How the Academic Left Engages in Debate
Inside an ugly attack on a renowned criminologist.


Academic debates occasionally get pretty ugly, and that is just the way it is. Sometimes they get very ugly. There is one case that has bothered me for several years.

James Q. Wilson is now 80 years old, and for decades he has been the most prominent criminologist in the country, responsible for a number of important ideas, such as the Broken Windows theory, which argues that urban disorder and vandalism produce additional crime.

Undoubtedly, Wilson has made a number of enemies, as he has taken positions that upset some on the left. One such issue was Wilson’s involvement with the National Academy of Sciences panel that wrote the 2004 report “Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review.” The panel was set up by the Clinton administration and contained many outspoken gun-control proponents (e.g., Steven Levitt, who with John Donohue argued that theoretically, the presence of firearms leads to greater levels of violence, and who claimed without any empirical evidence that higher homicide rates during the late 1980s and early 1990s are “clearly linked to . . . the easy availability of guns”; and Richard Rosenfeld, who argued that those opposed to the Brady Law were “immune to scientific assessment”).

The purpose of the panel was to examine the research on whether various gun-control laws reduce or increase crime. In particular, the debate over right-to-carry laws — which give citizens the ability to carry concealed weapons — was raging in academia at the time; a body of research, much of which I conducted, indicated that these laws reduce crime by giving the innocent a way to deter potential criminals. Nevertheless, the final report refused to take a stand on whether right-to-carry laws reduce crime.

Dissents for National Academy of Sciences reports are exceedingly rare. Being on a panel is a cushy, prestigious position, and there is a lot of pressure to sign on to the panel’s conclusion. Those who don’t sign on aren’t invited to be on future panels. Over the ten years prior to the “Firearms and Violence” report, there were 236 reports, and only two featured dissents. Wilson had participated in four of these panels over the years, including the highly controversial panel that attacked research on the death penalty, and had never written a dissent.

For Wilson, the firearms panel was different. Wilson’s dissent was not only rare, it was forceful: “In view of the confirmation of the findings that shall-issue laws drive down the murder rate, it is hard for me to understand why these claims are called ‘fragile.’”

Wilson said that that panel’s conclusion raises concerns given that “virtually every reanalysis done by the committee” confirmed that right-to-carry laws reduced crime. He found the committee’s only evidence that did not confirm the drop in crime “quite puzzling.” The result that they pointed to was co-produced by John Donohue, a law professor at Stanford, and accounted for “no control variables” — nothing on any of the social, demographic, and public-policy factors that might affect crime. Furthermore, Wilson found it incomprehensible how evidence that was not published in a peer-reviewed journal would be given such weight: “It strikes me that such an argument ought first to be tested in a peer-reviewed journal before it is used in this report as a sound strategy.”

But Donohue wasn’t willing to let Wilson’s dissent go unanswered, and the attacks became quite personal. In a debate carried nationally on National Public Radio, Donohue claimed that Wilson not only was employed by the National Rifle Association, but had let his employment bias his academic findings:

The lone dissenter was someone who was not an econometrician, who admitted in his dissent that he wished he knew more econometrics, and who had previously testified as an expert witness on behalf of the execrable NRA.

When later called on to justify this claim after the debate, Mr. Donohue did not offer proof, but instead called on Wilson to prove that he had never gotten paid by the NRA. When asked for evidence, Donohue e-mailed me: “Do you have Wilson’s email address or not? I am going to assume you do and that you know he worked for the NRA since you could ask him via email to confirm or deny and cc me, and you are not doing so.” Even later in 2009, after Wilson had denied that he had ever worked for the NRA, Donohue refused to accept it: “On the issue of the NRA, somehow I suspect that the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy doesn’t think the NRA is a bad organization and therefore any affiliation would not be deemed problematic.” Even during the last couple of weeks, with repeated calls to publicly retract his claim, Donohue has yet to correct the record.


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