a foundation officer tells me they cannot fund my work because Im
too controversial, I know the bad guys have won.
Arthur Kellermann, Professor and Chair of Emergency Medicine
days before returning to London for the appeal of last years
famous defamation suit against her and her publisher, Deborah Lipstadt
sat down in a local Starbucks with a chai tea latte and a
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 Lipstadts 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. Its 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 argumentas
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
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. Thats 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 worlds 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 cdcs 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 Kellermanns
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 Universitys
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 apas 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.
Lilienfelds 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
journals 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.
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 guns early history in America.
He received Columbia Universitys 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
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. Theres 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 Lindgrens 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 Lindgrens criticisms were valid, he
emailed the Academic Exchange, I have never understood Lindgrens
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 its not really a conversation,
he told the Academic Exchange. Its more a long-term
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.