books on fire

Professors Should Write Books That Seek Truth, Not Inflame Passions

The academic enterprise is supposed to be about truth. Those who are entrusted to teach are expected to convey knowledge to their students, not their opinions. And when academics write books, they should do so to deepen knowledge in their fields, never to mislead readers.

Sometimes, however, academics allow their zeal to convert students or the public to their beliefs to get the better of them. They go from seeking truth to twisting it; writing books not to illuminate, but to inflame.

The most infamous case of that occurred in 2000, when Emory University history professor Michael Bellesiles published a book, Arming America, that purported to show that our “gun culture” was of fairly recent origin, as shown by the “fact” that guns had actually been quite rare in early America. The book was highly acclaimed because it confirmed the anti-Second Amendment bias of many intellectuals.

Lurking in its pages, however, was a huge academic fraud that would bring it down, along with Bellesiles’ career. His evidence was mostly fabricated and once skeptics began looking into the book closely, the more dishonesty they found. The publisher, Knopf, eventually withdrew the book and Bellesiles resigned from Emory’s faculty after a committee found that his responses to questions were evasive. (For a full account, this Yale Law Journal article by Professor James Lindgren is excellent.)

Arming America comes to mind because two recent books by academics similarly twist truth in order to advance their beliefs and confirm the biases of “progressive” readers. Those books are Economism by University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak and Democracy in Chains by Duke University history professor Nancy MacLean.

Both Kwak and MacLean want readers to believe that the Right—i.e., conservatives, libertarians, constitutionalists, and others who believe that government does more harm than good and should be downsized—is a movement driven by bad motives. The thrust of their books is to reassure leftist readers that conservative arguments against democratic, “progressive” policies to redistribute income, raise wages, and in other ways transform society are merely a mask for the greed and lust for power that animate people on the Right.

That genre of writing—trying to win an intellectual argument by disparaging your opponents—is deplorable and belongs in the realm of everyday political writing and commentary. It does not belong in the academic world, where scholars should work on the plane of reason and evidence. And that’s especially true given the overheated rhetoric that is turning America into a nation of warring tribes. In a time when overwrought people believe it’s justifiable to try to kill people in the “bad” tribe, we do not need professors writing books that say, “Those people are evil and I’ve just proved it.”

Economism was published in January and has received fairly little attention, although professor Donald Boudreaux wrote an article for the Martin Center that was based on an essay Professor Kwak wrote that was drawn from his book. Boudreaux took issue with Kwak’s contention that students are misled by the concepts taught in most Econ 101 classes. Kwak argues that basic supply and demand analysis is too simple for the real world; Boudreaux argues otherwise.

If Economism were just an extension of his “Econ 101 is misleading” argument, Kwak’s book would be just another mistaken academic work. But the core of the book is an attack on the motives of the people who employ “economism” (which is to say, using concepts from basic economics to argue against many interventionist policies), portraying them as motivated purely by greed. Suppose that someone opposes the minimum wage on the grounds that it will lead to job losses among low-skilled workers. His real concern, says Kwak, is keeping down labor costs for business, not the welfare of the people who lose employment or never find legitimate work in the first place.

Now, Kwak acknowledges that some well known economists have argued against the sorts of interventionist policies he wants in order to battle inequality, but he never attempts to directly refute Mises, Hayek, Friedman, and others. Instead he tries a back-door pseudo-rebuttal by claiming that the forces of the Right, upset that the New Deal’s golden age of fairness was not giving them all they wanted, misappropriated their theoretical ideas for bad ends.

The striking thing about this line of argument is the author’s lack of charity towards his opponents. Free market advocates who rely on “economism” are, in Kwak’s account, just tools of the super-rich. That notion will play very well with leftist readers, but it’s far from the truth. Is the author not aware that those same people use the same kinds of arguments against policies that help the super-rich (some of them, anyway) and harm the poor—agricultural price supports, for example? Perhaps he is, but admitting that would undercut his besmirching of Americans who peddle “economism.”

While Kwak says that he isn’t taking sides but merely wants to see deeper, more “nuanced” policy debate, that’s hard to take seriously. No Right-wing reader is going to become less sympathetic to “economism” after Kwak gets done claiming that it’s just a tool of a cabal of the One Percenters. Similarly, no leftist reader is going to conclude, “We certainly do need a deeper debate, and therefore I’m going to rethink my support for simplistic leftist policies.”

But Kwak’s book is a model of careful, charitable scholarship compared with Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, published last month by Viking. Like Economism, it purports to tell the story of the rise of a plutocratic, anti-democracy movement that latched on to some scholarly work as cover for its terrible goals. But where Kwak just lobs some low-caliber shells at Hayek, Friedman, et al., MacLean pounds away with heavy artillery at 1986 Nobel Prize winner James Buchanan. MacLean depicts Buchanan as a racist (or at least sympathetic to segregation) whose work in economics (he pioneered the field now called public choice) was grabbed by the same dark, reactionary conservative forces that pushed “economism” to advance their goal of seizing control of America.

Ever since its publication, Democracy in Chains has been taking criticism from people who knew Buchanan, understand his work, and know that MacLean has smeared the man and misrepresented his thinking.

The most significant take-down of the book was written by one of MacLean’s colleagues at Duke, professor Michael Munger, a scholar who has spent many years studying public choice theory. He calls the book “speculative historical fiction” and writes with appropriate sarcasm, “MacLean is able to decode the true meaning of (Buchanan’s) mostly rather bland, academic-ese writing, after which he achieves the status of a Bond villain.”

In doing so, Munger observes, MacLean tramples all over the fundamental principle of scholarly charity—that you should “take the claims, words, and arguments of a subject at face value.” MacLean, in her eagerness to depict Buchanan as a nasty reactionary, hunts desperately for phrases she can interpret as his support for segregation and rule by the plutocracy.

Had she asked anyone who knew Buchanan if her speculations held water, she’d have heard that they did not. But MacLean wasn’t going to let the truth about Buchanan get in the way of a salacious story that would sell tons of books.

Another scholar who has blown the whistle on this book is Phillip Magness of George Mason University. He writes here that MacLean misuses evidence “to depict a non-existent intellectual debt between Buchanan and a group of pro-segregation agrarian poets from Vanderbilt.” Magness also shows that MacLean’s claim that John C. Calhoun was the “intellectual lodestar” of Buchanan and subsequent public choice economists is complete bunk. For one thing, Calhoun’s name never appears in any of Buchanan’s work (some 19 volumes).

Many others have voiced their criticism of MacLean for having written a terribly misleading hit piece, including David Henderson, Art Carden, and David Gordon.

In fact, there has been so much criticism that MacLean feels the need to ask supporters to come to her defense. As we read in this July 12 Inside Higher Ed story, MacLean is said to have written, “I really, really need your help…. Koch operatives and the riders of their academic gravy train…are working hard to kill Democracy in Chains and destroy my reputation….”

So rather than admit she has written some indefensible things in her book, MacLean calls on loyal members of her “progressive” tribe to launch a counterattack to save her book and reputation. That’s not the way academics should operate. When their work is challenged, they should squarely face each challenge, not evade it with ad hominem attacks on the motives, operation, or funding of the critics.

Professor Steve Horwitz nails the truth here, writing, “a book that smears libertarian and conservative ideas on the basis of shoddy scholarship gets attention because the author claims she’s under attack when she is called out in careful detail by other scholars.”

There is no law to prevent academics from writing misleading books that merely confirm the biases of politically passionate people. When they do so, however, they erode public confidence in our education system. That’s why it falls to college leaders to tell faculty members that their scholarship is expected to advance truth, not distort it.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    Books and articles like these are everywhere.
    Frederick Kaufman, “The Food Bubble: How Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away with It,” Harper’s Magazine (July 2010); Vincenzo Ruggiero, The Crimes
    of the Economy: A Criminological Analysis of Economic Thought (London: Routledge, 2013); Chuck Perrow, Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism (Princeton University Press, 2002), which I am reading now; Nomi Prins, It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009); Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan, 2007); Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Michael Hudson, Super-Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968); Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Times Books, 2006); Nick Turse, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (New York: Metropolitan, 2008); David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Philip Goodchild, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety (London: Routledge, 2002) and Theology of Money (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009); Steven Hahn, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830–1910 (New York: Viking, 2016); Eduardo Galeano, The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (New York: Monthly Review, 1973); Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2014); George Gonzales, Corporate Power and the Environment: The Political Economy of U.S. Environmental Policy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001); Will Potter, Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement under Siege (San Francisco: City Lights, 2011). One could add dozens of titles to the list.

    • DrOfnothing

      We’d be hard-pressed to find any historian whose work would withstand the hostile scrutiny that Bellesiles was subjected to, or who could withstand the political onslaught he endured. Michael paid a terrible price for challenging the NRA. Even though I fault his judgement in his interpretation of evidence, I respect his courage for bearding the lion in his den. The book is well worth reading, even if one must do so with a cynical eye. Isn’t that, as scholars, what we’re supposed to do–examine the case and decide for ourselves?

      • David M. Nieporent

        “We’d be hard-pressed to find any historian whose work would withstand the hostile scrutiny that Bellesiles was subjected to”

        This is… not a good argument. At least not if one is trying to defend Bellesiles.

        • DrOfnothing

          I’m not defending him, for the record. As I said very clearly, I think he made a grievous error of judgement.

          I am, on the other hand, disagreeing strongly with Leef’s assertion that he is a fraud who has no respect for facts. Considering how frequently Leef generously interprets evidence to suit his arguments, he has no grounds from which to level such a condemnation.

          Bellesiles work, flawed though it is, prompted a fierce discussion about crucial issues both in history and in modern society. In that sense, his spectacular failure was far more valuable than cynical mediocrity ever can be.

          • Alfred Ellis

            Did I misunderstand you? ” The book though flawed… prompted a discussion”. So if a flawed book prompted a discussion then we should just accept it?

          • DrOfnothing

            Accept the book’s argument? Absolutely not. Recognise that the debate that it prompted was valuable, yes, imho.

      • Micah Haber

        “We’d be hard-pressed to find any historian whose work would withstand the hostile scrutiny that Bellesiles was subjected to.”

        Uh-oh, time to start over again, I guess.

  • DrOfnothing

    For someone who demands “truth,” the author seems little concerned with fact. Clearly, they have not read the Bellesiles book, nor have they bothered to examine the details of the case against him.

    When Bellesiles had the effrontery to challenge the myth propagated by the NRA that 18th c. America was an enthusiastic “gun culture,” he was ruthlessly targeted by their membership and massive capital resources. This is how Con and Neocon groups work (much like the Koch brothers or the JMC), they use their financial resources to attack any argument they disagree with. It’s not about truth or even fact, merely who can wield the largest bank account.

    The evidence at hand–if the author had bothered to read “Arming America,” rather than just the YLJ article concerning it–was how the author had chosen to stretch his interpretation of the evidence with regards to gun ownership in 17th and 18th c. America. Bellesiles argued that the records demonstrated _definitively_ that gun ownership was rare. The records themselves were much more ambiguous on the point. This is what the YLJ argues, and they are certainly correct on this. Bellesiles’s analysis used ambiguous evidence as definitive.

    Analytically, historians tend to be quite conservative. Unless the evidence is definitive, they err on the side of caution. Bellesiles did not hew to this practice. If his book had not fostered a massive campaign by the NRA to move through his book with a fine-tooth comb, his argument, which was certainly plausible, might have indeed become canon. A wiser course on his part would have been to take the middle road and argue that the evidence, while contravening the “gun culture” myth that _everyone_ in colonial America had a working firearm, was otherwise murky on just how common gun ownership was.

    I don’t agree with what Michael did, and it was painful to watch, up close and in person, what happened to him during his final years at Emory. But I will not stand idly by while an author with absolutely no accountability, who has never conducted any serious research, and who is merely a polemicist labels him as dishonest and a fraud. Micheal did not manufacture evidence, nor did he deliberately misconstrue it–he chose a plausible interpretation and used it to challenge the massive lie perpetrated by one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the world. He lost. Leef’s own “research,” by comparison, wouldn’t stand up to the most casual scrutiny, and he should be more circumspect when speaking of those whose work he has never even bothered to read.

    • David M. Nieporent

      I admire your commitment to a conspiracy theory, but Bellesiles was an out-and-out fraud who manufactured evidence. For instance, he claimed to have relied on records that didn’t exist. And contrary to your claim that the YLJ argues that he drew too definitive conclusions from ambiguous records, the YLJ argues that he lied about what the records said. (Well, they’re kinder than I am; they don’t use the term “lie.”) If it were just about his far-fetched notion that the dearth of guns in probate records proved lack of gun ownership, it could be excused as a misinterpretation of the historical record by a poor scholar. But the problem was that the probate records didn’t say what he claimed. Nor did many of his other sources.

      There’s a reason Columbia disavowed the book, and Emory disavowed him entirely, and it wasn’t because they were scared of the NRA.

      • DrOfnothing

        You need to read the book itself. Any other judgement is ill-informed. Much of the debate revolves around the evidence employed in four pages.

        It’s also worth noting that the History Department had a massive flood in the midst of this, and both his notes and hard-drives were destroyed. Worst luck ever.

        I’m not defending his judgement or his scholarship. But Leef’s commentary is a _gross_ misrepresentation nonetheless.

        • jandr0

          [You need to read the book itself.]

          Erm no, I do not. For a non-fiction work, I need to be able to trust the author to accurately portray reality, and that trust I do not have.

          Simply insisting that “you need to read the book” is not going to change that.

          [Leef’s commentary is a _gross_ misrepresentation nonetheless.]

          Erm, for me it is a “no” again.

          While I admire your defense of someone who has apparently made an
          impact on you, you are not succeeding in salvaging that person’s
          reputation.

          In fact, it seems you are going to “gross” lengths to misrepresent the article we are commenting one, and its author.

          • DrOfnothing

            It’s fine for _you_ not to read the book. It is not acceptable for Leef not to read the book prior to writing a smear piece about the author.

        • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

          Post-Eighteenth Century, this is certainly plausible: “Bellesiles maintains that more widespread use and ownership of guns dated to the Civil War, a period of widespread advance in firearm manufacturing and a consequent reduction in price and improvement in accuracy.”

          This sounds like part of a social history of “gun culture,” the story of the construction of a powerful cultural symbol and how it is now perceived in the streets, by law enforcement and military, hunters, leftists and conservatives.

          However, I find the Flood Defense hard to believe.

          • DrOfnothing

            Glen, I was there when it happened. The sprinkler system in Bowden Hall malfunctioned. It’s also described in the author’s own refutation of the Emory committee’s findings (part 1b). The whole document is well worth reading. http://www.emory.edu/news/Releases/B_statement.pdf

          • David M. Nieporent

            Yeah, that was the infamous “Oh, I kept all of my data solely as 10,000 tally marks on yellow legal pads” defense.

            There was indeed a flood at one point, but whether that had any impact on anything is questionable. See, e.g. http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/742.

            (I am a practicing lawyer, and the number of opposing parties who claim to have lost all of their business records as a result of Hurricane Sandy is remarkable.)

  • Imagine you could use your money to rank potential targets for leftist scholars. How much money would you spend on Kwak’s target? How much money would you spend on MacLean’s target? Personally, I’d spend far more money on her target. I wish all leftists would try and attack Buchanan’s work. Unfortunately, virtually none do. Why don’t they? Maybe it’s because we haven’t used our money to rank/recommend potential targets.

  • flowerplough

    Professors should write books that make them money, or make them happy. Lucky ones’ll do both.

    • DrOfnothing

      That kind of luck is pretty uncommon, at least among serious historians. All the ones I know are poor and miserable. Seeing the truth about the folly of the human past tends to do that to you.

  • DrOfnothing

    Bellesiles’s response to the Emory committee’s findings is well worth reading. That the author of this commentary never moved beyond the Yale Law Journal article and into the rafts of material written both for and against Arming America is rather disappointing, to say the least.

    http://www.emory.edu/news/Releases/B_statement.pdf

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Thank you for sharing Prof. Bellesiles’s response to the Emory committee. Any idea when this was written? Prof B defends and apologizes for his probate record issues, but his attackers have found problems elsewhere as well. Even the YLJ authors acknowledge the data problems are in the early part of the period covered. The scholarly debate will continue with his second edition.