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Advance Online Version Volume 2, 2007




Alma Mater Matters: Exposing the Degree Mill Scam

Lisa Richmond


Degree Mills: The Billion Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas

By Allen Ezell and John Bear

Prometheus Books, 2005: 230 pages


This work is a clear, fact-oriented, and remarkably dispassionate treatment of a very disturbing subject: the sale and use of fake degrees, and the generally feeble response of legislators, law-enforcement agencies, employers, and educators.

Allen Ezell is a former FBI agent who founded the DipScam project in 1980, “the first and only time that a government agency attacked the problem” of fake degrees (16). DipScam ceased operating in 1991 when Mr. Ezell retired from the agency. John Bear is the author, along with his daughter, of Bears’ Guide to Degrees by Distance Learning and similar reference works. The authors point out that fake credentials have been with us for a very long time, but the rise of the Internet over the last ten to fifteen years has enabled this business to really thrive. The authors estimate that from 1995 to 2005, degree mills have made over a billion dollars’ worth of sales.

Probably the most extensive and lucrative degree mill is the “University Degree Program,” owned by an American and operating its websites and call centers in numerous other countries. It sells diplomas under the names of “Lafayette University,” “Northfield University,” “the University of Switzerland,” and dozens more. In addition to diplomas, the company provides transcripts, a degree-verification service for employers to call, and letters of recommendation. Ezell and Bear estimate that the company’s sales, mostly to American and Canadian customers, average more than $150,000 a day. Degree Mills includes the text of the company’s extensive telemarketing script, which the authors got in 2002 from a disgruntled employee.

According to a congressional study in 1986, the most recent year in which Congress examined the problem, approximately half a million Americans were actively using fake degrees (Americans who lie on their resumes, claiming legitimate degrees that they do not actually have, would form a separate group). The authors believe that almost all buyers of fake degrees do so knowingly, and use their degrees with deliberate intent to deceive. This book has been written for the much smaller number of people who are seeking a legitimate degree but lack the ability to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate schools. Such naiveté may not be as ridiculous as we think. While many people know, for example, that legitimate schools are almost always accredited, they probably do not know that “there are nearly as many fake accrediting agencies as there are fake schools” (176). In addition, the increasing variety of online and other non-traditional forms of education makes judgment more difficult. One of the book’s appendices contains the first-person narrative of a woman named Laura Callahan, who resigned from a senior position in the Department of Homeland Security in 2004 after the media reported on her three degrees from Hamilton University, a degree mill in Wyoming. She maintains that she fully believed she was dealing with a legitimate school, and had no intent to deceive others. The authors stress that there is no definition that can perfectly distinguish a degree mill from a legitimate enterprise, since exceptions abound. Instead, they discuss five aspects of any school that should be considered: what credit is given for previous work or life experience, how much new work is required, how the quality of the new work is assessed, who makes these decisions, and who grants the degrees. The book also contains a detailed list of suggestions for “how to check out a school” (133 ff).

The book’s intended readership, however, is not primarily the small number of prospective students who need help avoiding what the authors call “less-than-wonderful” schools. Ezell and Bear have written this book for the general public, and especially for those who are in a position to do something once the extent and seriousness of the degree-mill problem is brought home to them. Why should we care about fake degrees? Without naming names, the authors list the circumstances of dozens of people who have used or are now using false credentials to fly airplanes, practice medicine, serve as expert court witnesses, work as nuclear engineers, and perform many other critically important tasks in our society for which trust and real expertise are needed. The authors even mention someone serving as “head of a national crime organization” who holds a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in criminal justice—all of which are fake (269). Unfortunately, professors and academic administrators are not immune from the temptation, as Degree Mills makes clear. [1]

After the congressional hearing in 1986, several rather minimal recommendations were put forth, including the creation of a database of degree-mill information and a requirement that all federal agencies screen the credentials of their employees. These recommendations were not put into effect. The authors show that inaction, weak or non-existent laws, and disturbing rationalizations are the norm. Degree-mill operators can be charged under general fraud statutes, mostly commonly wire or mail fraud, but the penalties are usually weak. A small but growing number of states have passed legislation specifically prohibiting the purchase or use of fake degrees.

According to the authors, the job-hunting website currently lists thousands of resumes containing degrees from known degree mills. Educause, which supplies the .edu domain name, does not restrict that domain to legitimate schools only. Along with many other mainstream magazines and newspapers, the Economist regularly sells degree-mill advertising. When Ezell and Bear called the Economist to discuss the ads that appear in this magazine, they were told, “Our readers are smart enough to make their own decisions” (121). [2]

The authors point out that there have been only three other books published in the United States on degree mills, in 1963, 1986, and 1990, and that academic research on this topic is almost non-existent. Degree Mills suggests many recommendations for action, and notes that after John Bear published an article on this subject in University Business magazine several years ago, “there were perhaps a dozen letters to the editor received from university presidents, all of them of the ‘They should do something!’ variety” (179). Ezell and Bear no doubt hope that the information contained in Degree Mills will not only spur Them to act, but cause each of us to determine what we can do also.



1. As further evidence, a story in the June 25, 2020 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education profiled several professors at “legitimate” institutions who not only have fake degrees, but actually own and operate degree mills.

2. When the Chronicle reporters contacted the legitimate schools that employ the professors profiled in their story, they were told that the fake degrees didn’t matter, or that the professors could run whatever business they wished, as long as they continued to perform their other duties.






The Structure of Scientific Devolutions

Michael Svoboda

The Great Betrayal : Fraud in Science

By Horace Freeland Judson

Harcourt, 2004: 480 pages

Voodoo Science : The Road from
Foolishness to Fraud

By Robert L. Park

Oxford University Press, USA , 2001: 240 pages

Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration

By Seth Shulman

University of California Press, 2006: 202 pages

If you watched the 1998 film, The Matrix, you know the choice: “Take the blue pill and you wake up in your bed with no knowledge of what has happened. Take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland, and I [, Morpheus,] show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” With Keanu Reeves, millions of viewers took the red pill. Moments later they woke up in a fluid-filled pod, tethered to a complex industrial plant that abruptly excreted them from its system. Then they were rescued, rehabilitated, and re-educated. They learned that the late-1990s world in which they had hacked a living was an elaborate simulacrum created by intelligent machines that farm humans for their bio-electric energy.

The characters in the film used many words to describe the grim reality of the matrix, but “plagiarism,” “fraud,” and “falsification” were not among them. Nevertheless, these words apply. The machines did not acknowledge the inventors, designers, and authors of the sets, props and plots they deployed in their programs (plagiarism). They presented the matrix for one purpose but used it for another (fraud). And they made up the data for whole lives just to fit this purpose (falsification). The reason these otherwise descriptive words seem out of place in the Matrix is the sheer scale and pervasiveness of the deception. We feel we are far past the point where false dealing can be viewed as manageable noise in an otherwise functioning system. Here the system as a whole is false.

But at what point is the line between system noise and system failure crossed? The three books reviewed here offer different answers to this question. Of these, the most disturbing is the most recent; it argues that political manipulation of the policymaking process has resulted in a simulacrum of science akin to the machine programming of the Matrix. In the Kuhnian terms invoked by the title of this review, “normal” fraud has crossed into “revolutionary” fraud and now poses the risk of a fundamental devolution of science (Kuhn, 1970, p. 1-9).

Despite the drama promised by its title, the first book, Horace Judson’s The Great Betrayal, offers a portrait of normal science that now, just three years after its publication, seems quaintly reassuring. Although Judson seeks to persuade us that the necessary and sufficient conditions for the honest pursuit of research are becoming ever harder to maintain, his book actually affirms the essential integrity of science. After all, the frauds that he recounts have been rooted out, and scientists continue to find ways to circumvent the best efforts of corporations and governments to withhold information or otherwise block open and effective communication. Judson’s efforts to situate recent scientific fraud within broader historical and social contexts produce a similar result: the contemporary practice of science looks good by comparison.

Judson begins by observing that contemporary science is practiced within “A Culture of Fraud” (pp. 9-42). The examples of Enron, of assorted stock market manipulations, of corrupt and overpaid tech/com CEOs suggest that our society extols greed and tolerates the cunning with which it can be satisfied (pp. 10-18). Does this change of national heart lie behind recent examples of scientific fraud?

Judson’s first move to answer this question is to define what fraud means in the context of science, for which purpose he turns to Charles Babbage, who, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, carefully distinguished four frauds of scientific observation: hoaxing (deceiving in order to expose folly), forging (making up data), trimming (discarding data that falls too far beyond the mean), and cooking (selecting only data that support the hypothesis) (pp. 46-47). Judson then provides historical examples for each of these frauds, several of which involve significant figures in the pantheon of modern science—Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Robert Millikan, Ernst Haeckel, Sigmund Freud, and Cyril Burt (pp. 48, 52-96). Recounting the work of scholars who have closely examined the notebooks of these men, Judson reports case after case of scientists manipulating their raw data to support their finished theories. Defenders of these men, Judson notes, argue that it is wrong to measure them against the standards of contemporary peer-reviewed science. (See, for example, Wright on Mendel (p. 57) or Holton on Millikan (p. 79)). Judson grants the objection but concludes that we cannot acquit the charge: we should still be troubled by the small daily deceptions practiced by these scientists (pp. 95-97).

But the science practiced by these tainted luminaries was cottage work compared with the scientific-industrial complex of today, and it is to this much bigger science that Judson devotes the remainder—and bulk—of his book. Pointing to the vast growth in federally-funded science, and to the incentives for forming science empires and dynasties, Judson argues that science can no longer monitor itself properly and thus can no longer insure the integrity of its results. This is “the great betrayal,” the failed promise of science that Judson chronicles in a series of tales of scientific fraud, most notably the case of David Baltimore (pp. 191-243). In all of these cases, blindspots created by hyper-productivity, by co-dependent mentor-mentee relationships, by honorary authorships, by harried or compromised reviewers, or by administrators who managed perceptions before they managed their programs have allowed faulty or fraudulent studies to be funded and/or published (pp. 144-153). The traditional safeguard against such problems, the peer-review process, has simply been overwhelmed by the numbers involved: more scientists, more grant applications, more articles. And whenever federal funding does not keep pace with institutional investments in labs and grad students, competition only raises the stakes higher. Even if she wanted to do due diligence, a harried researcher volunteering her time for a grant review panel might not be able to root out more subtle manipulations of data.

Judson examines two possible solutions to this problem of oversight. The first, the return of the managing editor, he briefly explores at the end of his chapter on “The Problems of Peer Review” (pp. 244-286). The second solution, the emergence of open-access publishing, is detailed in “The Rise of Open Publication on the Internet" (pp. 325-368). In this rapidly evolving system, scientific papers are posted online and subjected to endless correction and revision by publicly identified researchers, rather than certified just once by anonymous peer-reviewers. Eventually, Judson concludes, the vast readership of science will collectively edit most of the science it reads.

While Judson clearly makes the case that the scale of contemporary science is without precedent, he never really demonstrates that fraud in science has grown at the same exponential rate. In fact, one gets the sense that science remains a calling for many of its practitioners, that science has successfully encultured the millions who now inhabit its research stations, labs, and institutes. It is Judson who has lost his sense of proportion.

Just how close and closed was the atmosphere that Horace Judson breathed while researching his story of scientific infidelities becomes clear when one turns from The Great Betrayal to Voodoo Science. If Judson’s book is a sort of academic novel, David L. Park’s, though much shorter, is an epic tale. Much broader characters fill its pages, men who awkwardly straddle the boundary between science and self-delusion. These are the figures Park has found on “the road from foolishness to fraud.”

Although Park does not mention the movie, this road passes through the Matrix. One continuous thread of Voodoo Science is the eternal search for “free energy,” a notion most commonly represented by the perpetual motion machine. As Park patiently explains, the goal of free energy, a system that delivers more work (or useful energy) than the energy put into it, violates some fundamental laws of physics (pp. 6-7). Claims to have discovered a principle or to have invented a mechanism that delivers such a bounty are thus the result either of inept or dishonest accounting for the energies involved. Such is the case with the bio-electric power plant that drives the plot and feeds the programs in Matrix. Farming requires the added energy of the sun; farmers can sell crops for more than their costs because the light their plants absorb is free. You cannot farm human energy to replace lost solar energy. This the authors of Matrix tacitly acknowledge when Morpheus concludes his description of the bioelectric harvest by noting that the machines had also discovered “a form of fusion.” In other words, the real source of the machines’ energy was non-human. Once one actually calculates the energy inputs and outputs, it becomes clear that raising and deceiving humans would have been a very expensive hobby for the machines. But as the many examples recounted in Voodoo Science amply demonstrate, when it comes to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, we are all too ready to suspend our disbelief.

Most Americans, in fact, do not understand these basic principles of energy. Plus, we have an abiding affection for the underdog, the aspiring, earnest, and self-taught entrepreneur (p. 5). Add to these two predispositions our human propensity to perceive and remember only what comports with our pre-existing beliefs, and we should not be surprised that Americans are so susceptible to non-science and other forms of nonsense (“The Belief Gene,” pp. 28-45).

Park recounts several “discoveries” of free energy, from Pons-Fleischmann cold fusion (pp. 14-27), to Joe Neuman’s Energy Machine (pp. 3-8, 98-106), to the Patterson Cell (pp. 10-14, 114-118). A critical marker on the road from foolishness to fraud, in Park’s view, is the point at which the scientist or inventor refuses to address legitimate questions about methods, apparatus, or data, as all of the figures involved in these episodes tried to do. Carefully maintained isolation is often a precursor to delusion (“pathological science”) or fraud (“junk science”) (p.164). If a scientific claim is shielded from critical inspection by the isolation of its proponent(s), then it is difficult to replicate that claim. Excessive secrecy regarding data ultimately render’s that work un-testable (pp. 38-43). Thus, “secrecy . . . [provides] a haven for voodoo science” (p. 189).

Although he includes a chapter on the ways government secrecy fosters foolishness and fraud (pp. 172-191), in Park’s book it is typically entrepreneurial inventors who are isolated from the scientific establishment and who cloak their methods in mystery. In Seth Shulman’s Undermining Science, by contrast, it is the political operatives of the Bush administration who shield themselves from public view while manipulating the results of publicly-funded science. To read Shulman’s book is to take one of Morpheus’s red pills: one enters a Wonderland where the rabbit holes run very deep indeed.

Undermining Science grew out of a request Shulman received from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in 2003 (p. xiii). Concerned then about reports they were hearing from scientists inside various federal agencies, departments, and programs, the UCS asked Shulman, an independent journalist, to investigate. Regular readers of the New York Times or the Washington Post will recognize many of the individual stories Shulman has collected; what is new about Undermining Science is the larger mural Shulman has pieced together with them. Here is his first sketch of that bigger picture:

Politics always plays a central role in science and technology policymaking. Every administration is influenced to some degree by political consideration on matters of science and technology—as it should be. What distinguishes the Bush administration, however, is a dramatic shift: its willingness to stifle or distort scientific evidence from its own federal agencies that runs counter to its preferred policies—and ideologies. (p.2)

Shulman draws evidence for this thesis from across the full spectrum of federally funded research and administrative fact-finding. The list of suppressions and distortions is long, but they can be grouped into some broad categories:

• the editing of reports and censoring of scientists with evidence of the anthropogenic causes and the human costs and consequences of global warming (pp. 16-30),

• the cherry-picking of evidence that supported the administration’s faith-based claims about abortion (pp. 46-53), abstinence (pp. 53-60), AIDS (pp. 60-63) and stem-cells (pp. 127-37),

• the stacking of panels and doctoring of evidence for policies on environmental health hazards like factory farm wastes (pp. 38-42), lead (pp. 34-38), and mercury (pp. 71-75),

• the shelving of field reports that documented claims of environmental damage or endangered species (pp. 81-93).

To round out his data, Shulman includes a brief chapter on the gathering and interpretation of intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War, arguing that the Bush administration’s top-down imposition of a foreordained conclusion was of a piece with its suppression and distortion of scientific data (pp. 94-110).

As portrayed in Shulman’s Undermining Science, the Bush administration clearly crossed the line that separates retail interference from wholesale subversion. While it still sought certification of its policies as the results of “sound science” (pp. 13-14), the Bush administration did not arrive at those policies as a result of any process that could be deemed scientific. Instead, by installing loyal appointees in critical positions in the federal bureaucracy, the Bush administration strove to put professional (i.e. neutral and objective) stamps of approval on its partisan political policies. Discouraged by these manipulations, career scientists resigned in record numbers (p. 145). As a result, Shulman concludes, Americans will still be dealing with the consequences of his administration’s attack on science years after Bush has left office (pp. 145-158).

With these three books, then, we have three different views on the possible breakdown, or devolution, of science.

According to Horace Freeland Judson, once science becomes an industry, once the need for funding and publication become matters of economic security, the process of evaluating proposals and reviewing reports is compromised, and the public promise of science is betrayed. But the evidence Judson assembles for this broad claim is at best equivocal. From the era before the science-industrial complex, Judson draws several examples of falsification, fraud, and plagiarism, enough to question whether some new threshold has been crossed by the contemporary examples he reviews in greater detail. Repairs will always be necessary, but the design of the system seems sound. This judgment is supported by a recent article in Science, “Boom and Bust,” (Couzin and Miller, 2007) that reported on the stiff competition for NIH grants. Now only 8% of first submissions are funded, compared with 21% just 8 years ago (356) [1]. The problem is not that bad studies are being funded on questionable grounds but that good studies aren’t being funded at all.

Robert L. Park never claims that science itself is in trouble, only that the public continues to have difficulty distinguishing between productive science and fraud/foolishness. The broader factors he cites to explain this incapacity are low levels of scientific literacy and high levels of media-driven hype (pp. 3-27). When scientists, or their university patrons, succumb to the hype, the results are almost always non-science—and costly. And when the story involves one of our Holy Grails, like free energy, even scientists can be too-ready to suspend their disbelief, as a recent Chronicle piece on “bubble fusion” confirmed yet again (Vance, 2007). When most of the public receives its science news through mass media that are increasingly subservient to the market, and when a significant portion of that market craves quick and easy solutions, then unorthodox claims will be fetched from afar to feed that audience’s hunger for the magical and the unreal.

But it is when people with insulated (and thus untestable) beliefs gain the opportunity to govern science that science is most threatened. Although Shulman repeatedly points to the Bush administration’s efforts to appease its corporate and religious supporters, he never draws the logical conclusion: Bush Republicans do not believe in peer-reviewed academic science. To the extent that they believe in science at all, it is the sort of fix-it science of engineers, applied sciences that simultaneously assume human priority and yet only human scale. We should not worry about global warming, for example, because (a) human welfare (i.e. economic growth) is more important than “the environment” and (b) humans are too small to produce any planet-scale effects. This problem of worldviews goes back to Copernicus and Galileo, two scientists who asserted that a heliocentric model, rather than an earth-centered one, made better sense of the data. Like the papal authorities then, the Bush administration and its supporters now are willing to accept complex epicycles and to reject conflicting data in order to maintain their core conviction: man is the center of the universe. When they gained mastery over the many federal domains of academic science, they simply imposed their product on the process, as the recent reports of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s handling of endangered species studies revealed—yet again (Barringer, 2007).

The simulacrum of the Matrix, in its own very strange way, was also a human-centered universe. The machines and their machinations were not seen. The devastation of the environment was invisible. And causes and consequences were limited to the human world of the global economy. This is an optimal structure for scientific devolution.


Barringer, F. (2007). Interior official steps down after report of rules violations. The New York Times on the Web. Retrieved May 10, 2007, from <>

Couzin, J. and Miller, G. (2007, April 20). Boom and bust. Science, 316, 356-361.[1]

Kuhn, T. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd Ed., enlarged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vance, E. (2007, April 6). The bursting of bubble fusion. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 53 (31), A16, A19-20.

Wachowski, A. and Wachowski, L. (Directors). (1999). The Matrix. Warner Brothers.


1. The author is not related to the Kurt Svoboda profiled in this Science article




Plagiary, Falsification, and Fabrication in American Historiography

Mitchell Meltzer

Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Frauds - American History From Bancroft And Parkman To Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, And Goodwin

By Peter Charles Hoffer

Public Affairs, 2004: 287 pages


It may not be too great an exaggeration to maintain that the American historians of the present moment best known among the general public are most famous not for the depth of their knowledge of the nation’s past, nor the sharpness of their opinions about the present, but for their very public and scandalous dishonesty. Peter Charles Hoffer, a professor history at the University of Georgia and a member of the American Historical Association’s professional division, the ethical watchdog of the profession, has written a book examining the four most prominent of these historians in Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Frauds—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis and Goodwin (PublicAffairs, 2004).

Hoffer’s book provides a complete and reliable account of the various accusations of dishonesty lodged against these four particular historians: Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Ellis, and Michael Bellesiles. Indeed, the second half of the book is devoted to a thorough and judicious review of the precise charges against each of these authors, the evidence from which these charges stem, and a fair-minded consideration of their various responses. For any reader who did not follow these individual cases when they were first reported in the press, or who wish to consult an extensive review of any or all of them, Hoffer’s chapters offer an admirably clear, coherent and well-documented version.

Hoffer divides these erring historians into three categories: plagiarists, falsifiers, and fabricators. The astonishingly productive and consistently best-selling Stephen Ambrose, best known perhaps for his histories of World War II soldiers, and his narrative of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, Undaunted Courage, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, a familiar television pundit, once a regular guest on PBS’s nightly Newshour, are the two plagiarists. Both authors have, in the course of composing their various volumes, simply copied substantial passages from the work of previous historians into their own text, unattributed, as if these were their own words. Each offered in footnote the quoted book, but with a range of pages, no page cited from which their words had been pilfered. In other words, neither author abided by the most elementary convention of scholarly integrity, not to say simple honesty: the use of quotation marks when citing words composed by others.

Hoffer cites an ample number of passages from both historians’ works to justify the indictment. From Ambrose, to give one of many instances, we are presented with this description of a radioman’s training from his book, The Wild Blue:

They began shooting skeet, then progressed to firing from moving platforms, from small arms to automatic weapons and finally to heavy machine guns. They learned how to operate the power-driven turrets, how to sight and swing them and their twin fifties.

And here are the words as originally used by their author, Thomas Childers, in his book, Wings of Morning:

There they shot skeet with a shotgun, then progressed to firing from moving platforms, first with small arms, then with automatic weapons and finally heavy machine guns. He learned how to operate the power-driven turrets, how to sight and swing them and their twin .50 calibers.

Goodwin’s practice was largely similar. This quotation from Goodwin's account of FDR, No Ordinary Time, should suffice to make clear the egregiousness of these procedures:

Eleanor quickly composed herself, walked back into the living room, and said in her most disarming manner, "It was kind of Mr.Aldrich to offer to be chairman, but is it not better from the point of view of geography to have someone from the Middle West?" At that, she turned immediately to Chicago philanthropist and New Deal loyalist Marshall Field; she knew it would be a bother for him, but could he accept? Though caught somewhat off guard, Field gave his assent.

Compare the passage to its source in Joseph Lash’s Eleanor and Franklin:

So Eleanor composed herself, returned to the living room, and said in her most disarming manner: "It is kind of Mr. Aldrich to offer to be chairman, but is it not better from the point of view of geography to have someone from the Middle West?"’ At that, she turned to Marshall Field; she knew it was a bothersome responsibility, she said, but could he accept the Chairmanship? Somewhat startled, the Chicago philanthropist and stalwart New Dealer did.

A student in any self-respecting undergraduate history department who engaged in this kind of verbal theft would, at the very least, be issued a stiff warning against plagiarism, pure and simple. Yet here are two professionally trained and accomplished historians repeatedly violating the minimum standards of scholarly integrity. More shocking than the fact of these violations in themselves—accidents happen, after all, and such prolific professional writers routinely employ assistants—were their responses when confronted with their offenses. In both cases, though Ambrose much more aggressively than Goodwin, they claimed that in the very nature of composing a historical narrative, assembling notes and quotations, such errors are more or less unavoidable. Hoffer rightly will have none of this.

So much for the plagiarists. The fabricator is Michael Bellesiles, whose startling book Arming America looked poised to overturn completely the prevailing view of gun ownership in the early years of the nation’s past. A winner of the prestigious Bancroft Prize for his book, Bellesiles ultimately stood accused not of borrowing other’s prose—an offense against principles of ownership, and elementary fairness—but of the even more damning sin of willfully twisting data to fit his argument, indeed of actually inventing some of his data from non-existent sources. Hoffer reviews all the charges along with Bellesiles’s explanations, and without managing definitively to dot every ‘i” and cross every “t”, holds Bellesiles guilty of fundamental dishonesty, a judgment confirmed by the unprecedented step of the withdrawal of the Bancroft Prize.

As the falsifier, Hoffer presents Joseph Ellis, the celebrated chronicler of the Founders in such books as Founding Brothers. Nothing in Ellis’s historical writing has come under attack but rather Ellis’s teaching in which he spun imaginary tales of, among other things, his Vietnam War experiences—of which he had exactly none. In Ellis’s case, Hoffer argues that his dishonesty, by encouraging him to cultivate the power of his imagination, seems to have strengthened his historical scholarship. Comparing his earlier work, before he began fabricating in class, and during the occasional book-promoting interview, and his work afterwards, Hoffer sees a distinct gain in Ellis’s “power as a writer,” allowing him to develop “the lightening-like brilliance of the insights into character … that do not appear in the earlier books” (p. 223).

What is the reader to make of this gathering of plagiarists, falsifiers, and fabricators? Each offense seems quite distinct; what is their relation to one another? Which is most serious as a threat to the integrity of the profession? Alas, Hoffer has nothing whatever to say about this. The cases are presented as if they are extended bullet points in a list called Historical Dishonesty. Not that Hoffer doesn’t have an overarching thesis—he does; but his thesis, that all these problems derive from a tradition of American consensus history, is neither persuasive nor altogether coherent.

Hoffer’s account of what is meant by “consensus history,” a term coined in 1959 by John Higham in which he criticized the frequent “homogenization” of American history, is scattered throughout the first hundred and thirty pages of Part One of his book. It is generally nationalistic and celebratory. It is a history of the white Protestant America, systematically marginalizing the place of African Americans, women, Indians, religious and ethnic minorities, the poor, and all others who were not a part of the nation’s socio-economic elite. More to the point, such history was, according to Hoffer, systematically biased and routinely “falsified and fabricated by omission and commission, and substituted opinion for scholarship” (p. 38). And who were these consensus historians? George Bancroft and Francis Parkman make it into the title of the book, and a handful of other earlier historians are cited, but whether all the historical work before the rise of the relatively recent “new history”—from works such as Henry Adams’s magnificent History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889-91) to Arthur Schlessinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson (1945)—is likewise guilty of such intellectual sins Hoffer does not make clear. Indeed in the handful of pages devoted to Bancroft and Parkman Hoffer cites not a single instance of their texts so that the reader is unable to judge the extent to which these earlier historians were doing what Ambrose and Goodman have done. Indeed, Hoffer acknowledges that unlike these contemporary plagiarists, when Bancroft or Parker use passages from secondary works without quotation marks they do rigorously provide the precise page from which they borrowed it in a footnote.

And what, after all, is the relation between the systematic bias of ideological blinders—race, gender, ethnicity, class—to the kind of plagiarism, falsification and fabrication Hoffer goes on to discuss? That they often overlap must be so: systematic bias would seem logically to necessitate some misuse, misapplication, or selective use of the data. But aren’t these two very different issues: one, the all but inevitable ideological meta-narrative behind the storytelling of any coherent narrative history; the other, the violation of basic standards of intellectual honesty, including the prohibition against verbal theft?

Whether in fact the whole schematic account Hoffer presents of American historiography—the long reign of “consensus history” in all its guises yielding to the post-sixties “new history”-- is a fair one is an open question: it is more assumed than argued for in his book. A reader not already persuaded of this now familiar narrative would have very little to go on from Hoffer’s presentation. The scattershot effect of the book’s cumbersome title all too accurately reflects the unfocused and overreaching quality of his argument. In addition to his contrast between “consensus history” and the “new history,” Hoffer weaves in and out of the first part of his book concerns about the development of the historical profession from a sociological and economic point of view, the question of professional standards and official review of historical work, the public perception of the work of historians, and the need for both scientific history and a national sense of the past in which the nation can take understandable pride. When in his brief conclusion Hoffer claims that observers of these recent cases of historians’ dishonesty “did not think in historical terms, or understand the long historical causes of the crisis, [that] they did not see the long dark side of American history writing,” it sounds both sensational and unjustified by anything that came before.

As a balanced, well-document account of the problems some prominent historians have had with standards of honesty, Past Imperfect is of genuine value. What, if anything, this recent spate of cases says about American history as an activity, or a profession, remains to be seen.







The Propagation of Misinformation: Archeological
Hoaxes throughout History

Stephanie Vie

Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology

By Kenneth L. Feder

McGraw-Hill, 2001: 352 pages


Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries, now in its fifth edition, [1] is an engaging introduction to many famous archaeological hoaxes. Tackling well-known examples in popular culture such as the lost city of Atlantis, Columbus’ discovery of America, Noah’s Ark, and water dowsing, Feder devotes a chapter to each myth to shed light on “unsubstantiated, occult, and speculative claims” (1991, p. 5) and “highly speculative and unproven or, at worst, complete nonsense” (2006, p. 10). The author specifically addresses his book to fellow archaeology teachers (such as in the introduction when Feder notes that “all of us who teach archaeology hear [uninformed] comments … from our students”), but Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries is useful reading for anyone who wants to learn more about how misinformation is propagated throughout societies. Because the author only briefly assesses many different hoaxes over the course of nearly four hundred pages, this book seems best suited to an introductory college-level reader. However, as an introductory text in a course that addresses scientific rationality, frauds and misinformation, and/or rhetorical awareness of audience, Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries offers some appealing examples that will likely connect well with students.

The first edition of this work was not specifically marketed as a textbook, though the writing was engaging enough and the complexity level of the writing was certainly not above the average college student’s grasp. However, the fifth edition now leaves no doubt as to its purpose; many changes make the book more classroom-friendly, such as the addition of short critical thinking exercises at each chapter’s end and a companion website for educational use. Other textbook-friendly features include a “frequently asked questions” section before the critical thinking exercises and a short quick start guide before the first chapter begins. This guide asks students to critically analyze claims by asking themselves where the claims are presented and by whom; how do the authors “know” they are right; whether others have been consulted and whether these others are also convinced; and whether confirming data are presented. These factors are all offered to encourage students to consider whether they have sufficient evidence to make an informed decision about issues. This critical material is provided, of course, in the hopes that students will apply these analysis tools to their archeological studies—and perhaps to Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries itself.

The companion website offered at <> showcases a companion video guide (a seven-page summary of videos related to the topics covered in the book), the URLs for websites highlighted in the book’s brief “best of the Web” notes, and quizzes. Finally, throughout the book students are presented with additional research sources, such as a list on page 13 of “skeptical publications on extreme claims not directly related to archaeology” covering topics like astrology, the Bermuda triangle, faith healing and miracles, Holocaust denial, UFOs, and urban legends. These additional sources enhance the material provided by Feder to give a broader perspective of a field often colloquially referred to as “myth-busting.” Although all these changes certainly make Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries a better textbook, they do detract a bit from the more scholarly nature of the first edition. Whether this is good or bad depends on individual perspective and need, of course—for instance, the reader should question whether this book is intended for use in a class or as an academic resource. The fifth edition seems more solidly in the “textbook” camp and indeed, Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries is a popular choice in many introductory archaeology and anthropology courses.

Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries is organized in an easy-to-follow, one-topic-per-chapter format. Though Feder systematically uses each chapter to debunk a single fraud or myth (except for the second-to-last chapter, which deals with three separate religious myths), his goal for the book “is not to simply debunk individual claims … the aim here is to put the analysis of such claims firmly within the perspective of the scientific method as it relates to archaeology” (vi). To set up this perspective from the beginning, the author begins by relating his own personal trajectory of interest in this project, then systematically explains epistemological reasoning in the second chapter, “Epistemology: How You Know What You Know.” Feder rather quickly moves away from epistemology to a more basic understanding of the scientific method. He methodically describes how scientists understand the world through the inductive and deductive processes using examples such as childbed fever in Vienna in the late nineteenth century. [2] Feder’s goal is to provide the uninitiated reader with an understanding of the scientific method (testing hypotheses, deducing implications, and using experiments to uphold scientific theories) so they will understand why chapters three through twelve follow the same general format: outline the fraud or myth; show, using scientific evidence, the falsity of the claim(s); and provide “current perspectives” on the issue along with frequently asked questions from students.

For example, Feder outlines the history of the Cardiff Giant in chapter three. The giant, rumored to be the fossilized remains of a prehistoric man discovered in Cardiff, New York, in 1869, was actually a fairly elaborate gypsum fake—and a fairly lucrative fake at that, bringing in millions of dollars by today’s standards (p. 51). The Cardiff Giant was exposed because one of the men behind the fraud, George Hull, confessed after rumors and suspicion began to circulate. Feder addresses the concepts of authenticity and belief in the brief “current perspectives” section at the end of chapter three. The Cardiff Giant myth was dispelled after skeptics proved it was made from gypsum, a soft stone that would have broken down in the soil long before the “discovery” of the supposed petrified man. However, the Giant was widely famous before it was discredited; many people were apparently taken in, believing the remains were actually the petrified carcass of a prehistoric man. Feder asserts that no one would be fooled by such a “shabby hoax” today. Thanks to more sophisticated technological tools, scientists can now rely on radiocarbon dating, scanning electron microscopes, ion microprobes and the like to discern the validity of archeological finds. Still, the power of the human capacity to believe despite evidence may prove Feder wrong—even today near where I live in Tucson, Arizona, residents of Sedona, Arizona believe in the healing power of the red rocks and “magical” vortices.

The frauds Feder describes in successive chapters grow more complex; as time has passed and science has become more sophisticated, so too have the tools available to potential charlatans. Chapter four points out the “inelegant fake” (p. 86) of the Piltdown man fossil, supposedly a missing link in our evolutionary history that would prove the human brain evolved long before the modernization of the human body. Though the identity of the person(s) responsible for the Piltdown fake remains unknown, it is not so much “whodunnit” (p. 78) as why. Why did people so readily accept the shoddy fake Piltdown skull at—if you’ll pardon the pun—face value? Feder points out a truism applicable to all fields of inquiry and particularly pertinent for writing instructors. Whether out of naïveté, a refusal to accept that individuals might purposefully trick one another, or because it is more comfortable to believe a lie (p. 86), Feder argues that we believe what we want to believe, often despite evidence to the contrary. As a college writing instructor, I have found myself in the past wanting to believe that a suspicious paper was not plagiarized. I wanted to believe that no student I taught would ever possibly plagiarize. This desire was further complicated by the institutional difficulties that accompany an accusation of plagiarism; I must figure out where the student plagiarized from, perhaps fill out forms detailing the accusation, meet with the student and perhaps re-grade the assignment, and so on. (And, much like the rigorous collection of evidence that Feder points to as necessary to expose myths and mysteries, instructors who wish to accuse a student of plagiarism must often collect enough evidence to prove their case, often using plagiarism detection services and the like.) Like accepting frauds because it is easier than potentially overturning already-entrenched belief systems, it is often easier to turn a blind eye to plagiarism than to challenge suspicious writing. However, Feder clearly believes in setting the record straight by providing evidence to prove accepted myths wrong. Similarly, most researchers who study plagiarism and falsification would assert that exposing fraud and complicating accepted ideas about plagiarism is a worthy goal.

While “believing because we want to believe” is a major theme throughout the book, a second theme emerges in chapter two and runs throughout the book as well. Feder tackles the division between science and theology, two areas that “are often forced to part company and respectfully disagree” (p. 26), by addressing the Shroud of Turin, Noah’s Ark, and the biblical Flood. The book’s undercurrent of religious skepticism comes to a head in chapter eleven, “Old Time Religion—New Age Harmonics.” In the 1991 edition, Feder begins by likening scientific belief in religious artifacts to an Indiana Jones movie:

Indiana Jones did manage to recover the Ark of the Covenant—the receptacle for God’s word as described in the Old Testament—from the Nazi band that wished to control the enormous power contained within. Maybe Indy’s next adventure could involve archaeological proof of the God of the Bible. (1991, p. 171)

In the fifth edition, references to Indiana Jones have been stripped, but the tone remains the same: “The scientists have uncovered concrete proof of a miracle and, at least indirectly, proof of the existence of God. … [this scene] reflects actual claims made on a number of occasions by self-styled scientists” (2006, p. 278). Feder goes on to argue that “self-styled scientists” who believe in artifacts like the Shroud of Turin have essentially stepped over into the realm of archaeological debate and are therefore subject to available scientific tests:

Although the purpose of this book is certainly not to assess the veracity of anyone’s religious beliefs or to judge the philosophical basis of anyone’s faith, when individuals claim that there is physical, archaeological evidence for a basic belief of a particular religion, the argument is removed from the field of theological discourse and placed squarely within the proper boundaries of archaeological discussion. (p. 278)

My only issue with Feder’s treatment of the tensions between scientific belief and religious faith is his occasional reliance on sarcastic dismissal of religious beliefs. Chapter eleven mostly proceeds along the same formula that guides the previous chapters—introduce the fraud, provide scientific evidence of the deception, and give a current perspective on historical events—but the author intermittently sidesteps the issue at hand to deliver comments like these:

Many creationists believe that dinosaurs lived during Noah’s time and were among the animals saved on the Ark (Taylor 1985a). Obviously, a 30-ton, 40-foot-tall, 100-foot-long Supersaurus would have been more than a little cramped in its quarters. (p. 285)

Sarcasm regarding dinosaurs aside, Feder provides sufficient scientific evidence to prove his point in this chapter, even going so far as to turn to biblical references when it serves his purpose (such as pointing out on page 301 that there are no mentions of a mysterious image on Christ’s burial shroud anywhere in the Gospels). As a rhetorician, I find Feder’s occasionally invective tone off-putting; particularly in the 1991 edition, his tone often slides dangerously close to an ad hominem attack. However, the eleventh chapter is the only one in which the author’s anti-religious invective really surfaces, and then it is still balanced by a reliance on facts, figures, and other scientific evidence. And, admittedly, Feder’s tone is less sarcastic in the fifth edition than in the first; for instance, while he paints creationists as “lame” and “laughable” threats to scientific rationality in his 1991 text, Feder refers to these same creationists as simply “weak and unoriginal” (p. 286) in 2006, attacking the strength of their evidence rather than their character—a crucial rhetorical shift. Still, Feder is at his strongest when he is explaining his view of scientific rationality; I hate to see him contributing to the perpetual tension between science and religion using sarcasm and dismissal.

Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries ends with “Real Mysteries of a Verifiable Past,” where Feder outlines the mysteries of European cave painters, Mayan civilization and its collapse, Stonehenge, and crop circles. He ends by again imploring the reader to make informed decisions about history based on critical analysis of available evidence: “Many different possible pasts can be constructed … not all of these constructed pasts—not all of the possibilities—are equally plausible” (p. 331). Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries remains a useful addition to the field of archaeology and a potentially helpful text for courses with a rhetorical basis (this textbook would be excellent for a unit on evaluating evidence, analyzing claims, and presenting an argument). As well, it is an interesting read for anyone who wants to know more (albeit in brief) about many captivating strands of misinformation in our culture.



1. This review addresses the fifth edition (2006) of Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries but occasionally references changes made between the first edition (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1991) and the fifth.

2. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician, was credited as discovering the importance of hygiene in obstetrics after testing numerous hypotheses regarding high mortality rates for women in a Viennese maternity ward. Feder outlines the process of Semmelweis’ discovery but does not address the fact that few in the medical community initially believed in his assertions. Considering that Feder spends most of his time in Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries outlining how “we believe what we want to believe” despite evidence to the contrary, Semmelweis’ own story would have been a powerful demonstration of how even the scientific community sometimes refuses to believe in factual evidence.





Reviews forthcoming:

(query editor if interested in reviewing other titles)



Plagiarism and Literary Property in
the Romantic Period

By Tilar J. Mazzeo

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007: 256 pages



The Little Book of Plagiarism

By Richard A. Posner

Pantheon, 2007: 128 pages




Reviews invited:

(query editor if interested in reviewing other titles)


Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity

By Joanna Demers

University of Georgia Press, 2006: 200 pages





The Deceivers: Art Forgery and Identity in
the Nineteenth Century

By Aviva Briefel

Cornell University Press, 2006: 256 pages





Scientific Examination of Documents: Methods and Techniques, 3rd Ed.

By David Ellen

CRC Press, 2006: 248 pages




Review Archive, 2007

Review Archive, 2006



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