TIM NOAH ASKS if John Lott is the Michael Bellesiles of the right. (It’s carefully posed as an unanswered question, perhaps on the advice of Microsoft’s libel lawyers . . . .)
Noah does a good job of summing up the developments so far in one convenient package. I think it’s fair to say that the serious charges against Lott — falsely claiming to have done an unpublished survey in 1997 — are unproven, while the proven charges against Lott — using a pseudonym on the Internet — are embarrassing and reflect badly on him, but are not terribly serious.
But even if the serious charge were true, something that is so far a matter of conjecture rather than actual evidence, I think it would be an exaggeration to equate that to Michael Bellesiles’ misconduct, though it’s easy to understand why some people would like to do so.
Bellesiles, after all, was found to have fabricated research that was crucial to the thesis of a published academic work. Lott is accused of claiming to have done a study that was never published at all. If proven, that would be serious misconduct, but it’s possible for misconduct to be serious and still not rise to the level of the Bellesiles affair, which is probably the most serious case of academic fraud in the past decade. And, again, I can see why some people would like to blur that distinction (as Noah does by simply posing the question), but it’s a distinction nonetheless.
A better analogy might be to historian Joseph Ellis, who falsely claimed to have seen combat in Vietnam — a claim that, if true, might have lent greater force to his scholarship and public statements, but that was not in fact part of his published scholarship. Ellis’s conduct was serious, though not so serious as Bellesiles’, and he was punished — he was suspended for a year — but he’s now back delivering keynote lectures at prestigious conferences. One might argue, I suppose — as lawyers sometimes do — that a person who has lied on one subject presumably lies on others. But if such arguments are to be directed at Lott, one must wonder why they have not been directed at Ellis, and whether those who espouse politically-incorrect views might one day enjoy the same opportunities for genteel rehabilitation. Like Noah, I’ll just ask that question, and not answer it.
UPDATE: Reader Raphael Laufer writes:
I think that you understate a bit what Lott is accused of doing: it’s not just claiming to have done a survey when he may not have — it’s fabricating the result of the survey and presenting that as evidence in a book. That this is only one instance makes it different in scale, not in kind, from Bellesiles’ fraud. As to Joseph Ellis — I was under the impression that his lies never actually impinged on his scholarship, that his lies were done more to satisfy his ego than to promote one thesis over another.
A distinction can be made between those academic sins that reflect poorly on the sinner, but not their work (Ambrose, Goodwin, Ellis) and those sins that call the whole academic enterprise into doubt (Bellesiles and perhaps Lott).
And Richard Riley notes:
With respect, I don’t think your post on Tim Noah’s discussion of John Lott fairly acknowledges the seriousness of what Lott is alleged to have done. You say Lott “is accused of claiming to have done a study that was never published at all,” and you compare that to the fact that “Bellesiles … was found to have fabricated research that was crucial to the thesis of a published academic work.”
But as Noah points out, Lott’s “survey” is what he (currently) claims to be the support for a crucial passage, indeed a crucial theme, in his major published work – that is, the assertion that brandishing a firearm rather than firing it, almost all the time, is all it takes to stop an attack. If Lott didn’t do his survey – as Noah says, he’s changed his position on what his supporting sources are, but he currently says it’s his survey that supports the assertion – then it sure looks as though Lott “fabricated research crucial to the thesis” of his major published work.
If proved (big “if”), that’s pretty bad. Much worse than Ellis, I’d say.
Well, even Lott’s critic-in-chief Tim Lambert says otherwise, as I noted in my first post on this, where I quoted Lambert as saying:
Finally, I should comment on the overall significance of this question. Lott’s 98% claim takes up just one sentence of his book. Whether or not it’s true, it doesn’t affect his main argument, which is about alleged benefits of concealed carry laws. I don’t think any fuss would have been made if Lott hadn’t repeated the claim numerous times on TV shows, on radio shows, and in opinion pieces.
Now others may disagree — and as I’ve said repeatedly, I do think the charge is a serious one, just not of Bellesiles-caliber. And if the charge of survey-falsification is proven, people will be justified in not trusting Lott any more, and AEI, where Lott works, would be justified in letting him go, or suspending him for a year, or whatever. I do feel, though, that trying to turn Lott into the “right wing Bellesiles” has a lot more to do with political positioning and paybacks than it does with Lott, and I very much believe that there is a double standard here.
As many of Lott’s pro-gun critics have said (and Lott has a lot more pro-gun critics than Bellesiles had anti-gun critics), Lott should know that there’s a double standard, and should conduct himself accordingly. That’s good, prudent advice. But it doesn’t mean that the double standard shouldn’t be pointed out, either.
UPDATE: Michael Pollard makes the point well:
Timothy Noah asks if John Lott is “the Bellesiles of the Right.” But Slate readers may be puzzled about what this means given that Slate published no articles about Bellesiles’ notorious academic fraud and disgrace until … Timothy Noah decided to mention it in today’s attack on Lott. . . .
Noah’s new-found interest in academic honesty would be easier to take seriously if he’d shown the slightest interest in Bellesiles before this.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Brian Linse weighs in: ” Is he the Bellesiles of the Right? Who gives a shit? In my opinion they are both useless to the gun policy debate.”
What I hate about Brian is that he’s so stuffy and proper he won’t tell you what he really thinks. . . .