Some people bite down and won’t let go. Ever.
Frederic Townsend is one of those people. While an undergraduate at the University of Denver more than three decades ago, he wrote a paper about birth order — the study of whether and how a child’s chronological position among his siblings affects his development, personality, and comportment as an adult. Does being a firstborn child influence your financial success? Does being a laterborn affect your future relationships? Even as a college student, Townsend thought the debate seemed strange, because the research “went every which way.” There were studies showing that family birth position played a critical role in human development, and others that concluded it had little, if any, impact. “Everyone has a birth order,” says Townsend, now a 53-year-old attorney and commodities trader in the Chicago area. “It seems important in your life, and therefore it seems entirely plausible that it would have an effect on your personality, your choices, who you are.”
In 1997, Townsend’s longstanding interest in the subject led him to buy and read Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives, a new book by noted scholar and Berkeley resident Frank Sulloway. The result of 26 years of exhaustive research, Sulloway’s book was published to great acclaim and hailed as a masterpiece. The author was a Harvard-trained Ph.D and Darwin expert who also had been a recipient of a prestigious “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. Born to Rebel demonstrated why Sulloway was such a celebrated thinker. He’d managed to boil down five hundred years of history into one compelling and completely original idea: that the driving force of human history is sibling rivalry.
From his extensive research, the 57-year-old author had come to believe that children adopt evolutionary strategies at home to differentiate themselves and survive, much like the creatures Darwin studied in the Galapagos. In what Sulloway calls “an evolutionary arms race played out within the family,” siblings battle to maximize their share of parental attention and family resources and to ensure themselves a stable position in the family.
The strategies children develop, Sulloway determined, differ by birth order. Firstborns, according to his theory, are more assertive and jealous, and tend to minimize competition from new siblings by dominating them. They are also self-confident and deferential to authority, whereas laterborns, the weaker ones in the family constellation, are more creative, independent, and open to new experiences; they identify with the underdog and are likely to question authority and the status quo. These laterborn children are “born to rebel” and, according to Sulloway’s vision, have most changed the course of history. Born to Rebel backed the author’s bold theory with reams of data, historical examples, and complex statistical tests.
Sulloway, himself a laterborn, analyzed 121 historical events and revolutions that took place over five centuries and concluded that birth order was the “fuel” that fed some of the world’s most important social and political upheavals. He compiled a database containing more than a half-million biographical data points gleaned from tens of thousands of historical biographies and then plotted out the data to figure out just what it all meant. Laterborns, he concluded, have driven most radical revolutions.
With Born to Rebel, Sulloway was not only offering a unifying theory to explain critical historical changes, he was backing it up with quantitative statistical methods, something few had done before him. And he claimed that his model was incredibly precise. “Based on a seven-variable model of the Reformation, Martin Luther’s predicted probability of becoming a Protestant was 67 percent,” Sulloway wrote. For Protestant reformers John Knox and John Calvin, his model predicted 78 and 80 percent likelihoods that they would join the Reformation, respectively.
The book was hailed as nothing short of revolutionary. The New York Times deemed it “fascinating and convincing,” while The Boston Globe opined that it would “define research agendas for years to come.” In an October 1997 profile of Sulloway published in The New Yorker, one eminent anthropologist predicted the book would elevate its author into “the pantheon of thinkers, like Freud and Darwin, whose work has radically and forever changed the way we look at ourselves and the world.”
The scholar made the TV rounds, appearing on Nightline and The Charlie Rose Show, and revived the worldwide debate among social scientists about the importance of birth order. Academics had debated the matter for decades, but theories that it played any significant role in human development had largely fallen out of favor in recent years. Sulloway changed all that.
Despite the avalanche of great publicity, something about Sulloway’s book didn’t sit right with Townsend. After reviewing the data and charts throughout the book, he concluded that its claims were overreaching and broad. And because he’s a man who doesn’t let go, things didn’t end there. Little did he know he was about to ignite one of the nastier academic debates in recent memory.
In an effort somewhat akin to an ant attacking a lion, Townsend wrote a critical review of the book for the Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, an obscure New Jersey-based academic publication. Although he wasn’t a trained academic, Townsend concluded in his review that Sulloway “uses estimated, selective, and even missing data to support a theory that is refuted by the very studies he relies on.”
Sulloway doesn’t seem like someone who’d find himself in the middle of a bitter debate about the veracity of his work. His résumé contains page after page of degrees and honors from prestigious universities and foundations, yet he is articulate in a way that’s not at all intimidating — professorial, polite, and direct. The researcher has never married and has no children; he has made his work the focus of his life, and it has paid off. He negotiated a $500,000 advance for Born to Rebel, and received $250,000 from the MacArthur program in 1984, no strings attached. Sulloway has been affiliated with Stanford University and MIT as a research fellow or visiting scholar, and currently conducts research at UC Berkeley’s psychology department, where he also works with graduate students and occasionally teaches.
By taking on a man with Sulloway’s credentials, Townsend displayed some serious chutzpah. He was a literal nobody in the world of academia, yet here he was launching tiny arrows at one of its celebrated giants. Predictably, little came of the review. But after it was printed Townsend still felt unsettled, as if there was more to be done. Had he missed something? Perhaps he hadn’t properly understood the author’s statistical methodologies. He wrote a polite note to Sulloway asking for some of the data so that he could review it himself.
Sharing data with colleagues following publication of a scholarly work is a matter of course in the academic world. Recipients of government grants, in fact, are often obligated to make their data public for verification purposes. Such openness is desirable — it helps to ensure sound science. If others can review a scientist’s work and come to the same conclusions, the original theory becomes all the stronger.
Townsend wasn’t exactly a colleague. Even so, Sulloway seemed oddly ruffled by his request. He responded angrily and defensively — the ant seemed to have gotten under the lion’s skin. “Regarding your book review: It is inaccurate, scurrilous, and offensive to the highest degree,” Sulloway wrote to Townsend in 1998. “I have always found it regrettable that some people possess a strong need to denigrate the efforts of other scholars using blatantly ad hominem tactics, sarcasm, slurs, slippery and misleading arguments, and reckless accusations — presumably in an effort to make themselves appear smarter than the individual they have chosen to criticize.”
The letter went on for twelve pages, point by point, attempting to refute Townsend’s criticisms and citing errors in his critique. At times, Sulloway was downright nasty. “You have identified yourself, moreover, as a kind of small-minded and ill-informed crank,” he wrote. “Incidentally, you might want to try to get your money back from [speed-reading guru] Evelyn Wood.”
But Sulloway’s letter didn’t make Townsend go away. Quite the opposite: It set the father of two from the Midwestern suburbs on a course that would ignite what one academic has called “a brand of contentiousness seldom seen in science and scholarship.” He felt the lauded author’s vitriolic response hadn’t merely nudged him to look closer: it shoved him.
In an effort that could best be described as obsessive and perhaps somewhat weird, Townsend spent his lunch hours for weeks holed up in the Chicago Public Library, double-checking Sulloway’s data against original source material and examining the book’s numerous charts, graphs, and statistical analyses. “I went through his book and checked whether his data supported his theory,” Townsend says. “For example, the greatest revolutionary of our time is Che Guevara. He was a firstborn, and Sulloway says that supports his theory. Huh? Mao Tse-tung was a firstborn. Sulloway says that supports his theory. Maximilien Robespierre, leader of the French Revolution, the symbol of revolutionary rebellious behavior, was also a firstborn, and Sulloway says he, too, supports his theory. At some point, you have to ask, what’s his theory? I would say, based on what he says, his theory is quite flexible.”
Townsend also reviewed some of Sulloway’s key research and there, too, he felt there were big problems. He wrote up his findings and sent them off to yet another obscure academic journal, Politics and the Life Sciences, for consideration. The journal’s editor, Gary Johnson, sent the paper out for peer review. Three of the four expert reviewers, without knowing who had authored the work, wrote back recommending that it be published. The fourth found Townsend’s criticism unconvincing and argued against it.
During the publication process, however, other professors and authors jumped into the exchange, many to brutally attack Sulloway’s work, but just as many to defend the author and his scholarship. Over the next five years, the acrimony was almost operatic: Sulloway threatened to sue the journal and get the editor in trouble with his university and even with Congress; the journal’s publisher pulled out of the project; Sulloway’s supporters became enraged and refused to participate. As a result, publication of the issue was delayed for years. But its recent publication has hardly quelled the bitterness.
Sulloway’s key detractors — who include Townsend, journal editor and political scientist Johnson, and a handful of noted scholars — accuse him of being a sloppy researcher, ignoring evidence that contradicts his theory, distorting the facts, and engaging in methodological dishonesty. Meanwhile, Sulloway and his backers — some of whom published papers supporting him in the same issue of Politics and the Life Sciences — have honed their pens into swords. They stand by Sulloway’s scientific rigor and conclusions, while somewhat bitterly accusing Townsend and the others of nitpicking and exaggerating minor inconsistencies. “I think what you are looking at is a relatively uncommon parasitic strategy,” says Carolyn Phinney, a longtime friend of Sulloway’s who helped him organize Born to Rebel as he was writing it. “How can a nobody become famous? Assassinate someone famous. Frank never should have engaged with these people because it was a lose, lose, lose situation from the beginning. Whatever steps he took to defend himself against this wild attack, by someone who had no credentials to critique his work, would give fuel to the attack.”
However it happened, the chorus of Sulloway’s detractors appears to be growing. And some of them aren’t so sure the matter is going to go away. They’re convinced the slow downward slide of Born to Rebel and its renowned author has begun, and no academic fraternity, coalition of Ivy League degrees, or statistical fancy footwork can stop it now.
Judith Harris didn’t wait for Townsend to start examining Frank Sulloway’s extraordinary claims. She is the author of a very well-received, albeit controversial, book about family dynamics published in 1998, soon after Sulloway’s book came out. Harris also sensed that something was profoundly askew with his work. Critically assessing social science research was nothing new for Harris — she makes a practice of it. And as she looked closely at the volumes of charts and footnotes in Born to Rebel, she says her “antenna” went up.
“Sulloway’s writing style — the undercurrent of strong emotion, the tendency to overstate his case — aroused my suspicion,” says Harris, whose own book is called The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. “So I tried to look more closely at his graphs and tables, and, like many of the people who published reviews of Born to Rebel [in Politics and the Life Sciences], was stymied in my attempts to figure out what he had done, where he got his numbers. I kept finding things I couldn’t understand.”
Harris certainly had a motive to question his work. Sulloway had drawn very different conclusions about the earliest influences on children who survive into adulthood. Her book, which was honored by the American Psychological Association, had a highly provocative premise of its own: Parents have little long-term influence on their children’s personalities or psychological well-being. Genetics and peer influences are what most shape a child’s character, not mom and dad.
Her work, as The Washington Post noted, assaulted a “nearly universally held belief about families and human development.” Reviewers praised it as brilliant, contrarian, and completely original. And, like Sulloway, Harris was lauded in a lengthy New Yorker piece that declared her book “a graceful, lucid, and utterly persuasive assault on virtually every tenet of child development.”
As part of her research, Harris scrutinized Sulloway’s book and came to believe it was riddled with serious inconsistencies, methodological flaws, and what she calls “confirmation bias — the tendency to seek, notice, and remember evidence that confirms one’s belief, and to ignore, forget, or explain away contrary evidence.”
She and the decidedly less-celebrated Fred Townsend were among the first to seriously challenge what so many others were convinced was a work of brilliant scholarship. “Just because someone with impressive credentials — Ph.D from Harvard, MacArthur fellow, whatever — says something, I don’t accept it without question,” says Harris, who herself was kicked out of Harvard’s doctoral program in 1960 for being an unoriginal thinker. The professor who wrote her termination letter would later be the one who presented her with the American Psychological Association award. “Though I am a firstborn, I question authority,” she explains. “Born to Rebut — that’s me.”
Sulloway’s grand vision and bold pronouncements about his theory — he told The New Yorker it “has the explanatory power psychoanalysts always dreamed of having” — sounded overblown and wildly pretentious to some, but his admirers were unfazed. Those who know Sulloway describe him as extraordinarily fastidious in his research. They believe he has come up with something remarkable. “He is a very, very smart man,” says Horace Judson, a journalist turned science historian and a fellow MacArthur genius grant winner. Judson attended two talks Sulloway gave to the MacArthur fellows and was blown away by his brilliance. “He’s absolutely devastating because he’s so contemptuous of opposition and so in command of details,” he says. “He finds curious ways of going at things, and that’s what Born to Rebel does.”
Sulloway’s research methods are unusual, and that’s what distinguishes him from the academic flock, Judson says. “He finds evidence in different ways than other historians.”
Judson does recall, however, that Sulloway “is not one to admit making mistakes.”
If the author is indeed reluctant to acknowledge errors, longtime acquaintances say that’s probably because he rarely makes them. “Frank is one of the most careful researchers I’ve ever met,” says Lynn Gale, staff statistician at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, who, at Sulloway’s request, double-checked some of his data after he came under attack. “When I first read Townsend, I said to Frank, ‘Why are you even bothering to respond to this guy?’ He was using adversarial language and the work was so full of holes the editor should have thrown it out.”
Gale describes Townsend’s effort as a hunt for unimpressive anomalies. “It’s clear Townsend doesn’t understand statistics,” she says. “There will always be exceptions; it doesn’t matter to the basic arguments. If you go to medicine, not every drug perfectly cures every disease. There’s probability involved, along with other factors.”
Other Sulloway critics, however, do understand statistics: Judith Harris, for one. Another is Dalton Conley, director of the Center for Advanced Social Science Research at New York University, who was not involved in the publication of the journal that criticizes Sulloway. Conley is author of a just-published book, The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why, in which he examines how economic disparities between siblings affect their success later in life.
Conley views Sulloway’s theory as deeply flawed. “I don’t think its methodological means hold up at all,” the professor says. “He does something you’re not supposed to do in the social sciences, which is selectively choose the evidence that bolsters your arguments.
“I don’t think he’s making things up,” he adds. “He’s picking and choosing selectively. It’s not fraud, but it’s not science, just passed off as science.”
One of Sulloway’s published critics simultaneously hails his positive contributions while also warning of his work’s limitations. “I think Sulloway is a damned good read,” wrote research psychologist B.G. Rosenberg of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development. “I even hope the man enjoys his celebrity. In my opinion, Sulloway does psychology a service by instigating our interest in the social and behavioral sciences. We do ourselves a disservice by taking him too seriously.”
Sulloway arrives for an interview at a coffee joint just west of the Cal campus looking trim and tan. The tan is the result of three months he recently spent conducting research on Darwin’s trip through the Galapagos. Darwin is one of Sulloway’s passions: His latest project is to follow the exact route taken by Darwin’s ship, The Beagle, through the Ecuadoran archipelago as he collected the animal specimens that would lead to his revolutionary theory of natural selection.
Sulloway’s travels take him far from the superficial world, and it shows. No could accuse him of being stylish with his old-fashioned pencil-thin mustache and graduate-student attire. The researcher arrives in somewhat rumpled casual clothes that make him look more like a perennial doctoral candidate than the visiting scholar he is. He pulls supplementary materials for a reporter out of a ratty blue backpack.
Sulloway’s intense focus becomes clear within minutes of meeting him. He is angry about what has happened and harbors a deep disdain for his critics, which he doesn’t attempt to hide. They are unsophisticated detail freaks, he says, who are unable to grasp, replicate, or even understand the way he put his book together. He speaks of his detractors as if they were third-tier nuisances with insubstantial and irritating complaints, and says he is not alone in this thinking. He produces an e-mail from a colleague who calls Sulloway’s critics a “confederacy of dunces.”
“The fact of the matter is Townsend is not a serious player in this game,” Sulloway says with contempt. Of the recent criticism published in Politics and the Life Sciences, he says, “It’s a kind of nitpicking that’s beside the point. It’s the same thing first-year graduate students have to learn, which is: It’s not whether you can find a slight disagreement with someone that matters.”
The author reiterates that he spent 26 years researching the book, and worked with more than a hundred notable historians who helped him gather and rate participants in many of the historical events he examined. He was guided by statisticians at Harvard, who helped him design elaborate tests for his data. “So far, my work and theories have held up well,” he points out, “although it would be most unrealistic not to expect advancements and refinements, as well as qualifications and corrections, in a book with so much empirical and theoretical scope.”
In an effort to refute his critics, Sulloway worked with Stanford statisticians and Berkeley researchers to double-check both his findings and the way he carried out his statistical treatment. A large part of the research involved what is known as meta-analysis, in which he scoured existing birth-order literature and reanalyzed the findings of previous studies to glean new insights. Sulloway contends that, until his critics repeat his meta-analysis, their criticism is meaningless. “If you do what any normal academic who’s trained in the most minimal of efforts would do, you end up with the same basic results I did,” he says.
Unfortunately, he adds, his critics don’t even have the minimal statistical skills needed to challenge his work. This is a theme to which Sulloway and his supporters are sticking — they make much ado of credentials or lack thereof, noting that this is a case of nonpedigreed folks going after one of academia’s brightest lights. “It’s like being Tom Cruise or somebody else and people start going after you the way they go after stars in the tabloids,” Sulloway says.
In response to his detractors, and their complaint that Sulloway has not been forthcoming with his data, the author wrote a lengthy reply for the same issue of Politics and the Life Sciences and posted reams of his data on his Web site. But none of this has quieted his critics. As Harris describes it: “It’s an onslaught of words designed to impress his friends, belittle his enemies, and confuse everyone else.”
Sulloway’s critics say the researcher brought down this five-year ordeal upon himself. After all, the author expressed such confidence in his findings that he invited other researchers in writing to search for exceptions that contradicted his theory. He issued a similar challenge in his New Yorker profile: “If anyone ever, ever discovers a radical revolution led by firstborns and opposed by laterborns, then I’m out of business,” he told the writer. “Or if someone discovers the opposite conservative revolution led by laterborns and opposed by firstborns — that would also refute my theory.”
Townsend took up this challenge in his sharply worded 36-page critique of Born to Rebel. The article dissected Sulloway’s claims about various revolutionary leaders and his classification of the revolutions, and scrutinized the author’s use of previously published birth order studies. Townsend found fault on many fronts and concluded that Sulloway’s “claims for birth order effects should be rejected.” In 1998, he submitted the article to Politics and the Life Sciences. Journal editor Gary Johnson, a professor of political science at Lake Superior State University in northern Michigan, sent the piece to four referees with backgrounds in social science to assess its strengths and weaknesses.
After three of the four referees recommended publication, Johnson contacted Sulloway and asked him to suggest other commentators who might wish to be published alongside his critics as part of a series of articles that would take up the entire issue of the journal.
How things proceeded from there depends on whose version you choose to believe. Johnson’s view is that he worked hard to accommodate Sulloway’s demands, which became increasingly threatening. Sulloway, meanwhile, believed Townsend’s critique was inflammatory and libelous. He threatened legal action. “It would be unfortunate if your decision to publish Townsend’s manuscript in its present form plunges you and your journal into serious legal difficulties,” Sulloway wrote to Johnson. As an independent scholar whose work is the source of his livelihood, Sulloway explained in his letter, “I am prepared to take any legal steps that are necessary to protect this reputation from potential libel.”
Sulloway made the highly unusual demand that Townsend’s critique be prefaced with a disclaimer no editor would ever agree to, basically saying that the article to follow was complete hogwash. Calling such a preface “legally mandatory,” Sulloway suggested the following language:
“It is normally not the policy of this journal to publish data that are known, in advance, to be actually or potentially in error, especially when such data are being used in an attack on another scholar. However, as editor of this journal, I have decided that it serves the purpose of science (as well as certain scheduling considerations) to publish these erroneous data in their present form. Readers are warned, however, that none of Townsend’s empirical claims, or the conclusions that are based on them, can be trusted with any degree of certainty. Townsend has also made other blatant errors of fact and interpretation that are now known to the editor and that seriously affect the credibility of this paper. I have left it to Sulloway, in his own commentary in this issue, to try to correct all of these errors in the limited space that I have allotted to him.”
Sulloway concluded his letter with a warning: “If there is not a satisfactory resolution to this letter by 1 February, I am going to turn this matter over to my attorney in New York.”
To Johnson, this was frightening. Could the journal, and his family, deal with the cost and disruption of a lawsuit? After weighing his options, he relented. He wrote Sulloway and told him he was canceling publication. Oddly, Sulloway wrote back and said he had “no intention of suing you or anyone else over this matter” and expressed a desire for publication to go on, “no conditions attached.”
Johnson was now understandably wary, and asked the author to sign a legal release saying he would not sue anyone associated with the journal’s publication. Sulloway refused.
Johnson then says he wrote Sulloway a four-page letter stating that he’d tried to accommodate the researcher’s concerns, but that he wasn’t willing to preface Townsend’s manuscript as requested. He reiterated that he was more than happy to make the process fair, and would include the responses of Sulloway and his supporters alongside the critics. But because any agreement seemed unreachable under threat of litigation, Johnson again informed Sulloway that he planned to halt publication.
Sulloway responded with a letter warning that any “accusation” that he was attempting to avoid scholarly criticism “may be a defamation in its own right.”
Johnson, meanwhile, was already second-guessing himself. “The prospect of canceling publication under these circumstances was repugnant,” he wrote in the published journal, “so repugnant that I immediately began reconsidering.”
He consulted with officials at his university, then informed the commentators on both sides what had happened, and told them he planned to proceed with the issue.
From there things grew even more contentious. At one point Sulloway became convinced Johnson was trying to undercut the process by allowing Townsend to revise his article after the commentators had written responses to Townsend’s original critique. Although it was a valid complaint given the time and effort Sulloway’s backers had put into their responses, Johnson says Townsend was asked to revise the manuscript because Sulloway himself had demanded any potentially defamatory material be removed. The revisions were an effort to accommodate Sulloway, not the other way around, Johnson insists. The editor furthermore sent copies of Townsend’s revisions to the commentators so that they could revise their own articles accordingly.
Sulloway was nonetheless furious, and shot off a legally threatening letter to the president of Lake Superior State University, to the chair of the school’s board of trustees, and to the college’s legal counsel. He wrote that he would be “blowing the whistle by filing formal charges of scientific misconduct against Gary Johnson with the American Political Science Association, the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, members of Congress who have shown a concern about science fraud, and all other professional organizations with which Professor Johnson and his journal, Politics and the Life Sciences, are affiliated.”
The journal’s publisher, a small publishing house in England, pulled out of the project after learning of Sulloway’s continuing legal threats, so Johnson assumed responsibility for publication himself.
Townsend’s critique assailed the allegedly fuzzy ways that Sulloway defines and measures rebelliousness. Sulloway divides historical revolutions into two categories in Born to Rebel: radical revolutions that opposed the status quo, and conservative revolutions that upheld it. Laterborns, he argued, are far more likely to lead radical revolutions, while conservative revolutions are usually led by firstborns.
But Townsend’s critique identified several cases that seemed to contradict Sulloway’s theory. “In China, Mao Tse-tung, a firstborn, led a revolution,” Townsend wrote. “Chiang Kai-shek, a laterborn, opposed that revolution. In Mexico, Pancho Villa, a firstborn, led a revolutionary movement; Porfirio Diaz, a laterborn, opposed that revolution. In Vietnam, Vo Nguyen Giap, a firstborn, led a revolution; Ngo Dinh Diem, a laterborn, opposed that revolution.”
Regarding the Cuban revolution, which Sulloway classifies as radical, Townsend questions how Fidel Castro, a laterborn, and Che Guevara, a firstborn, who together overthrew the authoritarian Batista regime, can both be made to fit the author’s thesis. “Sulloway cites the fact that Che carried out the executions of Batista’s followers as evidence of Che’s ‘tough-minded firstborn style,'” he explains.
As Townsend views it, the book is rife with these kinds of rationalizations, which Sulloway uses to cover all his bases: “When firstborns support existing authority, their behavior confirms the theory; when firstborns rebel, however, they are being vengeful, jealous, short-tempered, and tough-minded, and this also confirms the theory,” he writes. “When laterborns rebel, their behavior confirms the theory; when laterborns do not rebel, however, they are being submissive, unassertive, timid, and acquiescent, and this also confirms the theory. A theory so flexible seems incapable of refutation.”
He also compares Sulloway’s analysis of revolutionary participation with that of sociologist Kay Phillips and political scientist Mostafa Rejai of Miami University in Ohio, who have written extensively about revolutionary leaders and have found, contrary to Sulloway’s conclusions, that birth order is just one of a large number of variables that factor into the development of revolutionary tendencies. “It is all too evident,” the pair wrote in a commentary in Politics and the Life Sciences, that Sulloway “drastically and recklessly oversimplifies.”
To this criticism, Sulloway wrote in his published reply that his analysis of the revolutionary leaders, participants, and loyalists came not from his own ideas about history but from the 108 expert historians who assessed the personality variables he was considering and acted as nominators and judges for the information. These raters, he says, had no vested interest in his hypothesis. Once he assembled their historical ratings, a process he says took five years, he then asked four prominent historians he had not yet consulted to examine and retest his theories. In other words, the categories, and which historical figure fit into which camp, came not from him but from academia’s best and brightest historians.
Sulloway acknowledges there are exceptions that seem to undercut his pronouncements about the importance of birth order, noting in his book that “birth order is a fallible indicator. Its principal virtue lies in it being less fallible than any other predictor I have been able to identify.”
One of Townsend’s other critiques has to do with a seminal work on birth order conducted in 1983 by two Swiss researchers, Cecile Ernst and Jules Angst. Their study involved a comprehensive review of the birth order literature, from which they concluded that firstborns and laterborns showed no significant differences with respect to anxiety, conformity, creativity, empathy, conservatism, dominance, aggression, values, or overall personality. But Sulloway’s reexamination of their study — cited extensively in his book — came to the exact opposite conclusion using the same information. Townsend and Harris both tried to determine how that could be, and neither ended up with what they consider a satisfactory answer.
Townsend, Harris, and John Modell, a professor of education at Brown University, all reviewed Ernst and Angst’s analysis and were unable to reproduce the results Sulloway reported. “I could not do so, try as I might, or even come near,” Modell wrote in a 1997 review of Born to Rebel that appeared in Science magazine.
When pushed by both Townsend and Harris to fully explain how he conducted his analysis, which studies he had looked at, and how he had interpreted them, Sulloway responded in an April 1999 letter to Townsend that he was under no obligation to make any of his research available to “unqualified individuals, including people lacking graduate degrees in the behavioral sciences and a serious record of scholarly publications.”
Instead, Townsend and Harris contend, Sulloway has responded with nasty missives, insults, and evasive and confusing answers that have only deepened their doubt about his meta-analysis. “We cannot replicate what he says he did,” Townsend says. “He cannot replicate it himself because his own data contradicts itself. This is what makes this deadly.”
In her commentary in Politics and the Life Sciences, Harris writes that “the real test of Sulloway’s theory is not whether Sulloway himself can find evidence to support it: The question is whether it is supported by evidence gathered and analyzed by other investigators.” The results of tests to do just that, she adds, “do not support the theory.”
Sulloway and Stanford statistician Lynn Gale say replications of such a complex statistical treatment must be conducted properly in order to be meaningful. In his response, Sulloway writes that Modell, Harris, and Townsend all failed to consult the original studies used by Ernst and Angst, and instead relied on the researchers’ descriptive summaries of the various studies. Furthermore, he says, they failed to conduct the kind of multivariable analysis he did and thus, predictably, were unable to reproduce his results.
Sulloway explains that he didn’t simply count up results, but rather assessed the various findings according to five key personality traits. Under these conditions, he says emphatically, “we get statistically significant results that confirm my hypothesis.”
Townsend’s critique also suggests that Sulloway changed some data to bolster his case. For instance, he alleged that Sulloway presented one table differently during each of two appearances in Born to Rebel and again in a subsequently published journal article. Each time the table reappeared, Townsend wrote, it supported Sulloway’s argument more completely than before.
The author is willing to grant that his critics have found a few small errors, but he dismisses these as “nothing very major.” He likens their critique of his data handling to finding typos. “That is not what science is all about,” he says.
As is his wont, Frank Sulloway has boiled down this whole unfortunate mess into a simple, understandable concept: “If you stand in the street and start to have a conversation with a fool, people may start to take the fool seriously,” he says.
The one mistake he wholly owns up to is his decision to engage with Townsend, Harris, and Johnson in the first place: “What’s happened here is something you’d see in a third-tier journal where the journal wants to gain some sort of attention for a kind of inflammatory article which wouldn’t be allowed in a more respected journal.”
Meanwhile, back in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Gary Johnson has returned to his duties teaching and running the university’s political science department. In interviews he is polite, straightforward, and slightly timid. He chooses his words carefully and declines to answer certain questions, behaving as though the conversation were littered with land mines. “I’ve edited this journal for ten years and I’ve never encountered conduct like this,” he says in reference to Sulloway’s threats. “The only word I can think of immediately is ‘ordeal.'”
Despite the unpleasantness, Johnson says he is deeply appreciative that his university backed him up and didn’t let legal bullying halt publication of the journal. Both he and Townsend hope its publication will prompt other social scientists to conduct an independent review of Born to Rebel.
If he is fazed by this prospect, Sulloway hides it well. “I welcome any replication of my work,” he says. “That’s what science is all about. There have been replications already. There’s some involving my own historical samples; one’s been done on the Darwinian revolution that’s a confirmation, and quite a few of my results on birth order and personality have been replicated in a couple of publications where I was a coauthor but didn’t collect the data.”
In his spare time recently, the scholar conducted a little research on Frederic Townsend. The name had piqued his interest because Sulloway had a grandmother named Eleanor Townsend. Any chance they could be related? Ever the academic, he did a family genealogy and discovered a branch that listed two Townsend brothers, Frederic and Charles. Did his critic have a brother named Charles? Sulloway wondered.
When asked by a reporter whether he and Sulloway might be related, Townsend couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. Matter of fact, he does have a brother named Charles, but the possibility seemed ridiculous. At least, there was no connection he knew of. Two weeks later, after consulting with a relative, Townsend wasn’t so sure.
For his part, Frank Sulloway now believes his harshest critic is very likely his second cousin, and in some strange way, the whole saga begins to make sense to him. “You know,” he says, shortly before getting up to leave the cafe, “it almost looks like a sibling conflict, but instead of a sibling conflict, it’s a cousin conflict.”
The scholar, it seems, has found a way to frame even the biggest setback of his career in terms of his own theory.