Disarming History

How an award-winning scholar twisted the truth about America's gun culture -- and almost got away with it.

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The panelists found evaluating the table in which Bellesiles charted his probate findings "an exercise in frustration because it is almost impossible to tell where Bellesiles got his information." They reported that "we had the same question as Gloria Main [in her William and Mary Quarterly article]: 'Did no editors or referees ever ask that he supply this basic information?'" They found "egregious misrepresentation" in the construction of that table and evidence of "falsification" in, among other flaws, Bellesiles' silent omission of the years 1774-76 "precisely because they failed to show low numbers of guns." Applying Emory University's guidelines, the committee concluded there were "other serious deviations 'from accepted practices in carrying out or reporting results from research.'"

The committee members deemed Bellesiles' work with militia records "superficial and thesis-driven." They agreed with Ira Gruber, another of the scholars in the William and Mary Quarterly symposium, that Bellesiles' "efforts to minimize the importance of guns, militia, and war in early America...founder on a consistently biased reading of sources and on careless uses of evidence and context." Finally, they concluded that his professional scholarship "falls short" on every count and that "his scholarly integrity is seriously in question."

But there were two problems with the committee's charge that Bellesiles has been quick to capitalize on. First, it was to investigate only the use of probate and militia records, despite evidence that he misused many other sources. Second, the Emory standard that "intentional fabrication or falsification of research data" be found, a standard devised with the sciences in mind, was unrealistic, since much that was intentional could be written off as extreme bias or sloppy method.

Hence, although the three scholars could not find that Bellesiles' use of Vermont and Providence probates constituted "intentional fabrication or falsification," they were "seriously troubled by his scholarly conduct" and "sloppy scholarship," which "does not prove a deliberate attempt to mislead, however misleading the result." Even in the case of the nonexistent San Francisco data, they could not "prove" he "simply invented his California research, but neither do we have confidence that the Contra Costa inventories resolve the problem." Only in the case of the key probate table did they conclude there was deliberate falsification.

Trust, but Verify

Bellesiles resigned from his position at Emory after the report was issued, saying he could not "continue to teach in what I feel is a hostile environment," but he nonetheless has tried to minimize the significance of the committee's conclusions. "Obviously," Bellesiles told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, "they were very angry at me." As for his mathematically impossible statistics, he shrugged, "I've never been good at math." In any event, he informed the Tribune, he wrote a book with 1,347 footnotes, and the panel found problems with only five of them.

Yet it clearly is not true that the essence of the book remains "unchallenged," as Bellesiles claimed in his response to the committee. Virtually every aspect of it -- including his conclusions about English weapon use, hunting, axes vs. guns, homicide rates, and the inefficiency of firearms -- has been shown to rely on faulty, at times nonexistent, evidence and biased research. This is a matter of fact, not interpretation, as Bellesiles would have it. Scholars should waste no more time on this discredited volume.

Checking footnotes is tedious, and everyone makes some mistakes in the course of a long, detailed work. But experts in a field, asked to review a manuscript, can ferret out those few monographs where the errors are wholesale and the facts misrepresented. The Bellesiles case underlines how essential it is that historians take their critical role seriously and always place it before their political inclinations. Our professional integrity demands it.

Indeed, Bellesiles' rise and fall demonstrate how damaging to any cause a dishonest work of scholarship can ultimately be. Haverford College historian Roger Lane, a gun control supporter who gave Arming America a laudatory review, now writes of Bellesiles: "I'm mad at the guy. He suckered me. It's entirely clear to me that he's made up a lot of these records. He's betrayed us. He's betrayed the cause."

University presses and other academic publishers routinely put scholarly works through a rigorous peer review. But that is not necessarily true of commercial publishers. They must be more scrupulous before foisting on the public a clever piece of fiction disguised as a work of history. And when a book proves to have been unscholarly, or plagiarized, it should be withdrawn. Knopf, to its credit, in January decided to stop selling Arming America. But Simon and Schuster still publishes Ambrose's plagiarized works.

The news media also play a key role. The New York Times and many other news outlets heralded Arming America, while their bias in favor of gun control has led them to ignore scholarly books uncongenial to the cause. In this instance most of the press ignored, or dismissed as politically motivated, growing skepticism about Bellesiles' evidence. The slowness of scholarly journals to review books makes the general press all the more essential if the public is to be alerted that something is amiss. Four reporters deserve special thanks for bringing out the facts: Kimberley Strassel of The Wall Street Journal, Melissa Seckora of National Review, David Mehegan of The Boston Globe, and David Skinner of The Weekly Standard. Thanks are also due Stacy McCain of The Washington Times and Robert Worth of The New York Times.

Those who wonder how Bellesiles thought he could get away with this forget that he nearly did. The book won a major prize. Court opinions began citing his findings. He told a reporter his only regret was that he delayed fighting back, that "for too long I thought this was only a tempest in a footnote."

All those scholars and reporters from across the political spectrum whose exhaustive investigative work exposed Arming America for the high-stakes fraud that it was deserve the gratitude of the historical profession and the American people. Scholarship relies on trust, and sometimes that trust is misplaced.

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