J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On the Trail of the Jefferson Y Chromosome

Yesterday I wrote about Prof. Annette Gordon-Reed reexamining the evidence about the paternity of Sally Hemings’s children in 1997 and concluding that certainty lay in the realm of medical science, not documentary history.

That’s where Eugene A. Foster, M.D., entered the picture. He had been a pathologist and professor of forensic medicine at Tufts and the University of Virginia. Like Gordon-Reed, he was trained to think rigorously about evidence. Foster had read about the question of whether Hemings’s owner, Thomas Jefferson, fathered those Hemings children, and wondered if there could be a genetic answer.

These remarks come from Frontline’s interview with Foster:

The experts and I had thought that, after five, six or seven generations, the DNA of the person who you’re interested in...would be diluted so much that you can hardly find any. In other words, in each generation, a parent passes on only half or less of his or her DNA to the children, so with each generation, it begins to disappear. So even if we knew what was specifically characteristic of Thomas Jefferson’s DNA, we would have very little chance of finding it in people who are his descendants or think they’re his descendants.

And then the whole thing was complicated because of other family relationships, like the fact that Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson’s wife probably had the same father. The Carr brothers, who were also implicated in this affair, had ancestors common with the Jeffersons, and so forth. So it was just going to be impossible. . . .

But the Y chromosome is something that is passed. It’s the chromosome that determines whether you are a man. So a man has the Y chromosome and an X chromosome and the woman has two X chromosomes. The beauty of that is, since you only have one Y chromosome and it’s gotten only from your father, that means it isn’t diluted. It goes from generation to generation, father to son, unchanged. No one had thought of using it for these purposes, because it had not been thought to have enough variation.
Foster’s contribution to history was to apply a new discovery in medical science to an old, seemingly intractable question. He turned what seemed like a boring quality in genetics—“not enough variation” in men’s Y chromosome—into an advantage when it came to studying paternity nearly two centuries before.

With the assistance of genealogist Herbert Barger and others, Foster located patrilineal (i.e., son of a son of a son...) descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s paternal uncle, one Hemings child, Thomas Woodson, and the Carr brothers. Then a team of British and Dutch geneticists tested those men’s Y chromosomes to find close matches, and some British statisticians analyzed the results.

Foster published the team’s findings in Nature in 1998, and the news immediately made headlines. They had found a match between the Jefferson and Hemings lines, and no match between those lines and those of the Woodson or Carr families. Given the elimination of any Carr link to Sally Hemings’s children, the documentary evidence already pointing to Thomas Jefferson as their father, and the total lack of evidence from the nineteenth century pointing to any other Jefferson, Foster’s study settled the question for most historians and other observers.

What I find especially convincing about this analysis is that no one in the nineteenth century could have predicted D.N.A. science, or known who would have patrilineal descendants alive in 1998. In other words, someone making up a story about the Hemings children in the 1800s had no idea what evidence that story would have to match and explain in the future. And of all the detailed accounts of the Hemings family set down in the nineteenth century, only one—the memories of Madison Hemings—was fully consistent with the Foster study.

Foster died last week at age 81, and his obituaries led with his Jefferson work.

TOMORROW: The mystery of Thomas Woodson.

28 comments:

Robert S. Paul said...

Now the question is, was it rape?

I don't mean in the violent sort that one usually thinks when they hear the term, but Sally was essentially property. Would she have been capable of saying "no" to her master?

But then, even if she weren't, would she have wanted to?

That seems to be what inevitably comes up whenever anyone talks about Jefferson and Hemmings. I suppose it's another piece of Jefferson's dichotomic personality.

J. L. Bell said...

We can be certain that whatever understanding Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had about their relationship, it wasn’t an agreement between equals.

Hemings was less powerful in many ways: as a slave, as a woman, as a child (at the start of their relationship), as a person of some African ancestry, and as a poor person. But most people in colonial America were in one or more of those conditions.

What Jefferson's and Hemings's understanding was, and whether they explicitly discussed it or shared the same ideas or lived up to any promises—those things we’ll probably never know.

Steven T. Corneliussen said...

You refer to "the elimination of any Carr link to Sally Hemings’s children," but in fact the DNA eliminated any Carr link only in the case of Sally Hemings's last child, her son Eston. Whatever the historical evidence may say, science tells nothing whatsoever about the paternity of the other Hemings kids. This is a common factual error and an example of the usually inadvertent misuse of scientific evidence in the Hemings-TJ controversy. I'm an agnostic about the paternity, but very interested in the use and misuse of scientific evidence in public discussions. It seems to me that the special authority of science matters a lot, in areas from climate change to the efficacy and safety of vaccines. At TJscience.org, I've posted a lengthy essay about the misuse of scientific evidence in Hemings-TJ -- not only concerning misinterpretations of perfectly valid but in some ways limited DNA evidence, but concerning something unrelated to the DNA: a completely invalid statistical study that's widely credited by certain historians. Whether or not those scholars are right that Hemings and TJ had kids together, they're remarkably credulous about bogus statistical hand-waving. Thanks. Steven T. Corneliussen (I'm a Virginia science writer.)

J. L. Bell said...

You write, “in fact the DNA eliminated any Carr link only in the case of Sally Hemings's last child, her son Eston.”

What credible link is there between the Carrs and any of the Hemings children? None at all.

Two of Jefferson’s white descendants left mutually contradictory stories pointing to the Carrs. One said everyone at Monticello knew that Peter Carr had fathered all of the Hemings children. The other said everyone at Monticello knew that Samuel Carr had done so.

One of those statements had to be false. None of the authors who pointed to the Carrs acknowledged that logical fact, which Annette Gordon-Reed pointed out in her book.

We now know from the D.N.A. tests that neither of those statements was true. Neither Carr could gave fathered Eston Hemings (later named Eston Jefferson). Rather, a Jefferson had to, and the false statements were obviously made to point to some man other than Thomas Jefferson. But there is no other evidence whatsoever linking either Carr to Hemings.

If you want to speak up for a “scientific” approach to this question, you should be more logical about what constitutes a “Carr link.”

Steven T. Corneliussen said...

Maybe J. L. Bell is right about interpretation of _historical_ evidence concerning TJ's Carr relatives. But I'm only talking about what science itself -- the molecular findings -- proved or disproved. Ms. or Mr. Bell conflates scientific proof with historical judgment.

That's a common error in this controversy. It's simply wrong, as a factual matter, to say that DNA science eliminated the Carrs in the cases of all the children. DNA science eliminated the Carrs only for the case of Eston Hemings.

Science contributes nothing whatsoever to the sifting of the paternity candidates for Eston or to knowledge concerning the paternity candidates for the other Hemings kids. As the DNA scientists themselves have written, those are jobs for historians.

I'll venture outside science and into the historical-evidence parts of the controversy far enough to add, however, that anyone interested in the paternity candidacy issue -- including parts involving the Carrs -- might well want to read what's said about all of that by Cynthia H. Burton, a Charlottesville genealogist, or by Robert F. Turner, the University of Virginia legal scholar who led the independent, unpaid Scholars Commission that investigated the entire Hemings-TJ matter. Burton's book has been out for some time. Turner's commission's report appeared several years ago. He's about to publish a new book about Hemings-TJ.

Burton and Turner may be wrong about the paternity questions, but they know the difference between scientific proof and historical interpretation.

That distinction matters whether or not Hemings and TJ had kids together.

J. L. Bell said...

Mr. Corneliussen claims to be an “agnostic” on the question of the Hemings children’s paternity, yet the only books he cites argue against Thomas Jefferson being their father. That’s not the balance I’d expect from someone who truly has no opinion.

Curiously, in a letter to the New York Times in 2003, Mr. Corneliussen stated, “It's time to declare an end to major combat in the Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson war of biological descent.” Yet here he praises the output of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, a group formed precisely to carry on that fight. (It carefully selected the members of the “Scholars Commission,” whose work he cites.)

I’ll repeat what I wrote above: The D.N.A. tests showed scientifically that statements about the Carr brothers fathering all the Hemings children were not credible. And since those statements were the only evidence linking the Carrs to Sally Hemings, anyone truly interested in evidence should ask why people still wish to point fingers at them.

To say (and to repeat as many times and in as many forums as Mr. Corneliussen has) that science hasn’t eliminated the Carrs as possible fathers for Hemings children besides Eston is like saying that science hasn’t eliminated James Monroe as a possible father. One could make that argument on narrow grounds, but what value does it have, historically or scientifically? Unless, of course, one wanted to cast doubt on the scholarly consensus and actually prolong the “major combat” on this question.

Steven T. Corneliussen said...

I apologize for my blunder, as a newcomer to this forum, in not even realizing that J. L. Bell is the blog owner. If readers want to take my blunder as evidence of my incompetence, I guess I can't blame them.

But I hope they'll also see that instead of engaging the actual issue that I raised, Mr. Bell has now simply conjectured about my motivations in hopes of discrediting me. To reply to his various red herrings and distortions would be tedious both for me and for his blog's readers -- and probably for him too, I would guess. If anyone is really interested in any of that, I can be reached via my TJscience.org Web site, where you can also read more about why conflations like the one in Mr. Bell's original paragraph, quoted below, have skewed public understanding worldwide concerning the Hemings-TJ paternity question.

Here, again, is what Mr. Bell wrote in his original posting:
QUOTE
Foster published the team’s findings in Nature in 1998, and the news immediately made headlines. They had found a match between the Jefferson and Hemings lines, and no match between those lines and those of the Woodson or Carr families. Given the elimination of any Carr link to Sally Hemings’s children, the documentary evidence already pointing to Thomas Jefferson as their father, and the total lack of evidence from the nineteenth century pointing to any other Jefferson, Foster’s study settled the question for most historians and other observers.
UNQUOTE

That paragraph begins by establishing a science context. It then goes on falsely to invoke the special authority of science to support what may be a perfectly good bit of historical interpretation -- namely, that there's no Carr link to any Hemings child. I'm not arguing against that historical interpretation. I'm only blowing the whistle on the false claim that the interpretation shares the status of what the DNA scientists called their molecular findings.

If readers will think back to 1998, they'll recall that it was a much more egregious such conflation of DNA science and historical interpretation that led to a phenomenon that was widespread then, and that still crops up even today: the belief that DNA science directly proved the paternity just as surely as DNA science can prove a criminal case.

But in fact, as Mr. Bell rightly notes, the DNA scientists "had found a match between the Jefferson and Hemings lines." That's all that their molecular findings showed. But Nature's editors, without the lead DNA scientist's permission, used the misleading headline "Jefferson fathered slave's last child" for the DNA report. Not "A Jefferson." Just "Jefferson." Worse, in the thumbnail summary for an explanatory commentary piece in the same issue, and again in an illustration caption there, Nature included the false claim that DNA alone had proven the paternity. To this day, that scientific and also journalistic irresponsibility amazes me.

As I say, maybe Sally Hemings and TJ were parents together. I don't know. But I do know that the paternity case shouldn't be made by falsely invoking the special authority of science.

One last thing: The thumbnail summary on my TJscience.org essay "Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and the Authority of Science" says, "Whether or not Hemings and Jefferson had children together, misreported DNA and misused statistics have skewed the paternity debate, discrediting science itself." Mr. Bell, I hope that in fairness you'll report to your readers what book I wrote about at some length, and with what I believe was substantial respect, in that essay's introduction.

Thanks very much.

Steve Corneliussen

Anonymous said...

Mr. Corneliussen is a member of an informal team that engages in immediate responses to blog posts about Sally Hemings. His role is engage in hyperbole about the "abuse" of the "special authority of science."

While he admits to the integrity of the scientists who conducted the DNA tests, and of their correct interpretation of the results, his specialty is to take issue with the reporting of those results by journalists, bloggers and ordinary people.

Journalists, bloggers and ordinary people get science wrong some of the time, by failing to cross their scientific "T"s as a scientist would. Journalists fail to do so because they favor novelties of the moment, as do their peer reviewers (also called "editors"). Anyone who reads the science section of the New York Times cannot be unaware of this.

Bloggers and ordinary people conduct impromptu converstions, which by their spontaneous nature, are prone to inaccuracy.

Somehow in Mr. Corneliussen's mind, these distortions of the moment amount to an attack on science.

The question is, with the broad misreporting of science by non-scientists being so common, why has Mr. Corneliussen, a defender of science, chosen so narrow a topic as that of Sally Hemings DNA to advance his argument?

He can claim impartiality as to his views, but not as to his focus. Why, Mr. Corneliussen, are you not protesting misreporting of global warming, cellphone cancers, and the like?

One would suspect you have some kind of vested interest in the topic of Thomas Jefferson and his historical legacy.

J. L. Bell said...

I must say that I’m not impressed with Steven Corneliussen’s powers of observation. It was obvious that he hadn’t read the “About Me” paragraph in the top left corner of every Boston 1775 page when he couldn’t figure out if I’m male or female, but to miss that this is my blog? My name appears on the top screen five times. I guess I don’t need to worry about appearing too egotistical after all.

I begin to suspect that Mr. Corneliussen sees what he wants to see and ignores the rest, given this mischaracterization of part of my posting above: “That paragraph begins by establishing a science context. It then goes on falsely to invoke the special authority of science to support what may be a perfectly good bit of historical interpretation -- namely, that there's no Carr link to any Hemings child.”

The “scientific context” that Mr. Corneliussen sees existed only within Boston 1775’s historical context. You know, “History, analysis, and unabashed gossip...” He chose to read my phrase “Given the elimination of any Carr link to Sally Hemings’s children” as being about scientific findings alone because that allowed him to saddle up a hobby horse and complain that the purely scientific conclusions of Dr. Foster’s study have been overstated.

But to do so he had to ignore the rest of that sentence, which remarked on “documentary evidence,” “total lack of evidence from the nineteenth century,” and “historians and other observers.” Only selective sight would make it possible to conclude that my phrase “elimination of any Carr link” was based on the Y chromosome study alone. It was, as I repeated, a conclusion based on historical and scientific evidence. Historians writing before 1998 agreed that there were three candidates to be father of Sally Hemings’s children; the genetic study eliminated two.

Mr. Corneliussen goes on to admit that I summarized the findings of the Nature study correctly. But of course he didn’t say that in his first comment. That’s because, I fear, he’s fallen victim to the common problem (I fight against it myself) of spotting that “Someone is wrong on the internet!” and feeling that one has to correct every possible example. Even when one comes across someone not actually saying that wrong thing. And even when, as on this Nature comments list, people are discussing a totally different topic, and the journal has already published one’s remarks.

Frankly, given all the sincere errors and outright lies in circulation, I think crusading against a ten-year-old article’s headline feels like a low priority. Headlines perforce summarize, and lose nuances. The Nature headline “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child” did indeed reflect both scientific and historical conclusions, not just genetic ones. It also didn’t go as far as most historians and other observers have done, and conclude that it seems most likely that Jefferson fathered all of Sally Hemings’s children.

Finally, Mr. Corneliussen asks me to state “what book I wrote about at some length, and with what I believe was substantial respect, in that essay's introduction.” The introductory page at his website mentions no book, just an article and letters including one from—surprise!—Steven T. Corneliussen. His essay itself starts with brief references to Annette Gordon-Reed’s book, but I would hardly call that writing “at some length” or with “substantial respect.” But then Mr. Corneliussen may see what he wants to see.

J. L. Bell said...

To give credit where it’s due, I see Steven Corneliussen’s name in many places on the Real Climate website.

I, too, have been struck by the narrow focus of Mr. Corneliussen’s writings on the Hemings paternity question. One of these days I plan to write about how the authors he praising as understanding science abuse the useful scientific principle of Occam’s Razor.

Steven T. Corneliussen said...

Sounds like I should repeat my earlier apology for failing to read about the blog before I answered a posting. I apologize again. And I do agree that people see what they want to see, and I agree that this discussion shows it -- though we disagree on which parts. Earlier I mentioned that it would be tedious to chase down all of the red herrings and distortions. That red-herring chase would be even wider now, and would even involve responding to someone who doesn't reveal her or his identity. But here's another try on the merits of the actual question that I raised:

A July 22 article in a Charlottesville publication quoted Annette Gordon-Reed this way:
QUOTE
“DNA testing,” she says, “ruled out the Carrs.”
UNQUOTE
The URL (not sure this will come through, and the quotation is only in the long version of the article) is http://www.readthehook.com/blog/index.php/2008/07/22/eugene-foster-dies-found-jefferson-hemings-genetic-link/

That's an assertion of scientific proof, not historical judgment influenced by scientific facts. And it is simply wrong. Now, maybe Professor Gordon-Reed was misquoted, but even if so, the fact that the error can appear even in Charlottesville underlines its ubiquity. This morning I re-read the original paragraph by Mr. Bell that I quoted above. I continue to assert that it obviously contains precisely this error.

Whether or not Hemings and Jefferson had children together, misreported DNA -- and misused statistics, which we haven't really discussed here -- have skewed the paternity debate. The misreporting and the misuse originated not among journalists, but within science itself. They've propagated elsewhere. And they've diverted people from making their own informed judgments about what's been proven, and by what means. In my view that's an important problem, and the misrepresentation of the Carr facts is part of it.

A question for Mr. Bell: You've now asserted that Cynthia H. Burton's book abuses Occam. Does that mean you've read it?

Larry Cebula said...

Even before the DNA evidence, the historical evidence that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemmings was pretty persuasive.

Now that we do have DNA, however, let us by all means use it. I am calling for DNA tests of every person who claims Jefferson descent, be they white, black, or Chinese. I suspect that event he white Jefferson descendant organizations would immediately shrink by 50%!

Genealogy is based on the comfortable lie that every child is the child of its mother's husband. But there is many a slip between the cup and the lip, so to speak, and modern genetic studies of large populations result in "non-paternity" findings for 10-15% of all children when their DNA is compared to the person they believe is their father. And there is no reason to believe that the figure would be any different for earlier eras.

Run that 10-15% back four, five, six generations and your genealogical research is almost certainly leading you up the wrong family tree!

(I need to do a blog post about this myself, with citations. MAybe after I move....)

J. L. Bell said...

Genetic testing can indeed produce a lot of surprises. One of the unexpected findings of Dr. Eugene Foster’s D.N.A. study was that some members of the Woodson family didn’t share the same Y chromosome as others, indicating that there had been a secret adoption or affair in their ancestry. Of course, those men still shared the cultural heritage of the Woodsons.

The people who claim descent from Thomas and Martha Jefferson have no genetic evidence in their favor because there’s no Y chromosome to be tested. That couple had no sons together who survived to adulthood and left patrilineal heirs. Many of those people argue against welcoming the Hemings descendants into their Monticello Association on the grounds that Madison and Eston Hemings didn’t know or tell the truth about their father. But by that standard, none of those “Jefferson descendants” should be members, either, since none of us can refute that doubt.

As I wrote on Wikipedia years ago: “through the quirks of history and biology, only one set of Americans can show both that their ancestors were born at Monticello and that they share a Y chromosome with the Jefferson family: the patrilineal male descendants of Eston Hemings, Sally Hemings’s youngest son.”

J. L. Bell said...

Steven Corneliussen’s selective sight continues. He complains about a six-word quotation from Annette Gordon-Reed in this obituary of Dr. Eugene Foster.

However, the full paragraph those six words come from is:
“It established that the story that the Jefferson family consistently told for 150 years was not true,” says Gordon-Reed, referring to a tale that Carr nephews had fathered Hemings’ very-Jefferson-looking children. “DNA testing,” she says, “ruled out the Carrs.”

Mr. Corneliussen continues to insist that he read my paragraph correctly because he felt it “begins by establishing a science context.” Yet in reading the obituary paragraph he ignored how it begins with “the story that the Jefferson family consistently told.” Both paragraphs address the same combination of historical and scientific evidence, but Mr. Corneliussen refuses to see that.

Mr. Corneliussen also tells me, “You've now asserted that Cynthia H. Burton's book abuses Occam.” A search of this comments page shows that I wrote nothing about Burton’s book except to say that it’s one of the small group that “argue against Thomas Jefferson being their father.” Mr. Corneliussen has moved from seeing only what he wants to see to seeing what he wants to see even when it doesn’t exist.

Mr. Corneliussen is clearly a fan of Cynthia Burton’s book. In addition to here on Boston 1775 and on his own website, he’s praised it in C-Ville (“By [sic] the book,” he urged readers), Richmond Talks Back, VA-HIST, and other forums. It’s the only book he’s reviewed on Amazon. (Once again, we have to ask how well Mr. Corneliussen is portraying himself as disinterested.)

As for Burton’s Jefferson Vindicated, she published it herself, therefore avoiding scholarly peer review or the judgment of commercial publishers. She has the support of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, which gave space on its website for her her press release. That group’s organizers, like Mr. Corneliussen, are active in praising the book online, and descriptions of it closely match their talking points.

To judge by her press release, Burton’s book apparently makes the same arguments as the T.J.H.S.’s usual publications, but I can’t be sure. Not only have I not read it but I’ve never seen a copy. Lack of distribution is a common consequence of publishing a book oneself, and it’s a big challenge to convince people to spend $42 on a self-published paperback. I’d be happy to read a review copy of Burton’s Jefferson Vindicated, and discuss it with other T.J.H.S. publications as appropriate. It was the T.J.H.S. “Scholars Commission” reports that I was thinking of when I mentioned authors abusing the scientific principle of Occam’s Razor.

Mr. Corneliussen’s support for those books casts even more doubt on his self-appointed role as champion of modern scientific standards. One side of this discussion publishes its work through university presses and in Nature and the William & Mary Quarterly—peer-reviewed scholarly journals at the very top of their fields. The other side creates websites, comments on whatever online forums its people can find, and pays to publish their own books. Modern scientific discourse works through the first method; the second is more often the realm of scientific crackpots.

Steven T. Corneliussen said...

This has now become ugly. That's too bad.

That means that this time, I'll have to skip not only distortions and red herrings, but also personal attacks. Still, in my view it's worth pressing the actual issue that I raised. I appreciate the fair chance Mr. Bell is giving me with other readers, even if he and I are far distant from each other on all of this. I hope that whatever disagreement a few more comments may provoke, and however disagreeable it may be for some to read them, I'm not being outright disagreeable by offering them. Here they are:

I acknowledge that Mr. Bell generally means to invoke a dual-sourced judgment -- molecular findings seen in the light of historical evidence, or what he has called a "combination of historical and scientific evidence." A problem that I believe is important lies in failures, at crucial times, to distinguish those two very different sources of belief.

Dr. Foster and his colleagues were DNA experts who made striking molecular findings. Then those scientists donned second hats as historical observers, and presented their molecular findings mixed in with their historical interpretations.

Now, maybe these scientists were great historical observers. Maybe their historical judgment was impeccable. But even if so, that did not and does not justify what Nature -- without the scientists' approval -- told the world.

Nature said that DNA had proven the paternity. Not DNA and historical evidence. Just DNA. That statement -- implied in the misleading headline on the main scientific report, and asserted overtly, twice, elsewhere in the same issue -- is objectively false. But because it came from Nature, and because it was the world's first impression about the DNA, it has persisted.

And as I said earlier, its pervasiveness as a belief matters because it stops people from forming their own opinions about what may have been proven, and by what means.

(And as I have not explained here, this effect caused by the eminent journal Nature was later worsened by a bogus statistical study that was accepted by credulous historians -- including those at the humanities journal William and Mary Quarterly. But that's another story, told in the essay that I've mentioned.)

So yes, there are two sources to the Foster historical judgment that Mr. Bell shares and that I myself suspect could possibly be right. But the molecular findings have the authority of science, and historical interpretations of molecular findings don't.

In a world that trusts science in a special way, that distinction matters. If you invoke the authority of science for what is only a historical interpretation -- including about the Carrs -- I'm going to blow the whistle.

Now back to the plain English of Mr. Bell's original paragraph, which I quoted earlier, and of Professor Gordon-Reed's statement. I've already had my say, and I blew the whistle. I stand by that call. Readers can check both -- in context, as Mr. Bell rightly says -- and judge for themselves about the plain English. I simply dispute Mr. Bell's various analyses of the phrasing and context and so on.

As to Mr. Bell's criticizing Cynthia H. Burton's book without reading it: In an early comment I mentioned both Robert F. Turner and Burton, and observed that though they "may be wrong about the paternity questions ... they know the difference between scientific proof and historical interpretation." Mr. Bell later referred to the "books he cites," meaning the books I cite, and still later wrote, "One of these days I plan to write about how the authors he praising [sic] as understanding science abuse the useful scientific principle of Occam’s Razor." So yes, it seems fair to ask Mr. Bell if he's criticizing a book he hasn't even read. (An eminent history professor here in Virginia did that. Without actually reading the Burton book, he linked it to white supremacy in the Amazon.com book review to which I therefore responded.)

Also: this is a small thing in a way, but it connects to larger things, including Burton's book. Please consider both the "sic" and the inaccuracy in the following from Mr. Bell concerning the headline for a letter to the editor that I once wrote about the Burton book:
QUOTE
... he's praised it in C-Ville (“By [sic] the book,” he urged readers) ...
UNQUOTE
First, I didn't urge readers to buy the book, as is obvious from -- sound the trumpets, please, Mr. Bell -- context. Nor would I have written the headline for the letter; editors do that. Moreover, the word _by_ deserves no "sic" anyway. Given the context, the headline writer was probably better off with the prepositional phrase than with the imperative sentence.

What I did urge in that letter, which replied to a hatchet job, was that Burton get minimum standards of decent treatment. And what I noted there was that her book "contains an enthusiastic foreword by former Monticello director James A. Bear, Jr.," and "that Monticello’s gift shop sells it alongside other serious Thomas Jefferson-related books, despite disagreeing with Ms. Burton about the Hemings-Jefferson paternity mystery."

Again, I've generally ignored what I've called the red herrings, distortions, and personal attacks that appear above, including the many inaccuracies and worse about Burton and Turner. A problem here is what journalists call "master story bias." Mr. Bell doesn't have a box to fit me into, so he puts me with the actual anti-paternity zealots (which, by the way, are not Turner and Burton). I do credit Mr. Bell for at least not calling me a racist, as often does happen (even though much of what I've written about slavery-related present-day historical issues, including this Washington Post op-ed -- http://www.cfmnp.org/WashPost_oped_25Nov07.htm -- shows otherwise). If anybody really wants to know about any of the irrelevant or ugly stuff, please write to me via my Web site TJscience.org.

J. L. Bell said...

Steven Corneliussen came to this blog to declare: “This is a common factual error and an example of the usually inadvertent misuse of scientific evidence in the Hemings-TJ controversy.” He didn’t take the care to consider that I’d written something other than the type of remark he trawls the internet to find. He didn’t acknowledge that I’d summarized the science accurately (not until two comments later). Instead, Mr. Corneliussen plucked a phrase out of its sentence and complained that it could be read only one way and the result was an error. And only now does he see things as “ugly”?

Again Mr. Corneliussen complains about “Mr. Bell's criticizing Cynthia H. Burton's book without reading it.” Yet the only thing I’d written about Burton’s book is that it argues against the belief that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children (which is accurate, and obvious from its title and press release).

At the same time that Mr. Corneliussen first brought up Burton’s book (as he’s wont to do), he also praised “Robert F. Turner, the University of Virginia legal scholar who led the independent, unpaid Scholars Commission that investigated the entire Hemings-TJ matter.” I’ve read the commission report Prof. Turner assembled from several authors. (And very repetitive it is, too.) I thought of them when I wrote of authors setting aside Occam’s Razor. Mr. Corneliussen brought up those authors, yet was apparently surprised that I might actually refer to them.

I was wrong in assuming that Mr. Corneliussen himself chose the headline “By the book” for his letter published at C-Ville. I thought that was yet another online forum, and didn’t realize it’s a local print publication where editors choose cutesy headlines for letters. I apologize for misrepresenting Mr. Corneliussen that way.

Mr. Corneliussen believes “context” shows his letter didn’t recommend that people buy Burton’s book. No, that letter merely pointed C-Ville readers to a particular bookstore (one of a handful to carry the self-published title). Mr. Corneliussen has also awarded the book five stars on Amazon and stated here that people “might well want to read” it. Let’s just say context can make it easy to read his letter as a recommendation.

Mr. Corneliussen complains, “Mr. Bell doesn't have a box to fit me into, so he puts me with the actual anti-paternity zealots.” He makes that statement without citing any words of mine because he can’t find words from me to support that complaint. Rather, my criticisms fall into three basic areas:

1) Mr. Corneliussen’s self-appointed task of arguing against any online or journalistic overstatement of what science alone shows about the Hemings paternity question is Sisyphean, narrow, and of questionable priority. At worst (as in the start of this discussion, or his complaint about the six-word quotation from Annette Gordon-Reed), it leads him into reading people’s remarks selectively in order to give himself something to “correct.”

2) Mr. Corneliussen shifts his standards as the need arises. Thus, in some cases he insists that “context” is necessary to interpret people’s words as he chooses, and at other times takes those words completely out of context—and of course he gets to define the context either way. He feels he offered “substantial respect” to a book on one side of the issue simply because he wrote nothing critical about it; yet after he’s praised books only on the other side of the issue, he objects to any suggestion that he’s not really acting “agnostic.” And of course for other people to apply their own best standards to interpreting Mr. Corneliussen’s words draws complaints.

3) Those remarks on books are merely some of the signs that Mr. Corneliussen isn’t as balanced on the Hemings matter as he tries to see and portray himself. Nevertheless, I accept that he genuinely believes he’s “agnostic,” open-minded, and merely interested in the science—supposedly separate from history, even when it’s built on historical findings.

As for Prof. Robert Turner not being an “anti-paternity zealot,” I’ve read hundreds of pages by him making a tortuous argument against Thomas Jefferson being the father of Sally Hemings’s child. If Mr. Corneliussen doesn’t view Turner as “anti-paternity,” then his sight is even more selective than I’d imagined.

But perhaps the “zealot” part of that phrase is crucial. Perhaps Mr. Corneliussen divides people who argue against the idea that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children into zealots and non-zealots. Burton and Turner are in the first category, and in the second...?

Here’s the curious thing. For all that Mr. Corneliussen has written online about the Hemings paternity, I’ve found no words from him correcting statements by “anti-paternity” writers. Perhaps someone can find an example of him correcting a “zealot” as, well, zealously as he came here to Boston 1775 to correct me.

I’ve found an example of Mr. Corneliussen complaining about too much zeal on that Nature comments page. He wrote: “I myself have no opinion about the paternity allegation itself, except that I think the paternity is a good bit less certain than its zealous advocates claim.” Which might bring us back to point 3 above.

Finally, this is the second time Mr. Corneliussen has declared that it would be simply too tedious to address all the unspecified “red herrings and distortions” that he perceives. The intellectually honest way to respond to such things would be to point them out and refute them. The courageous way would be to point them out and invite observers to judge them for themselves. If a person doesn’t wish to take either of those paths, the honorable way to respond is to ignore them. Complaining that they exist without offering a shred of evidence has none of those qualities.

J. L. Bell said...

Whoops. I should have written, “Burton and Turner are in the second [i.e., non-zealot] category, and in the first...?” My apologies for the confusion.

Steven T. Corneliussen said...

Near the end of the first of his two latest postings -- just before writing about what would be intellectually honest, courageous, and honorable of me -- Mr. Bell observes, "Finally, this is the second time Mr. Corneliussen has declared that it would be simply too tedious to address all the unspecified 'red herrings and distortions' that he perceives."

Actually, in a later posting, thinking of the "scientific crackpots" statement at the end of Mr. Bell's then-latest comment, I added a third element to the red herrings and distortions: personal attacks.

I've now had my say in this forum on the merits of the actual question that I raised. For that I'm grateful. But yes, it does seem to me that to engage each of Mr. Bell's sideshow things one at a time would take me forever, would bore readers, and would tend to confer legitimacy on what does not deserve it.

The tedious sideshow things are now quite many. Do I really trawl the internet? Does my TJscience.org essay really engage Annette Gordon-Reed? Isn't my paternity agnosticism questionable? Was I selling Cynthia Burton's book, and why have I reviewed no others at Amazon.com, and isn't it a crummy book anyway, given the self-publication? What's the actual nature of my relationship with her and with Bob Turner? And aren't they obviously zealots?

As I've said, people can contact me via my Web site if I'm wrong and they actually want to talk about any of that stuff. But I do want to mention one part of what I mean by zealotry in this controversy.

I do know of some anti-paternity zealots. They can't even hear, don't even try to hear, what serious people on the pro-paternity side are saying. One reason I don't include Turner and Burton among them is that Turner and Burton listen, even strain, very hard to learn what the pro-paternity case is, in all its dimensions. They really want to know.

And the reason I don't criticize the _actual_ anti-paternity zealots is that even the worst of them don't, to my knowledge, falsely or misleadingly invoke the special authority of science to erect or bolster what is only a historical interpretation.

Mr. Bell, on the pro-paternity side, doesn't do that either, not as a general approach -- though as I've said, I do think he misinformed his readers about DNA and the Carrs.

But the side he takes in this paternity debate is partly built on the abuse of the special authority of science, with misinformation about science and the Carrs one example.

As I've said, in my view the abuse of the special authority of science in the Hemings-TJ debate is a big problem. That's why I wrote and posted (self-published, right, Mr. Bell?) my long essay.

Thanks again for the chance I've had here to make part of my case.

Steve Corneliussen

J. L. Bell said...

Readers can see that this is the third time Mr. Corneliussen appears to be taking his leave.

It’s the third time he’s done so while complaining that he sees so many comments to refute that it would be “tedious” to do so. That’s his judgment alone, and very convenient it appears.

It’s the third time that he’s declined to cite quotations from me or any other commenter to back up those complaints, leaving as little evidence for them as there is for a relationship between Sally Hemings and either Carr brother.

Mr. Corneliussen invites comments through his website. Folks should be aware that, at least as of today, it has no comments page like this one.

Steven T. Corneliussen said...

In the highly unlikely event anybody wants to discuss anything stemming from Mr. Bell's barrage of red herrings, off-the-topic distortions, and worse, my Web site, TJscience.org, offers an e-address made up of the word Comments and then the "at" symbol and then TJscience.org. I agree with Mr. Bell if he's implying I should simply have reported this in the first place. Thoughtless of me. Thanks.
Steve Corneliussen

J. L. Bell said...

And that makes the fourth time.

J. L. Bell said...

In one of his many comments above, Steven T. Corneliussen recommends books on the Hemings-Jefferson issue by Robert F. Turner and Cynthia Burton, writing as if he’s merely a disinterested observer.

In a comment on another posting, Mr. Corneliussen has admitted that he offered pre-publication criticism to Turner. It’s not so clear that Mr. Corneliussen also helped Burton with her book, but he is close enough to call her “Cyndi” on multiple forums.

Mr. Corneliussen was welcome to recommend books that he thought Boston 1775 readers might like, but to do so without disclosing his own involvement in those books was dishonest. It becomes increasingly clear that that’s Mr. Corneliussen’s standard approach to discussions on this issue: pretending to be disinterested while secretly favoring one side of the issue.

Steven T. Corneliussen said...

August 11, 2008 -- Dense as I am about it, I may finally have learned simply not to try to defend myself from the dishonesty charges and other red-herring vituperation coming my way from Mr. Bell whenever I discuss or criticize the actual content of his blog. But because these comment threads are archived online, I do want to highlight for the record one thing about his comment just above: he posted it this morning, over a week after the present conversation had lapsed -- and right about when he had just posted a particularly angry tirade about me at the other Boston 1775 location that he now mentions. Thanks.
Steve Corneliussen

J. L. Bell said...

Once again, Steve Corneliussen is not being honest. The reason I criticized him so harshly for his comments on another posting is that he did not discuss its actual content, as he here implies he tried to do. Rather, he complained that I should have discussed something else. To use his own terminology in the comment above, he brought in a ”red herring.”

And that doesn’t change the fact that Mr. Corneliussen represented himself above as a disinterested observer of the Hemings-Jefferson debate and then recommended writing that he’d been involved in shaping.

Once again, I’m happy to hear from people who’ve written or helped to create books and other stuff about Revolutionary America. But please do be straightforward with me and with other Boston 1775 readers about your involvement.

Steven T. Corneliussen said...

OK,I'll bite again. I really am too dense to let it alone. Two things:

* Fair-minded readers can have their own look at what I submitted that began the other comment thread that Mr. Bell now alludes to. He says now that I there "complained that [he] should have discussed something else." In fact all I did was note -- that's all it was, merely a note -- that a primary source document that he had cited not once but twice, in separate postings, contained a controversial error bearing on the heart of the Hemings-TJ matter, the general subject of the two Boston 1775 postings in question.

* As to my alleged failure to disclose my having reviewed Robert F. Turner's manuscript: There's no legitimacy to Mr. Bell's red-herring inquisition on the clandestine, dishonest bias that he also alleges. But even if there were, it's not like I've hidden the fact that I criticized the Turner manuscript. It's not clear to me that Mr. Bell, my prosecutor, has even read the essay that I have posted at TJscience.org -- not that he must, but with all the electrons he's expended about me, I'd think he might want to. Anyway, if he did read it, he would come upon this paragraph:
QUOTE
Then, four years later, a University of Virginia legal scholar asked me to criticize his Hemings-Jefferson manuscript. Robert F. Turner had chaired an independent, volunteer commission of thirteen academics from twelve institutions who studied the multipillared paternity argument at the request of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, the citizens’ group that presented _The Jefferson-Hemings Myth_. With one mild dissent, Turner’s “Scholars Commission” had arrived at views ranging from acute skepticism about the parenthood thesis to a deep belief that it is almost certainly false. Turner himself had arrived at that deep belief. He sought my critique in part because I haven’t.
UNQUOTE

In a legitimate intellectual-ethics court -- one lacking kangaroos -- I would bring that up. I had the idea, though, that we were just talking about the Boston 1775 postings that we were talking about.

But then, as I say, I'm pretty dense about the dynamics at Boston 1775.

Thanks.

Steve Corneliussen

J. L. Bell said...

Readers should look at the comment in which Steven T. Corneliussen recommended books by Turner and Burton, and see if it contains any hint of his own involvement.

That’s part of a pattern in Mr. Corneliussen’s online writings on this historical question: he presents himself as neutral or “agnostic” and then leans consistently to one side. After a few examples, most people stop being fooled by such behavior.

As for Mr. Corneliussen’s claim that “we were just talking about the Boston 1775 postings,” that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. As of today I’ve posted six Boston 1775 items on Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s comments about his grandfather and Sally Hemings, and Mr. Corneliussen has written no comments about Randolph or the evidence I quoted. His remarks on this posting repeatedly misrepresented what I’d written. I have yet to see Mr. Corneliussen comment substantially on what’s actually appeared on Boston 1775 rather than on what he wished I’d said.

Mr. Corneliussen’s leanings on the historical question of the Hemings children are obvious and consistent. So is his dishonesty.

Steven T. Corneliussen said...

August 15, 2008 -- I've thought about this for a couple of days, and I've decided that despite the costs, I'm not going to let it go.

The costs, of course, are that by responding to Mr. Bell's personal attacks, I tend to seem to legitimize them -- and also that he then uses the occasion to lob more attacks and to promulgate more distortions.

Below are copies of each of Mr. Bell's latest paragraphs, one at a time, followed by corrections. At the end comes a new challenge from me to Mr. Bell. Readers who have followed this argument -- not debate, because much of it has not risen to the level of that nobler word -- will find that my tone has ratcheted up.

MR. BELL WROTE:
Readers should look at the comment in which Steven T. Corneliussen recommended books by Turner and Burton, and see if it contains any hint of his own involvement.

CORRECTION:
That's just silly, and it misses the point. At Boston 1775, I was at first responding to a problem in a blog entry, and then to comments that subsequently came my way in the blog. I was not telling the blog readers all about myself (though the way it has turned out, thanks to Mr. Bell, we sure do talk a lot in this forum about me instead of about the subject matter). In his kangaroo blog-ethics court, Mr. Bell charges that I had a duty to disclose, but that's because Mr. Bell is unwilling to admit to his misuse of scientific evidence, and wants to change the subject. It's perfectly legitimate for me to critique an anti-paternity author's or any other author's work if she or he asks me to. And my critiquing of Bob Turner's book is public knowledge to anybody who has read what I've written. It was irrelevant to what I was posting at Boston 1775. (Please also see below concerning "leanings.")

MR. BELL WROTE:
That’s part of a pattern in Mr. Corneliussen’s online writings on this historical question: he presents himself as neutral or “agnostic” and then leans consistently to one side. After a few examples, most people stop being fooled by such behavior.

CORRECTION:
This too is nonsense, another attempt by Mr. Bell to avoid simply owning up to his misuse of evidence. What I write about in the Hemings-TJ matter is _serious_ misuse of evidence by serious writers -- as in cases like Mr. Bell's misuse of scientific evidence concerning the Carrs, about which more below. If I were to learn of any serious outright misuse of evidence by serious scholars or writers on the anti-paternity side, I'd blow the whistle on that too.

A general comment is worth making here: In past decades, as Annette Gordon-Reed rightly points out, the anti-paternity side had the de facto upper hand in the paternity debate. In some cases, as she rightly emphasizes (though these are not her words), that gave that side a certain arrogance and sense of entitlement. What some on today's pro-paternity side don't see is that when the DNA evidence shifted the entire debate their way, some of that arrogance and sense of entitlement _also_ shifted to their side -- for example, when members of that side bash Cynthia H. Burton personally without even bothering actually to read her book, or when a serious author like Mr. Bell twice sends readers to a substantively bad copy of an important primary source document and then expresses disdain (and worse) when someone simply notes the problem.

But here Mr. Bell is right about one thing. Just as I join Annette Gordon-Reed in leaning against Merrill Peterson for cavalierly disdaining, a few decades ago, what he dismissed as "the memories of a few Negroes," I lean against Mr. Bell's side now when it comes to arrogance and sense of entitlement in a legitimate debate -- a debate where some on his side even trash Thomas Jefferson Foundation President Dan Jordan's dictum that honorable people can disagree about the paternity.

Yes, I lean against unfairness, arrogance, and a false sense of entitlement -- not to speak of leaning against the undermining of standards of debate and standards for use of evidence. No amount of ugly name-calling can change the fact that that's not the same as leaning against paternity belief or toward paternity disbelief.

MR. BELL WROTE:
As for Mr. Corneliussen’s claim that “we were just talking about the Boston 1775 postings,” that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. As of today I’ve posted six Boston 1775 items on Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s comments about his grandfather and Sally Hemings, and Mr. Corneliussen has written no comments about Randolph or the evidence I quoted. His remarks on this posting repeatedly misrepresented what I’d written. I have yet to see Mr. Corneliussen comment substantially on what’s actually appeared on Boston 1775 rather than on what he wished I’d said.
CORRECTION:
This is just another red herring. For the most part, I'm not well-read enough to comment in such ways concerning these writings. I'm still learning from Mr. Bell and from people on the other side too. Yes, of course I'm interested in the overall debate -- the totality of evidence -- but my main interest concerns the misrepresentation of the perfectly valid DNA evidence and the outright misuse of statistical science in the matter of the conceptions coincidences. As Mr. Bell has learned, however, I'll also blow the whistle on an obvious and important misuse of nonscientific evidence.

MR. BELL WROTE:
Mr. Corneliussen’s leanings on the historical question of the Hemings children are obvious and consistent. So is his dishonesty.

CORRECTION:
(I addressed the "leanings" red herring above.) Although in this case he leaves out some of the other outright attack phrases that he has lobbed at me, here he yet again calls me a liar. It is degrading and dirtying to respond to that, same as it is degrading and dirtying to respond when anyone else attacks using the argumentation tactics of a Rush Limbaugh. When you're asked if you've stopped beating your wife yet, you lend legitimacy just by responding. Well, if some of Mr. Bell's readers want to believe him that I'm a liar, so be it. But I do want to test Mr. Bell's own honesty with a challenge.

Here's the paragraph by Mr. Bell that started all of this:
QUOTE
Foster published the team’s findings in _Nature_ in 1998, and the news immediately made headlines. They had found a match between the Jefferson and Hemings lines, and no match between those lines and those of the Woodson or Carr families. Given the elimination of any Carr link to Sally Hemings’s children, the documentary evidence already pointing to Thomas Jefferson as their father, and the total lack of evidence from the nineteenth century pointing to any other Jefferson, Foster’s study settled the question for most historians and other observers.
UNQUOTE

"Given the elimination of any Carr link to Sally Hemings's children." The team's "findings" that Mr. Bell cites as doing that eliminating were what the scientists, in their report, called their DNA "molecular findings." Those molecular findings say nothing whatsoever about the paternity of any Hemings child except Eston -- as the scientists themselves were always the first to stipulate.

Yet Mr. Bell has repeatedly insisted that this paragraph does not contain the outright false claim that the findings eliminated any Carr link to Sally Hemings's children. He claims that the paragraph only invokes the multi-source totality of evidence on which he and others build what they consider to be paternity proof. Yes, the paragraph does get around to that. But as anyone can see, the paragraph only does so after first positing a false scientific component of the multi-source argument. That is, it first says, falsely, that the findings excluded the Carrs from the cases of all the kids, not just the case of Eston. Only then does the paragraph go on to invoke the totality-of-evidence argument.

Well, as I say -- though Mr. Bell repeatedly attacks me personally on this, trumpeting that I'm a liar and not really a paternity agnostic -- for all I know, the paternity believers are correct about that totality of evidence. But even if they are correct, they have no right or license to invoke the authority of science for what science has not proven.

Fair-minded readers should please note that it's not uncommon to see this error made elsewhere by the pro-paternity side. Though it may cause Mr. Bell again to shout "Bias!" when I say it -- like Maryland fans booing a ref in a basketball game against Duke -- here's an example: In an April BookTV panel discussion that Henry Wiencek moderated on CSpan, Alan Pell Crawford at one point said of the DNA, "the Carr boys -- it cleared them."

But again: the DNA molecular findings only showed that no Carr fathered Eston Hemings. Those findings tell absolutely nothing about any other Hemings child. In the Virginia History discussion list, when we discussed Crawford's error, nobody -- not Mr. Wiencek, not Jon Kukla -- asserted otherwise. They respect facts more than they value their own side's interpretation of facts.

Another example: This same DNA science error, the one that Mr. Bell and Mr. Crawford made, also appeared in Maura Singleton's fine 2007 U.Va. Magazine recap of the Hemings-TJ controversy. And it appears elsewhere -- now including in Boston 1775.

And the error matters. It matters because -- as I say in the essay at TJscience.org -- it's part of a general misimpression that afflicts this public discussion: the erroneous belief that science contributes more to the totality-of-evidence argument than it actually does. In my view, people ought to be given the straight story about the actual components of the totality-of-evidence argument, so that they can make up their own minds.

So Mr. Bell, I challenge you: Do a new, focused Boston 1775 posting. In that posting, simply quote that one paragraph of yours, link also to the original scientific report in _Nature_ and to the clarifying letters that followed several weeks later, and ask the world to comment on whether the plain English of your paragraph asserts a claim that science alone proved what science alone did not prove.

I do ask that you not misrepresent factually what I'm asserting or why I think the charge is important. But beyond that, if you like, attach your own arguments, such as they are, that the plain English is somehow not plain English, and that what the scientists themselves called their molecular findings were not their molecular findings.

And if you like, go ahead and repeat the personal ugliness that you have repeatedly posted about me, not only in the present comment thread but in the comment thread about the substantively bad copy of that important letter -- the copy to which you twice, on separate days, pointed your readers. If you like, assert yet again that this evidence error didn't matter because you weren't talking specifically about the lines containing the egregious reversal of meaning of something centrally important in Hemings-TJ.

And if you like, go ahead and liken me again to "that fellow who used to show up at football games wearing a rainbow wig" or again call me "ludicrous," "increasingly pathetic," "dishonest to himself and to the world," or someone who "pops out of his hole" and who is "sometimes laughable, sometimes pitiable, but never believable." Toss in your "scientific crackpot" comment again, if you like. Assert yet again that I'm "dishonest."

Cook up a huge smelly mess of red herrings and serve them liberally, if you like.

But Mr. Bell, on the actual subject at hand, I challenge you to subject your own claim about that paragraph to an actual test of what it says.

And when that's over, maybe I'll ask you to poll scholars and see how many of them are willing to charge, in public -- as you have done -- that it was wrong of me simply to note that you had twice sent readers to a substantively bad copy of an important source document.

Steve Corneliussen

J. L. Bell said...

I’m glad that Steven T. Corneliussen has acknowledged that my remarks above on the question of the Hemings children’s paternity were based on evidence both historical and scientific. He finally, grudgingly admitted: “Yes, the paragraph [in question] does get around to that.”

I only wish that Mr. Corneliussen had been truthful enough to acknowledge not only did “the paragraph...get around to that,” but so did the very sentence he’s been pointing at. (It was, after all, the last sentence in the paragraph. The paragraph couldn’t get around to anything else.)

Here’s an easy tip, folks: If you have to pluck a phrase out of its sentence in order to criticize it, then you’re taking it out of context and quite possibly misrepresenting what it says.

Mr. Corneliussen plucked out that phrase because he likes complaining about people overstating what D.N.A. analysis alone has shown about the Hemings children. He likes doing that on lots of forums. He likes complaining on one forum (e.g., Boston 1775) about completely unrelated forums (C-SPAN, local magazines). Apparently he sees that as one of the most far-reaching, consequential scientific misrepresentations of our time.

Mr. Corneliussen likes making that complaint so much that he came to Boston 1775, which he’d clearly never seen before, to repeat it. If I’d written that D.N.A. proved that Thomas Jefferson must be the father of the Hemings children, then he’d have reason to complain. But his choice to interpret ”elimination of any Carr link” as referring only to the chromosome study didn’t reflect an accurate reading of my sentence; it was, instead, evidence of how eagerly he looks for opportunities to post the same complaint.

Mr. Corneliussen apparently feels himself to be a guardian of scientific integrity. I only wish that he’d shown the same level of integrity when recommending books on the Hemings-Jefferson question. Scientists know that they shouldn’t review the quality of work that they’ve been involved in creating, or at least should disclose their involvement as they do so. Mr. Corneliussen did not.

Revealing one’s involvement doesn’t mean “telling the blog readers all about myself” (another of Mr. Corneliussen’s usual “red herrings”). It means telling readers what’s necessary and pertinent for them to assess one’s judgment. What would it have cost Mr. Corneliussen to say, “I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the manuscript of a new book about this issue, which I can recommend because...”? (Note how this author does just that in recommending Annette Gordon-Reed’s new book.)

Actually, it’s obvious what such honesty would have cost Mr. Corneliussen. That straightforward statement would have meant giving up his carefully crafted pose of neutral, “scientific” objectivity. It would have meant revealing which side he stands on.

Instead, Mr. Corneliussen forged ahead with his complaints, and he tripped himself up. He demonstrated that, far from being neutral, he favors one side of the Hemings paternity debate. He displayed his double standards, saying that anything he doesn’t wish to discuss is a “red herring” but that anything he does is appropriate. He showed how he sidesteps discussions of any historical evidence that might force him to acknowledge that Thomas Jefferson is the most likely father of the Hemings children, but he brings up irrelevant historical evidence when he thinks he can score points against a prominent proponent of that view.

In doing those things, Mr. Corneliussen has repeatedly shown himself to be dishonest—with himself (if he truly believes he’s neutral) and with the readers of the many forums he’s addressed in this fashion. And I’m clearly not the first to notice.

If Mr. Corneliussen finds my blunt criticism of his behavior “degrading and dirtying,” I can only recommend that he start behaving more honestly so there’s less to criticize. Let’s see him lay out his full interaction with what he calls “anti-paternity” authors if he wishes to praise them. Let’s see him explain what path brought him to Boston 1775.

Mr. Corneliussen shows a common human failing in insisting that his interpretations of other people’s words are always right, but other people’s criticisms of his words are always wrong. His “corrections” in the last comment aren’t really corrections—at no point does he quote any misstatement by me. He dislikes those statements, but he can’t show them to be wrong.

As for Mr. Corneliussen’s “challenges,” they’re redundant. All Boston 1775 postings and comments are already available for anyone to see. Sitemeter says the site gets hundreds of hits a day. Right now it’s ranked high in Google rankings of blog posts about Hemings and Jefferson. Mr. Corneliussen obviously wishes more people agreed with him about the dire problems he perceives, but the lack of similar complaints isn’t because people can’t see exactly the same words he sees. It’s because they can see those words, and make up their own minds.

I’ll continue to write about aspects of the Hemings-Jefferson historiography that I find interesting. Mr. Corneliussen is welcome to comment on those postings. I hope that his comments become more accurate, balanced, candid, and relevant to the postings than they’ve been so far.