Hoffer writes the book on L'affaire Bellesiles
Peter Hoffer's "Past Imperfect: Facts, Fiction and Fraud, American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis and Goodwin" does an excellent job of tracking the rise and downfall of Michael Bellesiles. For those who weren't following the controversy, MB was a professor of history at Emory; his book "Arming America" claimed that Americans had little or no "gun culture" before the Civil War.
His downfall came when computer programmer and amateur historian Clayton Cramer fact-checked his sources and discovered that ... not to put too fine a point on it, large portions seemed to be fabricated. The community of professional historians initially rallied to defend Bellesiles against this attack by an amateur. Eventually, however, the William and Mary Quarterly created a team of three respected professionals to settle the controversy -- and the three found that, indeed, there had been academic misconduct. Bellesiles resigned his position and the publisher withdrew the book from publication.
Here's a review of Hoffer's book on the matter.
Reviewed by David J. Garrow
.....a history book whose author alone has carried out all of the research and writing is almost always a more dependable work of scholarship than one whose multiple cooks can easily spoil the broth.
Exceptions to that generalization, as in the case of Michael Bellesiles, often involve misconduct far more insidious than simple plagiarism. Peter Charles Hoffer's Past Imperfect offers the most comprehensive and erudite analysis of the Bellesiles scandal to date, and his thoughtful and wide-ranging review of the full raft of recent plagiarism cases and other transgressions leaves no doubt that Bellesiles's were "the most egregious of our era."
[Bellesiles claimed that] probate records indicated that relatively few colonial-era Americans owned firearms-evidence tending to undercut the argument that the Second Amendment was meant to enshrine a right of individuals to own guns. The Bellesiles study won an award for the best article in the journal that year; Arming America would likewise be honored with the prestigious Bancroft Prize. Bellesiles's work was highly visible among historians, but the first serious questions about the honesty of his scholarship emerged from outside the profession, from politically motivated "gun nuts" whom most scholars initially ignored.
In context, then, the most troubling questions concern not Bellesiles's intentions or mental processes but the unquestioning credence other historians accorded his work.....
The same statistical presentation of supposed colonial-era probate records that proved to be the most fanciful part of Arming America appeared in Bellesiles's earlier article, but no professional
historians raised warning flags. When questions about his book finally mushroomed, Bellesiles magnified and compounded his misdeeds by concocting a succession of increasingly implausible excuses for why he could not produce supportive documentation. The many historians who had unquestioningly jumped to Bellesiles's defense quietly slithered away as the conclusion that Bellesiles had "manipulated them and betrayed their trust" became inescapable. The Bancroft Prize was rescinded, and Knopf withdrew Arming America from publication.
Hoffer's most telling comment on the Bellesiles saga concerns a revised paperback edition of Arming America that a little-known press issued late in 2003. A table in the paperback presents data from 2,353 probate records; in the hardcover, the same table supposedly summarizes 11,170 such records. "What had happened to the data and records of the other counties [Bellesiles] said he consulted?" writes Hoffer. "If for his article and the Knopf book he had actually consulted probate records at the archives, libraries, courthouses, or repositories where the records were stored, he could have gone back and redone the count. But he did not." Hoffer deems this table "the strongest possible admission [Bellesiles] could have made without a full and honest confession" that his earlier data were indeed fabricated. "In his relentless drive to prove his thesis of a paucity of guns," Hoffer concludes, Bellesiles "had convicted himself of the charge of professional misconduct in his earlier presentations of his research."
Hoffer says that, even a decade later, the association's handling of the Oates case "was still an embarrassment to the Professional Division," and in mid-2003 the AHA shamefully decided to discontinue review of any professional misconduct charges against historians. Hoffer blames this "retreat from professional responsibility" on historians' "unwillingness to act in cases of misconduct." The AHA rhetorically proclaims a strong commitment to professional integrity, but its "hypocritical refusal to enforce ethical precepts," Hoffer writes, gives the lie to that declaration.
I wish I knew who originated this phrase:
"Upon graduation historians should be given a grindstone not a diploma as they each seem to have an axe to grind about something." But then I gave up on college and decided to get an education instead. And have since worked as an engineer for AT&T, IBM, Lucent and now work as a consultant for a military project.
Unfortunately Bellesiles is hardly unique in the annuals of history. He is in fact part of a tradition that can be traced back to Julius Caesar's writings about the Celts.
Posted by: Michael Gale at June 12, 2007 11:25 AM