, who say it is based on a flawed, possibly even distorted, interpretation of historical records [my emphasis -- St.O.].

Michael A. Bellesiles, a professor of history at Emory University, published Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Alfred A. Knopf) last fall to acclaim in many quarters. The book presented extensive documentation of gun ownership and population records in colonial America to combat the notion that Americans were natural gun owners.

      The HOT TYPE article summarizes the issue:

But documentation collected by James Lindgren, a Northwestern University law professor, and given by him to The Chronicle, outlined what he believes to be serious errors in Mr. Bellesiles's interpretation of historical records. The Boston Globe reported last week that there is a strong basis to Mr. Lindgren's claims . . .

Mr. Lindgren also charged that material on Mr. Bellesiles's Web site misrepresented the content of some Vermont probate records . . .

The Globe also reported that some of the documents that Mr. Bellesiles claims to have reviewed in San Francisco were actually destroyed by fire in 1906, according to county officials there. . . .

      First, note that Clayton Cramer isn't mentioned, though he'd taken point in critiquing Bellesiles's work.  Next, there are no quotes from Lindgren or the Globe, which would allow us to see what they said.

      But there are again quotes from Bellesiles, and one of his defenders:
. . . Mr. Bellesiles acknowledged some of the limitations of his work in a subsequent interview with The Chronicle.

"I used a traditional method of analysis where I looked at sample sets, and Lindgren argues that it would have been much more accurate and effective to use a wider statistical sample and perform regression analysis," he said.

. . . Mr. Bellesiles said that he learned of the problem [of allegedly misrepresented VT probate data] only after hearing from The Globe, and believes someone hacked into his Web site and altered the records he had posted. . . .

According to Saul Cornell, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, the debate over Mr. Bellesiles's use of statistics is more a disagreement over method than a question of accuracy.

"There's a very defined culture among quantitative historians," said Mr. Cornell. "They expect any statistical analysis to be conducted in a certain way, and while Lindgren is a quantitative historian, Bellesiles doesn't fall into that category -- he did his data analysis the old-fashioned way." . . .

[Bellesiles] says that none of the six peer reviews solicited by Knopf questioned his method.

"I think a lot of this attention on probate records works to direct attention away from the thesis of my book, which is that there wasn't universal gun ownership," said Mr. Bellesiles. "I certainly hope my book will get people thinking about the issues in a slightly different way, that it advances the argument that nothing is immutable and that culture changes over time -- that kind of conversation would be a lot more civil."

      The CHE allows Bellesiles to spin the story.  His assertions are, as always, accepted at face value.  Bellesiles's pathetic version of 'the dog ate my homework' is swallowed whole (heh, heh), the Chronicle doesn't ask for a copy of Bellesiles's records, and again, there is no attempt to check what he printed in the book against what his critics say.

      The next article on Bellesiles was another Research & Publishing on October 12:
Emory Asks Historian to Defend His Book on Guns in America


Reacting to accusations that Michael A. Bellesiles's book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture deliberately distorts the historical record, Emory University has asked the history professor to write a point-by-point defense. . . .

Arming America (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000) won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for history and was acclaimed for its innovative use of probate records to establish that gun ownership was not as widespread in colonial America as historians had thought. But some scholars as well as groups like the National Rifle Association charged Mr. Bellesiles with seriously misinterpreting historical records.

In September, The Boston Globe confirmed charges that an article by Mr. Bellesiles on his Web site defending his book misrepresented some 18th-century Vermont probate records and that another of his sources, a collection of San Francisco probate records, had been destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. The Globe article prompted Emory administrators to request Mr. Bellesiles's published defense, according to a university spokeswoman.

      The Chronicle printed two letters received as a result of Ms. Farrell's and Ms. Ruark's Bellesiles articles, of which one was of special interest.  Prof. Joyce Lee Malcolm wrote:
Since the serious errors that James Lindgren found in Michael A. Bellesiles's Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture are the focus of her piece, Ms. Farrell had a duty to permit Professor Lindgren the opportunity to explain these himself. Instead, readers have only Bellesiles's characterization of the problem, and his and Saul Cornell's contention that the fault is simply Bellesiles's reliance upon a "traditional method of analysis" and need for a "wider statistical sample." ...

When I was interviewed for this article by a colleague of Ms. Farrell's [my emphasis -- St.O.] and asked about both Lindgren's criticisms and my own, I pointed out Bellesiles's failure to provide basic information about his sample. . . .

      To this, The Chronicle replied:
The Chronicle made repeated attempts to interview James Lindgren and other scholars who agree with his criticisms, but they did not respond to our questions in time for publication.
-- The Editor

      Say what?  The Chronicle had been in touch with Lindgren before, as the Farrell story noted.  Lindgren gave them the documents he collected.  And Malcolm says someone from The Chronicle interviewed her.  Lindgren's statement, quoted above, says that Cox interviewed him, and that the 'Lindgren wasn't available' excuse is a lie on The Chronicle's part.  Prof. Malcolm's letter corroborates Lindgren's account.

      Besides, given that criticisms of Bellesiles had been circulating since 1996, given that The Chronicle had published letters in October 2000 criticizing Bellesiles research, if there was a deadline problem, why not wait a week or so and get a properly balanced story?  Again, I can only interpret this as pro-Bellesiles bias, and willful dishonesty on the part of The Chronicle.

      Two more articles on Bellesiles were printed in The Chronicle, both by Danny Postel.  The first Postel article was another Research & Publishing piece in the November 16th issue:
Scholar Issues Defense of His History of Guns in America


Michael A. Bellesiles, a professor of history at Emory University, has issued a response to critics of his controversial research on the history of gun ownership in America.

In "Disarming the Critics," written for the newsletter of the Organization of American Historians, Mr. Bellesiles answers several criticisms leveled against his widely discussed 2000 book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Alfred A. Knopf), in which he argued that gun ownership in early America was less widespread than is generally believed to have been the case.

Some of the empirical claims in Arming America, and the methodological approach used to arrive at them, have been called into question by other scholars and by journalists. In September, a Boston Globe investigation concluded that Mr. Bellesiles had misrepresented historical records related to gun ownership in Vermont and California.

In response to the specific criticisms in the newspaper, he concedes that some of his claims "may be errors."

"If so," he writes, "I stand corrected. But I certainly did not seek to mislead anyone with these mistakes.". . .

James Lindgren, a Northwestern University law professor and one of Mr. Bellesiles's most vocal critics, said in an e-mail message that in "Disarming the Critics," Mr. Bellesiles did not "refute any of the serious, carefully documented criticisms of the scholars who have been poring over the book." Mr. Bellesiles, said Mr. Lindgren, "has not yet been able to support a single one of the many portions of Arming America that have been challenged by academics, nor has he yet documented a single error in any of his academic critics' claims about his work."

      This is the first sort-of-unbiased piece The Chronicle did on the controversy.  The Chronicle still can't bring itself to say that Bellesiles has been charged with academic fraud, but at least this time there's a quote from a critic, and a summary of the Boston Globe story.  Note, though, that Bellesiles's defense is linked, but the Globe piece isn't linked or dated (The article was by David Mehegan, and it appeared September 11th, 2001: “New doubts about gun historian,” and the URL was http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/254/nation/
New_doubts_about_gun_historian+.shtml; I didn't feel like paying $2.95 to get it from the Globe archive).

      Postel's second Research & Publishing article appeared in the February 2002 issue of The Chronicle.  It's worth quoting at length:
Did the Shootouts Over 'Arming America' Divert Attention From the Real Issues?

Scholars heaped praise on a book, ignoring critics who have been vindicated on many points


Rarely has a new issue of The William and Mary Quarterly been as intensely anticipated as the journal's January issue, due out in February. It will feature a long-awaited forum debating Michael A. Bellesiles's Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, a book that has already been at the center of one of the most heated academic controversies in recent years. . . .

The acclaim for the book was so great, in fact, that it drowned out attacks, largely from gun-rights absolutists and amateur historians, who said the research was shoddy, even fraudulent. Tinged as they were with ideological invective and accompanied in some cases by bellicose personal attacks on Mr. Bellesiles, such voices were largely dismissed by scholars. . . .

But more recent criticisms have been harder for Mr. Bellesiles's fellow historians to ignore, and perhaps pose an even greater threat to him. Scholars and reporters alike have been raising serious questions about the documentary evidence in Arming America -- of county probate records in particular -- and the conclusions Mr. Bellesiles drew from them.

Lobbying hardest for this reversal of fortune has been James Lindgren, a law professor at Northwestern University and a quantitative scholar with a particular interest in probate records, which are, arguably, key building blocks for Mr. Bellesiles's thesis. . . .

Yet [Bellesiles] stresses that probate records were only one of multiple sources he relied on. He also used "militia records, legislative materials -- colonial, imperial, local, state, and federal -- police and court files, travel accounts, Ordinance Office records, U.S. Army materials, memoirs and diaries, newspapers and journals, personal letters and official correspondence, account books and production records, novels and short stories, woodcuts and paintings," by his account. . . .

While Mr. Bellesiles contends that his study does not depend on the probate evidence, his critics argue that without that material, the foundation of Arming America collapses.

The research for Arming America took a decade. In 1996, Mr. Bellesiles published an early report of his findings as an article in The Journal of American History. That article won the Binkley-Stephenson Award of the Organization of American Historians for the best scholarly article published in The Journal of American History in 1996. It instantly created a buzz, not only among historians but among right-to-bear-arms activists. Clayton Cramer, a pro-gun activist and writer, began following Mr. Bellesiles's research with extravagant care. . . .

[The book's] self-conscious contrariety surely contributed to the swoonfest: Conventional wisdom -- both popular belief and the historical literature -- presumed that Americans have always been heavily armed. But gun ownership, Mr. Bellesiles claims, was in fact exceptional from early colonial times until the Civil War. Most guns were in disrepair, and there were few gunsmiths to fix them.

Moreover, Mr. Bellesiles argues, Americans didn't care very much about the guns they did own; the pervasive "gun culture" that exists today, he says, was conspicuously absent in early America. That thesis flies in the face of the right-to-bear-arms vision of a heavily armed America in which guns have always occupied a pivotal, some would say sacred, place.

Right-to-bear-arms activists mounted an all-out campaign, not just against Arming America but against its author. . .

But even as some scholars stood behind their colleague, others began raising serious questions about his source material and methodology. By far the most industrious of those critics is Mr. Lindgren, the 49-year-old director of faculty research at Northwestern's law school. He has built the most comprehensive case to date against Arming America. An expert in probate records and quantitative methodology, Mr. Lindgren was well equipped to scrutinize those parts of Arming America that turn out to have been most vulnerable to attack. . . .

A heavy-set man with unwavering focus, Mr. Lindgren says he started looking at Mr. Bellesiles's research not to dismantle it, but out of his interest in probate records and statistical analysis. He contacted Mr. Bellesiles a few days before Arming America's publication to ask the author about some of his data, having "no idea" that they could be wrong. "It never occurred to me," he says.

But he started to become suspicious, he says, when, in the course of his correspondence with Mr. Bellesiles, the historian provided answers to Mr. Lindgren's questions that didn't check out. . . .

When Mr. Lindgren brought those discrepancies to Mr. Bellesiles's attention, the latter offered responses that, according to Mr. Lindgren, contradicted his previous statements and seemed highly implausible. . . .


The two scholars went head to head in January 2001 on a Chicago public-radio broadcast about Arming America. On that program, Mr. Lindgren argued that there are grave empirical flaws in the book and that Mr. Bellesiles had been less than consistent in his account of his research.

Mr. Lindgren then made his most damning allegation of all: that the Bellesiles case raised questions about academic ethics. . . .

Mr. Bellesiles was jarred. "I've spent 18 years learning the subtleties, complexities, and nuances of the archives. My work has been reviewed every step of the way by historians who know these archives," he said on the broadcast. Mr. Lindgren had questioned his "very integrity as a scholar and a person," he said. "I want to ask him: Does that seem fair and reasonable?"

Although Mr. Bellesiles now reflects that he "may be too thin-skinned" for such confrontations, he launched a salvo of his own. He challenged Mr. Lindgren's competence as a commentator on Arming America, stressing that Mr. Lindgren is an "attorney," not a historian, and is "thus adversarial in nature." Mr. Lindgren replied that while he may be a lawyer, he is also a scholar who has taught at several universities and heads the Association of American Law Schools' Section on Law and the Social Sciences.

In the year following the book's publication, Mr. Lindgren and other critics laid siege to Arming America. While Mr. Bellesiles's earliest opponents tended to be ideological and nonacademic, the second wave of critics consisted of academics with no apparent political agenda who pursued their criticisms of Mr. Bellesiles's work, by and large, in a scholarly fashion. They have been joined by reporters who conducted their own investigations.

Mr. Bellesiles has suggested that his critics are politically motivated. Mr. Lindgren says that most of the author's academic critics are anything but, and, like Mr. Lindgren himself, favor gun control. Their criticisms of the book, he says, are simply about the facts: Did Mr. Bellesiles get things right in Arming America, or did he get them wrong? . . .

Mr. Lindgren occupies an ambiguous, some might say curious, position with respect to the news media in all of this. He stresses that he doesn't want to be seen as hounding Mr. Bellesiles, and insists that reporters have come to him more than he has gone to them. . . .

Yet Mr. Lindgren's name is virtually ubiquitous in the news media's coverage of the story. And he has not played a passive role. Aside from distributing his Bellesiles brief to journalists, he talks to them -- a lot. . . .

And his lobbying extends beyond reporters. Mr. Lindgren has approached a number of scholars who have written favorably about Arming America and urged them to reconsider their positions -- in print. . . .

Mr. Bellesiles says he has "never heard of such a concerted effort to revise the scholarly response to a work of history." Other scholars agree that such a modus operandi is out of the ordinary in academe. . . .

The screw was turned tighter when Mr. Bellesiles finally did respond in an academic forum. . . .

Mr. Bellesiles published his defense in the November 2001 issue of the newsletter of the Organization of American Historians. In the article, "Disarming the Critics," he reiterated that some of his claims "may be errors." "If so," he wrote, "I stand corrected. But I certainly did not seek to mislead anyone with these mistakes." . . .

But to the consternation of many of his defenders, Mr. Bellesiles offered little detail in his statement and did not respond to many of the toughest criticisms that had been made about the book. And critics saw the essay as evasive, as an exercise in sophistry rather than serious intellectual engagement. . . .

Mr. Bellesiles has not fielded the second wave of criticism -- from his academic colleagues -- in as forthright, engaging, or prompt a fashion as many of his supporters wish he would have. To supporters and critics alike, his evasiveness has made him appear to be hiding something. . . .

And some acknowledge that Clayton Cramer, Mr. Bellesiles's most vocal early critic, may have been correct that some of the numbers in Arming America did not add up. But Mr. Cramer's bombastic, in-your-face rhetoric simply went beyond the pale of serious intellectual debate. . . .

Indeed, a little patience has been the response of most scholars to the Bellesiles controversy. For all of the stink raised by Mr. Lindgren and others, most scholars interviewed for this article say they are waiting to read the debate in The William and Mary Quarterly before making up their minds. . . .

While many scholars view the forum as a kind of final word on the matter, Mr. Roth says that in his response to his interlocutors, Mr. Bellesiles dodges important criticisms and leaves a number of key questions unanswered. Moreover, he says, Mr. Bellesiles refused to make his source data available for posting on The William and Mary Quarterly's Web site. In doing so, Mr. Bellesiles "makes it impossible for scholars to resolve the controversy." . . .

Arming America's editor at Knopf, Jane Garrett, likewise says that the publisher "stands behind" Mr. Bellesiles. "I realize that he made some errors," she says, "but they certainly were not made intentionally. They were the result of some over-quick research." Mr. Bellesiles has "satisfied" Knopf, she says, with "all that he has done to explain things" and by "getting his mistakes corrected."

Would Knopf do things differently if it could start all over with Arming America? "There's nothing we could do," she says. "We can't go and re-research the book -- and neither can the people who review manuscripts for us. So we simply have to trust the author. It's a difficult thing." . . .

If Arming America's early critics were ideologically motivated, could the same be said of the book's early enthusiasts? Mr. Lindgren says that the book was treated "not as a matter of evidence, but rather as one of narrative, taste, and politics." . . .

"We may ultimately learn more," [Lindgren] says, from considering why many scholars "suspended their critical judgment" than "from guessing precisely how and why Bellesiles published mistaken data." . . .

While some historians who praised Arming America say now that they didn't have time to check the footnotes, scholars have found time in the past -- when a controversial scholarly work challenged widely held views in academe. When The Bell Curve analyzed the academic performance of black students in a way that offended many professors, there was no shortage of scholars with the time to pick over its every detail.

      At the end of the story, there's a chronological summary of the controversy, and then there's a some more substance:
The Chronicle asked Mr. Lindgren to summarize his five main criticisms of Arming America and Mr. Bellesiles to reply to each one. Mr. Bellesiles declined to provide point-by-point responses;
  Shouldn't that have been in the main body of the piece?

      This last article shows some of the clearest evidence of the way assumptions bias media reporting, even when a reporter tries to be objective.  Postel takes Bellesiles's word for numerous things, without apparently asking for a single piece of confirming evidence.  Yet Postel has noted that Bellesiles's is accused of deliberate fraud.

      In contrast, Bellesiles's critics statements are constantly qualified as 'according to' Lindgren, or whomever.

      The assault on Clayton Cramer continues, again without bothering to quote him or link to him at any time, and without allowing him to defend himself.  The characterization of Cramer as saying that 'Bellesiles's numbers didn't add up' is flat wrong -- Cramer from the beginning was saying 'I checked this source, and it doesn't say what Bellesiles claims it does.'  Many of the sources Cramer checked were the non-probate records that Bellesiles claimed supported his conclusion.  I can only conclude that Postel never once bothered to check what the 'ideologically oriented' opponents of Bellesiles said -- and this despite Lindgren's trenchant observation that ideological bias cuts both ways.  In fact, Postel doesn't even seem to have checked out the CHE's own articles and letters on this case.

      James Lindgren also gets knocked about, although none of Postel's remarks bear on Lindgren's veracity or accuracy.  Bellesiles was presented quite favorably.

      After review these articles, I don't see any reasonable conclusion except that Lindgren was correct, and the CHE's defenders wrong.  The Chronicle of Higher Education was thoroughly biased in favor of "professional historian" and gun control supporter Bellesiles, disdained Clayton Cramer and other early critics because they were opposed to gun control and supposedly amateur historians, peddled the line that accusations of fraud shouldn't be made, regardless of evidence, and never did an adequate job of reporting the issues up till the time Emory University's official inquiry condemned Bellesiles.

      To sum up, the Chronicle of Higher Education's coverage of the Bellesiles affair, up until the Emory report, was pathetic and dishonest.



  • Very nice article on an important subject. I work in academia (IT manager, not scholar) so I see clear evidence of bias every day. Thanks for giving Clayton Cramer his due. He deserves credit for being first, and for not giving up in spite of the slanders of the "professional historians" (nota bene: Mr. Cramer does have a Masters Degree in History, so it isn't accurate to call him "amateur"). For my part I would have appreciated a bit more concerning the Bancroft prize and how it was rescinded (if for nothing more than to gloat a bit).
    R. Vance
    Santa Barbara, CA

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:14 AM  

  • Good to see that you've proven that the Chronicle reported the claims of both sides, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. It seems like that really bothers you. Guess you can't understand the difference between a newspaper and a magazine of opinion. You have to have your information served up in a way that is politically correct, right-wing style.

    What must be really annoying to you guys is that they didn't hide the fact that gun nuts will act the part by making threats, sending obscene messages, and so on. The guy may have lied about everything else, but nobody in his right mind would doubt that part.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:36 AM  

  • Today I hit you off Instapundit, messing up my usual routine. Good show! Too long a read for now. Back later when I am not supposed to be working.

    By Blogger Ralph, at 10:28 AM  

  • If you want to read some of my criticisms of Bellesiles's "scholarship," and examples of how the gatekeepers of the academic journals kept the problems underground, visit here and scroll down to the Bellesiles section.

    By Blogger Clayton, at 10:59 AM  

  • Evidently anonymous number 2 above either can't read or, more likely, is being obdurately ignorant. To the extent that the CHE "reported the claims of both sides" it certainly didn't do so in an even-handed way.

    This was never a case of he said/she said. One side leveled very specific charges and the other side avoided them and relied on ad hominem attacks, subterfuge, and sophistry. CHE went with the latter.

    End of story.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:24 AM  

  • Dear anonymous coward -

    The issue is not whether the CHE reported the claims of both sides, but how the CHE reported the claims of both sides. If you can't see that the CHE was clearly presenting Bellesiles' claims in a manner significnatly different than its presentation of the critics' claims, you should take a course in remedial reading comprehension.

    Fat Steve has presented proof that the CHE's handling of the Bellesiles fraud was biased in favor of Bellesiles, at least until Emory took action against Bellesiles.

    By Blogger Anthony, at 11:42 AM  

  • "And what does the thesis of 'few guns before the Civil War' have to do, logically, with 'guns cause violence, and civilians shouldn't have them' anyway"

    Nothing, really. The plot is more subtle and more pernicious. If it can be "demonstrated" that Americans of the founding generation thought guns (or, more accurately, weaponry in general) unimportant, then the Second Amendment can't really mean what it says - those dead white guys obviously had no intention of protecting a right which they didn't value. Therefore we sophisticated moderns are justified in trying to define it away. As I said - pernicious.

    But it backfired. Now "scholarship" is little more than a synonym for "sophistry." Lindgren himself should perhaps stop using the word - if one reads much of his material one notices that he rarely misses a chance to point out that he'd love to chat but he has some "scholarship" that he should be doing. Post-Bellisles, that's nothing to brag about.

    By Anonymous big dirigible, at 3:45 PM  

  • HHhhhhmmmm...guns were few in colonial America...I guess Mr. Bellesiles never read any of the accounts of the early rebellion in New England, wherein 20-30 (which # is approx 10% of the total he alludes to just 30 years later)THOUSAND colonials rallied to and then ultimately laid siege to the city of Boston. How about the repulse of the British invasion of northern New York (Burgoyne's campaign of 1777) wherein a like number of colonials spontaneously rose up and literally destroyed an army of British & Hessian regulars. Additionally, see the St. Leger campaign in western NY state in the same time frame...I'm a historian who specializes in medieval period, yet I can recall from my college days these simple examples. I guess I just made them up...

    Richard A. Vail, Ph.D.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:47 PM  

  • Stephen,
    Very neat summary of the controversy that led up to revoking The 'Bancroft Prize', and his dismissal from the faculty at Emory.
    You might wish to follow that up with an exploration of those last two 'happenings' (just to ice the cake).
    I subscribed to the CMH through that whole period and followed this absurd academic fraud right from the first CMH beginnings, where it smelled like old fish right away.
    I recall an academic, a go-to- guy in the CMH Rolodex, often quoted there as well as writing opinion pieces - by the name of (Michael?) Berube. He remarked that the CMH staff included lots of Marxists - which may explain some things here.
    Thanks for the collation work. G

    By Anonymous G (on your list), at 9:10 PM  

  • You mean that newspaper dared to tell both sides, but didn't automatically assume that a bunch of wingnuts had a strong case? That is really shocking.

    By the way, I'm glad the National Rifle Association is defending the right of people on the terrorist watch list to buy lots of guns. That sort of thing wins everyone's respect. You should have a slogan like "NRA and Al Qaeda--Working Together since 2001!"

    A. Swift

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:41 AM  

  • R. Vance:

          Thanks for the kind words.

          As for giving Clayton Cramer his due, I didn't praise him half so much as he deserves (read a bit further).

          If I ever find as convenient a source of links on the Bancroft prize as the ones CHE provided on its own coverage of l'affair Bellesiles, I'll write something. As it is, I still have to plow through the rest of the CHE colloquy!


    Anonymous at 7:36:

          No, I'm not at all bothered that "the Chronicle reported the claims of both sides, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions."  To the extent that they did, I thank them.  I'll thank them, here, for collecting their links to their coverage of the Arming America controversy, and sending its URL to Prof. Reynolds.  That showed some real class, though they still owe Clayton Cramer and James Lindgren apologies.

          What bothered me about the coverage was its incomplete, biased, occasionally dishonest, and frankly stupid nature.  For example: If Ruark, Farrell, or Postel had bothered to read their own magazine's letters concerning the charges and countercharges, they'd have known that Bellesiles was lying when he claimed that the only part of his book being challenged was the probate records.  Clayton Cramer, in his first letter to The Chronicle Review, mentioned that he'd looked at two of former Professor Bellesiles non-probate sources on the number of guns in the Early U.S., and found Bellesiles to be misrepresenting them.

          And yes, I do understand the difference "between a newspaper and a magazine of opinion."  The Nation, for example, is a magazine of opinion, and I am not in the least distressed that they supported the now-departed Bellesiles.  But The Chronicle of Higher Education presented themselves as engaged in objective, unbiased reporting.  What they delivered was shoddy, wrong, slanted toward Bellesiles, and sometimes dishonest.  It was the intellectual equivalent of holding a trial for perjury, putting the accused on the stand, asking him if he lied, and then acquitting him when said "No."

          If the Chronicle reporters had done their reporting properly, they'd have given examples of the critics' points in the first article, rather than the last.  They would have interviewed Clayton Cramer, rather than ignore him in the first four articles, and dismiss him in the last as as "a pro-gun activist and writer" whose "bombastic, in-your-face rhetoric simply went beyond the pale of serious intellectual debate."  (An example of Cramer's "abusive" rhetoric: "Michael A. Bellesiles's essay . . . [is] eloquent, thoughtful, terribly concerned about the very real problems of violence in modern America -- and wrong.")   Most importantly, the first time the interviewed Bellesiles they'd have asked him questions like 'Your probate findings say guns were only present in about 15% of New England estates, while several previous surveys have found them in perhaps 40%.  Why this discrepancy?'  Or, 'You claim that Tocqueville didn't find many people possessing guns during his travels in the U.S., but in two places in Democracy in America he clearly states that every farmer's cabin had a well cared for musket or rifle.  How did you make that error?'  An interview of that nature would have been a real contribution to getting at the truth.

          Finally, when you write "What must be really annoying to you guys is that they didn't hide the fact that gun nuts will act the part by making threats, sending obscene messages, and so on. The guy may have lied about everything else, but nobody in his right mind would doubt that part," well, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.  Given Bellesiles's chronic and pathetically inept lying, I don't trust anything he says.  If The Chronicle had presented proof that Bellesiles was receiving threats and obscene messages, and that they were sent by "gun nuts," I'd have been glad.  Such behavior is unconscionable, and deserves condemnation whenever it can be documented.

          By the way, thank you, sincerely and non-sarcastically, for leaving your comments.  Thank you also, sincerely, for presenting insults and unproven assertions instead of reasoned dialogue.  You have advanced the cause of gun rights and right-wing politics.  In my Amazon review of Arming America, I said of Bellesiles: The NRA should give the author a testimonial.  Handgun Control, Inc. should hire a hitman.  If you send me your snail mail address, I'll be glad to reply with a written letter of commendation for your services to conservatism.

          Best Wishes, and do come back again.



          Hi, buddy!  I like your blog.  Always nice to have you drop by.


    Clayton Cramer:

          Mr. Cramer, I'd like to say that I regard your painstaking scholarly research into ex - Prof. Bellesiles's fraud as a distinguished public service.  I am in awe of the dedication and energy you put into this (and having done a little archival research on my own, I am aware of just how much work it is!).  My deepest thanks, both as a USAmerican citizen whose rights you helped defend, and as a lover of truth.

          And thank you too for doing so much to give me the opportunity to type "ex-Prof. Bellesiles."

          I look forward to reading your book when you find a publisher.  But be warned, I'll probably bug you for an autographed copy. ;-D


    Anonymous, at 9:24 AM, & Anthony:

          Please do not engage in personal abuse of other commentators.

          That said, thank you both for your praise of my efforts.


    big dirigible:

          Yes, indeed, the plot is as you describe.  I might have pointed that out, but the damned monstrous piece was already far too long.


    Mr. Vail:
          As someone who's done a little amateur scholarship himself, it always amazes me how few people check the references or go back to original sources.  Even more amazing, when they do read the sources, they frequently can't bring themselves to state, clearly, what those sources say.

          In the CHE colloquy on Bellesiles and his fictions, history Professor Kevin Hardwick makes the excellent point "The issue that Mr. Bellesiles' scholarship has opened up for us--that up to now historians have treated guns as static and unchanging in American history and culture and that that is almost certainly an incorrect assumption to make about guns--will continue to be discussed and written about." (I do however, disagree with the word "scholarship" being applied to Bellesiles's lies.)  Disgraced ex-Professor Bellesiles had his hands on an excellent subject.  He could have written a book tracing patterns of gun ownership, and the attitudes and thoughts of English/U.S. Americans concerning firearms.  Instead, he decided to lie, and he's kept on lying, and it cost him his job and reputation.  What a putz!  He coulda been a contender.



          You left a comment!  I think the shock will kill me.

          And I still think, ya old pilot, that you should have your own blog.  Give it a try, it ain't that hard.

    A. Swift:

          "You mean that newspaper dared to tell both sides, but didn't automatically assume that a bunch of wingnuts had a strong case?"

          No, I didn't mean that at all, and I am abashed to have miscommunicated so badly.  Please point out the sections that led you to these misconceptions, so that I may improve the clarity of my writing in the future.

          What I did mean, and tried to say, was that The Chronicle of Higher Education automatically assumed that the "bunch of wingnuts" were wrong, instead of checking out their arguments.  Further, they automatically assumed that Prof. Bellesiles was telling the truth, even though he'd been accused of lying.  And finally, that the Chronicle lied about its own efforts to cover the story, slanted the coverage to support Bellesiles, and only made a semi-serious attempt to cover the charges in Danny Postel's article of February 1st, 2002, more than fifteen months after Clayton Cramer charged that Bellesiles had misrepresented and invented sources, and almost four months after Emory University required Bellesiles to defend himself.  Even then, they still insulted and misrepresented the Cramer, made dark insinuations about James Lindgren, and refused to do what the "wingnuts" had done: compare Bellesiles's book with the original sources

          I concluded that they were heavily biased against gun ownership, and thus fell for a transparent fraud perpetrated by an extraordinarily poor liar.

          Concerning the NRA and "the right of people on the terrorist watch list to buy lots of guns," this is the first I've heard anything of it.  May I suggest that when saying such things, you link to an original source, so that we may check the story out?  Thank you.


          And again, thanks to all of you for reading my blog and leaving your comments.  I appreciate the feedback.

          And don't forget:


    By Blogger Stephen M. St. Onge, at 11:35 PM  

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