Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief of Science has an editorial (subscription required) in the April 18 edition entitled “Research Fraud and Public Policy”. Here is some of it:
Michael Bellesiles, of Emory University, supported the gun control case with a book called Arming America. Part of his argument was that guns were rare at much earlier times in U.S. history. Challenged on that claim, he failed to produce the data, claiming that an office flood had destroyed his records. Emory empaneled a committee of scholars to investigate, and its report questioned Bellesiles “scholarly integrity.” He resigned from the Emory faculty, and the Bancroft Prize his book had won was revoked. The pro-gun faction began to chortle with glee; end of story, right?
Not so fast. Here is John Lott: ex-University of Chicago Law School, now at the American Enterprise Institute. His book More Guns, Less Crime claims that on 98% of the occasions in which citizens use guns defensively, the mere production of a weapon causes the criminal to desist. These data were allegedly based on some 2000 interviews conducted by Lott himself. But when pushed for the survey data, Lott gave a hauntingly familiar explanation: His hard drive had been destroyed in a computer crash. Apparently the dogs in this controversy eat everyone’s homework.
Wait. It gets even funnier. As the debate over gun laws spilled over from the scholarly journals to the Internet, Lott was defended passionately by a persistent ally named Mary Rosh. She attacked Lott’s academic critics, including John Donohue of Stanford Law School, claiming in one posting that Lott had been the “best professor I ever had.” Alas for Lott and his case, Mary Rosh now turns out to be—John Lott! The American Enterprise Institute has not yet followed the example Emory set with Bellesiles, though it might think about it.
Meanwhile, though, legislators in a number of states are still considering liberalizing concealed-weapon laws, and Lott’s book plays a continuing role in the debate. That moves this story from high comedy to a troubling challenge in social policy that isn’t funny at all. Death by shooting is a national public health problem. Sound social science, not cooked data, is what we need to work out the tough problems like the relationship between gun ownership and violent crime.
Oh, and if you think that last bit is unfair because no-one has shown that Lott’s data on concealed-weapon laws was cooked, well, stay tuned.