What Jon Wiener Says in His New Book


Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower
(New Press, 2005)


The Argument

Jon Wiener, looking at a dozen cases, argues that some historians who get into trouble are barely punished while others are savaged. Some receive little media attention, others lavish attention. Why? "The answer briefly is power--especially power wielded by groups outside the history profession. Historians targeted by powerful outside groups can face intense media scrutiny and severe sanctions for transgressions, while historians connected to powerful outside groups can be shielded from the media spotlight as well as from the consequences of malfeasance; in some cases, they have even been rewarded."


Those Who Got into Trouble but Flourished with the Help of Powerful Connections

  • Allen Weinstein Although he repeatedly broke his promise to let scholars who disagreed with his findings have access to the notes and documents he used in writing his expose of Alger Hiss, he failed to do so. When sources he cited claimed he had his represented their views, he failed to let Victor Navasky hear the tapes of their interviews, though he had promised to do so. In April 2004 he was nominated by President Bush to become the next Archivist of the United States.
  • Elizabeth Fox-Genovese When Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, founding director of the Institute for Women's Studies, was accused by the associate director of sexual harassment and discrimination in the mid 1990s, the college settled a million dollar lawsuit rather than defend her--but the school never investigated the charges, allowing her to claim that she had "stood up to feminist political correctness at Emory." In 2003 President Bush awarded her the National Humanities Medal.
  • John Lott When John Lott began citing a survey he apparently never conducted, a survey he claimed proved that "98 per cent of the time that people use guns defensively, they merely have to brandish a weapon to break off an attack," the gun lobby protected him from criticism. The University of Chicago Press continued to feature his pro-gun book.
  • Stephen Thernstrom Accused by a few black students at Harvard of racial insensitivity, Stephen Thernstrom offered a "defiant response" that turned him into an instant conservative hero. Although he claimed to be a victim of leftwing McCarthyism and said he "felt like a rape victim," his career flourished. In 2002 President Bush appointed him to the National Council on he Humanities.

Those Who Got into Trouble and Received the Proper Punishment

  • Edward Pearson Confronted with evidence that Edward Pearson, the historian who so badly transcribed trial records related to the Denmark Vesey case--the slave accused of conspiracy--that his book had to be withdrawn by the publisher, Franklin and Marshall investigated the matter in a thorough and responsible way. Pearson was allowed to remain as chairman of the history department.
  • Joseph Ellis After learning that Joseph Ellis had fabricated stories about his service in Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, Mount Holyoke suspended him and took away his endowed chair, but allowed him to return to the classroom (though he was not allowed to teach his course on Vietnam).
  • Dino Cinel After discovering that Dino Cinel, recently hired as a tenured professor focusing on Italian immigration, had failed to reveal that he had been defrocked for having sex with male teenagers, CUNY fired him (though it took five years).
Those Who Were Burned
  • Michael Bellesiles After winning accolades and an award for his book, Arming America, scholars discovered errors in a table and the gun lobby proceeded to destroy Bellesiles's career even though "the critics came up with no evidence of intentional deception, no evidence of invented documents."
  • Mike Davis After Mike Davis wrote a book critical of the Los Angeles establishment, developers effectively ran him out of the state. He succeeded in resurrecting his career only by travelling east, winning an appointment at SUNY--Stony Brook.
  • David Abraham After errors were discovered in his book, The Collapse of the Weimar Republic, which departed from the traditional interpretation offered by one of the doyens of the profession, David Abraham 's career as a historian came to an abrupt end. Hounded by a powerful critic, he couldn't find a job and left the profession to become a lawyer.

And then There Are ... Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose: The Celebrity Historians

What about Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose? While Goodwin was forced off the Pulitzer Prize Board after she was caught plagiarizing--and then caught paying off the person whose words she took--the media largely gave her a pass. She remains an NBC talking head and her publisher stands by her. Stephen Ambrose was condemned by historians and ostracized by the profession, but he too remained a media favorite (though in his case the rightwing press held him up to ridicule, in an attempt to stand up for traditional values of honest scholarship).

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Joe Dirvin - 9/16/2007

Mr. Weiner,

Have you an opinion of Ward churchill of the University of Colorado?

Joe Babaloo

Jason KEuter - 5/2/2006

Most of these "scandals" relate to personal questions not professional issues.

Weiner is reaching and has an ideological axe to grind - - especially with Genovese and Thernstrom.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/3/2005


Here's the chronology. Wills has a review of Second Amendment literature published in the Sept. 21, 1995 issue of the NYRB. In the Nov. 16 1995 issue of NYRB, those previously reviewed respond, with Wills responding to the responses. The last three lines of of Wills response is as follows (I insert a bracketed 'it.' after words that were italicized in the NYRB original, p.64:

"Ours is a gun culture [it.], formed on weak history and strong myths about 'frontier' virtue. It is the gun culture [it.], not mere gun ownership, that plagues us. And the gun culture thrives on perverted readings of the Second Amendment."

By Sept. 1996, Bellesiles' JAH gun culture article was already in print. If Bellesiles took up the thesis from Wills, then that is only 10 months from idea to publication, certainly a rush job (Bellesiles thanks the JAH editor, in his book, for his "enthusiasm"). Just what research had been done by what date lies buried in the unpublished findings of the outside Emory committee. Just what was submitted to the JAH and when also lies a mystery, as Ralph Luker has reported on this site that the editor of the JAH won't reveal details of the peer and editorial processes of the JAH. Did Wills see something of Bellesiles' thesis before his response to the Second Amendment scholars? Or is the similarity mere coincidence? Or did Bellesiles cadge the thesis from Wills, publish it in the JAH, and then feed it back to Wills through his book? I'm leaning toward the latter.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/3/2005

Prof. Lindgren has an interesting post on Wills and Bellesiles over at the Volokh Conspiracy. I too saw the Wills interview on C-SPAN2, and Wills was at his best -- interesting, charming -- not at all the guy he is transformed into when addressing the subject of guns.

Wills has it that he was conned. I believe him, as I've given much thought to that question. One of the ways Wills was conned was by Bellesiles reading back to Wills his own peculiarities regarding gun schloarship. Wills had taken a truncated quote from Trenchard and transformed it into evidence that militia weapons were kept exlusively in government stores -- a view Bellesiles adopted to the astonishment of the outside committee at Emory.

Wills also (problematically) turned the early post-Revolutionary militia plans into a plan for a select militia -- another position Bellesiles then adopted.

But what few if any have noticed, the Bellesiles thesis seems lifted, almost intact, from the final two sentences of Wills' response to Reynolds et al, in the issue of the NYRB that followed on Wills' review of Second Amendment literature. Until that time, Bellesiles had presented data on some five or six counties, at a previous conference. Only some ten months after Wills' response, the number was up to 38 or 40, and submitted and soon published in the JAH as an article.

The missing ingredient in Wills' account of Bellesiles the con man is the fact that a con man usually succeeds by telling the mark precisely what the mark wants to hear. In this case, it looks like several points made by Bellesiles, and perhaps his entire thesis, derived from the pen of Wills.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/3/2005

I see resuscitated the minimalist view that Bellesiles had trouble only with one table. In fact, he told the investigating committee that he had conducted research in Massachusetts county archives at a time when those archives had already been transferred to the Massachusetts state archives.

Moreover, the committee was flabbergasted by his claim that militia weapons were uniformly kept in state stores -- a claim he supported by reference to 17 documents, none of which actually said what he claimed.

The door for nonsensical defenses was unfortunately opened when the committee settled on minimalist conclusions in their report (they weren't indemnified by Emory). One can now cite the report in defense, when almost the entire evidence (such that it exists) resides in volumes beyond the reach of the public -- in part to apparently protect graduate assistants from retaliation.

For Wiener, the scandal is that Bellesiles was "burned" -- whatever that means, given that he resigned. Wiener does make a case that punishments vary, perhaps with differences in politics, etc. For me, the scandal is that Bellesiles was ever published -- since I've documented on this site the legerdemain he used in constructing his per capita gun ownership rates for his original article, without citing documentation for his figures (a question above and beyond anything addressed by Wiener).

James Lindgren - 12/30/2004

Prof. Wiener is quoted as saying: "the critics came up with no evidence of intentional deception, no evidence of invented documents."
I'll put the first point (intentionality) aside, since I mostly refrained from addressing questions of intention. As to the second point, I suppose it depends on what one means by "invented." If Wiener means that there was no evidence that Bellesiles took 18th century paper and created forged original documents, then I would agree that there was no evidence of "invented documents." But if Wiener means that Bellesiles never claimed to have read documents that do not exist, then Wiener is wrong. Bellesiles did it in at least three instances, one of which he has never actually disputed. Thus the question is not whether Bellesiles invented documents, but rather whether his inventing documents was intentional.
1. Providence. Those with good memories may remember that in Jan. 2001, I posted the abstract to my co-authored scholarly manuscript on guns in probate records on an H-Net list that was discussing Arming America, with a link to a manuscript that pointed out that over 100 wills of the 186 wills that Bellesiles claimed to have read in Providence never existed. Bellesiles responded with a personal attack on me that tried to create the impression that our differences stemmed from his having read original records, rather than records republished in a book. Apparently, Bellesiles was unaware that the original records for most of the period in Providence had been missing since 1970 so he could not have read the originals. Further, Bellesiles had previously written me that for Providence he had done his counts with the same published records I used for that part of the study, books that he wrote me that he had read in Southern California. Bellesiles never found the nonexistent 100 wills, and he quietly dropped the claim in the paperback edition that came out in September 2001. So Bellesiles invented over a hundred Providence wills that never existed; the only question is whether the invention was intentional or an ordinary mistake. Appendix H of my Yale review of Arming America has dozens of examples of these Providence estates that specifically say that the decedent died “intestate,” that is, without a will:

2. San Francisco. The story of the nonexistent San Francisco records has been told many times. My version is on pp. 2210-2212 of the review linked above. Jerome Sternstein tells another version in his response (http://hnn.us/articles/1074.html) to Wiener’s earlier article in the Nation. Wiener tells his version in his book. I’ll leave it at that.
3. Vermont. From time to time, Michael Bellesiles has posted his counts of Vermont inventories online, including from 2002 to sometime in 2004 posting a list of estates that he claims have inventories but no guns. (Currently, Bellesiles’s probate website appears to be down.) All (or almost all) of the Vermont estates that Bellesiles has listed are real, but the inventories for many of these estates did not survive, though other records for these estates did. Thus, Bellesiles has been claiming to have read yet another batch of inventories that do not exist. Again, the primary question is whether this invention of inventories that don’t exist is intentional; there is solid evidence that many of these Vermont inventories are invented.