I found it incredibly hard to believe that Michael Bellesiles had fabricated the story of "Ernesto", a student whose brother had died in Iraq. And indeed, it turns out he didn't. As I initially suspected, the student fabricated the story. Why? Who knows? A student at my high school fabricated an entire fake boyfriend who died horribly of cancer, stories she regaled her creative writing class with for months. And then the teacher called her mother to ask if there was anything she could do to help the student through this terrible tragedy . . .
I was told that she later killed herself. She wasn't doing it to get a grade; her grades were good. Something about the storytelling, and the reaction of the people around her, appealed to her.
Of course, maybe the student thought it would help him pass the class; in fact, maybe it did. Whatever the motivation, Bellesiles was taken in. Stupid, yes, but not exactly incomprehensible. You'd feel like a monstrous jerk if you added to the pain of someone whose brother had just died in Iraq by demanding that he prove he wasn't lying.
I'm sure that commentators are going to say that it raises questions: why didn't Bellesiles check? Why didn't the Chronicle? It does raise these questions, but they aren't very interesting. It would be nice if no one ever accepted things on faith that they oughtn't, and it would be nice if the Chronicle of Higher Education could rigorously fact check every online column. But it takes many full-time fact checkers just to vet the small number of stories that appear in the Atlantic every month. It's not practical to extend this everywhere.
One question still remains, of course: did Bellesiles change the story to make it more theatrical, give it a neater moral message? The Chronicle's update is rather vague on that point. But in the end, how much does it matter? The story is discredited, and Bellesiles' reputation has taken a further hit. I'm not sure I care to spend much mental energy nailing down the exact parameters of his embarrassment.