Bad Scholarship, Bad Politics or Bad Luck?

2 papers dispute the conventional wisdom about a recent series of scandals involving historians.
January 10, 2005

In the last few years, a series of prominent historians have been accused of misconduct in their research or teaching, leading to considerable soul-searching in their discipline. But two papers prepared for a session Sunday at the American Historical Association annual meeting suggest that politics and public misconceptions may have as much to do with the scandals as does actual misconduct.

Jon Wiener, a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, compares the careers of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Michael Bellesiles, two controversial Emory University scholars.

Fox-Genovese was accused of harassing a former employee, shouting at her in public, and forcing her to do numerous personal errands -- charges Fox-Genovese denied. The suit, which was settled out of court in 1996, embarrassed many at Emory. Move forward to last year and President Bush is giving Fox-Genovese the National Humanities Medal.

"How did Fox-Genovese get from the courtroom in Atlanta to the East Room in the White House?" asks Wiener, in his paper, which is based on his forthcoming book, Historians in Trouble. His answer: politics. Fox-Genovese has repeatedly criticized feminists and women's studies programs and so many conservatives view her as a "victim of political correctness."

Michael Bellesiles, on the other hand, was attacked by the gun lobby over his book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. He argued that guns were far less prevalent in early American history than the NRA and others would have you believe. The NRA and other groups immediately challenged the findings, and an Emory-appointed panel of scholars found serious scholarly errors in portions of the book. (While Bellesiles admitted to some mistakes, he said that they did not undercut the fundamental points of his book. But he also quit his job at Emory. The report and his statement can be found here.)

Wiener urges historians to view the controversy over Arming America in the context of the effort to discredit the book's argument. "The campaign against Bellesiles sought not to refute his book's thesis or claims made about its contemporary significance, but instead to discredit it by focusing attention on errors in a tiny portion of the documentation," Wiener says. "It's an old tactic, and an illogical one -- the book could be wrong about the origins of our present gun culture even if its footnotes were flawless. But the tactic succeeded. Bellesiles is out of the academy."

Ron Robin, dean of students at the University of Haifa, similarly argues that these controversies should be viewed in a broader context. He says, for example, that he's not sure that there has been an increase in scholarly misconduct by historians. Rather, he thinks the Internet has made it "easier to detect."

Beyond the ability to use Google and other search engines to verify research, the Internet allows for accusations of misconduct to be "amplified."

"Once upon a time, deviancy spectacles boasted a judicial aura; they were presided over by a judicial body, observed and monitored -- if at all -- by a mostly passive audience, and usually confined to the discreet surroundings of a well-defined scholarly community," Robin writes. "For better or for worse contemporary cyber debates do not offer such restraining circumstance."

Robin also has theories about why some academic scandals explode and others do not. He believes academics may be particularly vulnerable because they hold themselves up as exemplars of ethical conduct. "A scandal-hungry mass media is always fond of revealing the faults and foibles of the self-righteous. Surely, a lapsed academic is more titillating than familiar banker-gone-bad, or a crooked politician," he says.

Both Robin and Wiener note that scholarly associations have largely pulled out of the business of policing and punishing misconduct, leaving accused scholars to "trial by Web site," in Robin's words.

Question for the AHA (and other scholarly groups): Will the frustrations of people like Robin and Wiener with the present system encourage new ways for scholars to police themselves?


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