The basic tale that Karl Sabbagh has to tell here is really interesting. In 1940's Great Britain, an amateur botanist, John Raven, traveled to the Isle of Rum in the Hebrides in order to expose a leading light of British Science, John Heslop Harrison, for rigging evidence of a series of rare botanical finds on the island. For several years, Harrison had been making one discovery after another of plants which strained the credulity of his peers. Raven, apparently acting with the support, and possibly even at the behest, of the scientific community, managed to get access to the difficult to reach island and checked out the locales where Harrison claimed to have made his finds. Raven's suspicions were only heightened by the fact that several of the varieties that Harrison had reported were no longer to be found where he claimed, that most of the sites did not correspond geographically or climactically to where the species would normally be found and by the odd coincidence that each site proved to be in such a precarious location that the plants could easily be wiped out by rock slides, floods, animals and the like. This combination of absence, inhospitability, and easy access to excuses for the disappearance of specimens might have been sufficient to at least cast doubt on Harrison's work, but Raven exposed even more damaging evidence in the samples that he was actually able to find. He was able to show via soil residue and intermixed plants that the rare breeds had probably been transplanted from somewhere else, and circumstantial evidence even pointed towards Harrison's garden at home in Birtley.
In oh so proper British tradition, Raven wrote up his findings in a very understated letter to the journal Nature, so that Harrison was subtly exposed, without ever being outright accused. This allowed him to maintain his reputation with students and the public, but notified the Botany community that results of his studies could not be relied upon. As Sabbagh shows, similar investigations later cast doubt on Harrison's entomological findings too.
Much of this plays out like a scientific detective story and is reminiscent of Longitude, The Professor and The Madman, etc. But it is also similar to those books in that it feels like an excellent magazine piece that's been stretched and padded until it fills 250 or so pages to make it bookworthy. This requires digressions on tangential topics and a level of detail on the main storyline which is sometimes exhausting.
But what's most disappointing about the book is that Sabbagh does not use these extra pages to sufficiently flesh out why the story is significant in the first place. After all, fraud is a obviously a nasty business in any field, but Sabbagh misses a chance to tie the story in to the broader subject of science generally and show why the incident and the reaction to it are particularly troublesome. The problem is not that fraud, or shall we say data tweaking, occurs in the sciences; of course it does; why would the sciences be immune to human vice. No, the problem is that Science makes special claims for itself, that the scientific method is a unique tool for discovering the truth, that the impartial application of reason and the methods of trial and error and peer review function in such a way that the margin for prejudice and emotion have been eliminated, removing the messy human factor, and rendering some kind of immutable truth at the end of the process. In this sense, Science which was supposed to supplant Religion in explaining the world around us, has fallen prey to the same hubris, a kind of inability to admit the theoretical nature of what it reveals and the possibility of error.
Sabbagh, in trying to understand the reasons for Harrison's actions, presents case histories of a few other incidents of fraud and finds a common thread running through all of them:
Someone believes in a theory, expects to be able
to extend its significance with more research, fails
This accounts for some outright fraud, and, of course, we are typically distrustful of scientists whose results happen to be beneficial to those who fund them--if you get your money from Philip Morris we sort of expect you to conclude that nicotine is not addictive. But what's missing here is a discussion of how the political views, religious beliefs, professional pressures, psychological quirks and mere personal foibles of scientists could contribute to much the same kind of fraud, even unconsciously, or merely to a kind of willful misreading of evidence. In Britain the book was subtitled "How Botany's 'Piltdown Man" was Unmasked." That was presumably dropped here because so few of us would recognize the reference. But the Piltdown scandal, involving a deliberately fabricated "missing link" fossil, was an excellent example of how the predisposition of the scientific community--in this case an overweening desire to find corroborative evidence for evolutionary theory--can, indeed must, contribute to dubious findings and can lend even fraudulent science an air of legitimacy.
Ultimately, Sabbagh has given us a fascinating peek behind the Wizard's curtain. However, by not tying his story in to the more general issues concerning the reliability of science, he has lost a chance to make the tale truly relevant to our understanding of scientists and of the practice of science. Because the reach of his ambition is so short, the booklength treatment seems a tad much. The result is nearly as frustrating as it is interesting. It's worth reading but is perhaps best read in conjunction with some Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn for the sake of the perspective they can add in terms of the nature of scientific theory.
-Meet: Karl Sabbagh Producer, Director, Writer, Space Station (NASA)
-Space Station (PBS)
-EXCERPT: First Chapter: 'A Rum Affair'
-REVIEW: of A Rum Affair Up the Garden Path : A 50-year-old hoax by a British botanist who planted his own downfall in the Hebrides. (RICHARD EDER, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of A Rum Affair (Dan Cryer, Salon)
-REVIEW : of A RUM AFFAIR How Botany's "Piltdown Man" was Unmasked: By Karl Sabbagh (Edward Teague, Natural Science)
-REVIEW: of A Rum Affair: How Botany's 'Piltdown Man' was Unmasked by Karl Sabbagh (Helen Osborne, Books Unlimited)
-REVIEW: of A Rum Affair: How Botany's 'Piltdown Man' was Unmasked by Karl Sabbagh (Maggie Gee, Books Unlimited)
-REVIEW: of 21ST-CENTURY JET The Making and Marketing of the Boeing 777. By Karl Sabbagh (Tom Ferrell, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Power into Art: Creating Tate Modern, Bankside by Karl Sabbagh (Frances Spalding, Independent UK)
-REVIEW: of Power into Art by Karl Sabbagh The making of Tate Modern Karl Sabbagh tells the inside story of the conversion of the Tate Modern in Power into Art (Jan Morris, The Observer)
THOMAS S. KUHN
From the point of view of those of us who weren't there your review is both good and understandable. I was privileged recently, though, to come across a review written by someone who was *there* when these events allegedly took place. From his point of view, things look much different, and, frankly, much less incriminating (and therefore less scandalous, which then makes the book less saleable, etc. etc.).
You can check it out here: http://naturalscience.com/ns/books/book08.html
- Feb-11-2003, 19:22
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd