February 25, 2003

Disarming academia

It is difficult to approach the recent controversy surrounding former U of C instructor John Lott's research for his influential More Guns, Less Crime without betraying one's politics in the process. A definitive answer to the questions about Lott's statistics has yet to come down, and by no means is his research, at present writing, discredited. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that the validity of his research will be openly questioned. The Lott controversy comes warm on the heels of the discrediting of Michael Bellesiles's Arming America last fall due to superficially similar problems regarding evidence. Whatever the outcome of the questions regarding More Guns, Less Crime, the accusations are certain to provoke more debate about gun control.

In highly politicized debates such as gun control, the temptation to stretch sparse evidence into facile arguments is exaggerated; so is the temptation to accuse responsible arguers of such below-the-belt tactics. The scandal surrounding Bellesiles' book began even before legitimate evidence surfaced that his methodology was suspect; it's unlikely that the high passions of each side in the gun debate will ever cool to the point that back-and-forth sniping over statistics will end. But, much as ever, those of us in academic circles must recognize our burden to argue responsibly; the ideas rejected by well-versed professors are capable of trickling down to the uninformed without the proper filtration that less political-minded scholars might provide.

If misinformation gets distributed, the most that any one student or professor can do is try to generate meaningful objections. These arguments need not be reduced to mere accusations and fact-warring. The uninformed segments of the public deserve access not only to statistics but to ideas as well. While we would fain stop our argument here with such shapeless remonstrance, we worry that our complaints might be received idly. Given the frequency with which terms like "discourse" and "debate" are bandied about, we really ought to do a good job arguing when we do it.

There's a perception, and it's not inaccurate, that our university is an ivory tower. More Guns, Less Crime and Arming America, however, are proof that our ideas leave the tower even if we ourselves do not. Lott, Bellesiles and their critics are former and current academics, and developed their varying approaches in environments similar to ours. The phrase "ivory tower" is a distraction from the reality that ideas floated in class, throughout the library and over coffee can grow into social beliefs and public policy. Open discussion should be fostered, but its outspoken participants must bear in mind how many people are listening.