What Passes for Debate Among the Left in Academia

Academic debates occasionally get pretty ugly, and that is just the way it is. Sometimes they get really 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 on Firearms and Violence. The panel was set up by the Clinton Administration and contained many outspoken gun control proponents (e.g., Steve Levitt argued that theoretically the presence of firearms leads to greater levels of violence and Richard Rosenfeld argued that those opposed to the Brady Law were “immune to scientific assessment”); 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 very rare. Being on a panel is a cushy, prestigious position, and there is a lot of pressure to sign on to any conclusion. Those who don’t aren’t invited back to be on future panels. Over the ten years prior to the Firearms and Violence report, there were only two dissents out of the previous 236 reports. Wilson himself had been on four of these panels and never previously wanted to write a dissent, including the previous panel that attacked work showing that the death penalty deters crime.

But for Wilson, the firearms panel was different. Wilson’s dissent was not only rare, he was also 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 right-to-carry laws reduced crime. He found the committee’s only evidence that didn’t 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 policies that might affect crime. Furthermore, Wilson didn’t understand how evidence that was not publishabled in a peer-reviewed journal would be given such weight.

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 attacked Wilson as letting his alleged employment by the NRA bias his academic findings:

The lone dissenter [Wilson] 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 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 emailed 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 calls to publicly retract his claim, Donohue has yet to publicly correct the record.

Unfortunately, the attacks on Wilson are just part of long pattern, both from Donohue himself as well as from the left in general.

Given Donohue’s distaste for the “execrable” NRA, linking Wilson to the NRA is hardly Donohue’s way of showing his respect. For example, in a debate with me at the Contemporary Club in Charlottesville, Virginia on October 22, 2008, Donohue claimed: “A free market in guns, which of course the NRA likes, and the reason why they like it is because when crime rises gun sales go up.” Donohue has made this claim at other times, but it is extreme to publicly argue that the NRA wants to sell more guns because that will cause more people to die and that in turn will increase the demand for guns.


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