A thorough investigation (first published in Britain in 1999) into a case of deviant science from the 1930s and 1940s.
For many years, the papers of John Heslop Harrison (a botanist working on the Isle of Rum off the coast of Scotland) have astounded naturalists with observations of plants never before seen in Great Britain. His findings, if accurate, would have major theoretical implications, supporting his theory that parts of Scotland were not encased in ice during the last Ice Age (thus allowing plants to survive that would have perished in adjacent locales). But as Harrison’s list of unlikely discoveries grew, so did his colleagues’ doubts—and in 1948 John Raven (a classics scholar with a botanical background) was recruited to investigate them. Sabbagh (Skyscraper, 1990) has succeeded in bringing this decades-old academic controversy to life, but his academic writing style sometimes slows the story down. As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear to both Raven and the reader that Harrison’s “finds” were actually planted. Raven published a letter in Nature, alerting the scientific community to many of the discoveries from the island that seemed problematic, and essentially no further action was taken against Harrison. Over the years, as researchers were unable to verify Harrison’s sightings, they were dropped from the record books. Sabbagh’s conclusions are sometimes a stretch (for example, he asserts that the scientific community failed, in that nothing was done to publicly expose Harrison), while the letters he draws from show a community deeply concerned with both professional and personal fairness. Generally, though, he has a clear grasp of the significance of his story, placing it in context of examples of more recent—and equally audacious—fraud.
Much has been made of the slowness of the scientific community to accept new theories (evolution, relativity); Sabbagh offers an illuminating, if not always engaging, account of the virtues of such skepticism. (photos)