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What Ron Robin Says in His Book

Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Case that Shook the Academy
(University of California Press, 2004)

The Argument [From the book's back cover.]

Ron Robin takes an intriguing look at the shifting nature of academic and public discourse in this incisive consideration of recent academic scandals-including charges of plagiarism against Stephen Ambrose, Derek Freeman's attempt to debunk Margaret Mead's research, Michael Bellesiles's alleged fabrication of an early America without weapons, Joseph Ellis's imaginary participation in major historical events of the 1960s, Napoleon Chagnon's creation and manipulation of a "Stone Age people," and accusations that Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú's testimony on the Maya holocaust was in part fiction. Scandals and Scoundrels makes the case that, contrary to popular imagery, we're not living in particularly deviant times and there is no fundamental flaw permeating a decadent academy. Instead, Robin argues, latter-day scandals are media events, tailored for the melodramatic and sensationalist formats of mass mediation. In addition, the contentious and uninhibited nature of cyberdebates fosters acrimonious exposure. Robin convincingly demonstrates that scandals are part of a necessary process of rule making and reinvention rather than a symptom of the bankruptcy of the scientific enterprise.


Stephen Oates and Stephen Ambrose

In the final analysis, both Oates and Ambrose stand accused of transgressions far more compelling than plagiarism. Guided by the logic of mass markets, Oates and Ambrose had commodified an inherently noncommercial, intellectual artifact. Both were accused of transforming the writing of history from an intellectual enterprise into a form of infotainment. Both historians were criticized for having cynically exploited a public longing for an idealized era of heroes, free from moral dilemmas. Ambrose indeed agreed that the task of the historian "is not to pass judgment but to explain, illustrate, inform and entertain."

Hence, the recycling of the prose of others was not the main issue, but merely a sideshow of a commodification of the historical enterprise. Upon leaving the academic domain, historians such as Ambrose and Oates did not author books, the columnist Wendy Kaminer observes, but assembled them out of parts produced by "an army of researchers and other, less prominent historians." In transforming history from a complex intellectual puzzle to a standardized product for mass consumption, repetition, simplification, and mechanical reproduction were inevitable. Thus, critics appear much more concerned with the fact that consumers of such mass-produced commodities bypass the intellectual complexities of reconstructing the past, celebrating instead the emotional aura and romantic impulse of pulp pseudo-history. A mechanically reproduced history had lost its "ethereal " and sublime" qualities and had become a "fetish."

Michael Bellesiles

How and why did his much flawed version of the American past achieve such august claims of scholarship? Bellesiles inadvertently offered an insightful explanation: "The power of image and myth repeatedly overwhelms reality" in historical studies, in general, and the right to bear arms, in particular, he wrote. Thus, the mostly liberal leadership of the American historical community apparently embraced Arming America because "it appeared to confirm what they long have wanted to believe: that the Second Amendment protects only a collective right to bear arms, that individual gun rights were deemed unimportant at the time of writing and ratification of the Constitution." Bellesiles was guilty of embracing a "noble lie."

No less important was the apparent "trust in numbers" espoused by a scholarly community largely ignorant of statistics. Bellesiles's principal supporters continuously argued that his statistical evidence defied refutation. Literary sources were open to interpretation; quantitative evidence was not. Thus, even though the number of pages dedicated to probate records was relatively modest, these troublesome statistics were by all accounts the most compelling part of the book.


...I find that the debates on academic impropriety discussed in this book suggest vibrancy rather than trauma. These debates may, at times, signify imminent catastrophe, the bankruptcy of scientific pretensions, or some other form of decline. Yet they may equally be part of a necessary process of reinvention.