Unethical Academics

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In
this country and the world we have a running battle over whether
or not private citizens ought to be permitted to own guns. And the
argument turns out to be very complicated. One can find statistics
to confirm many different positions and the definition of gun control
can be almost anything an imaginative thinker can dream up.

As
we should realize, illegal use of firearms has little to do with
legal possession of firearms. The Centre for Defence Studies in
London, showed that criminal use of handguns increased by 40% in
the two years immediately after their 1997 ban on handguns. It is
now believed there are over 300,000 firearms in Britain, which are
readily accessible to anyone with murder on their minds. When Anne
Pearston, a leader in the anti-gun campaign was presented with these
figures, she dismissed them with, "But this completely misses
the point of what we were trying to do. We never thought that there
would be any effect on illegal gun crime, because this is a totally
separate issue. What we were campaigning for was to make sure that
a civilian could not be legally trained to use a handgun."
It makes one wonder.

In
his Past
Imperfect
, Peter Charles Hoffer, Professor of History at
the University of Georgia, documents that Michael Bellesiles, tenured
professor at Emory, fabricated his anti-gun data to support his
arguments in his Arming America, a book that delighted and was favorably
reviewed by academia and the politically correct press. He also
documented the ongoing plagiarisms of Doris Kerns Goodwin and Stephen
Ambrose, and wound up with a discussion of Professor Joseph Ellis'
fabrication of a Viet Nam past for himself. Fuller is an interesting
historian, who pulls no punches, while being to my mind overly sympathetic
to the transgressors. His book deserves a good read, if only for
the history leading up to this era of cheating, but what is most
interesting is his discussion of Bellesiles and his patently fraudulent
work, whose lies have to have set back the cause of the gun control
crowd.

Michael
Bellesiles was a young tenured professor at Emory who had sponsored
the Institute on the Study of Violence in America and taken on the
National Rifle Association. He strongly felt that individual gun
ownership ought to be tightly controlled if not illegal. Here, Fuller
gives himself away with "If the target of the historian was
big enough and bad enough, and if the potential reward for bagging
that target was great enough, even the best trained and most honorable
of historians might be tempted to fudge research findings here and
there . . ." That may be true but an honest man wouldn't be
tempted. We are left with the implication that academics, who consider
themselves an elite, are, if not dishonest, easily led astray.

The
critical fuss was about his "documentation" of guns listed
in probate records of early America. If his numbers were right and
gun ownership rare, the second amendment could be read not as providing
individuals the right to own guns unless they were to be used for
military service. It turned out scholars were unable to verify his
numbers; they simply did not exist. The fuss ended with Bellesiles’
career in tatters, his resignation from Emory, his Bancroft Prize
withdrawn, and his contract with his publisher terminated.

Although
historians have cleared up this particularly flagrant case, the
general reader is left with doubts, suspecting academics bend the
truth when it suits them and their peers are too easy on them when
this happens.

January
18, 2005

George
Crispin [send him mail]
is a retired businessman who heads a Catholic homeschooling cooperative
in Auburn, Alabama.

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