I had the TV on in the kitchen this evening and was bouncing around the channels when I suddenly found myself watching a John Lott on C-Span. (The full video runs about 45 minutes if you want to watch it.) Lott is the author of a 1998 book entitled More Guns Less Crime and I am sure, that from the title, you can guess the premise of Mr. Lott and his work.
But when I saw the name it only vaguely rang a bell so I did a quick search on my phone and discovered that sure enough, Mr. Lott has quite a past, most notably as a supposed academic and researcher, who when confronted, was unable to produce credible research data to support his claims. Once you learn more about his background, your very first question is, "Why is C-Span or any media outlet giving this guy a forum?"
C-Span is not alone....in recent weeks Lott has been on Fox (although interestingly not as much as you might think), CNN (with Piers Morgan where he claims he was ambushed) and several times as a news expert on guns, on the PBS News Hour, and as a major quoted source for a Jeffrey Goldberg Atlantic article, "Making the Case for More Guns."
So what did Mr. Lott do that calls his credentials and his claims into question? Find out below the orange twirl of academic obfuscation.
Salon outlined Mr. Lott's problems thusly:
Lott held prestigious positions at Yale and the University of Chicago, where he published his groundbreaking book, “More Guns, Less Crime.” In the early 2000s, his work fell into controversy for employing what some academic critics termed “junk science” and for various apparently fatal methodological flaws. Later, he was unable to prove the existence of a study central to his thesis. He was also caught using a fake “sockpuppet” persona to defend his work and attack his critics online. “In most circles, this goes down as fraud,” Donald Kennedy, the then-editor of the prestigious journal Science wrote in an editorial. Even Michelle Malkin said Lott had shown an “extensive willingness to deceive to protect and promote his work.”Mr. Lott likes to claim that liberal gun haters are behind the attacks, but note the above quote....that's right...Michelle Malkin has seriously questioned Mr. Lott's credentials
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.Media Matters critique honed in on the flawed scientific methodology which has plagued Lott's credibility for years:
Stanford Law Review: Lott's Central Hypothesis Is "Without Credible Statistical Support." In a Stanford Law Review report titled "The Latest Misfires in Support of the 'More Guns, Less Crime' Hypothesis," Ian Ayres and John J. Donohue III studied how coding errors in data undermine Lott's "More Guns, Less Crime" hypothesis. The authors explain:And Mother Jones, in a 2003 article....yes that long ago....said Lott's credentials were already under attack:
PW [Lott's co-authors Florenz Plassmann and John Whitley] seriously miscoded their new county dataset in ways that irretrievably undermine every original regression result that they present in their response. As a result, the new PW regressions must simply be disregarded. Correcting PW's empirical mistakes once again shows that the more guns, less crime hypothesis is without credible statistical support. [Stanford Law Review, accessed 12/3/12 via Deltoid]
Computer Scientist Tim Lambert On Lott's Data Errors: "If Anything, Concealed Carry Laws Lead To More Crime." In an April 2003 blog post on ScienceBlogs.com, computer scientist Tim Lambert discussed Ayres and Donohue's Stanford Law Review findings, noting "Ian Ayres and John Donohue wrote a paper that found that, if anything, concealed carry laws lead to more crime." Noting that "Lott, (along with Florenz Plassmann and John Whitley) wrote a reply where they argued that using data up to 2000 confirmed the "more guns, less crime" hypothesis," Lambert summarized Ayres' and Donohue's response to Lott's defense of the data:
In Ayres and Donohue's response to that paper, they found that Lott's data contained numerous coding errors that, when corrected, reversed the results. Furthermore, this was the second time these sorts of errors had been found in Lott's data. Lott had presented to the NAS [National Academy of Science] panel figures showing sharp declines in crime following carry laws. Declines which disappeared when the coding errors were corrected. Finally, when Lott saw Ayres and Donohue's response he had his name removed from the final paper. [Deltoid, 4/25/03]
Earlier this year, Lott found himself facing serious criticism of his professional ethics. Pressed by critics, he failed to produce evidence of the existence of a survey -- which supposedly found that "98 percent of the time that people use guns defensively, they merely have to brandish a weapon to break off an attack" -- that he claimed to have conducted in the second edition of "More Guns, Less Crime". Lott then made matters even worse by posing as a former student, "Mary Rosh," and using the alias to attack his critics and defend his work online. When an Internet blogger exposed the ruse, the scientific community was outraged. Lott had created a "false identity for a scholar," charged Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy. "In most circles, this goes down as fraud."And that wasn't his only case of apparent figure manipulation:
But this is not the first time Lott has been accused of overstating his results. In early 1997, Lott testified before Nebraska lawmakers with advance galleys of his Journal of Legal Studies article in hand, claiming to have proven a causal link between right to carry laws and lower crime. Yet soon afterwards in the same journal, economist Dan Black and criminologist Daniel Nagin found that slight alterations to Lott's data and model dramatically skewed the outcome. For instance, removing Florida from the analysis caused the beneficial impact of right to carry laws on murder and rape to vanish entirely.I don't want to overuse excerpting here, so would encourage those who want more information to study the sections of the Mother Jones article which look carefully at the Stanford Law Review findings and how Lott tried to handle them.
Lott had an answer to Black and Nagin -- as he has for each subsequent critic. They tend to be mind-bogglingly complicated, involving things like ordinary least squares and Poisson distributions. In calling Lott's overall thesis junk science, Skeptical Inquirer magazine noted his tendency to make "arguments so complex that only other highly trained regression analysts can understand, let alone refute, them." This was not meant as praise.
Still, economists like Stanford's John Donohue and Georgetown's Jens Ludwig say that when first published in 1997, Lott's work was novel and even cutting edge. But the intervening years -- and increased scholarly scrutiny -- have not been kind to the "More Guns, Less Crime" idea. In fact, social scientists have turned away from the thesis even as Lott has stuck by his original conclusions. As a result, to maintain his argument Lott has had to go to considerable lengths, as demonstrated by a recent brouhaha over a massive critique of his work in the Stanford Law Review
So the bottom line question again, is why so many supposedly credible media outlets like PBS, CNN, C-Span and The Atlantic are giving this guy large amounts of air time in the heat of the debate over gun control?
Yes, we do need an open and thorough public discussion about guns, how many, what kind, what limits, how powerful, what ammo, regulation, criminal and mentally challenged databases and so forth. But when the media gives air time to a supposed expert who has repeatedly been caught falsifying data to make his case and then was caught going on line under a false Internet persona to defend himself against the charges, the public is clearly not getting data which has been proven reliable under academic research standards and therefore does not support Lott's claims that more guns mean less crime. He's making claims he can't defend and he should NOT be on the air.
Shame on you program bookers. Even the New York Times and Washington Post fire members of their staff when they are caught stealing quotes or making them up. That's what Mr. Lott has done by making up data and and claims, and he does not deserve the public spotlight or any more invitations from any of you because he is simply not credible and apparently not ethical as well.