History Politics

Ward Churchill’s going down

Dang it all. I’m not a political blogger by nature, but this week I just can’t seem to help myself, and getting this e-mailed to me didn’t help. I suppose that I can console myself by reminding myself that this is about academic misconduct. I may not be in the social sciences, but certain practices just aren’t right regardless of academic specialty.

It turns out that University of Colorado’s investigation of allegations of academic misconduct by Ward Churchill (famous for his referring to those in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns”) has been published, and it’s way more scathing than even I had expected. I haven’t had time to read the whole thing (the PDF file is 125 pages long), but words like “deception, lies, unprofessional, plagiarism” abound. Here’s one example that’s particularly egregious:

Based on the foregoing, the Committee finds by a preponderance of the evidence that: (a) Professor Churchill has engaged in research misconduct with respect to Allegation A regarding the General Allotment Act of 1887; and (b) that such research misconduct was not and could not have been inadvertent and therefore was deliberate. Specifically, the Committee finds by a preponderance of the evidence that:

1. Professor Churchill repeatedly and deliberately cited the General Allotment Act of 1887 and once cited Janet McDowell’s book for the details of historical and legal propositions that he advances. Because both sources in fact contradict his claims, this is a form of falsification of evidence.

2. Professor Churchill has deliberately cited two essays as independent sources of support for the details of his historic claims regarding the General Allotment Act of 1887, the Robbins and Jaimes essays, which he says he actually authored “from the ground up.” He did not disclose either at the time of publication of those two essays or at the time he cited them in other later works that he had written the essays. This is a form of both evidentiary fabrication and failure to comply with established standards regarding author names on publications.

In other words, Churchill used the academic equivalent of sockpuppets to support his conclusions.

3. Professor Churchill deliberately embellished his broad, and otherwise accurate or, at least, reasonable, historic claims regarding the General Allotment Act of 1887 with details for which he offered no reliable independent support of any kind in his publications or in his defense during this investigation and for which the Committee was unable to find that any reasonable and reliable support exists. This is a form of fabrication of such details and embellishments.

As a scientist myself, I found this to be the kicker from the earlier, more detailed part of the discussion:

Were Professor Churchill a scientist, rather than a researcher engaged in social science research in ethnic studies, the equivalent would be (1) the misstatement of some underlying data (i.e., his mischaracterization of the General Allotment Act) and (2) the total fabrication of other data to support his hypothesis (i.e., the ghostwriting and self-citation of the Robbins and Jaimes essays). Clearly, ghostwriting the Robbins and Jaimes articles involved considerably more work than fabricating underlying scientific data, but that fact makes it no less a type of fabrication or falsification. The Committee is not claiming that Professor Churchill fabricated his general conclusions; rather, he fabricated the underlying data employed to support the insupportable details bolstering those conclusions.

Ouch, that one’s gonna leave a mark!

I’m not so sure I buy the argument that fabricating scientific data (particularly in molecular biology) would involve less work than ghostwriting an essay. None of the members of the committee are basic scientists, and that remark shows it. However, I’ll leave that aside and move on.

Oops, he did it again, with regards to another essay:

It seems obvious that Professor Churchill, a major writer about Indian affairs, must have been thoroughly familiar with the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 since he wrote a major essay solely on that Act. Based on a preponderance of the evidence, we therefore conclude that in his 1994 essay, “Nobody’s Pet Poodle,” Professor Churchill seriously and deliberately misrepresented the specification of a blood quantum requirement of one-quarter Indian blood in the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. Moreover, Professor Churchill has again compounded this misrepresentation by citing his own writings as if they were independent third-party sources written by others. He has also distorted the scholarship of distinguished scholars to his own ends. We conclude that this misrepresentation was not scholarly error but serious research misconduct and part of a general pattern of such misconduct in support of his political views.

In tone and overall degree of fisking, what I’ve read of the report sounds not unlike Judge Jone’s decision in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. Heck, what little I read of it reminds me of the analysis that historian Richard Evans subjected David Irving’s writings to in Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial. Selective quoting, misrepresentation of sources, distortion of facts, all in the service of a political agenda, yep, it’s all there in just a brief perusal of the report. As the committee concluded about his patterns of behavior:

We have noted and discussed a number of distinct but related patterns of misconduct that deserve mention. One is an indifference to the proper attribution of scholarly work to its genuine author. This indifference has taken the form of misappropriation of the work of another, the attachment of the names of others to Professor Churchill’s own work, and the use of uninformative titles such as “Institute of Natural Progress” to muddy the assignment of credit and responsibility for work. The conventions of scholarly attribution are not empty forms of etiquette; they are central to the progress of scholarship and the accountability of the scholar. Professor Churchill’s disregard for them is therefore troubling. We have also observed several instances in Professor Churchill’s work of a willingness to make claims about legislation or historical events not supported by the evidence he cites or by any other evidence the Committee could locate. A related pattern is the employment of vague or obfuscating citation and reference practices. More serious still is the pattern of citing one’s own work, disguised by its attribution to another living scholar in the same field, as authority for assertions and claims that lack independent support. We do not know whether these practices are the result of inadequate training or the desire to obscure the lack of support for his claims from other scholars and the historical record (we suspect the latter), but they make it difficult for the reader to verify or discredit his claims. Such practices are of particular concern because Professor Churchill has repeatedly stressed the importance of full documentation as a means of promoting dialogue.

It’s odd that they question whether these lapses were due to inadequate historical training. It may very well be the case, because Churchill doesn’t even have a Ph.D., just an honorary Doctorate for giving a speech. I can’t speak for history and social studies, but a big part of Ph.D. training in science is designed to teach us how to design experiments and present data in such a way as to minimize the effects of our preexisting biases on the outcome, in other words to train us to be as objective as humanly possible. Given that Churchill didn’t have a Ph.D., though, why did the University hire him in the first place, rapidly promote him and give him tenure, and then ultimately make him Chairman of the Department of Ethnic Studies?

The question is now: What will the University of Colorado do? This is serious academic misconduct. Ward Churchill may be tenured, but, if half of what’s in this report is true, he has clearly engaged in a pattern of academic misconduct in the service of his political beliefs that demands his removal as faculty. As Eugene Volokh put it:

As best I can tell, from what press accounts I’ve read and from the Report itself, Churchill hasn’t shown any contrition. His falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism (in the Committee’s words), which the Committee quite plausibly found to be deliberate, are substantial.

And these are falsehoods in his published work, which can readily be checked. How can his future students be confident that things he says in class are accurate? (Yes, we try to instill skepticism in our students, but they still rightly expect that they can count on our factual assertions, rather than double-checking every word.) How can his colleagues, and Colorado taxpayers, be confident that his students are learning things accurately? His work has been cited by over 100 times in law reviews alone, and law isn’t even his main field; I assume that quite a few scholars are now wondering whether their reliance on his work led their own work to be in error. How can other scholars, and his other readers, ever rely on anything he says?

How, indeed?

ADDENDUM: Ward Churchill has responded. The best he can come up with is to complain that this is an attempt to stifle his free speech:

This “investigation” has all along been a pretext to punish me for engaging constitutionally-protected speech and, more generally, to discredit the sorts of alternative historical perspective I represent.


The upshot is that the committee’s report is often self-contradictory. It frequently misrepresents or conflicts with the evidence presented. In many respects, it is patently false.

Of course, he never gives a single example of how the report is self-contradictory or of a false assertion in the report.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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