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Shotgun News, April 1, 2005, pp. 22-23
Integrity & Real History
Integrity matters. If you lie about little things, and get caught, it is astonishing how quickly others start questioning the important work that you do. The work of Dr. John R. Lott, Jr., the economist who wrote More Guns, Less Crime generated a firestorm of negative response from antigun critics, but because other economists were able to replicate his work on the effects of concealed weapons on crime rates, most of the grousing had no effect on his reputation.
Then Dr. Lott was caught--and admitted--that he had used the online name "Mary Rosh," while claiming to be a former student, singing his praises as a professor. Dr. Lott's wife and son also wrote at least one glowing review of More Guns, Less Crime for an online book review sevice as "Mary Rosh." The critics piled on--and while I still think Dr. Lott's work is correct (as I said, other economists have been able to replicate it), this foolish and very human action has caused Dr. Lott's reputation considerable damage--to the point where some scholars who used to cite Dr. Lott's work are now reluctant to do so.
Telling the truth matters. It is morally right, and pragmatically a good idea. Once you have damaged your reputation for spotless integrity, your critics will use any stain to cast doubt on anything else that you say or write. Another, much darker example of this is Professor Ward Churchill, until recently, the chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at Colorado University. Churchill wrote a scurrilous essay after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 denying that the dead in the World Trade Center were "innocent victims." Instead, he called them a "thousand Eichmanns," after the man who carried out the Holocaust. Why? Because they were participants in the capitalist system that oppressed the Iraq after Gulf War I.1 While tremendously offensive, this essay is probably not enough to get a professor fired from a public university. The government is limited on the actions it can take against an academic engaged in free speech.
What probably will eventually get Churchill fired, however, is a lack of honesty. Churchill doesn't have a Ph.D., and no particularly impressive publication history. So how did he get to be a full professor at a major research university? According to a law professor at Colorado University, Churchill almost certainly managed this because the university desperately wanted to hire a Native American.2 Churchill has claimed to be a member of a number of Indian tribes--and they all deny that he is an Indian.3
Even worse for Professor Churchill, other academics claim that he has lied about more than his ethnicity, but has also lied in work that he has published about the history of the American Indians. Professor Thomas Brown of Lamar Univesity in Texas reports that Churchill has made claims about the U.S. Army engaging in biological warfare against the Mandan Indians in 1837 that are simply false. Churchill's sources directly contradict what Churchill claims that they say--rather like Bellesiles's problems in Arming America. Even worse, some of Churchill's claims were made in a statement presented to a court where he was defending himself on criminal charges of disrupting Denver's Columbus Day Parade some years ago--potentially perjury.4
I do not know what the final outcome will be for Professor Churchill--I doubt that it will be any better than it was for Professor Bellesiles--but this isn't all a gloom and doom essay. Along with dishonest leftists such as Churchill and Bellesiles, there are a lot of professors who are seriously committed to pursuing the truth, regardless of the political benefits or costs. Professor Peter Charles Hoffer, whose recent book Past Imperfect unflinchingly examines the Bellesiles fraud (and I'm told has some nice things to say about my part in that) is a gun control advocate--but more importantly, he is what all academics should be, a pursuer of truth, even when inconvenient.
One benefit of academic dishonesty is that it sometimes encourages the academic community to actively pursue truth on subjects that would otherwise not seem worth the effort. The Holocaust deniers of the 1980s (to which Michael Bellesiles's actions bear a startling resemblance) had one beneficial effect: they caused a lot of historians to take the testimony of Holocaust survivors, recording for future generations information that twenty years from now, will simply not be available. Dishonesty about the Holocaust caused an increase in information about the Holocaust. The Holocaust deniers did not want this, but it happened anyway.
Similarly, scholars are pursuing the story of gun ownership and militia duty in early America with considerably more energy now simply because Arming America and the scandal over it raised questions that needed to be answered. As an example, Professor Kevin Sweeney of Amherst College has been researching gun ownership in the Connecticut Valley during the period 1640-1800. I attended a meeting at the Massachusetts Historical Society in early Feburary at which Professor Sweeney presented a paper on this subject.
I can't really give any details of Sweeney's paper yet. The custom in academic circles is that while a paper is still being commented on and corrected that you don't cite it or use the information in it. I can say that it is astonishing what happens when an historian looks for data, and then draws conclusions, rather than vice versa. Professor Sweeney's probate inventory data, while much more complete than mine, comes to roughly similar conclusions about gun ownership rates and valuation in seventeenth century America.
What was very gratifying was what happened when I arrived at the Massachusetts Historical Society presentation at 5:18 PM, just as they were getting started. For those outside the academic community, let me explain that at an event like this, it is common for the presenter of a paper (which has been circulated to attendees in advance) to give an overview of his work, and then one or two "discussants" with expertise in the subject area present their suggestions and criticisms.
In spite of the presence of the word "cuss" in "discussant," discussants are generally careful and gentle in how they critcize a paper. I suppose if a paper were really, really outrageous (say, denying that the American Revolution took place, or insisting that Robert E. Lee was actually a Chinese-American because of the last name), the discussants would be a lot less gentle.
The moderator explained the sequence of events; Professor Sweeney would present his paper, then a discussant (Professor Lisa Wilson of Connecticut University, an expert in use of probate inventories) would go next, followed by questions from the audience. The moderator then asked everyone to go around the room, and identify themselves. As soon as I said my name, there was a distinct buzz--and the moderator asked me to move up to the table to be the second discussant! It was an honor to be recognized as being sufficiently important to this topic to have this happen. It was a very nice feeling to finally be at the Big People's table, instead of stting with the other little kids.
My criticisms of Sweeney's paper were primarily related to assumptions that he was making about the level of armament among non-whites and non-males, as well as some terminology issues: "fire arm" has a very specific and narrow meaning into the early nineteenth century, often excluding civilian weapons, such as rifles or "fowling pieces," the ancestors of the modern single-shot shotgun. Still, this is what real historians are supposed to do, and usually do: the pursuit of truth, not twisting the facts to fit a conclusion.
The following day I spent digging through various manuscript sources, such as the account book for Massachusetts colony for the years 1714-16. It is a heady feeling to be gently and carefully turning the pages of a document that old. Around noon, the curator pulled some interesting odds and ends out of storage. While more in the, "Wow! I really held this!" category than the useful research I did in the manuscript section, I did learn something by holding some of these odds and ends.
One of the artifacts was Paul Revere's fowling piece. It had been converted to percussion cap at some point in the nineteenth century, but it was still an awesome feeling to hold a weapon that an American revolutionary might have used for duck hunting--or even Redcoat hunting. I have read that militiamen preferred hunting weapons such as this over the muskets that the law required them to own, because of weight, but this was simply a fact on a page. Holding this gun in my hands, and aiming it, really emphasized how different it was from a military weapon, such as a musket. In modern terms, imagine the difference between a handy little .22 rifle, and an M14. You know which you would prefer to have in your hands for combat, but for sporting use, the .22 rifle is a lot more pleasant.
Another artifact that I held was a musket used to "encourage" Massachusetts Governor Andros to resign his commission in 1689 during the overthrow of King James II. I also held one of Paul Revere's pocket pistols--an astonishingly compact and light handgun, comparing favorably with pocket pistols today in size, although, obviously, not in firepower. Another pocket pistol I held was one presented to Captain John Paul Jones by Congress in 1776. The sense of history from holding these relics is quite powerful.
It is easy to get discouraged by high profile cases such as Michael Bellesiles and Ward Churchill--and forget that there are a lot of scholars who are pursuing truth, regardless of where it leads them.
1John C. Ensslin, "CU prof's essay sparks dispute," Rocky Mountain News, January 27, 2005, http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/education/article/0,1299,DRMN_957_3501617,00.html, last accessed February 19, 2005.
2Paul Campos, "Truth tricky for Churchill," Rocky Mountain News, Feburary 8, 2005, http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/news_columnists/article/0,1299,DRMN_86_3530404,00.html, last accessed February 19, 2005.
3Jim Adams, "Churchill controversial on two fronts," Indian Country Today, February 3, 2005, http://www.indiancountry.com/content.cfm?id=1096410295, last accessed February 19, 2005.