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The rehabilitation of John "More Guns, Less Crime" Lott

Posted by Christopher Shea  June 14, 2010 01:53 PM

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Henry Farrell, of Crooked Timber, wonders why the Cato Institute would associate itself with John R. Lott, Jr., author of the 1998 book "More Guns, Less Crime." The DC-based libertarian think tank plans to play host to a talk by Lott, on June 17, pegged to the publication of the third edition of Lott's controversial book, by the University of Chicago Press.

Lott was the author not only of "More Guns, Less Crime" but also, nearly as famously, the musings of one "Mary Rosh," who appeared to be Lott's single greatest online fan, a defender both of his heavily criticized work and of his teaching skills--but was, in fact, Lott himself.

Lott was also involved in a controversy involving missing survey data: Some critics charged that he had never conducted the survey in question, while Lott insisted that he had lost the data after his computer crashed. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that there was at least some evidence that Lott's story was true.

Farrell contrasts Lott's continuing status among Second Amendment stalwarts with the left's shunning of Michael Bellesiles, who resigned from Emory University after an independent committee of scholars found deep flaws in the work underpinning "Arming America." The thesis of that book, briefly hailed by gun-control advocates, was that American gun culture dated to the late 19th century, not to the colonial and revolutionary periods.

In response to Farrell's post, the Atlantic's Megan McArdle argues that Farrell "exaggerates" the degree to which Bellesiles has been shunned, noting that "he's still teaching." Indeed, he is a part-time, untenured instructor at Central Connecticut State University. If that is not a professional comeuppance, it's hard to envision one.

McArdle also writes, breezily: "Now, I find Lott's thesis ('more guns, less crime') fairly convincing, and I think that he's marshalled some decent data to support it--data that aren't contested by anyone, as far as I know."

That last sentence will cause anyone who has followed the long-running Lott saga to blink and rub his eyes in disbelief. Farrell, just for starters, links to three articles that purport to completely undermine Lott's reading of the data.

If McArdle means that no one has accused Lott of inventing from whole cloth most of the raw data on which is book is based, she is correct. (The missing survey touched on a subsidiary point, according to the Chronicle.) That, however, sets the bar for "uncontested data" rather low, does it not?

Lott_cover.jpgThe new edition of a controversial book

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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