Is uncivil discourse quelling scholarship on controversial issues?

When a foundation officer tells me they cannot fund my work because I’m “too controversial,” I know the bad guys have won.
Arthur Kellermann, Professor and Chair of Emergency Medicine

Two days before returning to London for the appeal of last year’s famous defamation suit against her and her publisher, Deborah Lipstadt sat down in a local Starbuck’s with a chai tea latte and a sigh.

“It takes a toll,” said the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies. “Today I was supposed to be writing my next book, but I spent the whole damn day on stupid little details about the appeal.”

Lipstadt is writing a book addressing the lawsuit filed in England by historian David Irving, who accused her of libel for asserting in her 1994 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory that he was an anti-Semitic Holocaust denier who falsified history in his books. Irving accused Lipstadt of ruining his livelihood and generating enormous hatred of him. But the court ruled (and upheld in the appeal) that Lipstadt’s remarks were true. The trial was covered extensively in international media. Three books have already been published about it.

“My book on the trial will show that Irving is far worse than I knew when I wrote my first book,” Lipstadt says. “It all emerged from the evidence we uncovered and from the trial transcripts. We hung him on his own words.”

But Lipstadt is atypical. It’s hard to find many scholars willing to pursue a project that would land them in a multi-million dollar court case spanning six years and the Atlantic Ocean.

To many observers, a growing incivility in public discourse on scholarship is silencing work on controversial topics. Even before these days of terrorism and war, research on volatile subjects was becoming more vexed. Public discourse, writes sociolinguist Deborah Tannen in her 1999 book The Argument Culture, has gone from “making an argument for a point of view” to “having an argument—as in having a fight.”

Further, support for work on contentious issues is increasingly scarce. Funding agencies and publishers alike are being “scared off” by such rancorous ordeals, says Lipstadt, noting that the original British publisher of one of the books on her trial backed out of the project for fear of being sued.

Recently at Emory, several scholars have become embroiled in wars not of mere words, but of threat and harassment. Their work, they say, has been misinterpreted, misrepresented, and misattributed beyond recognition.

“When Worlds Collide"

“The nastiest stuff I ever read about myself was in a magazine called American Survivalist,” says Professor and Chair of Emergency Medicine Arthur Kellermann, who riled many a firearm enthusiast with his 1993 study in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that homes where guns are kept are more likely, on average, to be the scene of a suicide or homicide than similar homes without guns. “The ‘cover girl’ was a bipod-mounted, semiautomatic assault weapon. Across the top of the cover a banner headline read, ‘Arthur Kellermann, Anti-Gun Fanatic.’ Inside, the writers of the hate piece asserted that Janet Reno may have ordered in the troops at Waco, but I was personally responsible for the anti-gun hysteria in America that made Waco possible. That’s scary stuff.”

More worrisome to Kellermann was the impact of such rhetoric on federal funding for firearm injury prevention research. “My case-control study was the result of a painstaking, ten-year effort in three U.S. cities,” he says. “It required substantial funding to conduct it accurately and objectively. The findings were rigorously peer reviewed. I won two major research awards in part as a result of this work. But none of this mattered when people started playing politics.

“When public health research, including my studies, started to highlight the impact of gun violence, the political dynamic began to change. The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], which had funded my research as part of a broad commitment to injury prevention, was caught in the crossfire. The world’s most respected public health agency found itself characterized as this den of fraudulent, anti-freedom zealots. My work was cited as ‘the most egregious example of the cdc’s anti-gun bias.’” Under pressure from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its allies, Congress eliminated cdc funds for gun injury prevention and redirected the money to brain injury research. By 1996, CDC funding for Kellermann’s Center for Injury Control had dried up.

Another clash between highly charged political rhetoric and scholarly discourse concerned Associate Professor of Psychology Scott Lilienfeld. It began with a 1998 paper in Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association (APA). Temple University’s Bruce Rind and two colleagues had conducted a review of quantitative literature, finding a weak link between childhood sexual abuse and later psychopathology. Radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger blasted the article as an effort to normalize pedophilia. Both houses of Congress passed resolutions condemning it, and finally, the chief executive of the APA wrote that the findings “should have caused us to evaluate the article based on its potential for misinforming the public policy process. This is something we failed to do, but will do in the future.”

Lilienfeld submitted an article to another APA-sponsored journal, American Psychologist, criticizing the apa’s capitulation to political pressure. The protests and their impact, he argued, detract from scientists’ ability to report their findings without undue interference, undermining all research on controversial topics.

Lilienfeld’s article, titled “When Worlds Collide,” was reviewed and accepted for publication following revisions to “tone it down.” It was slated to appear in the June 2001 issue. On May 10, however, Lilienfeld received a letter from the journal’s editor. “My article had now been unaccepted for publication,” Lilienfeld says. “He asked me to write an entirely new article removing all material dealing with the Rind et al. article and its aftermath, which amounts to about 60 percent of my article.”

Facing strong protests from the psychology community and some negative press, American Psychologist agreed to publish the article in a special section, along with several commentaries, in the December 2001 issue, at the earliest. “The APA never acknowledged that something was seriously amiss, even though it was clear that this action was politically motivated,” Lilienfeld says.

Weapons and words

A fourth recent emory case underscores how polemical responses to scholarship can overwhelm reasoned discourse. In Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, published last fall, Associate Professor of History Michael Bellesiles argues that his meticulous research disproved the myth that gun ownership was prevalent in pre-Civil War America. Noted historian Garry Wills praised Bellesiles in the New York Times Book Review for having “dispersed the darkness that covered the gun’s early history in America.” He received Columbia University’s prestigious Bancroft Prize.

Not all responses were so glowing, however. Believing the book undermined the historical intent of the Second Amendment, the nra and other advocacy groups posted web sites accusing Bellesiles of scholarly fraud and “promoting statist public policies that reveal the class hatred felt by many intellectuals for a broad section of the American people”(www.mises.org).

“I was getting hate email,” Bellesiles says. “One person, over four days in a row, sent me the same expletive-laced email at least a hundred times a day.” Bellesiles says he also received threatening phone calls at home and numerous computer viruses via email, and that his web site was “hacked.” He changed his email address and got an unlisted home number. He attributes much of the harassment to Internet culture. “The web does this amazing thing. There’s an instant community. The isolated wacko can become part of this international movement.”

Then this fall, the Boston Globe ran a front-page story on Northwestern University legal scholar James Lindgren’s assertions that Bellesiles had distorted probate records, supplied erroneous data, and reached “mathematically impossible” conclusions. The Globe suggested a “disturbing pattern of misuse of data,” and the National Review followed with a scathing editorial calling the book “one of the worst cases of academic irresponsibility in memory.”

Although Bellesiles was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education saying that Lindgren’s criticisms were “valid,” he emailed the Academic Exchange, “I have never understood Lindgren’s logic of mathematical impossibility. Since neither he nor I have the numbers, which were lost in the Bowden [Hall] flood [in 2000], I am at a loss to grasp his omniscience.”

Emory history department chair James Melton requested that Bellesiles respond to the criticisms in a public and professional forum. In a statement for the Organization of American Historians (OAH) November newsletter, Bellesiles notes that only five paragraphs of the book address the probate records. He concedes one error in the first printing of his book, another in the bibliography on his web site about the location of some of the probate records, and three possible errors in his probate notations. He says he now believes his sample set methodology was insufficient. He has pledged to revise his study on his web site and retrace his steps to address other accusations that he misrepresented the records. He adds, however, “Many very interesting criticisms of Arming America and alternative readings of the evidence have found it difficult to get around the arguments over probate records.”

Bellesiles is more wary than ever of public debate about his work. “I think the only place this kind of conversation could go on is in scholarly journals, and there it’s not really a conversation,” he told the Academic Exchange. “It’s more a long-term dialogue.”

Nonetheless, he writes to his OAH colleagues, “The real test before our profession, it seems to me, is our ability to address an issue of contemporary concern in a scholarly fashion without evoking relentless denunciation and severe passions.” A.O.A.