March
19th 2012
Mike Daisey and the Truth

Posted under: American history, art, jobs, technoskepticism, the body, unhappy endings, wankers, weirdness

Locked and loaded!

Public Radio International’s This American Life last week was forced to retract a story they ran last January that drew heavily on a performance piece by Mike Daisey currently playing off-Broadway in New York.  Ira Glass writes on the website:

I have difficult news. We’ve learned that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China – which we broadcast in January – contained significant fabrications. We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth. This is not a story we commissioned. It was an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which he talks about visiting a factory in China that makes iPhones and other Apple products.

The China correspondent for the public radio show Marketplace tracked down the interpreter that Daisey hired when he visited Shenzhen China. The interpreter disputed much of what Daisey has been saying on stage and on our show. On this week’s episode of This American Life, we will devote the entire hour to detailing the errors in “Mr. Daisey [and] the Apple Factory.”

Daisey lied to me and to This American Lifeproducer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.

We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. Many dedicated reporters and editors – our friends and colleagues – have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It’s trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.

Glass and TAL did the right thing to retract this story and to devote last weekend’s entire show to correcting the record and to conducting a kind of on-air autopsy of what went wrong with TAL’s Daisey’s reporting and TAL’s fact checking.  You can listen to the podcast of “Retraction” here, or read the transcript–it’s worth an hour of your time, especially if you were as entranced and as repulsed as I was by “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.”  To sum it up briefly here, Daisey met with far fewer Chinese workers and union members than he reported; he never interviewed workers with hands shaking from hexane poisoning; he can’t substantiate his claims about the use of under-age workers; he never saw their dorm rooms.  In short, some of his more dramatic claims appear to have been either wholly fabricated or drawn from media coverage generated by other reporters covering Chinese factories. 

Kudos to Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz, who tracked down Daisey’s translator to verify Daisey’s story with a very complicated and labor-intensive process known as a Google search.  This is a translator that when TAL asked for her contact information, Daisey claimed was unreachable.  It was at that point, Ira Glass says, that TAL should have spiked the story.

As a historian and as a straight shooter, nothing pisses me off more than people who want the charge of claiming to tell “a true story” but instead are just spinning yarns.  It seems like every few years we have another Truth Eruption, in which this historian or that autobiographer is revealed to have been in fact a spectacular liar or novelist all along.  In Glass’s very uncomfortable interview with Daisey and Schmitz on the line together, Daisey tries to claim–unconvincingly in my view–that because he’s a writer and performer that he doesn’t have to meet such a precise standard about what he claims to have seen with his own eyes under cover of artistic license.  But that’s bullcrap:  he bills his show as a true story, and he went along with TAL’s fact-checking process, which give the lie to his attempts to claim “artistic license” now.  You don’t get to perform like a superhero with a cape and a big T for Truth on your chest, and then when caught say that no one should have taken everything you said as actually true.  

Reporters and historians play by different rules so that we can protect the concept of the truth, even if most of us are doubtful that there is anything like metaphysical Truth with a Capital T transhistorically and globally for all eternity.  Mike Daisey came to the attention of TAL because they were excited by the truth of his alleged reporting, and he did nothing to advise them about the various embroideries and fabrications that .  This is why of all of the recent history scandals in the American historical profession, nothing offends me more than Joseph Ellis’s serial repeated lies to his students.  Daisey, like Ellis, was getting a charge out of his audience by claiming to be telling a true story, but that charge turns out to be just artifice and manipulation–like Dr. Harvey Kellogg’s many electrical vibrators and stimulating devices.  And nothing disgusts me more than this kind of professional dishonesty and manipulation.

Did you hear the show–either the original or “Retraction?”  What do you think?  Are you as cheesed as I am, or do you think writer/performers should be understood to be playing by different rules than reporters and historians?

45 Comments »

45 Responses to “Mike Daisey and the Truth”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe on 19 Mar 2012 at 6:29 pm #

    I’m not sure what to think about this, but I do love that gorgeous fucken car in the top picture.

  2. for sure on 19 Mar 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    He presented himself as a reporter! I don’t know how he presents himself in his career more broadly because I’d never heard of Mike Daisey before that TAL episode, but on that episode, it was not framed as entertainment, it was framed as journalism.

    I’m in anthropology, which is even more of a “trust me” field than journalism or history in terms of research verifiability. Many things that a researcher sees or experiences are not things that would be replicable for a researcher 10 years later, or of a different race, gender, or age…and we don’t consider any of that invalidating. But there is at least the basic standard that your work was empirical, if not replicable, and that if you heard stories about something but didn’t see it, you make that CLEAR.

  3. koshembos on 19 Mar 2012 at 7:01 pm #

    Heard the catcher in the lie part. Not as cheesed as you are, more of very over ripe bananaized. There are so many liars, it makes it difficult to feel anything but discomfort.

    In sciences we have mountains of worse than lies. These are results that have absolutely no real or lasting meaning. Probably 90% of our publications are of that type. Really bad!

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj on 19 Mar 2012 at 7:55 pm #

    As a professional creative writer, and teacher of same, I find what he did abhorrent.

  5. polarbearfan on 19 Mar 2012 at 8:13 pm #

    Truth Eruptions? Yeah, we love ‘em. So, Historiann, how do you feel about Rigoberta Menchu? It seems to me that Mr. Daisey could use the same defense: what he said was fictional, but there’s the whole collective-truth thing, and anyway, it was in the interest of a greater good. There’s also Michael Bellesiles, who, AFAIK, has never acknowledged that he was lying, but the situation is more or less the same.

  6. sophylou on 19 Mar 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    Amen re Joseph Ellis.

  7. Indyanna on 19 Mar 2012 at 8:24 pm #

    I don’t consume much more radio (public or otherwise) than I do t.v., so have been following this one at some distance. I can’t quite wrap my imagination around the concept, or practice, of “basing,” or “excerpting” a “story” dressed up in a journalistic venue on something that’s simultaneously appearing on a nearby stage under the rubric of a “one man show,” since I pretty much by definition assume that anything presented as the latter is at least somewhat reshaped in the staging. However much it may be drawn from the published writings of a historical figure, or transcripts of “actual” events, etc. Is this a reflection of the effect of shrinking budgets on the technical production of journalistic content? I think a lot of cross-platform informational partnering is going on today that may be inherently weakening the perceived integrity of the various forms as traditionally understood.

    [And why, parenthetically–not that it’s germane here but I’ve always been curious–do journalists call the process of gathering of information in the field “reporting,” and the written production of the specific thing the audience hears/reads something else? It seems counterintuitive from an academic practice and most every other field I can think of. The “report” is when the staff aide comes wheezing into the tent to inform the general that the battle line is collapsing, not when the aid discovers with hir own eyes and ears that the battle line is collapsing. A historical “report” is the consequence of research, not the process of research.

    On the Capital T/transhistorical truth front, c.f. today’s obituary in the NYT for Peter Novick, wherein we learn that his (1988?) book _That Noble Dream_ is barely a footnote to the public perception of his broader cultural contribution, whereas it took the graduate seminars by storm when it hit the stands back then.

  8. truffula on 19 Mar 2012 at 8:51 pm #

    I heard the show and appreciated it particularly for the autopsy. That’s the thoughtful, journalistic way to go, to suppose there is a lesson to be learned and a story in it as well. That’s one of the things I like about TAL. I think the show has always had this sensibility but I wonder if their outstanding reporting on the mortgage crisis has had an internal effect.

  9. Historiann on 19 Mar 2012 at 9:26 pm #

    Indyanna: I think you’re right: public radio outsourcing its reporting to a one-man-showman does sound kind of weird! But again, I think the reason TAL was interested in his “reporting” is that he got up on stage and told these stories like he was an eyewitness to the maiming and abuse that he claims is at the heart of Chinese manufacturing today. And TAL is not exactly a news program–regular listeners know that it’s got a mix of some reporting with fiction stories and what I would call creative nonfiction essays.

    Speaking of which: thanks, Mary Anne–it’s interesting to hear from you on this. Also for sure, the anthropologist–I hadn’t thought about how un-verifiable your work is (versus a historian’s work, for example, or other kinds of scholarship) but that’s a terrific point. It’s all a house of cards without some basic integrity.

    This brings me to polarbearfan’s question about Bellesiles: I don’t think the Bellesiles case is quite comparable, but YMMV. Many of his stories about what happened to his evidence were dodgy, but I don’t think that anyone has proved that he set out with evil in his heart to deceive. Most of that book as I read it is a very one-sided and selective reading of the evidence, which may well be wrong (and I think it is/was) but I think falls more into the realm of scholarly debate/disagreement rather than prima facie evidence of his mendacity.

    Daisey and Ellis have admitted that they are/were verifiably full of $hit, so I have less of a problem judging their behavior as outside the bounds of scholarship and reporting.

    As for Menchu: it’s been a long, long time since I thought about her, but I’d probably put her in the same category as Daisey, IIRC. But since that story is 20++ years old, I didn’t think it was worth writing about. I guess I was thinking about stuff mostly that’s come out in the past decade: Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and James Frey came to my mind, but Menchu is certainly all of the same piece.

  10. Isis the Scientist on 20 Mar 2012 at 2:43 am #

    He’s a slime ball who’s trying desperately, and ridiculously, to save face. The sad part of it all is that those who are legitimately advocating for workers’ rights are going to have much harder time convincing people that they are being truthful.

  11. tony grafton on 20 Mar 2012 at 3:12 am #

    I’m pretty sure that the crowds of admiring listeners in NYC thought Mike Daisey was describing things he’d actually seen. Isis is right, the worst thing about this is the damage it will do for years to efforts to improve working conditions in China and elsewhere. Every time an accurate report appears, flacks and bobbleheads will do damage control by citing Daisey.

  12. quixote on 20 Mar 2012 at 9:19 am #

    I haven’t been following the Daisey flap, so maybe that’s why it seems like a mosquito bite on a plague patient.

    Sure, mosquito bites are bad and shouldn’t happen. But the larger issue is dreadful and worsening exploitation of workers all over the world. It’s good Daisey’s specific lack of evidence was noted, but the real point is: were the points he raised true?

    If there is evidence of that kind of exploitation, it should have been stressed in the next sentence. I’m under the general impression that every one of those points has been substantiated, just not by Daisey. If that’s true, that’s the topic. Daisey’s lack of ethics is an important footnote for journalists. The workers’ problems are a social toxin corroding life as we know it.

  13. Bridgett on 20 Mar 2012 at 9:24 am #

    I did hear the original story. It was actually so interesting that I sat in parking lot to hear the last 10 minutes of it. Aa I listened, I remember being surpirsed about his observations adn information, imagining how closely he was monitored on his visit. Interestingly, I honestly can’t say I doubted their accuracy. Now I am very crurious to listen to the retraction episode.

  14. Spanish Prof on 20 Mar 2012 at 9:32 am #

    Menchu is of the same piece as Blair and Frey??? Are you serious?

  15. Historiann on 20 Mar 2012 at 9:38 am #

    Spanish Prof: like I said, it’s been years since I read about Menchu, so I can’t really comment intelligently on it.

  16. Spanish Prof on 20 Mar 2012 at 11:07 am #

    I understand, let’s leave it at that. I was about to write a post rebutting it, because I was not happy with the comment, but I have a lot of things to do that were supposed to be finished a month ago (seriously), and I am sure you have better things to do too. It’s just that sometimes, I can’t resist engaging in discussions.

  17. Historiann on 20 Mar 2012 at 11:11 am #

    I should not have ventured any opinion at all without further reading, but I guess you read my mind!

  18. Spanish Prof on 20 Mar 2012 at 11:23 am #

    Yeah, and the soap in the toilet didn’t help my mood this morning (see my last post). Now I will write a post involving Harold Bloom, and it’s all your fault!

  19. Historiann on 20 Mar 2012 at 11:43 am #

    That soap problem was never a plumber problem, and who ever has heard of a plumber who would charge $2,000 to snake a toilet??? Your maintenance person should be fired. What a lazy jerk!

    Now you have a snake & can fix your own simple toilet problems–but the point is that you RENT so snaking the toilet is SOMEONE ELSE’S PROBLEM.

    I would complain to the owner. I’m sure she or he doesn’t want service people called in to fix utterly simple problems.

  20. Spanish Prof on 20 Mar 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    Copy and pasting my comment in my own blog:

    You are probably right. The maintenance guy is as lazy as it comes. But my landlord is like him, ten times worse. The maintenance guy came first, took a look at the problem, said he would be back, and when he return is that he told me about the 2K. My guess is that it was the landlord actually tried to somehow get 2K out of me. I live in a wonderful, beautiful neighborhood (with an art movie theater around the corner) that has unaffordable houses (around 350-500K in a city with very low cost of living) but very cheap rent (the apartments are old and without amenities). I put up with the landlord because I want to stay living there for $750 for a 2 bedroom apartment. And he knows that people renting there are willing to put up with a lot just to live in the neighborhood. My husband and I have been wanting to move downtown, which, if you don’t have kids, is a great place to live. We’ve decided we’ll do that in the summer of 2013 if I get tenure next year.

  21. Bix on 20 Mar 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    I listened to the original episode on a long coach ride and have not yet had a chance to listen to the “Retraction” episode. At the time I was listening to the original episode, I couldn’t believe some of the stuff he was finding out/seeing. I find logistics fascinating and found myself constantly wondering how he was doing things/seeing things that he said he did. However I saw no real reason to doubt the story.

    Like many have said, it is too bad that this happened with this particular story because it doesn’t help advance workers’ rights.

  22. Historiann on 20 Mar 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    This just in: A new book says that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was frequently embroidered. Maybe not such a surprise, but it looks like this book offers a detailed view.

    Bix, Isis, Tony, etc.: yes, Daisey’s fabrications will cause many people to view complaints about labor & human rights in China as whiny exaggeration. In the original story, I found myself wondering how it was that Daisey was able to find so many members of an “illegal” union to talk to.

  23. Indyanna on 20 Mar 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    Someone with a better grounding in the sub-genre of the “non-fiction novel” than I have would have to enlighten me as to just what was at stake, but having been alive, aware, and literate back in that day–and notwithstanding what Capote might have “always sworn” according to the piece in the link–I literally can’t remember anyone back then *not* thinking that Capote had “embroidered” some of his “reporting.” What stylistic or structural elements would make it a “non-fiction *novel*” if the author didn’t do that? Maybe venturing as to actors’ states of mind that wouldn’t be available to reportorial investigation, and beyond the reach of normal “fact checking?” The whole cultural stir around the arrival of _In Cold Blood_, as I recall having understood it then, was that fidelity to narrow factuality was being foregone in the supposed service of some broader truth. I can’t even remember where I might have thought I stood on that issue at the time.

  24. truffula on 20 Mar 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    I assigned a popular history book (written by a journalist) to one of my classes this term and a number of students remained unclear throughout that it was NONfiction, no matter how many times I clarified this point. Some thought the book was about real events but not real people, as in “historical fiction” or a television show “based on real events.”

    My thoughts about this are two. 1) I wonder if “reality TV” or police procedurals have anything to do with blurring of the line between fiction and nonfiction. 2) It may be that students have no awareness that history involves research and synthesis of events involving, you know, actual people.

  25. Historiann on 20 Mar 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    That’s interesting, truffula. Most of my students have no problem understanding that history is non-fiction, but then, most of them are already History majors. Can it have been because he’s not a historian but rather a journalist? In my experience, undergraduate students are touchingly trusting that anything professors say and the authors of the books they read have written is all honest and on the level.

    (Many nevertheless call the books we read “novels” at first, which is what I think they call any single-authored book that’s also not a textbook, but they don’t mean to confuse fiction v. non-fiction in that usage.)

  26. Feminist Avatar on 20 Mar 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    So, not because they are all Walter Scott-ites and believe that historical truth is to be found in the romance of narrative, as much as the fact, then?

  27. Historiann on 20 Mar 2012 at 5:44 pm #

    No. I think they think it’s too simple to just write “book,” and they don’t yet know the term “monograph,” which is a pretty pretentious and obscurantist word when you think about it.

    Speaking of the Romance of the Narrative: I’m now reading a historical novel published in 1900, Alice of Old Vincennes, about frontier Indiana and the days when French people and Indians were still the dominant populations. Maybe I’ll share some excerpts here–it’s very true to its Colonial Revival roots. I really can’t stand most historical fiction published contemporarily, but I actually enjoy the really cheesy old “romances” like this one, probably because I have zero expectation of verisimilitude or extensive research.

  28. Indyanna on 20 Mar 2012 at 6:56 pm #

    (The actual) Judge Symmes, who rode circuit in the Northwest Territory in the 1790s, had this to say about Old Vincennes: The (presumably European) women “are tollerably inviting, they are of good persons and have a most noble gait, far better than is sometimes met with in New York–their dress is clean and sometimes rich.” Most of the men, on the other hand, were “wretched in dress and Manners…. highly imitating the Indians with whom they have since the foundation of their town been largely conversant.” Then the old boy really got going: “The men here are barely one removed from the Indians, and yet they are the greatest slaves to their wives in the world. They milk the cows–cook for the family–fetch and carry and in a word do every thing that is done in doors and out, washing their linnen excepted, while the women spend their time walking about, sitting at their doors, or nursing their children from morning to night, and if one might judge from the contrast I am led to suppose that through the night the men are obliged to observe an humble distance.” [Symmes to Robert Morris, June 22, 1790, _Correspondence of John Cleves Symmes_, 298). Symmes was a cranky old Federalist who never seemed to be having a good day, and one who a historian of frontier Indiana described engagingly as a “beleaguered patriarch” whose several wives could never be gaveled back to any degree of tolerable order.

    You can get the students to eventually stop calling their books “novels?” If there’s an app for that, it would be a runaway download over this way!

  29. John S. on 20 Mar 2012 at 7:08 pm #

    @Historiann: regarding Bellesilles, I suppose I am less charitable than you. After reading about the controversy and even reading the scholarly report Emory University commissioned to examine the book, I find it hard to believe that he didn’t intentionally fabricate evidence. (Without going too much into the thickets of the controversy, Bellesiles claimed to have looked at records at one Historical Society that were located at another historical society; cited records that didn’t exist; and claimed to have read microfilm records provided by the Mormon Church that they couldn’t have given him.) The committee concluded that he “move[d] into the realm of ‘falsification’,” which put him in violation of Emory’s policies.

    It does raise the question of “intent to deceive” and “evil in his heart.” Does it matter *why* someone falsifies data? Or should we just judge the product of falsification by its effects? I’ve always supposed that Bellesiles did what he did out of career ambition–I mean, lots of us would love to write something controversial and win the Bancroft.

    And: Menchu came up briefly in a class on biography I taught this term, when we read about Olaudah Equiano; we discussed Vincent Carretta’s biography and the possibility that Equiano was born in America and that his account of his early life in Africa (and subsequent kidnapping into slavery) was untrue. My students were torn on the question of whether or not it would be worth telling untruths if it would help end the slave trade. So for them, possible motives for falsification mattered.

  30. Nikki on 21 Mar 2012 at 5:30 am #

    I never read David Stoll’s book that sparked the Mechu controversy, but I remember reading interviews and reviews at the time. I think what was off-putting to me was how positively gleeful Stoll and his supporters seemed to be. My sense was that they didn’t really understand (nor did they care to understand) what testimonio literature is.

    (also–I am not a lit professor so I may be misunderstanding testimonio as a genre as well.)

  31. Spanish Prof on 21 Mar 2012 at 6:18 am #

    I am not an expert on testimonio, but on the Menchú case you have to consider many issues (the role of Elisabeth Burgos, the systematic denial of the atrocities being committed, the role of the US, etc)

    Here is an article from 2010 about the controversy:
    http://www.thenation.com/article/154582/it-was-heaven-they-burned&page=full

  32. Tenured Radical on 21 Mar 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    I don’t know if anyone read the article in the New Yorker about the primate scientist Marc Hauser that Harvard shut down. But the author — a scientist — argued that there is far more fraud and manipulation of results in science than we know, and that the culprits are usually super-bright, ambitious guys.

    What troubles me when we only talk about Menchu and Bellesiles (who I believe a panel of historians investigated and it was fairly clear that he not only cut corners in the research and knew it) is that they are used to specifically undercut human rights and left-wing agendas.

    In fact, there is lots, and lots, and lots of lying (the New Yorker also had an article about a serial plagiarizer, who mosaic plagiarized everything he wrote.)

    As a cultural phenomenon, I put it to you all for analysis: why is it the people who are trying to do something good (and lying about it in the process) who become the focus for moral outrage?

  33. Z on 21 Mar 2012 at 7:48 pm #

    TR — because people feel it’s so dissonant, can’t conjugate lying and goodness?

    Just yesterday my students said egotism and machismo were OK on the right, because they are to be expected there, but much worse on the left, because they shouldn’t be there. They uphold right wing projects so they are even “good” (useful) there, but undermine left wing ones so are more morally reprehensible than they would be on the left.

    I’m a big fan of ethics but I’m getting so I don’t want to hear a thing about morals. (Not sure yet how to develop this, I think I need a philosophy class.)

  34. Z on 21 Mar 2012 at 7:54 pm #

    Nikki – I am a lit professor. I ended up walking around the Rigoberta Menchu zone of Guatemala a few years ago. It was interesting, I ran into quite a few Peace Corps types who were all like Stoll. Well meaning in a lot of their work but very upset about Menchu.

    Ran into a Peruvian economist now working there, asked him what he thought of this phenomenon. He said: “She’s Native American and a woman whose book made her really famous; she won an international prize; she did this without doing a PhD or being a professor; they cannot stand it.”

    FWIW.

  35. truffula on 21 Mar 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    You can get your RDA of academic liars, cheats, and greedy frauds at University Diaries. All disciplines, plus athletics.

  36. polarbearfan on 21 Mar 2012 at 8:28 pm #

    @TR: very simple. If activists have to lie in order to get people to pay attention to their “good cause”, then maybe the cause isn’t really so good. (E.g. the evidence, in the Menchu case, that ordinary folks didn’t like the guerrillas any better than they liked the army.)

  37. Historiann on 22 Mar 2012 at 9:26 am #

    I think the Bellesiles case is much more about the perils of publishing with a trade press (the absence of peer review) and the desire/pressure to write a *big* book that makes a *big* splash. The historians Emory hired to look into the case were given only a very narrow charge. People interested in reading more about this can see Peter Hoffer’s Past Imperfect and Jon Wiener’s Historians in Trouble.

    I am an expert in the field that Bellesiles writes in, and while I thoroughly disagree with the unsubtle way he reads the vast majority of his evidence and how his absolutist arguments on the basis of very mushy and ambiguous evidence, I also think that the book had several powerful contributions to make w/r/t the history of gun ownership and the use of guns in early America. I just wish that he wasn’t in such a rush and that he had made his arguments so as to permit the readers to see the complexity and ambiguity in his evidence.

    I think people are permitted to be wrong and to publish wrong history without receiving death threats and having to live in undisclosed locations. And the scholarly community very quickly discovered some major problems with his evidence and his argument, and did publish those findings in what passes for lightning speed in academic history journals (see the William and Mary Quarterly January 2002 edition, for example. (The book was published just 15 months before that extensive forum with multiple scholars appeared.) That’s how the process works: historians are free to advance difficult or politically charged arguments, and then the scholarly community should render its judgment.

    As a friend of mine once said, “lord knows that if anyone cared to look at each footnote in our books that they’d find something to complain about. But that’s not going to happen, because no one really cares about what we write about!”

  38. Barbara Fister on 22 Mar 2012 at 3:08 pm #

    Interesting discussion. I think one huge difference between Daisey and Menchu is that Daisy was not a Chinese laborer who was telling the story of people like himself. He wasn’t standing in for a group of people. I don’t know much about testimonio, or about Stoll’s critique, but that seems a significant distinction to me.

    My sense of deep frustration with Daisey’s version of “truth” was that he took an important story that apparently mattered to him and didn’t trust his audience to handle the truth – he had to enhance it and enhance his role in the story. (I wrote about this from a librarian’s perspective at Inside Higher Ed.)

    I think there’s a level of trust violated that makes these kinds of lies especially upsetting – as is the case when any respected historian or scientist casually dismissing deliberate or extremely careless treatment of evidence.

  39. John S. on 22 Mar 2012 at 3:18 pm #

    I’ll weigh in on Bellesiles one last time: I think it is about more than publishing with a trade press. After all, subsequent investigation into his work suggested that his prize winning article in the JAH, which appeared in 1996, had many of the same flaws that came out in his trade press book–the research was marred by sloppiness at best and outright falsification at worst. As Hoffer points out in his book, Bellesiles was already “finessing” the data at the article stage, and peer review didn’t catch it.

    The problems in his quantitative data about the rates of gun ownership really aren’t questions of being “unsubtle” or “absolutist.” And though the book also relies on a great deal of qualitative evidence as well (which I agree he deals with in an “absolutist” way) neither his published article nor his book really “work” if rates of gun ownership are as high as other scholars who’ve looked at the same probate records suggest.

    *Of course* people should be permitted to be wrong and publish inaccurate history without death threats. And it is good that the WMQ held that Forum in January 2002 to address the topic. But I would disagree with the idea that the Bellesiles case is “how the process works” because it strikes me that he did more than just “advance difficult or politically charged arguments”–he advanced those arguments using data that that he in some cases simply made up. To me that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. I can’t believe that if I looked randomly footnotes of other early Americanists’ books I’d find the level of scholarly malfeasance Bellesiles exhibited.

  40. Nikki on 22 Mar 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    @Z: I would agree with the Peruvian economist and add a Cold War context to the mix.

  41. Nikki on 22 Mar 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    To clarify–the cold war context of Menchu’s story. I think Stoll’s work came out in the context of the debates raging in the 1990s academy vis-a-vis postmodern theory.

  42. Nikki on 22 Mar 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    Finally–@Spanish Prof–thanks for that link. It clarified what I was trying to say.

  43. Tenured Radical on 23 Mar 2012 at 7:54 am #

    Deferring to Historiann’s expertise in the field, I would also say — in an informal conversation with one of the members of the investigating committee, it was apparently clear to everyone that there was active falsification.

    Which is, of course, what prominent, non-scholarly right wingers do constantly — so I would not only go with the “doesn’t deserve death threats” but that the shame of exposure is very powerful and that is really enough. Oddly, Joseph Ellis was culpable of similar self-grandiosity in the classroom, but the investigation that was commissioned by the Pulitzer committee found no flaws in his prize-winning book.

    Two questions: just as we have heard little about the real estate agents who shoehorned people into houses they couldn’t afford, swearing all the while that it was “a good investment” we hear little about the role of agents in urging their clients forward into memoir-like nonfiction that is more sellable but often shaky in the truth department. Publishing houses don’t edit: agents have taken up that role. But they don’t want to be responsible for the lengths that authors might go to get attention/publication.

    Second: the vast majority of people who get caught in these falsehoods appear to be men. What do we make of that? I mean, there is one Rigoberto Menchu: I can name five Michael Bellesisles off the top of my head.

  44. Historiann on 23 Mar 2012 at 8:12 am #

    Welcome, Barbara–I read and enjoy Library BableFish! Thanks for commenting over here.

    I am not comfortable saying that Bellesiles set out with evil in his heart to defraud us. Perhaps the investigating committee saw different evidence than they reported on. And yet, as Jon Wiener points out in Historians in Trouble, scholars who admit that they engaged in fraud, settle lawsuits out of court, and/or confess that their books are completely unreliable and should be withdrawn still hold their tenured positions in their respective colleges or universities. (Not just Ellis, but also Doris Kearns Goodwin and Edward Pearson.)

    I think Bellesiles wrote a bad book–but did he really deserve to lose his job over it (not to mention the death threats and personal hounding), when there are so many other examples we can point to where people were caught dead to rights and yet are still in tenured positions? So part of my “defense” of Bellesiles is my pique that no one else got fired in any of these other messes.

    I will say this: he did not handle his critics well, either the non-professional historians or the professional historians. When my graduate students and I read his book as well as the WMQ forum last semester (and other comments and analyses of the case), they were pretty amazed that he was so apparently cavalier and condescending to pretty much anyone who questioned his research. I think this certainly made it easier for both the gun people and the professional historians to go after and/or wash their hands of him.

    My students were also amazed that he 1) wrote a book that was clearly provocative, but 2) was so unprepared when his book got the attention he was apparently looking for.

    Tenured Radical makes an interesting observation about sex and professional misconduct/truthiness issues. My sense is that girls are trained to follow the rules much more rigorously than boys, and that boys are actually rewarded for rule-breaking and other assertions of self as they grow up. I see this among my students, too: women read instructions and follow them to a much greater degree than men do, and this may help explain not just the numerical dominance of women in college but also the fact that women get better grades than male college students.

  45. Comradde PhysioProffe on 25 Mar 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    Tenured Radical makes an interesting observation about sex and professional misconduct/truthiness issues.

    My unscientific anecdotal impression is that the overwhelmingly vast majority of perpetrators of scientific misconduct (at least, those who get caught) are male. This based on the official published “Notices” on the NIH Web site that I pay attention to.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply