A True Story of Botanical Fraud

Karl Sabbagh

London, 2000

ISBN 0374252823

On the face of it, "A True Story of Botanical Fraud" is not the most enticing prospect for those of us accustomed to reading about the ravings of mediums, or the thrills of alien abduction. It does offer a glimpse into the little-known world of pre-war Hebridean natural history, but this may still not greatly tempt the hard-boiled, urban skeptic.

The affair concerns the planting of plants, on the Island of Rum, followed by their "discovery", by an eminent and curmudgeonly botanist. A semi-clandestine investigation led to scholarly reservations about his trustworthiness, but these never developed into a full-blown critique of his work, and the case had been discreetly buried for decades.

At one point, referring to some behind-the-scenes correspondence, Sabbagh writes:

"At this distance in time, and without the passion for natural history that motivated the participants in these events, I find Wynne-Edwards's letter a little melodramatic."

This looks like kettle-blackening from someone who has written an entire book about fraud among the flora, but there is a chapter on other cases of dubious science: a biofeedback scandal, a plant growth hormone fraud, and Himalayan fossil "finds".

Even though I'm no botanist, this was a diverting read, and there is much food for thought about how scientific institutions handle suspicions about researchers' credibility. For those who wonder about how scientists go about things, but may be put off by the amount of mathematics involved in fathoming the physical sciences, this vicarious field trip may be a useful option.

This review is reproduced by kind permission of The Skeptic.



Paul Taylor 2001