29 October 2002

Hurray! A new trailer for The Two Towers. See it here.

27 October 2002

Michael Bellesiles--The End of the Story?

I have stayed on the sidelines throughout one of the major controversies current in my field--that of Emory Professor Michael Bellesiles' 2000 book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Bellesiles contended, largely through the use of probate inventories, that guns were relatively few in colonial America, and that the federal government actually encouraged our national love affair with guns throughout the early nineteenth century.

If it sounds straightforward, let me enlighten you. Shortly after his work was published, it was immediately attacked by the gun nuts of the NRA. This is not surprising, but then historians began to try to replicate his data on gun ownership and couldn't. Odd gaps appeared in the statistical material. Some inventories couldn't even be found by researchers. In short, many inventories showing ownership of guns in colonial America appeared to have been excluded by Bellesiles. Suspicions of fraud grew.

A mammoth forum in our field's most prominent journal, The William and Mary Quarterly, attempted to deal with the suspicions about Bellesiles' work and to treat his scholarship honestly. (See the January 2002 issue.) Unfortunately for him, the universal opinion was negative: Bellesiles' work was judged at best sloppy and at worst fraudulent.

Emory wisely convened an outside panel to review the book and the claims of fraud. While this panel, whose report was released yesterday, did not find intentional fraud, it did find more than enough evidence of scholarly carelessness. (Apparently key evidence he had accumulated was destroyed in an office flood and/or removed from his computer during a hacking incident--pretty convenient for Bellesiles.)

The panel concluded:
Did professor Bellesiles engage in "other serious deviations 'from accepted practices in carrying out or reporting results from research'" with respect to probate
records or militia census records by:
(a) Failing to carefully document his findings;
(b) Failing to make available to others his sources, evidence, and data; or
(c) Misrepresenting evidence or the sources of evidence."
We have reached the conclusion with reference to clauses “a” through “c,” that Professor Bellesiles contravened these professional norms, both as expressed in the Committee charge and in the American Historical Association’s definition of scholarly “integrity,” which includes “an awareness of one’s own bias and a readiness to follow sound method and analysis wherever they may lead,” “disclosure of all significant qualifications of one’s arguments,” careful documentation of findings and the responsibility to “thereafter be prepared to make available to others their sources, evidence, and data,” and the injunction that “historians must not misrepresent evidence or the sources of evidence.”

This is a serious charge, but also proof that the historical profession has the means and the will to deal with dishonest academicians. While I don't possess the knowledge or the skills to examine all of Bellesiles' work myself, I agree that his methods and documentation are highly suspect and completely invalidate his conclusions. So I give historians a collective pat on the back for dealing with this matter and for so strongly condemning misleading and sloppy scholarship.

Professor Bellesiles has, unsurprisingly, resigned from the faculty of Emory University.

You can see the Committee's report here, and Bellesiles' "response" here.

08 October 2002

Mitt's missing that special something in Massachusetts

Republican gubernatorial candidate and professional carpetbagger Mitt Romney has fallen further behind Democrat Shannon O'Brien in the latest polls. She now leads him 42%-30%.

I think this is probably due to Mittie's extremely poor performance in the televised debates and his sappy ad campaign. In the last debate, Mitt looked pasty and nervous and was not at all in command of his facts. At one point he suggested the formation of an unemployment program that already exists. He then told an incredulous audience that debates were boring and probably put voters to sleep. What a way to win voters and influence the undecideds.

His ad campaign, which shows him and his wife telling the story of how they met and Mitt rough-housing with his sons is the perfect example of how not to run political ads. What this ad showed was a wealthy, white family that didn't resonate with most families in economically strapped Massachusetts. It sure didn't resonate with me--I felt sick every time it came on the TV.

Shannon O'Brien is trouncing Mitt among women voters as well, a sure sign that Mitt's "family values" are alienating everyone from pro-choice voters to single moms to women with high-powered careers.

After the debates I revised my opinion of O'Brien. I am impressed by her command of policy issues and her public-speaking abilities. I would have preferred Reich, but in his absence, I'll be more than happy to vote for O'Brien next month.

You can see the whole poll here.

01 October 2002

Of Malaria and Men

This morning's Washington Post reports that there are currently two cases of an unspecified strain of malaria in Loudon County, Virginia.

"We want to know if we have it here or if it's just an extremely rare,
isolated case," said Roy Eidem, a Fairfax County environmental health

There's an interesting undertone of hysteria through the article, as if the Chesapeake were suddenly being confronted with a disease that it has never seen before. The article fails to recognize that during the colonial period, both Virginia and Maryland suffered from endemic malaria. Moreover, malaria was instrumental in shaping the social structures of these two colonies.

Darret Rutman showed in his 1976 article "Of Agues and Fevers: Malaria in the Early Chesapeake" that malaria most likely arrived on this continent with Europeans. The climate and geography of the Tidewater made malaria right at home. Over the course of the seventeenth century, thousands of West Africans were imported as slaves, bringing with them more virulent forms of the disease. Malaria was so common that new European arrivals invariably suffered from it in some form; the process was labelled "seasoning" by those who survived it. Rutman further posited that malaria deaths contributed significantly to the demographic composition of the colonial Chespeake, which in turn affected the way colonial society developed.

"Is this a new occurrence?" asked John Neely, a mosquito expert and Clarke
official. "Or is this something that has always been here and we're just now
doing the tests and finding it?"

Well, Mr. Neely, it isn't a new occurence at all. In fact, malaria was integral to the experience of thousands of colonial Virginians. It is a shame the article failed to place malaria in its historical context. As the article points out, "health officials have assumed that a world traveler or two had brought the malaria to the region and had been bitten by a mosquito, and the insects had then passed on the disease." I think this is probably unlikely, given the disease's history.

You can see the article here.