The Wacky Historiography of Captain Scott’s South Pole Journey

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By Krzysztof Sienicki

The limit of truth is not an error, it is meaninglessness.
René Thom (1923-2002, French mathematician)

Recently, Karen May and George Lewis published in the Orwellian tube – Polar Record – an article revising their speculation concerning their search for the culprit of disarray in the role of dogs in the events that could, according to them, have saved Captain Scott. The article [1] consists of all elements (stigmas) of the aesthetic fallacy and/or cargo cult science. It also features the author's cul-de-sac corridors and takes a Bertram Russell’s chicken approach to observational evidence.

May & Lewis' perverse intentions for their article is an apotheosis of Captain Scott’s plot and deceit. This article is a vivid, exemplary, and transcendental proof of Captain Scott's ingenuity and foresight. Here I could go at length to refute (rebut, comment) their lines. However, I will not do it. I have already done that to their previous papers in my book, and I will only point out in list style some crucial points. The reader is kindly requested to consult my book. Here is my stand.

A Good Commentary

Message to the Public.jpg

"starts with an earthquake and works up to a climax". Toward the end of May and Lewis article, in section Conclusions, the authors painted themselves into a corner with a dreadful summary

…Scott’s Polar Party were denied the possibility of assistance from dog teams (upon which they depended for survival, considering Oates’ incapacitation) because [the]understanding of Scott’s wishes had been corrupted at [the]base.

Thus May and Lewis concluded (and proved) that Scott was a liar. Scott was laying to everyone from the first to the last line of his celebrated Message to the Public. May and Lewis conclude and say that survival of Scott's party depended on "dog teams", but Scott clearly told us that:

(a) "The causes of the disaster are not due to faulty organization”

(b) "I maintain that our arrangements for returning were quite adequate."

(c) "Every detail of our food supplies, clothing and depôts made on the interior ice-sheet and over that long stretch of 700 miles to the Pole and back, worked out to perfection”

I'm sorry Captain Scott

Thanks to May and Lewis's profound and deep analysis, I'm obliged, however, to conclude that your South Pole journey organization was entirely jumbled and your arrangements were entirely wrong. I'm sorry Captain Scott, Lt. Oates, Dr. Wilson, Bowers, and Evans, "These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale" the tale of deceptions and lies told us by Scott.

The Orwellian tube

– Polar Record – this publication (through its owning institute) was conceived in the original sin and legacy of Captain Scott’s expedition – multiple explanations, multiple accounts, verifiability, and falsifiability. Despite the initial editorial declaration that Polar Record was created to address "…the news of which appear in so many forms and languages…" my research papers received "negative" peer-review comments and thus was not suitable for publication at this journal. In a final straw, the publisher of my book was informed by the editor of Polar Record that "…we are unable to review of your book." The Orwellian tube got plugged by ostracism. Indeed, my book about Scott and his Terra Nova Expedition with xxxi + 778 pages, 164 figures and artwork, 1417 references, 39 tables, and 2 schemes is far beyond Polar Record’s editorial and reviewer cognition. "I, therefore, propose three cheers for the dogs" at Polar Record – Stone, Sellheim, and McIntyre.

The one out of many

Restricting the historical horizon to polar exploration, one could summarize that none of the expeditions (sea and/or land/ice) in both the Antarctic and Arctic attracted so much public and scholarly attention as Captain Scott's Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913), with the possible exception of Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition. More specifically, Captain Scott's journey to the South Pole. Over the years, a procession of books and articles battled over and scrutinized every aspect of this journey. Simultaneously, as the number of analyses of Captain Scott's expedition increased, the number of unanswered questions grew bigger and bigger. This is counterintuitive. Just recall, that at about the same time and place, Captain Amundsen sledded to and back from the South Pole, and his journey was so ordinary as to border on the benign (though tedious), if not boring. Who could write a 778-page book about Captain Amundsen’s journey? Why are these two journeys (expeditions) so different in scholarly and public perception? By different, I do not mean different at the technical level (which is obvious), but different at the human behavioral level. Pondering this question in every possible direction, one can detect at least four interconnected layers of the story. These cover vast spatiotemporal boundaries described in diaries, letters, notes, books, articles, … (i) members of the South Pole journey, (ii) the remaining members of the expedition, (iii) public, and (iv) influences (eminence grise, authors, editors,…). From these, the reader, without particular effort, can spot contradictions, fallacies, suspicious actions, mysterious comments, prophecies, …, a terrible mess emerging from reading Captain Scott and about Captain Scott. A sensitive reader of the title of May and Lewis's article, without plunging into minute details, commas, dots, missing words in explorers accounts, may rightly wonder: why, more than 100 years after the events and their endless descriptions, is someone advancing a hypothesis that Captain Scott could have been saved? If such an option (possibility) ever existed, why it did not occur to the members of the Terra Nova Expedition? Why was Dr. Atkinson able to gather a nice search party to find the last camp, yet he (as well as Dr. Simpson, Dr. Atkinson, Cherry-Garrard, Meares, Wright, etc.) were unable to launch a search (rescue) party to find Captain Scott and his party while they were still alive? And finally, why is there not a trace of the pros and cons of rescue options in the documents of the expedition? And even if we assume that Meares refused to do a rescue mission, why did no one at Cape Evans/Hut Point shout loudly “You are a bastard, I will go!”? None of that happened, and the Terra Nova carrying Meares and Dr. Simpson “in silence” sailed off from Cape Evans on March 4th, 1912 (after it arrived on Feb. 5th). I picture a stone-faced Dr. Simpson on board the departing Terra Nova, with his thoughts about visiting Britain, while his comrades struggled across the Barrier.


Everyone engaged with Captain Scott's story and his journey to the Pole was rightly pondering on deductive inferences, from the apparent truth of singular (individual) statements (comments, actions, opinions) to the falsity of universal statements, say Captain Scott's logistics and/or his assessment of his expedition. I cannot pinpoint the time or person, to whom it emerged in Antarctica (or even before) that there is a profound difference (asymmetry) between verifiability and falsifiability in Captain Scott's expedition. A limited (small) number of participants and a rather simple task (as proved by Captain Amundsen): to sled to and back from the South Pole. Indeed, Captain Amundsen proved that conquering the South Pole was a simple and straightforward task. Yet Captain Scott disproved it at every level. And May and Lewis re-confirmed his expedition’s artificial complexity, bordering on the Epimenides liar paradox.

Death on the Nile

Does a perfect crime exist, or at least can one be executed? Many ordinary people and tyrants of various colors and origins have pondered on this question. Agatha Christie’s detective novel Death on the Nile published in 1937 provided genuine insight into what was later philosophically elaborated by Karl Popper and others: who is telling the truth? How to produce a perfect crime? Here is the description. Drive every participant to produce as many empirical facts, pieces of evidence, and testimonies as possible. Let us create a mess, a Nile's intricacies, and ask one to find the culprit. Even Hercule Poirot would chicken out. It might defeat Sherlock Holmes if he cared to take it on. After all, “I have been beaten four times—three times by men, and once by a woman.”

Cargo Cult Science

Cargo Cult.jpg

Cargo cult science is a practice conducted by people who during their activities give the impression to others of being scientific, but do not follow in these activities some variant of the scientific method. Not only do they not follow the scientific method, but they also do not have an idea of what the scientific method is. May and Lewis's article evokes all elements of cargo cult science. In particular, the authors base their article on the analysis of their hypothesis that Captain Scott could be saved. Formulating a hypothesis is a part of the scientific method and it may impress the lay reader that May and Lewis use a scientific method to test it to see if it might be true. However, they do not say what do they mean by "saved" under a cæteris paribus assumption about all associated matters. I picture their next paper in which they formulate (and prove) the next splendid hypothesis that Captain Scott could be saved if One Ton Depot was placed at its originally planned location of 80°S. And then the next paper with a working hypothesis about Captain Oates' supernatural abilities and the prediction that Captain Scott will regret not continuing on to place One Ton Depot at 80°S. All of that is cargo cult science, "they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential": the weighing of alternative hypotheses.

Gutless plagiarism


May, and Lewis share Captain Scott's mediocrity. But not only do they share this. They know and understand how to get to the pantheon. Their analysis must fit tacitly what is expected by Polar Record’s frame. One can blame Meares, but Captain Scott must go untouched as the authors address a "perennial question" of saving him. On March 10th, 1912, Captain Scott pops up with the line in his journal “[T]he dogs which would have been our salvation have evidently failed.” The message is clear: not Captain Scott, not anyone including Dr. Simpson, who was nominated by him to be in command of Cape Evans, but the dogs, malign dogs. Curzon was wrong by cheering the dogs, or in double flip, he was cheering Captain Scott's downfall and death. And that is a perennial question. Nevertheless, May and Lewis' plagiarisms constitute a mere fractional description of the tacit mutiny at Cape Evans/Hut Point during Captain Scott's absence. The role of the mutineers (Dr. Simpson, Dr. Atkinson, Meares, and Cherry-Garrard) is elaborated in my book in great detail.

Perennial questions

If conquering the South Pole was a metaphysical rather than a logistical question, then May and Lewis are right to ask. But it was not so, as Captain Amundsen proved, mile after mile, parallel after parallel, and back home. Journey to the South Pole with Captain Amundsen. Never go with Captain Scott, May, and Lewis to the South Pole. Arguably, you may get stuck in the middle of the Barrier pondering on perennial questions of its metaphysical origin. Or something like that.


Though the above has all sensible and logical fundamentals, I understand and confirm that Captain Scott's story will continue, and homegrown armchair explorers, enthusiasts, and lamenters will add their own millstones with which to grind the story. But that is OK: make love, not war.


[1]: May K and Lewis G. “Strict injunctions that the dogs should not be risked”: A revised hypothesis for this anecdote and others in narratives of Scott’s last expedition. Polar Record