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Down the Memory Hole

March 30th, 2003 · No Comments

Note: Update at end of post is important.

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. That’s one of the slogans of the totalitarian party ruling England in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and as John Lott critic Tim Lambert has discovered, also true of the Internet.

Lambert found that certain online versions of op-eds by Lott had been removed or modified in rather specific ways, ways that make them dovetail better with Lott’s version of events in the ongoing survey controversy. Lott published an op-ed titled “Gun Locks: Bound to Fail” in the March/April 2000 version of the Heartland Institute‘s bimonthly magazine Intellectual Ammunition. The current version available on the Web reads:

Guns clearly deter criminals. Americans use guns defensively over 2 million times every year–five times more frequently than the 430,000 times guns were used to commit crimes in 1997, according to research by Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck.

Ah, but as it turns out, that’s not quite the text that originally appeared in that magazine. The original version of the article is still saved in Google‘s cache, and also a second URL on Heartland’s site. There, the same paragraph contains an extra line, presumably found in the print version:

Guns clearly deter criminals. Americans use guns defensively over 2 million times every year–five times more frequently than the 430,000 times guns were used to commit crimes in 1997, according to research by Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck. Kleck’s study of defensive gun uses found that 98 percent of the time, simply brandishing the weapon is sufficient to stop an attack.

The same piece is found on the Independence Institute website, where in their page of 2002 op-eds, the link to that article is now broken. The other links on that page remain active. There, too, the Google cache is still available.

So what happened? Well, one possibility, at least, is that the changes were made at Lott’s request. I’ve emailed the Heartland Institute to find out why and when the change was made; we’ll probably have to wait until Monday at least for a reply. But why would Lott want the text changed? Here’s the backstory in a nutshell for those of you who haven’t followed the controversy.

Lott first mentioned the contested 1997 survey when he was contacted by sociologist Otis Dudley Duncan, who wondered whether Lott’s claim in various publications that 98 percent of defensive gun uses involved mere brandishing had been based on a misreading of a survey by Gary Kleck. Lott denied this, making the first recorded mention of his own 1997 survey a letter to Duncan dated 13 May, 1999. The relevant excerpt is found in James Lindgren’s report on the controversy (also my source for most of what follows):

I am a great admirer of Gary Kleck’s work, and I think that he has done a great deal to advance the study of crime. Few academics have his integrity and courage. His numbers are a little higher in terms of the total number of defensive uses that I have found and the frequency of brandishing is lower than I have found. The information of over 2 million defensive uses and 98 percent is based upon survey evidence that I have put together involving a large nationwide telephone survey conducted over a three month period during 1997. [Emphasis mine]

Lindgren also excerpts Lott’s September/October 2000 piece responding to Duncan’s questions about the accuracy of the 98 percent figure:

รข??The survey that I oversaw interviewed 2,424 people from across the United States. It was done in large part to see for myself whether the estimates put together by other researchers (such as Gary Kleck) were accurate. The estimates that I obtained implied about 2.1 million defensive gun uses, a number somewhat lower than Kleck’s. However, I also found a significantly higher percentage of them (98 percent) involved simply brandishing a gun.[Emphasis mine, again]

Now, here’s what’s odd. According to this piece, Lott conducted his survey in part to check Kleck’s numbers, and recognized that 98 percent was a higher figure than Kleck had gotten. The implication is that when he got his own data in, back in 1997, he recognized that Kleck’s survey found a brandishing rate lower than 98 percent. Yet as late as 2000, we’re seeing claims that Kleck got that very result. Lott’s claim, in other words, is that he did a survey to check Kleck’s numbers, got a different number, and then a couple of years later was writing op-eds where the different number is attributed to Kleck. Not only that, but the attribution is made in pieces that ran many months after Lott told Duncan he acknowledged his own numbers were higher than Kleck’s. That’s just a little weird.

If you compare the various versions of the gun locks article, it’s clear that (as many editorial writers do) Lott has a static core body text of the piece that he recycles from time to time when an op-ed on gun locks is appropriate, changing the introductory and closing material to make the piece timely. In the first three versions turned up in a Lexis-Nexis search, published in the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Times, the same paragraph reads:

Other research shows guns clearly deter criminals. Polls by the Los Angeles Times, Gallup, and Peter Hart Research Associates show there are at least 760,000, and possibly as many as 3.6 million, defensive uses of guns per year. In 98 percent of the cases, such polls show, people simply brandish the weapon to stop an attack.

So sometime after 1998, and therefore after Lott’s own survey purportedly took place, the piece was revised to change the attribution to Kleck—it wasn’t just accidentally left in from earlier versions. And since the Heartland piece references the defeat of two “safe storage” bills in Colorado, the article must have been revised again no earlier than February 2000, when the defeat of those bills occurred. To borrow a phrase, this raises the question: what did Lott know, and when did he know it? In May 1999, he’s telling Duncan in private that he understands Kleck’s research doesn’t support the 98 percent figure, with the implication that he understood as much in 1997. In February 2000, he’s writing in public that it does. Presumably sometime in the summer of 2000, he writes the Criminologist piece characterizing the 98 percent number as “significantly” higher than Kleck’s result.

In the most recent version of the piece, originally published in an October 2002 issue of the Bergen Record and available on AEI’s website the same paragraph has now been purged of any reference to either Kleck or the 98 percent figure:

Guns clearly deter criminals, with Americans using guns defensively more than 2 million times each year–five times more frequently than the 430,000 times guns were used to commit crimes in 1997. Having a gun is by far the safest course of action when one is confronted by a criminal.

Now, in my neverending attempt to give people the benefit of the doubt, we might speculate that the retroactive change was not an attempt to eliminate evidence of writing in tension with his story, but rather motivated only by a desire to correct an erroneous attribution. Maybe. But the fact that the original text remains in Google’s cache would seem to imply that the retroactive revisions are pretty recent—made only within the last several months at most. Still, given that Lindgren’s report already contained citations of the Heartland and Independence Insititute articles, it seems like it would be pointless to have the pieces removed as a CYA maneuver. So maybe the more charitable interpretation is the right one. Still, it seems like standard practice in a case like this would’ve been to add a note correcting the statement, not to rewrite history.

UPDATE: Lambert has corresponded with Indepenence Institute’s David Kopel, who writes the following:

> The attribution of the 98% figure to Kleck was an Independence
> Institute editing error, and Heartland merely reprinted the
> Independence Institute copy.
> A version of this same Lott article (without Independence Institute
> editing) was published in the Rocky Mountain News, and that version
> does not contain any reference to Kleck.
> There is no basis for claiming that Lott has ever attributed the 98%
> figure to Kleck.

Now I’m more confused than ever. That’s one hell of an “editing error,” but Kopel has his own scholarly reputation to be concerned about, so it’s very difficult to believe that he’d be willing to lie just to protect Lott. But this new revelation raises a host of further questions. Since the change in attributions was one of the things that made many doubt the survey, why is this the first we’re hearing about it? Since the Heartland piece doesn’t merely reprint the version on the independence site, but makes a number of stylistic changes, shouldn’t Lott have at least seen that version before it ran? And if the RMN version contained no reference to Kleck (like previous versions, which refer to “national polls”) rather than, say, attributing the 2 million number, but not the 98% figure, to Kleck, where on earth did the Kleck attribution come from? Some editor at Independence just pulled Kleck’s name out of thin air and put it in the article without consulting Lott? Now in one way this makes more sense, since it’s not clear why Lott would make an inaccurate attribution after writing Duncan that he recognized that Kleck found a different result. Even absent the survey controversy, after all, a deliberate misattribution would look bad.

Despite some of these odd features, it does seem as though these two articles are the only instances where Lott appears to give Kleck as the source of the number. If, in fact, Lott didn’t make that attribution himself, then the hypothesis that a survey was done appears to become slightly more plausible, since if it was never derived from Kleck, then either it came from the 1997 survey or was just pulled from thin air—a possibility that sounds a good deal less plausible sounding than misinterpreting a figure, then dissembling to cover the error. So depending on how this one falls out, it could be that what looked bad actually helps Lott’s case… time will tell.

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