Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Polar Hoaxes and Lost Worlds

cook and peary

A century ago this week Robert Peary and Frederick Cook locked horns in the  “The North Pole Controversy,” an epic media battle that dominated news on both sides of the Atlantic for months.  For readers it became a scandalous and impossibly compelling story, a post-Victorian Jon vs. Kate with furs and dogs.

John Tierney

John Tierney

John Tierney took up the story in the New York Times yesterday morning. To Tierney’s credit, he avoids the temptation to spend his entire column regaling the reader with evidence of Peary or Cook’s rightful attainment of the Pole. (He does take a position: neither man made it).

Instead he takes an interesting behavioral, rather than historical, approach to the question: why do the supporters of both explorers defend their man against all reasonable arguments? The answer, he argues, is that they become psychologically (perhaps neurochemically) committed to their candidate in a manner that is hard to alter. The use of the word “candidate” here is intentional since Tierney reports that this phenomenon is well measured in people supporting politicians and political parties.

Map of the "lost world" of Mount Bosavi

Map of the "lost world" of Mount Bosavi

Also reported yesterday was the discovery of a “lost world” in Papau New Guinea. A team of scientists (big discoveries always follow sentences that begin with ”A team of scientists…”) discovered a unique, pristine ecosystem in the crater of Mount Bosavi. The team found more than forty new species, including the world’s smallest parrot, the world’s largest rat, and a herd of grazing brontosauruses. (I’m making up the rat part).

The use of ‘Lost World’ is an interesting way to  describe this ecosystem  not simply because it conjures images of Jurassic Park, Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name, and a whole genre of early twentieth-century adventure books, but because it’s not an obvious (and therefore not an unconscious) description of Mount Bosavi.

Accounts of the volcano, its geographical and biogeographical riches, have been appearing for forty years in academic journal (see for example Records of the South Australian Museum 15 (1965): 695-6;  Mammals of New Guinea (1990): 236) and even further back in popular literature. Jack Hides and other Australians were writing about the Mount Bosavi in the 1930s.

Bosavi Woolly Rat, photo credit: Jonny Keeling

Bosavi Woolly Rat, photo credit: Jonny Keeling

But “Lost World” sounds better than “Relatively Unknown Ecosystem” especially if it’s timed to coincide with a 3-part BBC Special on the expedition (titled “Lost Land of the Volcano”). Perhaps these are the necessary evils of science reporting in the digital age, a realm in which writers have two or three seconds to convey meaning and produce interest. Maybe these are the white lies required to raise the profile of meaningful and interesting projects. “Lost Land of the Volcano” pulled in 4.1 million viewers last night, an 18% share. Maybe the title of this post should be “Cow-Sized Rat Kills Cannibal, Saves Scientist.”


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6 Comments»

  Russell Potter wrote @

Well, Conan Doyle himself “predicted” the “Giant Rat of Sumatra” — well, okay he was a few hundred miles off, but at a distance of 113 years, some latitude is to be allowed …

As to “lost” worlds, one supposes these are a very special category, since they would have to have once been known. Claims as to the site of Atlantis, or Sir James Churchward’s theories about the “Lost Continent of Mu” come to mind.

The zero points of both lost and found are surely the poles, whose significance is almost entirely symbolic rather than real. Neither Verne’s volcanos, no Symmes’s holes, are found there: only a particularly bleak and bare spot where, one claims, the instruments tell one “you have arrived.” The more intangible, of course, the more hotly contested!

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Yes, good point Russell. Lost presumes it was once known – and here the question is: known by whom? But I’m not sure if BBC or the Guardian is thinking of it in such epistemological terms – lets face it, Lost World sounds cool. It makes us want to read more. Thanks for the comments.

  Patricia Erikson wrote @

I agree. “Lost World” is a great hook, and hey, if it gets over 4 million people to watch a show about an ecosystem instead of “Duck Commanders” or “Truckers on Ice” or waitresses on roller skates or whatever the next reality TV show is, then I’m for it!

  Michael Robinson wrote @

You might be right Patricia – getting out the story with a punchy title is better than not getting it out at all. On the other hand, what if the title ends up guiding the story line – and the story line tells us that only pristine places are scientifically interesting. Will it reinforce the idea that we should be spending our time trying to study and preserve pristine places (very few) rather than those places affected by human beings (all the rest). It reminds me a bit of 19th century ethnologists who passed by colonial cities in South America in search of the ‘authentic natives’ of the wild. In their minds, the natives of the colonial city were already ‘tainted’ by contact with the outside world and therefore uninteresting.

  Jeff Blumenfeld wrote @

Hi Michael,

Hard to believe but I’ve just learned about your blog. Nice job. I hope to write a story about your sowkr shortly.

Regards,

Jeff Blumenfeld, ed.
ExpeditionNews.com
Darien, CT
203 655 1600

  Jeff Blumenfeld wrote @

Hi Michael,

I just came across your blog. Nice work. I hope to write about it shortly. We should meet sometime.

Regards,

Jeff Blumenfeld, ed.
Expedition News
203 655 1600
Darien, CT


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