Michael Bellesiles, the historian accused of research falsification in his book Arming America, a study of gun culture, announced on October 25 that he was resigning from Emory University, citing a “hostile environment” [see Jon Wiener, “Fire at Will,” November 4]. His resignation, effective at the end of the year, came the very afternoon that Emory released the report of a three-person external board that had been asked to review some of the charges leveled against Bellesiles over the past two years by a number of critics. Bellesiles’s book, which won the prestigious Bancroft Prize awarded by Columbia University to top works in history and was widely acclaimed when it came out, argues that our gun culture was created in the Civil War era and that in eighteenth-century America, guns were much less significant. As evidence, he relied in part on probate records from the time; difficulty in reproducing the original research on the subject is what spurred on the critics and led, eventually, to Emory’s review board.
The board essentially tried to replicate Bellesiles’s findings from the probate records, having been asked by Emory if Bellesiles had engaged in “intentional fabrication or falsification of research data” from those records in Rutland County, Vermont; Providence, Rhode Island; the San Francisco Bay Area; and other records supporting his reports in Table 1 (“Percentage of Probate Inventories Listing Firearms”) of his book. The panel–consisting of Stanley Katz, former head of the American Council of Learned Societies and a Princeton faculty member; Hanna Gray, former president of the University of Chicago; and Harvard Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize-winner–found it impossible to state conclusively that Bellesiles was fabricating or falsifying in the cases of Vermont and Rhode Island, though it was “seriously troubled by [his] scholarly conduct,” which it found “sloppy” in those contexts. In the San Francisco case, too, the results of the investigation were murky but not provably deceptive. As to the more general question about Table 1, the board declared that “the failure to clearly identify his sources does move into the realm of ‘falsification.'” It also declared that Bellesiles’s research in probate records was “unprofessional and misleading” as well as “superficial and thesis-driven,” and that his explanations of errors “raise doubts about his veracity.” Among other things, Bellesiles labeled one column of Table 1 “1765-1790″ but deliberately excluded the years 1774 and 1775.
In his response to the Emory panel’s report, Bellesiles writes that he excluded those years because the colonial governments were then passing out guns to militias, which would have skewed a picture of peacetime gun ownership. (Bellesiles has admitted that Table 1 contains serious errors and has been working to correct them for a second edition of the book.) He also notes that he examined legislative, military, business, journalistic and other records, the “probate records constituting only five of 1347 footnotes” in his book, and that “the evidence from the probate records could be eliminated entirely and the thesis of the book would still stand.”
For his part, Wiener comments that the university “had a kind of tunnel vision” in the way it restricted the panel’s mission. “Since the issue here is Bellesiles’s integrity as a historian, the Emory inquiry should have been as sweeping as the stakes, instead of being tied to a few pages in a great big book. And if Bellesiles is right in his reply, then those distinguished historians are guilty of some of the same sins they accuse him of committing: suppressing inconvenient evidence, spinning the data their way, refusing to follow leads that didn’t serve their thesis. The point is not to condemn them for their inability to achieve the scrupulousness they demanded of Bellesiles. The point is that historians have to deal with the messy confusion of things, and they offer interpretations of it. Historical knowledge advances by the testing of interpretations, not by stifling interpreters, and not by indicting the interpreter’s character for flaws in a table.”
Statements of the review board and Bellesiles can be reached via www.emory.edu/central/NEWS.