Bursting bubbles of lofty repute

February 21, 2003

A long-lost Shakespeare sonnet, Hitler's diaries and cold fusion are discoveries that scholars have gambled their reputations on. But, says Huw Richards, wrong turns can help spur advances.

It seems unlikely that Bill Buckner and Hugh Trevor-Roper were aware of each other's existence. Yet they were linked by a single, grim experience - that of seeing a long and distinguished career overshadowed by a single error. Buckner, a professional baseball player, let a ball roll through his legs - a mistake that cost his Boston Red Sox team the 1986 World Series.

Trevor-Roper, for more than 20 years regius professor of history at the University of Oxford, authenticated the forged Hitler Diaries when they were purchased by The Sunday Times in 1983.

The headlines on the obituaries when Trevor-Roper died last month told their own story - he was variously Hitler diary hoax victim, Hitler hoax historian, fake Hitler diaries scholar and verifier of the Hitler diaries.

The single headline reference to his more positive achievements was still counterpointed with the diaries: in The Guardian , "He made his name with the Last Days of Hitler , but tarnished it with the Hitler Diaries ". Blair Worden, professor of history at Sussex University, protested in The Sunday Telegraph that Trevor-Roper had "suffered a humiliating lapse of judgement which gave legitimate pleasure to people who had felt the sometimes merciless force of his pen or tongue. But it was at most a chapter in a richly varied life."

To err is of course human. To do it quite so publicly is unfortunate.

Buckner did not lose just any game, but extended the longest-running soap opera in American sport - the Red Sox's inability since 1918 to win the World Series. Trevor-Roper's ill-luck was to make an error on the one historic topic certain to attract public attention - Hitler.

A dispute about Shakespeare is a good bet as well, although Donald Foster, professor of English at Vassar College, New York, only had to suffer being blasted in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement for supposedly identifying a new Shakespeare poem in 1996. He withdrew the attribution after a compelling identification by the scholar G. D. Monsarrat of John Ford as the likeliest author.

All have suffered from the human tendency to identify people, and institutions, with reference to a single fact. Thus the Belgian novelist Georges Simenon, whose centenary is this month, is remembered not for critic Denis Tillinac's description of him as "the greatest western writer of the 20th century" but his claim to have had sex with 10,000 women.

Trevor-Roper's further misfortune was that revelation followed hard upon his error, his embarrassment emblazoned across the following day's papers.

Another notorious hoax, Piltdown Man, was not discredited for 40 years, by which time most of the experts who backed the identification were safely dead. For some, misfortune has taken a different form - being posthumously fingered as author of, or at least complicit in, the hoax.

Reputation works in two ways. One is public repute, and there can be little doubt that it is wounding for anyone to become the object of public ridicule. The other is peer-group esteem, the attitude of your professional colleagues - particularly important in a trade that places such importance on peer review.

Ged Martin, former professor of Canadian studies at Edinburgh University, points out: "Academic reputations are constructed over a long time and are unlikely to be changed radically by a single incident. We all make mistakes." But Oxford historian Brian Harrison suspects that Trevor-Roper's academic reputation was damaged: "It would have confirmed the earlier doubts of his enemies and critics, and shaken the faith of people who previously had a lot of faith in him."

One element in this was Trevor-Roper's high public profile and determination to make history more accessible. "There was a feeling that he would exaggerate a fact rather than be boring," Harrison says. This was a characteristic shared by his great rival, A. J. P. Taylor, whose surprisingly charitable response to the diaries fiasco was: "It could happen to any of us." Harrison doubts it. Historians are expected be judicious and balanced, most of all in their own specialisms. He says: "It was a remarkable error of judgement in a subject that had been central to his career. It was bound to affect people's view of him."

Historians' controversies tend to concern interpretation rather than right/wrong verdicts. Authentication is an exception. Owen Gingerich, a historian of astronomy at Harvard University, wrongly attributed annotations to one of Copernicus' works to the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, apparently shedding light on how he devised his theory of how the universe worked. Unfortunately it wasn't Brahe, but his contemporary Paul Wittich. Gingerich retrieved the situation, and his reputation, with a retraction followed by a monograph on the significance of the new identity.

Greater harm tends to be done to careers in science, where right/wrong judgements are harder. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, the University of Utah scientists who claimed to have located cold fusion in the late 1980s, became outcasts rather than Nobel candidates when their findings failed to stand up. Still unhappier was the fate of French scientist Rene Prosper Blondlot, who claimed in 1903 to have discovered a new form of radiation, N-rays (named after his home town of Nancy) in parallel with X-rays. His self-deception was unmasked when visiting physicist Robert Wood secretly removed a key element from his ray-detection device but found the team still claimed to detect the rays. Blondlot subsequently went mad.

Among social scientists, pioneering anthropologists appear to have been accident-prone, albeit in the long term. Bronislaw Malinowski was dead before it was suggested that his finding that Trobriand Islanders had no conception of procreation was not the result of ignorance, but of genteel reserve expressed by reluctance to discuss such matters with visitors.

Similarly, the attack on Margaret Mead's description of idyllically unrepressed adolescence in Samoa, and in particular the suggestion that her two main informants had deceived her, came after her death in 1979.

Malinowski continues to be regarded as a major figure in the discipline, with any errors far outweighed by his intellectual and methodological innovation.

That status may, however, escape the expert on Lappland whom THES columnist Laurie Taylor remembers showing off a metallic object he claimed was used by Lapp herders to skin reindeer, and then demonstrating how it was operated: "A visitor from Lancashire said that where he came from you had these objects on the steps to get mud off the bottom of your shoes. It wasn't a reindeer-skinner at all, but a bootscraper."

Social science also offers a prime example of the crushing of an academic reputation: Noam Chomsky's 1959 attack on the behaviourialist theories of B. F. Skinner. Taylor recalls: "Skinner had enormous prestige, and Chomsky demolished him overnight in this wonderfully clever, funny paper. It was a brilliant paper that was passed around my university like a samizdat , with people saying 'you must read this'. It was also enormously important intellectually, laying the ground for the development of cognitive psychology."

Yet being wrong, or discredited, has its uses. Would Chomsky have attained his insights without Skinner as a target to stimulate his thinking? Detecting and denouncing error is part of the intellectual process. As Ged Martin points out: "Some of the best teachers are people who are often wrong, because they stimulate students to learn. You don't want them treating everything as gospel, but to be saying 'So and so has got it wrong, becauseI.' You need to stimulate that sort of challenge in a university - and for that matter in a democracy."

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