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4.0 out of 5 stars A Real-Life Mystery Examined Through Circumstantial Evidence, 29 July 2004
This review is from: A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud (Hardcover)
Science makes progress by the innovations of individuals. Upon noticing something new, others try to replicate the results. When they do, scientists start to feel confidence that reality has been established. When the results cannot be replicated, doubt begins to build. Sometimes, the innovator made a mistake. Sometimes, the emulators don't quite understand what needs to be done. And occasionally, the innovator made up the results in the first place (like the little boy who cried wolf).
This book focuses on parts of the career of Professor John Heslop Harrison of Newcastle University, who was a famous botanist in the British Isles during the first half of the 20th century. Over his career, he had discovered or been present when many rare species had been found in new places. While many of these discoveries were replicated by others, many of the ones he made on the private island of Rum (also spelled Rhum) in the Hebrides did not have that replication. Some botanists became suspicious, and encouraged a talented amateur botanist, John Raven, to inveigle an invitation to Rum to see the specimens. What he saw led Mr. Raven to conclude that someone (possibly the good professor) had planted these specimens on Rum, rather than occurring there naturally. Based on these researches and a letter to "Nature," the professor's discoveries that others could not document were gradually withdrawn from the scientific literature.
The book looks at the whole problem from our time now. The author interviewed people who were alive and participating in the controversy then, as well as examined the documents and letters involved. He turns up a series of questionable "discoveries" also including butterflies and beetles that suggest a systemmatic pattern. In a final amusing aside, he visits the professor's home and is amazed to discover that the postal address he used for it is false. He chose to pretend he lived on the most fashionable street in town, when he did not.
The circumstantial evidence (and it is hard to have more, unless you see someone literally planting the specimen) does get a bit tedious, but the author does a nice job of considering the motives behind scientific frauds. Generally, they are tied to a desire to make a big breakthrough, and the "scientist" is convinced the theory is right . . . even though the evidence don't show it yet. In Professor Heslop Harrison's case, he wanted to build a new theory of the evolution of species and also wanted to change the view about how the last ice age had occurred in Britain. These "discoveries" tended to support those theories.
The book's approach is quite a thorough one, and since Mr. Sabbagh is not a botanist he makes the book more understandable to those of us who are not. He also as a wry sense of humor that makes for comic relief throughout the book.
On the other hand, reading exhaustively about weeds, beetles, scientific controversies, and whether the samples were received or not is dull. Although well written and fascinating for its broader implications, the writing style left my mind wandering a bit. If the book had been written to about 70 percent of this length, it would have been more appealing. Many of the letters could have been edited down or included in the appendix material. I graded the book down one star for being cumbersome in this way.
As to what really happened, no one will ever know for certain. Certainly, the weight of the evidence suggests to me (a nonscientist) that sloppiness at least was involved in some cases, and possibly conscious fraud. If no one ever turns up these specimens again (and they haven't in decades in some cases), the preponderance of the evidence will favor their never having existed naturally in the sites claimed.
Where else do we rely on claims that are hard to substantiate? How can we defend against "false" claims occurring? My mind is drawn to SUVs as an example. Many people originally bought these believing that they were safer alternatives to smaller vehicles. No one discouraged that view. Recent statistics suggest that people in SUVs are more likely to be injured than people in some smaller cars. How could a misperception like this have been established, and how could have been allowed to persist?
Look for independent information, well verified by others who have no vested interest!
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