For those few of us in the mainstream media who openly support Second Amendment rights, research scholar John Lott has been — or rather, had been — an absolute godsend.
Armed with top-notch credentials (including stints at Stanford, Rice, UCLA, Wharton, Cornell, the University of Chicago and Yale), Lott took on the entrenched anti-gun bias of the ivory tower with seemingly meticulous scholarship. His best-selling 1998 book, “More Guns, Less Crime,” provided analysis of FBI crime data that showed a groundbreaking correlation between concealed-weapons laws and reduced violent crime rates.
I met Lott briefly after a seminar at the University of Washington in Seattle several years ago and was deeply impressed by his intellectual rigor. Lott responded directly and extensively to critics’ arguments. He made his data accessible to many other researchers.
But as he prepares to release a new book, “Bias Against Guns,” next month, Lott must grapple with an emerging controversy — brought to the public eye by the blogosphere — that goes to the heart of his academic integrity.
The most disturbing charge, first raised by retired University of California, Santa Barbara professor Otis Dudley Duncan and pursued by Australian computer programmer Tim Lambert, is that Lott fabricated a study claiming that 98 percent of defensive gun uses involved mere brandishing, as opposed to shooting.
When Lott cited the statistic peripherally on page three of his book, he attributed it to “national surveys.” In the second edition, he changed the citation to “a national survey that I conducted.” He has also incorrectly attributed the figure to newspaper polls and Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck.
Last fall, Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren volunteered to investigate the claimed existence of Lott’s 1997 telephone survey of 2,424 people. “I thought it would be exceedingly simple to establish” that the research had been done, Lindgren wrote in his report (posted online at http://www.cse.unsw.edu.au/~lambert/guns/lindgren.html).
It was not simple. Lott claims to have lost all of his data due to a computer crash. He financed the survey himself and kept no financial records. He has forgotten the names of the students who allegedly helped with the survey and who supposedly dialed thousands of survey respondents long-distance from their own dorm rooms using survey software Lott can’t identify or produce.
Assuming the survey data was lost in a computer crash, it is still remarkable that Lott could not produce a single, contemporaneous scrap of paper proving the survey’s existence, such as the research protocol or survey instrument. After Lindgren’s report was published, a Minnesota gun rights activist named David Gross came forward, claiming he was surveyed in 1997. Some have said that Gross’s account proves that the survey was done. I think skepticism is warranted.
Lott now admits he used a fake persona, “Mary Rosh,” to post voluminous defenses of his work over the Internet. “Rosh” gushed that Lott was “the best professor that I ever had.” She/he also penned an effusive review of “More Guns, Less Crime” on Amazon.com: “It was very interesting reading and Lott writes very well.” (Lott claims that one of his sons posted the review in “Rosh’s” name.) Just last week, “Rosh” complained on a blog comment board: “Critics such as Lambert and Lindgren ought to slink away and hide.”
By itself, there is nothing wrong with using a pseudonym. But Lott’s invention of Mary Rosh to praise his own research and blast other scholars is beyond creepy. And it shows his extensive willingness to deceive to protect and promote his work.
Some Second Amendment activists believe there is an anti-gun conspiracy to discredit Lott as “payback” for the fall of Michael Bellesiles, the disgraced former Emory University professor who engaged in rampant research fraud to bolster his anti-gun book, “Arming America.” But it wasn’t an anti-gun zealot who unmasked Rosh/Lott. It was Internet blogger Julian Sanchez, a staffer at the libertarian Cato Institute, which staunchly defends the Second Amendment. And it was the conservative Washington Times that first reported last week on the survey dispute in the mainstream press.
In an interview Monday, Lott stressed that his new defensive gun use survey (whose results will be published in the new book) will show similar results to the lost survey. But the existence of the new survey does not lay to rest the still lingering doubts about the old survey’s existence.
The media coverage of the 1997 survey data dispute, Lott told me, is “a bunch to do about nothing.” I wish I could agree.