JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS

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Monday, December 16, 2002
 
Bellesiles Redux

Glenn Reynolds has just posted another fine piece on the Michael Bellesiles scandal. In it he cites the the Volokh Conspiracy and poses the following question: "whether there could be a Bellesiles in the legal-scholarship world." He answers yes and no. My question is, how did it happen in the history-scholarship world and could it happen again.

The "Report of the Investigative Committee in the matter of Professor Michael Bellesiles," found that Bellesiles' major sins were his trangressions of the American Historical Associaion's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, specifially those dealing with professional historical scholarship. He fell short on the AHA's rule that "Historians must not misrepresent evidence or the sources of evidence," and most of all, he fell short dealing with this paragraph:

Because historians must have access to sources--archival and other--to produce reliable history, they have a professional obligation to preserve sources and advocate free, open, equal, and nondiscriminatory access to them, and to avoid actions that might prejudice future access. Historians recognize the appropriateness of some national security and corporate and personal privacy claims but must challenge unnecessary restrictions. They must protect research collections and other historic resources and make those under their control available to other scholars as soon as possible.

Like scientists, empirical historians (I'm freely and quite blithely using this term) create their own data. Scientists do this through experiements. Historians do this through archival and other research. To check the validity of a scientist's findings, one can recreate the experiment (if it was a reliable experiement, of course). To check a historian, one must be able to access the archives and recreate the data. Scholarly progress cannot happen if this is not possible.

It must, however, be remembered when this paragraph was added to the AHA Statement of Standards -- after the David Abraham scandal of the mid-1980s. It is the memory of this case, I've gotta assume, why so many historians initally defended Bellesiles. They remembered the injustices done to Abraham (he was driven out of the history profession -- he landed on his feet, though. He went to law school here at Penn and is now on the faculty of the University of Miami law school) and attempted, in perhaps a knee-jerk reaction, to keep it from happening again.

If another scandal hits, one has to assume that, since we're always fighting the last war, historians will remember the Bellesiles scandal and will be, at first, hesitant to offer their support. Will another scandal hit the history profession? Sure it will. We should remember Lawrence Stone, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton, "When you work in the archives, you’re far from home, you’re bored, you’re in a hurry, you’re scribbling like crazy. You’re bound to make mistakes. I don’t believe any scholar in the Western world has impeccable footnotes. Archival research is a special case of the general messiness of life." The real question (more applicable to Abraham than to Bellesiles who seems to have made way too many) is how dedicated vested interests are in revealing and ascribing motives to your mistakes.

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