Unethical Academics

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

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