The churchill case

Vic Stenger

For Reality Check column in Skeptical Briefs September 2006.

 

Perhaps the most controversial academician in America today is Ward Churchill, a tenured full professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Churchill specializes in American Indian studies. Although his extensive writings have been controversial within his own field for a decade, he did not catch the public eye until 2005 when word began to come out of an essay he wrote right after 9/11, which contained the following sentence: "If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it."

When these remarks came to light, politicians, columnists, and letter-writers from the Governor on down demanded Churchill's dismissal. At that point, serious allegations began to appear that Churchill had committed academic fraud and the university set up a committee to investigate. On May 9, 2006, the committee announced that it had found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he had committed several forms of academic misconduct.

The committee of five scholars, which included two members from outside the university, unanimously agreed that Churchill had falsified and fabricated data, committed plagiarism, failed to comply with established standards regarding author names on publications, and seriously deviated from accepted practices in reporting results from research. The report, which can be found at http://www.colorado.edu/news/reports/churchill/download/WardChurchillReport.pdf, provides detailed documentation for each of these conclusions and leaves no doubt that Churchill committed serious scholarly misconduct. It makes fascinating reading and will interest anyone concerned with the conduct of scholarly research in American universities.

       Despite the overwhelming evidence, Churchill still has his supporters within the university and wider community. They argue that he is the subject of a "witch hunt" because of his public utterances, especially his reference to the victims of 9/11 as "little Eichmanns." The committee did take the university to task for investigating the allegations only after the public outcry, despite the fact that earlier scholarly refutations of much of Churchill's published work were well known to scholars in the field.

The university agreed that the professor's public statements were protected speech and limited the investigation to the academic charges. The committee pointed out that Churchill became a controversial public figure by his own choice, and as such should have expected his work to be carefully scrutinized. Furthermore, they noted that the motives of an accuser have no bearing on the truth of the accusation. They used the example of a motorist being ticketed for speeding by an officer who was offended by the contents of her bumper sticker and who otherwise would have sent her away with a simple warning. According to the committee, two of whom were law professors, no court would consider the police officer's improper motive as a defense to speeding.

       Perhaps the most serious claim that appears in Churchill's published research is that the U.S. Army deliberately distributed smallpox-infested blankets to the Mandans and other tribes on the upper Missouri, thus virtually wiping them out in the pandemic of 1837. In various essays, Churchill estimates the number of deaths from 100,000 to 400,000. The committee found no evidence to support those numbers; the largest figure given in the reports referenced by Churchill himself is 17,000Ństill horrific to be sure.

       Importantly, the committee did not make a judgment that Churchill's claims were necessarily wrong. In a well-documented case, in 1763 the British at Fort Pitt attempted to infect attacking Indians with smallpox using gifts of blankets exposed to the disease. This story has become part of the oral traditions of many Indian tribes and some of the tribes on the upper Missouri do have an oral tradition that smallpox was deliberately spread by whites, a term that may have included the U.S. Army. However, Churchill does not reference any oral traditions in his writing and none of his published references support his allegations.

       Indeed, the preponderance of the evidence, including some Indian stories, attributes the pandemic to a steamboat from St. Louis visiting the tribes with a crewman aboard down with smallpox. None of the references Churchill himself cites contain any support for the tale he tells of infected blankets being shipped up from St. Louis and distributed by an Army surgeon, who then told sick natives to go out and scatter among the uninfected population. Churchill also claims that smallpox vaccine earmarked for the tribes was kept under storage rather than administered. The committee found that this story was fabricated.

       It is not academic misconduct to be wrong and the committee did not condemn Churchill for this reason. But the falsification and fabrication of data surely constitutes misconduct. The report considered a total of seven allegations and found Churchill guilty of research misconduct in all cases but one.

       Churchill's supporters insist that he has done nothing that is not common in academic research, that sloppiness with footnotes and references and differing interpretations of data are par for the course. Faculty members in the hard sciences and philosophy responded that academic fraud of such a blatant nature is exceedingly rare and that the self-correcting processes of the scientific method guarantee that any falsification of data will eventually be discovered. Even given the different standards in the social sciences, with consideration given to undocumented anecdotes and oral traditions, for example, dishonesty is still unacceptable.

       Anyone studying American history cannot but come away with the sad knowledge that both the U.S. government and the whites who settled the nation from Virginia to Hawaii committed great acts of injustice against native peoples and Mexicans, although all sides probably came out about even on atrocities.

The various ethnic studies programs at universities can do much to help us understand this history and guide any policies of compensation. Hopefully Ward Churchill's example is an aberration rather than typical for ethnic studies. Researchers do not need to make up data to support their positions. There is plenty of solid evidence out there. Scholars in ethnic studies will only weaken their credibility if they fail to gather their data using scientific methods and if they make up their minds before all the data are in.

       As for Churchill, the committee was split on its recommendation for sanctions, although a majority agreed that the offenses were serious enough to warrant dismissal. The university has begun dismissal proceedings.


Vic Stenger is adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His latest book is The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come from? His website is http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/.