The Coldest March
To Mr. Gregory Reese:
Susan Solomon published the book The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition in 2001 (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, ISBN 0-300-08967-8). The book is presented as a scientific analysis of Scott's 1911-1912 journey to the South Pole in order to present him as a competent scientist and leader. Solomon suggests that Scott's failure to return alive was mainly a result of abnormally cold weather conditions, not a result of Scott's poor leadership and poor management of the expedition.
For example, the book's website http://www.coldestmarch.com stated "Susan Solomon brings a scientific perspective to understanding the men of the expedition, their staggering struggle, and the reasons for their deaths" (accessed on 19 December 2007). On page xviii of the book's "Preface", Solomon writes "I seek balance in this book, and the honesty that I hope Scott himself would have wanted".
On this website, I believe that I demonstrate that The Coldest March is an opinion piece, not a scientific analysis. That does not make the book any less valid as presenting ideas and hypotheses for discussion and further investigation. It does mean that the balance and honesty which Solomon seeks is not achieved. I contend that The Coldest March should not be presented as being science, does not prove that Scott's expedition encountered abnormally cold weather conditions, and does not present proof regarding Scott's character or competence.
If I have made errors or if you can answer any of the questions raised on this website, please contact me and please state explicitly whether or not I would be permitted to quote you on this website.
A1. The statement "The Coldest March", the book's title, could be accurate in referring to Scott's South Pole journey as being one of the coldest foot journeys which humans have undertaken. Not enough evidence is presented in The Coldest March to confirm or refute this statement.
A2. Even if Scott's South Pole journey was one of the coldest foot journeys which humans have undertaken, that does not imply that the weather conditions were abnormal. Not enough evidence is presented in The Coldest March of Antarctica's weather and climate at the time of Scott's expedition to confirm or refute the statement that the 1911-1912 summer in the region of Scott's expedition was abnormally cold.
A3. Even if the weather, abnormal or otherwise, played a significant role in Scott's failure to return alive from the South Pole, that does not preclude the criticisms made about Scott's leadership and management. The Coldest March has numerous contradictions and inconsistencies on this issue.
This website focuses on points A2 and A3. Point A1 is challenging in that is not practical to investigate the air temperatures of all foot journeys which human beings have ever undertaken. In contrast, points A2 and A3 raise fair questions. For point A2, was the weather unusual--abnormally cold as suggested by Solomon--during Scott's journey? For point A3, could Scott have led and managed the expedition better, given what was known at the time?
I cannot answer these questions, but I do not see that The Coldest March answers them either, despite its statements to do so in a scientist, honest, and balanced manner. That is why, at times on this website, I ask questions about statements in The Coldest March but I do not answer those questions. The Coldest March also does not answer these questions, which is why I conclude that The Coldest March does not present sufficient evidence for the ideas put forward in the book.
The Coldest March makes several scientific assumptions without justification. Solomon might feel that her interpretation of the information available is nevertheless the best feasible. That is an opinion which has a right to be expressed, but not while stating that a scientific, objective, balanced, or honest approach is taken to the analysis to the analysis. These assumptions are presented here in three categories:
1. Understanding weather and climate
Solomon makes an implicit assumption that the current climate must have been the same as the climate from 1909-1912. No evidence is presented to support that assumption nor is that assumption admitted in the book. Figures 9, 23, 45, 49, and 61, for example, compare data taken from the earlier explorers with data taken from 1985-1999. Solomon makes a direct comparison between the two time periods without justification, as she does on page 112 by stating "The data recorded by the men of the Terra Nova expedition compare remarkably well to observations collected by the machines of the late twentieth century, as shown in figure 22, supporting Simpson’s calibration". Similarly, Figures 66 and 67 present wind data from 1985-1993 and pages 290-292 make direct comparisons between the modern data and data from the exploration period. This comparison between contemporary conditions and the conditions which Scott experienced is speculative, not scientific. In addition, page 74 has a discussion of sea ice melting where Solomon assumes without justification or evidence that the sea ice melting timetable would have been exactly the same during recent years as during Scott's time of exploration. Page 315 uses modern data to draw conclusions about the likelihood of a ten-day blizzard in 1912 which is not a scientific approach.
In making all of these comparisons--especially in stating that 1-2 years of data collected earlier in the century are similar to 15-20 years of data collected later in the century, hence the two time periods must have been exactly the same with respect to all meteorological and climatological data--Solomon makes a fundamental scientific error in neglecting that climate changes, even over the time scale of several decades. I am not stating that the climate of Antarctica must have changed between, say, 1912 and 1985. I am stating that without data for the intervening years, we do not know whether or not the climate has shifted. I am also stating that enough data for Scott's time period do not exist to judge the level of extremes which did or did not occur at that time period. We know what the observations state for Scott's expeditions, but we cannot make a judgement regarding whether those observations were normal or extreme for the time.
As well, the temperature data presented for the explorers are for only daily minimum temperature. It is a misrepresentation of climate to use a single data point to represent all the meteorological and climatic conditions of a location. Some observations regarding wind are provided, but not many. The data needed to develop a picture of Antarctic climate in the area of Scott's expedition at the time of Scott's expedition are not available, so we shall never know what the reality was. That should be admitted rather than generating conclusions without enough data to justify those conclusions.
Furthermore, the data available to complete a picture of Antarctic climate in contemporary times are not available. Data from 1985-1999 represent 15 years and Solomon writes on page 106 that "fifteen to twenty years of continuous data" are available. That is not enough data to factor in a changing baseline for climate or to fully factor in cycles which range from a few years (e.g. ENSO) to a decade (e.g. PDO). It is bad science to state that an understanding of a region's climate exists based on two decades of continuous data. That should be admitted rather than generating conclusions without enough data to justify those conclusions.
Yet, despite these remarks, Figure 63 does indicate that Solomon accepts that the climate might change, even though, as noted above, she makes direct comparisons between data of the two time periods. However, in figure 63, Solomon assumes that any trend must be linear even though the climate is known to be a non-linear system. The top part of figure 63 provides no justification for assuming linearity through the years of missing data.
On page 302, Solomon discusses the ENSO cycle with respect to weather, accepting that weather can change year to year. Again, that undermines her argument that Scott had enough data to make assumptions about the weather that he would experience on his South Pole journey. The issue is not that today we have research into variations such as ENSO, PDO, and NAO, giving us a huge advantage over Scott. The issue is that common sense dictates, whether or not you are a scientist, that weather changes year to year and that climate changes decade to decade. That has been known for millennia, even without modern technology and the modern scientific approach. Why is this common sense not applied in the rest of the book? Why did not Scott not use that common sense about weather and climate when planning his trek? It is foolhardy and unscientific to expect each calendar day's weather to be the same in different years or to expect climate to be the same from one decade to the next.
Consider that Solomon states on page 302 that "The Antarctic weather record remains short even today, and it is difficult to be confident of a four-year oscillation when only a few decades of high-quality data are available". That seems to accept the argument here that her entire climatological analysis in The Coldest March might be based more on speculation than on robust scientific analysis.
Solomon's argument seems to be that the observed climatic trends are so small that the data are comparable between the two time periods. That argument does not factor in the non-linear, highly dynamic nature of climate which can change significantly over several decades and which can appear to be linear for a few decades (as claimed for the data in the bottom part of figure 63) but then be non-linear for adjoining decades.
Overall, the data do not exist to compare modern weather with the weather during Scott's expedition. To be scientific, that should be admitted and accepted.
2. Use and interpretation of data
In presenting and discussing data (for example, figures 9, 23, 36, 37, 41, 45, 49, 66, and 67) Solomon makes the following scientific errors:
2(a) Data errors are not discussed. It is customary in science to provide indications of errors such as through error bars and confidence limits and, often, to discuss possible measurement errors which could include improper instrument calibration or reading errors. On page 104, Solomon writes that to collect temperature data, Bowers "would stand out in the relentless cold and wind, swinging the sling thermometer three times a day in every variety of weather and meticulously pencilling the numbers in this meteorological log book with numbed fingers". That method would seem to yield plenty of scope for human error in the data. On page 111, Solomon details Simpson's care of calibrating instruments and cross-checking the measurements, but that does not eliminate all the possible data errors. What were the errors on the data collected?
2(b) Some of the contemporary data are presented as averages over several years while the data from the original explorers are presented as points. No discussion is provided regarding the meaning of comparing averages with points.
2(c) The data presented are for only daily minimum temperature minimum temperature as recorded by instruments. That point obviously has a strong correlation to human survivability issues in terms of body temperature and energy which an individual can produce, but it is not the complete picture. It is poor scientific technique to focus so linearly on one specific type of data without translating that into a meaningful index regarding human survivability.
Given the above, Solomon's arguments regarding the weather conditions for Scott's expedition do not have enough evidence to be supported. For example:
2(d) Page 161: Based on figure 36, "Those minimum temperatures were colder than average". The "average" is based on data collected from 1984-1997. If, for example, two of those years were anomalously warm (however that would be defined), then the usual minimum temperature might have been below that of 1911 even if the average minimum temperature was above that of 1911. Many other scenarios could be described to illustrate that not enough evidence is presented to justify Solomon's statement on page 161. Solomon might have all the data (for example, see figure 41), but that information is not presented in the book which makes the book unscientific—and, in any case, the issue of comparing the two time periods remains a concern.
2(e) Page 164: "Scott's men had now seen the Barrier in all its seasons". For how many days per season? "All its seasons" in how many years? With so few data points, why would an assumption be made about precisely what the weather will be? Obviously, more data points could not be obtained at the time which means that the error bars for predictions are large and contingency is necessary. Yet the error bars for the predictions are not reported.
2(f) Page 164: "Simpson estimated the average annual cycle of temperatures to be expected on the Barrier". Given the minimal data available, this estimate was the best he could do and is impressive under the circumstances, but it is still wild speculation, not an accurate or precise estimate. What were the error bars on the estimates?
2(g) Page 164: "Recent data reveal that Simpson's 1919 estimate was stunning in its accuracy", but only if you accept that the climate has not changed at all between Simpson's measurements and the recent data. Where is the evidence that this change has not occurred?
2(h) Page 165: "Scott and his men had gathered enough data for Simpson to surmise precisely what average conditions would be like deep in the heart of the Barrier throughout the year". But the estimate necessarily would have large error bars due to the few data points on which the estimate was based. "Precisely" is different from "accurately".
2(i) Page 165: "Simpson had every reason to believe, based upon their hard-won experience and careful measurements during journeys in every season, that the Barrier temperatures in March would be about twenty degrees colder than at Cape Evans". But the estimate necessarily would have large error bars due to the few data points on which the estimate was based.
2(j) Page 178: "it was only with this storm that he and his party experienced truly unusual conditions". How can weather conditions be termed "unusual" based on fourteen years of modern data at best? Such a conclusion is highly presumptuous and unscientific. The statement on page 178 that "Scott and his men were the victims of bad luck in the exceptionally severe and prolonged storm" does not have enough evidence. Same comments for "the remarkable storm" (page 184) and "The unusually wet blizzard had left Scott completely tentbound for four days" (page 186). Not enough evidence is presented to justify these descriptions.
2(k) Page 180: Scott wrote "no foresight--no procedure--could have prepared us for this state of affairs. Had we been ten times as experienced or certain of our aim we should not have expected such rebuffs". The foresight that weather changes from year to year would have prepared him. The procedure of contingency planning could have prepared him. Why did he not expect any delays due to weather? On page 180, Solomon writes "the sledging season had started with what has been shown here, based upon many years of modern data, to be a highly unusual storm". There is not enough modern data to classify the storm as being "highly unusual" and Solomon has not shown that the storm was unusual for the years of Scott's expedition.
2(l) Several comments on page 201, including the caption for figure 45 and the statement on page 306 of the "typical Antarctic summer weather", do not provide enough evidence to support these hypotheses. The evidence needed is not likely to exist. That should be admitted. The same situation for the comment on pages 226-227 that "Temperatures were rather typical".
2(m) Page 219: "The good quantitative agreement between Scott's 1912 data and modern observations provides further support for the accuracy of the calibration of their thermometers as carried out by Simpson." That, and a few other comments on page 219 regarding the normality or abnormality of the temperatures, would be true only with the assumption that modern observations should be the same as Scott's 1912 data. That assumption has not been justified and neglects any changes to the climate in the intervening time period.
2(n) Page 256: "He provided proof beyond reasonable doubt that temperatures had indeed been persistently below -30°F while the polar party waged their desperate struggle to return". If this proof is accepted, it is only proof temperatures persistently below -30°F. It is not proof that those temperatures were abnormal nor is it proof that those cold temperatures were unforeseeable.
3. Subjective assessment of luck
Risk and luck are subjective concepts. Quantification of these terms necessarily includes subjective assumptions and, at times, challengeable definitions. Solomon makes a scientific error in assuming that her view of risk and luck are objective and must be accepted.
An example of Solomon's error is the discussion on pages 94-95 about the risk which Amundsen faced from the calving of the ice where he made his base without Solomon providing equal discussion of Scott putting his base within striking range of an active volcano, Mount Erebus. The same mistake is made on page 284 where again Solomon mentions the possibility of the ice calving, but not the possibility of Erebus erupting. Solomon writes "They selected a little cape just north of the ice edge at the foot of Mount Erebus" (pages 76-77) while the Global Volcanism Program notes that "The glacier-covered volcano was erupting when first sighted by Captain James Ross in 1841" (http://www.volcano.si.edu/world/volcano.cfm?vnum=1900-02= on 12 December 2007). Given the knowledge at the time, Scott knew or should have known that he was sited near an active volcano while Amundsen might not have had any information regarding the potential of his site to calve. Yet Solomon highlights the threat to Amundsen but not to Scott.
A more fundamental philosophical concern regarding luck and risk is evident throughout the book. Not allowing for a large margin of error when your life is at stake, which could also be termed gambling, is entirely a personal decision. When is a gamble a calculated risk? What is a "large" vs "not large" margin of error? The answers are subjective and personal. Different people provide different responses. Solomon's viewpoint that Scott was brave, made good decisions based on his information, or did not unduly gamble is just that: a viewpoint. Solomon is not being objective, is not being scientific, and does not prove these views of Scott. They are opinions which are appropriate and useful to voice and to debate, but they do not match the book's statement of being a scientific, balanced, and honest analysis.
For example, on page 102, Solomon states "The loss of coal in the gale and the tardy arrival in the Antarctic due to the extensive stretch of early-season pack ice they encountered were two elements in the tale that could scarcely have been anticipated". Such specific delays do not need to be specifically anticipated because proper planning includes contingency planning, as decades of scientific literature and centuries of experience on the topic demonstrate. Proper contingency planning means being prepared to deal with the unexpected. A leader does not need to guess what will go wrong nor to understand all the details of possible hazards or delays. Instead, a leader can make the choice to assume that something will go wrong and have enough backup to overcome the problem, irrespective of the problem's source. Of course, contingency sometimes costs which returns to the question "When is a gamble a calculated risk?" The answer is subjective. Scott made certain decisions based on his subjective viewpoint and other leaders would have made different decisions based on their subjective viewpoints. The issue is not luck, but personal and subjective attitudes towards risk. To state that Scott made good or bad decisions is subjective.
I am not arguing that Solomon's apologist attitude towards Scott's risk decisions is incorrect. I am stating that blaming bad luck for some of Scott's woes is neither scientific nor balanced, as Solomon states her book to be.
Consider also Solomon's comment on page 102 "As he had on the Discovery expedition, Scott pushed his luck--this time with some disastrous results". When lives are at stake, how appropriate is it for a leader to push one's luck needlessly, as apparently in this case, without being accused of planning poorly, being reckless, and mismanaging? We see this occurring all around us on a daily basis and people die as a result. We mercilessly pursue the culprits, as we should. Scott is no exception--and neither is Amundsen. They wanted the prize of the South Pole and were willing to gamble or to take calculated risks which could kill them and their men. That is not Amundsen's good luck and Scott's bad luck, as Solomon states, but a deliberate decision for which the deciders must accept the consequences as resulting from their subjective decisions.
This philosophical viewpoint of risk and luck is strongly supported in the scientific literature. By thinking that she knows more than the scientific experts on this topic, Solomon is being neither scientific nor balanced.
The Coldest March poorly presents much of the material supporting the conclusions and these issues call into question the validity of the conclusions. They also show that, while Solomon's opinion is useful for discussion and analysis, the statements which she makes are not as scientific, objective, balanced, or honest as she states. Four categories are presented:
4. Misrepresenting Huntford
Some of Solomon's statements about Huntford are puzzling.
To cross-check Solomon's statement for 4(a), I used Roland Huntford, Scott and Amundsen, Hodder and Stoughton, London Sydney Auckland Toronto, First printed 1979, Third Impression 1980, ISBN 0 340 19565. Solomon (page 374) references Huntford, R. Scott and Amundsen. London: Pan, 1979. I cannot explain the discrepancy between the two references and I could not track down the edition referenced by Solomon, but I am assuming that we were using the same book with the same text on the same page numbers. I also used Roland Huntford, Scott and Amundsen, Pan Books, London and Sydney, First published 1979 by Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, This revised edition published 1983 by Pan Books Ltd, ISBN 0 330 28090 2. This 1983 Pan Books edition also corroborates my comments in 4(a).
To cross-check Solomon's statements for 4(b) and 4(c), I used Roland Huntford, The Last Place on Earth, Pan Books, London and Sydney, First published 1979 by Hodder and Stoughton Ltd as Scott and Amundsen, Revised edition published 1983 by Pan Books Ltd as Scott and Amundsen, This edition published 1985 by Pan Books Ltd, ISBN 0 330 28816 4. Solomon (page 374) references Huntford, R. The Last Place on Earth. New York: Atheneum, 1986. Again, I cannot explain the discrepancy between the two references and I could not track down the edition referenced by Solomon, but I am assuming that we were using the same book with the same text on the same page numbers.
4(a) Page 26: Solomon writes "it is not true that Scott contracted scurvy through a preference for preserved foodstuffs or a Victorian aversion of eating unfamiliar foods such as seal" and references that statement to Huntford's Scott and Amundsen, pages 164-165. On those pages of Huntford, I cannot find any reference to or discussion of Scott's "Victorian aversion". Huntford does state on these pages that "Scott accepted official medical theory", "He fell back on the familiar Naval diet", and "Scott preferred conventional wisdom". Huntford also states that "Scott was squeamish and could not stand the sight of blood" and accuses Scott of making dietary decisions based on his dislike of one his expedition's members. Any of these statements might or might not be fair and might or might not be accurate. The issue is that there are no statements in Huntford which refer to a "Victorian aversion". On the issue of "preserved foodstuffs", Huntford attributes the eating of seal meat to someone other than Scott whilst Solomon attributes the eating of seal meat to Scott. Neither provides convincing evidence for their statement because (i) Huntford does not provide sources and (ii) Solomon's writing obscures the timeline of decisions related to scurvy and seal meat.
4(b) Page 179: "The legend of the bumbler may suggest to some that Scott failed to march at times that Amundsen thought easy. [referenced to Huntford's Last Place on Earth, pages 429-431] But the case of the storm of December 1911 reflects not the skills of the two leaders in dealing with the weather but rather their fortunes in geographic placement". My reading of Huntford's passage is that Huntford compares the storms experienced by Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton, suggesting that in terms of bad weather, all expeditions were approximately equal at this stage. The crucial difference, according to Huntford, was that Amundsen was willing to travel during bad weather while Scott was not. Solomon does not address these points, despite Huntford being precise and clear about them. I am not making a statement about Huntford being right or wrong or about Huntford being scientific or unscientific. I am noting that Solomon does not address these parts of Huntford which do not match her own view nor does Solomon factor in Huntford's quotations from the explorers' diaries and Huntford's calculations about days of bad weather experienced by each explorer. Solomon discusses Scott's responses to blizzards on page 266, but again does not address Huntford's point that Amundsen was willing to travel during bad weather while Scott was not, along with Huntford's statements that Scott did not factor in Scott's prior experience with bad weather in Antarctica.
4(c) Page 323: "An extreme footnote in the legend suggests that he convinced or perhaps even ordered the others to remain with him" referenced to Huntford's Last Place on Earth, pages 506-509. On those pages of Huntford, the only statements that I can find which are relevant to Solomon's statements are "Scott himself probably held Bowers and Wilson back", "Wilson and Bowers were persuaded to lie down with him and wait for the end", and "That indeed was the argument that Scott probably used to persuade Wilson and Bowers to lie down and wait in the tent". I agree that Huntford's comments could be interpreted as Solomon's word "convinced" but I see no remark by Huntford that could be taken to mean Solomon's statement "perhaps even ordered". I accept that Huntford could have been more clear that he is speculating or hypothesising on this point, but Solomon's accusation that Huntford claimed that Scott "perhaps even ordered" Wilson and Bowers to stay behind with Scott is unfair and inaccurate.
5. Not referencing the statements on the Scott legend
Solomon makes statements regarding the Scott legend, which she wishes to disprove, without providing references for those statements. It is unclear why these alleged parts of the Scott legend are so important if they are just hearsay or statements from unpublished works. Solomon's vociferous rebuttal to unreferenced statements potentially suggests a need to defend Scott rather than an objective approach to the analysis of Scott's explorations. I do not have enough evidence to affirm or refute the alleged Scott legend as detailed by Solomon, but Solomon appears to have not taken a scientific approach to addressing the concerns about the Scott legend which she raises.
5(a) Page 60: "Exaggerations in the legend of Scott's missteps suggest that the British didn’t employ skis at all." No reference is given.
5(b) Page 81: "But as the ice beneath the motor sledge gave way, an indelible and frequently cited entry in the legend of Scott as a bumbler was recorded". References are given for the ice collapsing beneath the motor sledge, but no references are given that this incident means that Scott is a bumbler. Solomon also states that "Less often noted is Scott's brutally honest and self-critical description of the event in a diary that he knew would be subject to widespread scrutiny". Brutal honesty and self-criticism does not make an act any less stupid, if that act was stupid. Scott's honesty on the matter is not in favour of or opposed to any statements of Scott's alleged incompetence.
5(c) Page 85: "The legend of Scott's gaffes holds that the pony snowshoes were forgotten at the start of the depot journey". No references are provided for this incident being part of the Scott legend.
5(d) Page 96: For a pony-related event, "This incident is sometimes cited in the legend of Scott's errors of leadership". No references are provided for this incident being part of the Scott legend of poor leadership. Also on page 96, "Less often recounted are the acts of courage of his men". The courage of his men does not mean that Scott was a good leader. The points are separate and should be kept so, rather than trying to justify Scott's alleged incompetence by his men's acts of bravery in trying to rectify the consequences of that alleged incompetence.
5(e) Page 111: "Scott's scientific leanings and his laying of key groundwork in his 1902-4 expedition meant that he was better informed than Amundsen of the weather conditions that were likely to be encountered--a stark contrast to the portrait of Scott as a bumbler whose ignorance is legendary and complete". No references are provided regarding the statement of Scott as a bumbler. Solomon then continues on page 111 that "In short, Amundsen included generous safety cushions, while Scott chose narrow margins". This statement means that Solomon's book can be referenced to show that Scott did act like a bumbler ("narrow margins"), at least compared to Amundsen ("generous safety cushions")--unless one's subjective values are that gambling with lives with minimal contingency is acceptable. See also point 3 above.
5(f) Page 124: "The myth that Scott's team abhorred these foods or failed to understand their health value is a frequent but false entry in their legend". No reference is provided for where this myth is stated.
5(g) Page 129: "In its most extreme form, the myth of Scott the bumbler suggests that the choice of light-colored animals on the Terra Nova expedition was purely for the sake of presentation--that Scott enjoyed their attractive appearance as it complemented the snow". No references are provided for this myth.
5(h) Page 176: "As the stories of Scott's errors evolved and grew over the decades that followed, legend suggested that the sentimental men of the Terra Nova expedition contracted scurvy and perished because they refused to eat their ponies". No reference is given for this story.
5(i) Page 183: "Like others conversant in the legend of Scott's purported gaffes, he knows that the polar parties marched north during the day". No reference is given for this story being one of Scott's purported gaffes.
5(j) Page 213: "Scott's admission that he had not considered the increased cooking time is reminiscent of his failure to remove the lens cap when learning photography, but this time the oversight was one of a number of growing threats to their survival. As he had many times before, Scott noted he obviously damning point quite honestly in his diary." Honesty does not imply competence. Scott's admissions of mistakes neither support nor refute the suggestion of Scott's incompetence. Similarly, page 278 states that Scott "was an honest man who wrote frankly of his mistakes". Again, honesty is a different characteristic from competence.
5(k) Page 238: "The legend of Scott as a bumbler suggests that he may have decided to die, perhaps even at the moment when he learned that Amundsen had beaten him to the Pole". No reference is given for this alleged criticism of Scott. What would the psychology literature contribute to understanding this suggestion?
5(l) Page 248 "So deeply rooted is the legend of Scott as a bumbler that today's Antarctican even doubts his truthfulness". Where is this legend so deeply rooted? Furthermore, has Solomon considered that the Peary-Cook debate regarding the North Pole still taints the Scott-Amundsen South Pole race? Rather than accusations of lies being directed only at Scott, could polar travel in general, with easily forgeable diaries, be the accused? Consider also Huntford's documented accusation that Scott did lie (see 6(u)), an accusation that Solomon does not address. Solomon's story on pages 247-248 is also weak in that the visitor's friend "asks whether Scott could have faked the numbers" (page 247). "Asks", not "claims". Is the visitor (or Solomon) so wrapped up in his/her own speculation and hypotheses--speculation and hypotheses which deserve to be presented and discussed--that s/he cannot be bothered to articulate facts in order to present and discuss the ideas? What evidence suggests "It will do no good to tell her that it was Bowers and not Scott who took the meteorological data" (page 248)? Considering the Peary-Cook debate and the comments by Solomon regarding the vilification and veneration of Scott, "the widespread cynicism regarding the story of Scott" expressed by the visitor's friend seems amply justified, remembering that Solomon does not provide any references for this cynicism--only Solomon's own admittedly fabricated characters. A good scientist would question both the vilification and the veneration, seeking to separate facts and reasoned interpretation from speculation and selections of one hypothesis amongst many.
5(m) Page 274: Shackleton used ponies and became a hero, as did Scott, yet "The same choice, made by Scott became a fundamental cornerstone in the legend of his mistakes". No reference is given regarding the comment about the legend. The final sentence in the main paragraph on this page makes a statement about the legacies of Scott and Shackleton without enough evidence and without any references.
5(n) Page 282: "As Scott's legacy has evolved over the decades, so too have his companions been subject to derision, and it has been assumed that they all died mainly because they engaged in a series of stunningly foolish errors" but no references or quotations are given to back up this statement apart from one reference on page 283 regarding Evans falling into the sea in New Zealand.
5(o) Page 282: "It has become part of the legend of Scott's failures that perhaps the polar party simply lost the will to live after suffering the indignity of being beaten to the Pole". No references are given. What would the psychology literature contribute to understanding this suggestion?
5(p) Page 284: "the legend of Scott as a bumbler" is not given any references.
5(q) Page 288: "as decade after decade passed, the legend of Scott's mistakes flourished" but no references are given.
5(r) Page 323: "The legend of Scott's tragic errors of leadership goes so far as to suggest that he expressly decided not to continue" but no references are given. The next sentence beginning "An extreme footnote in the legend" provides, but misrepresents, a reference, as discussed in 4(c).
6. Scott's characteristics, especially as a scientist
Solomon foists the view on the reader that Scott was a scientific man:
(i) Page 27: "a man of his scientific leanings".
(ii) Page 111: "Scott's scientific leanings".
(iii) Page 156: Scott is referred to as a "scientific but still inexperienced leader".
(iv) Page 173: "the scientific pursuits that fascinated Wilson and Scott". Scientific pursuits might have fascinated Scott, but that does not mean that he was good at science.
(v) Page 270: "But enthusiasm for science also ran strong in Scott...” and the following text. That does not imply competence in, understanding of, or application of science in his expeditions. The quotations from the men under Scott must be considered in context, rather than taken at face value (see 6(p)). The statement regarding Markham's selection of Scott "because of these very profound and unusual strengths" is not referenced.
(vi) Page 274: "Scott's fertile scientific imagination" and "Scott the scientist".
(vii) Page 278: Scott "approached the myriad challenges of polar travel as many a scientist would" amongst several other statements on this page stating that Scott was a scientist and was careful and logical in his calculations.
Despite these quotations, Solomon's own writing suggests that Scott was not particularly scientific. Solomon's attempt to portray Scott as taking a scientific approach fails through lack of evidence.
6(a) Where is the discussion of Scott's scientific education and training compared with the scientific credentials which he could have gained at the time? Naturally, poverty and expected career paths might have precluded Scott from having the real choice to gain formal scientific training. Therefore, Scott should not be blamed for not being a scientist but nor should he deserve credit for taking a scientist's approach when his actions do not suggest a scientific approach.
6(b) Page 14: In 1902, "As the ship cruised along the edge of the Great Barrier, Scott gained the first inklings of the staggering challenge that its climate would post to his attempts to explore it." For arrival in Antarctica to have been Scott's "First inklings" seems unlikely given the many previous expeditions to both polar regions and the volumes available from these explorers' expeditions. Is Solomon implying that Scott did not make the effort to research and read past work and experience, as any good scientist would do?
6(c) Solomon describes problems that Scott had with sleeping bags (pages 23-24) and with paraffin leaking (pages 24-25). According to this text, Scott made no systematic effort to try to solve the problems, which a scientific approach would entail.
6(d) Solomon notes differences between Scott's and Wilson's version of events (page 30) suggesting that perhaps the scientific meticulousness accredited to Scott could be doubted--or perhaps Wilson made the errors. Neither man should be blamed for the inconsistencies, because they likely resulted from the impossibility of being precise and perfect with details in the midst of an arduous journey at the extremes of human endurance. Therefore, what implications are there for interpreting diaries line-by-line in other instances which Solomon does? Being realistic, we are all human and we all make mistakes. Thus, can we really accept everything written in the diaries? As another example, Solomon notes differences in Evans' and Cherry-Garrard's record of Amundsen's telegram to Scott (page 64). Again, no blame should be attached to the discrepancies, but how much should the diaries be relied on to provide line-by-line accurate and precise accounts which can be accepted at face value?
6(e) Solomon describes how Scott's party lost items to the wind, but then failed to learn from their experience (pages 39 and 41). That is hardly the approach of a careful scientist.
6(f) The discussion of the reasons why Scott did not use fur clothing (page 46) misses how a scientist would approach the problem. The choice was not fur versus "the enormity of the battle that Scott and his men fought against their own perspiration" (page 46). The choice was an overall exploration solution which worked versus one which did not work, taking as many factors as feasible into account during the analysis. If dragging sleds meant that it was necessary to wear clothing inadequate for non-dragging times, then a proper scientific approach would be to question the necessity of dragging the sledges while seeking a form of clothing which was adequate while dragging and while not dragging. To demonstrate the feasibility of tackling this issue more comprehensively than Solomon suggests, how did the Norwegians overcome this challenge?
6(g) On page 74, Solomon presents Terra Nova being stuck in the ice as being bad luck which Scott could not have foreseen. She states that Amundsen, Shackleton, and Scott's Discovery expedition crossed the pack ice in January whereas Scott’s Terra Nova expedition crossed the pack ice in December. No reason exists why Scott should have expected the December pack ice to be similar to the January pack ice. A good scientist and a good practitioner would have suspected that differences in the season could result in differences in sea conditions. If Scott had tried to cross the pack ice in July, would he have expected it to be the same as in January? The issue was not bad luck or lack of knowledge. The issue was that Scott made improper assumptions without any evidence or analysis to support his assumptions--the mark of a poor scientist. Similarly, with respect to sea and ice conditions, on page 76 Solomon states that Scott "encountered more bad luck" and on page 77 Solomon states that Scott "was to learn that neither of these optimistic suppositions would be realized". If Scott were a good scientist, he would not have assumed that conditions in 1911-1912 would be exactly the same as in 1902-1904. The situation was not about "bad luck" and "optimistic suppositions", but was about not taking a meticulous or scientific approach to the problem faced. Does Solomon really believe that "optimistic suppositions" identify good scientists, good managers, and good planners?
6(h) Page 85: With regards to snowshoes for the ponies, "It seems clear that the lone set was brought only for experimentation". Is it the sign of a good scientist, a good leader, and a good manager to experiment with equipment when success of that equipment, in this case for depoting, is essential? Is it appropriate to bring a sample size of one "for experimentation".
6(i) Page 125: "Shackleton had gotten to within one hundred miles of the Pole using ponies and men, so Scott reasoned that success could be achieved with just a few more animals and men." It is not scientific to reason and make decisions on a sample size of one. It is also not scientific to reason that more means better. A group can often travel only as fast as its slowest member. Having more people and ponies has the potential, not the certainty, of having a debilitating member. On the other hand, if a smaller party loses one member, the consequence is more devastating than for a larger party. The point is that both larger and smaller groups have both advantages and disadvantages. To reason that "success could be achieved with just a few more animals and men" is neither scientific nor sensible.
6(j) Page 129: "The well-reasoned instruction to purchase light-colored ponies". How could an instruction be "well-reasoned" when it was based on a sample size of one, Shackleton? That is not a scientific approach.
6(k) Page 152: "If Wilson and Simpson concluded that they had observed the worst face of a Ross Island winter on that still, dark day in 1911, they were correct". Not enough evidence is presented to make that judgement.
6(l) Page 177: Scott wrote "it makes me feel a little bitter to contrast such weather with that experienced by our predecessors". Why would a scientist expect exactly the same weather every year? Scott also wrote "It seems undeserved where plans were well laid". Why undeserved? If plans were well laid, why did they not factor in delays due to weather? Did Scott go to Antarctica expecting no blizzards to occur? The same questions apply to Solomon's statements that "Scott lamented the circumstances and again compared his unhappy lot to the apparently easier one of his predecessor" (page 185) and "On December 16 an unhappy Scott lamented the fact that his party was now '6 days behind Shackleton, all due to that wretched storm.'" (page 186). Why did Scott expect everything to be the same for him as for Shackleton? A scientist would not make plans based on a sample size of one. Page 292 also describes Scott's assumption that the weather would be exactly the same every year, an unscientific assumption.
6(m) Page 188: "These aspects of working at high altitude were not understood in 1911 and are still a subject of study". Did Scott talk to people who live at high altitudes? Did he try several days of hard physical labour in the Alps? Ample opportunity existed for him to explore this issue scientifically, especially given that the knew from Shackleton that the plateau existed. A good scientist would have done so. A good planner would have prepared contingency. The same questions and comments apply to the comment on page 222 that "The problems of weight loss at high altitude are incompletely understood even today, and Scott and his men could not have foreseen them." Did Shackleton report any weight loss on the plateau?
6(n) Page 192: Scott wrote "I only pray for a fair share of good weather". This statement could mean that Scott relied more on luck than proper planning, which is not the hallmark of someone taking a scientific approach.
6(o) Page 264: "The visitor shakes his head at his own ignorant failure to truly grasp until today the enormity of the task that Scott and his men faced in the twilight of their lives, as they pulled their supplies across the Barrier in March of 1912”. Since it is such an enormous task, why did Scott choose that method? If he were truly scientific, why did he not test other methods or use others' experience to select an easier approach, rather than an enormously difficult one?
6(p) Pages 268-269: The discussion of Scott's men's views of Scott and the quotations are taken at face value without considering the context. Could Bowers have been trying to reassure his mother? Would Bowers have been concerned that any criticism could become public? Solomon suggests that Lt. Evans complimenting Scott is "a powerful statement of praise, particularly coming nearly a decade after Scott's death". Could Evans really have criticised Scott at this point, given Evans' position and the view of Scott at the time? Same with Priestley's comments. Given the culture in which he was in and the view of Scott at the time, could Priestley have written any more criticism of Scott? I am not stating definitely that the truth was massaged, merely that any comments of Scott or others, criticisms and compliments, must be interpreted within their context. Instead, Solomon takes them at face value.
6(q) Page 271: Solomon attributes Scott's approach to the motor sledge to his scientific interests. Yet Scott tested the sledges in Norway, without considering the comparability of conditions in Norway and Antarctica. That is not scientific.
6(r) Page 274: The suggestion that Scott took a scientific approach to dogs and ponies is incorrect, because Scott's decision was made on a small sample, which would not be considered significant in science. Did Scott talk to Norwegians, Russians, and Canadians, including indigenous people, regarding the possibilities for dogs? That would have been a scientific approach.
6(s) Page 278: "Amundsen chose a solution to the problem with a large margin of safety, while Scott selected a scientific one that ought to have worked but did not." Why is a large margin of safety not more scientific than guessing that a solution "ought to have worked"? Scientific data should always include some form of uncertainty, such as error bars or confidence intervals. A good scientist will always enquire about the uncertainty in the observations or data and adjust their understanding accordingly. According to Solomon's text, Amundsen did so but Scott did not. The statement on this page that Scott "approached the myriad challenges of polar travel as many a scientist would: by estimating requirements based upon observations and experience rather than by guessing what might be needed in his worst imagination" is a value judgement regarding how a scientist would approach observations and data and neglects the standard scientific approach of considering uncertainties. The issue is not "what might be needed in his worst imagination", but how many observations there are and the uncertainties of those observations. It is poor science to take a small number of data and assume that they are accurate and precise.
6(t) Page 278: The discussion of Scott's food supply includes several references to Scott being scientific, yet this discussion states clearly that Scott erred in assuming that rations would be the same at sea level as on the plateau. Why did Scott not consider Shackleton's experience on the plateau? If Scott were truly scientific, why did he not test food intake at high altitudes rather than making the unscientific assumption that sea level conditions would be the same as high altitude conditions?
6(u) Solomon's statements of Scott as being honest (see 5(b) and 5(j) above) deserve deeper examination. Huntford in Scott and Amundsen (pages 186-187) suggests that in Scott's book The Voyage of the 'Discovery', Scott alters the entries from his original diary, significantly changing the meaning of the text, including to disparage Shackleton, yet Scott claims that the quotations from his diary are not edited. Unless Huntford lied, which could be determined only by comparing Scott's original diaries with the published book The Voyage of the 'Discovery', then Solomon's picture is flawed of Scott as being honest. Solomon does a disservice to her readers by not pointing out Scott's alleged duplicity regarding The Voyage of the 'Discovery', instead trying to paint a picture of Scott being honest.
7. Poor ability to question and investigate some details
7(a) Solomon suggests that Scott recognised the need for fresh food in the form of fresh meat and writes "This solution served when the party was near the coast, with its many sources of fresh food, but it would prove more difficult to avoid scurvy on the sledging journeys that took them into the interior" (page 27). How difficult would it have been to carry frozen seal and penguin meat with them and to include frozen seal and penguin meat in the depots? Would storing the meat as frozen, and kept frozen by the weather, and then making it eatable when needed, affect the nutritional value or introduce the possibility of food poisoning? Regarding 1902, Solomon writes "Scott decided to increase consumption of seal to combat the problem [scurvy] but to continue pushing south" (page 31). Does that suggest that it would be feasible to include fresh meat on inland sledging journeys?
7(b) In discussing the choice of Oates for the expedition, "there was little question of his being accepted with or without such a generous gift" (page 59-60) of GBP1,000. No reference or justification is given for this statement. Is it really possible to state categorically either that Oates was the best qualified out of the applicants or that others were more qualified?
7(c) Page 61: "Extra fuel for ski waxing would be unthinkable on the march to the Pole". The reason given is that all fuel was needed for water and food. What did Amundsen's team do?
7(d) Regarding the Terra Nova journey to Antarctica, "All personnel were stretched to their limits. The tasks of shovelling coal and pumping out the bilgewater demanded the efforts of seamen, scientists, and officers alike" (page 62). How did Amundsen's team manage?
7(e) Page 109: "Bowers wrote of days of 'absolute agony' and times when 'the arms got numbed with the penetrating wind no matter how vigourously they were swung'". Would better clothing have helped?
7(f) Page 111: "The meteorological results taken by navy men on Scott's first expedition had been a target for severe criticisms from scientific circles, although recent analysis implies that those arguments were unfounded." This statement is referenced to two books on Scott's expeditions. Has any meteorological analysis been done and published in a peer-reviewed meteorological journal to support this statement? Solomon should know that a scientific meteorological analysis would have the most credibility if peer reviewed by meteorologists.
7(g) Page 154: "Simpson laid the groundwork for understanding the factors that control surface temperature in Antarctic winter [sic], the conditions that would determine the survival of any party trying to attain the Pole." Amundsen and his team attained the Pole and survived. Did they know of Simpson's "groundwork" or did he manage to attain the pole and survive without this knowledge?
7(h) On page 166, Ponting's description of Scott, well after Scott's death, is highlighted, including "Scott's charming and human side". What was Ponting's view of Scott before Scott's death? In the political climate after Scott's death, could Ponting really have lambasted Scott without making Scott appear charming and human? Why did Ponting leave after one winter?
7(i) Page 173: "The weather was relatively warm on the Barrier in the beginning of November". No reference is given.
7(j) Page 174: "Although he did not remark upon it in his diary, Wilson must have noted with satisfaction that a winter minimum of -72°F was comparable to the harshest value of -77°F". Why must he have noted that, especially since he did not remark upon it in his diary?
7(k) Page 224: "They were able to pick up their cairns and depots but frequently found no trace of their outbound tracks between these markers." Why did they expect traces to be left? Is there never any weather in Antarctica which might cover up or erode tracks?
7(l) Page 235: "The last Barrier stage was expected to be the easiest part of the journey. They had dragged heavy sledges on the way out, but now they had a much lighter burden, carrying only enough food to get to the next depot." On the way out, the men would have been less exhausted and fitter. What role did the ponies play on the way out? What about point 7(o)? Same comments for the statement on page 237 that "the party managed only six to eight miles per day with light loads in a region where they had achieved fifteen miles per day on the outbound march". Solomon seems to forget that there are other factors involved than simply the load on the sledges.
7(m) Page 241: "Scott attributed their difficulties not to scurvy or lack of food but to the cold and to the associated sandpapery surfaces with which they grappled as day upon bitter day unfolded." This is hardly evidence to support the contention of it being "the coldest march". Does Scott's suggestion of the causes have credibility given his and his party's weak condition?
7(n) Pages 257-258 state "The men at Cape Evans now faced a terrible choice, between seeking the northern party or trying to find the remains of the polar party; there were not enough men to attempt both journeys” yet page 259 states that "eight men left Cape Evans to being the search" for Scott. Amundsen reached the South Pole and returned with a team of five. Are there safety or logistics reasons why four men could not have headed south (say, to the Beardmore Glacier) while four men headed north?
7(o) Page 270: "The weight of the rocks was only a small fraction of the total the polar party had to drag behind them". That same sentence states that the gear "typically accounted for more that [sic] two hundred pounds". Pages 242, 260, and 270 refer to the rocks weighing 35 pounds. 35 out of a number between 200 and 300 is literally "a small fraction", but such a weight can hardly be discounted in terms of effort required, most notably because, in considering Oates' sleeping bag, "they decided that the heavy bag could be left behind to lighten their load". More explanation is needed to understand whether or not the rocks added a significant burden to dragging the sledges. Solomon tries to do so with the discussion on friction and the snow's characteristics (e.g. pages 270-271), but then she needs to explain why Oates' bag was discarded and why the infirm members of the party including Scott (see page 321) were not placed on the sledge when their walking was slowing the party. That is, if "sledge dragging is governed primarily not by the weight carried on the sledge but by the character of the snow" then at what stage does the weight matter, in terms of dragging the rocks, Oates' sleeping bag, or Scott on the sledge?
7(p) Page 294: Scott "had put some curry powder in his pemmican". Does curry powder have a value for polar exploration which justifies carrying it?
Gary Hladik (10 February 2009)I saw your review of The Coldest March on your web site, and wanted to thank you. I've been looking for something more than the usual cursory and uncritical reviews of this book; yours is just the kind of analysis I was seeking.
I haven't read Dr. Solomon's book yet, but I have read Scott's Last Expedition, Vol. 1, Roland Huntford's The Last Place on Earth, Edward R. G. R. Evans' South with Scott, and a 1999 article by Solomon and Stearns, "On the role of the weather in the deaths of R. F. Scott and his companions" (http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?&artid=23891). With these as references, I'd like to comment on a couple of the points covered in your review:
Point 1, weather and climate – I generally agree with everything you've written here. With only a few early century data points to "calibrate" against, using modern data as a proxy for 1912 Antarctic weather is a dubious exercise. If anything, the only real data available suggest that the chance of a "coldest" March in 1912 was actually about 50%!
If we nevertheless assume that modern climate approximates 1912 conditions, Solomon still has a questionable case. Even if Scott had reached One Ton Depot (79° 29' S) in mid March of 1912, given the worsening weather and their declining health it's unlikely he and his men could have returned to base on their own. His best chance was to reach the depot before the dog teams left on March 10. Starting February 24 1912, Scott's party marched from the south barrier depot at 82° 47' S to the Mt. Hooper depot at 80° 32' S, a net distance of 135 miles, but still 63 miles short of the rescue party on March 9.
Now according to the 1999 article, even in an "average" year there are still nine days with -30° F or below minimum temperatures from February 25 through March 19, which means perhaps 4-5 "bad" days could be expected by March 9. Scott actually counted 11, which means he experienced 6-7 "excess" bad days. If we magically change the excess "bad" days into "average" days, Scott's party would have needed an additional 9-10 miles on each of them, or a total of 15-18 miles on each "magic" day. Since Scott's best day in the "average" week before the cold snap was about 12 miles, it seems unlikely that he would have come through even with "average" temperatures.
By the way, Scott sometimes recorded sand-like surfaces and heavy pulling even with temps above -20° F. He also reported marches of 12, 11 ˝, and 11 ˝ miles on the first three days of the "freak" cold snap. This suggests that the relationship between temperature and traction may not be as simple as Solomon implies.
Point 3, risk and luck – Amundsen accepted the increased risk of basing at the Bay of Whales in order to reduce the risk of his polar journey by about 120 nautical miles. To fully appreciate the tradeoff, note that if Scott had cut 120 miles off his trip, he most likely would have returned alive.
To my mind the biggest risk at Scott's base wasn't the volcano; it was the thinning autumn sea ice connecting Cape Evans to the Ross Ice Shelf. Unstable ice forced a hasty and disorganized start to the January 1911 depot journey, cost Scott three ponies (and nearly three men) on the return, and could have killed him and his men when they crossed it again in April. It can be argued that Scott's choice of base was a bigger factor in his death than the "freak" weather of March 1912.
Scott as "bumbler" – In his methods, Scott chose to emulate a failure (Shackleton) instead of a success (Peary, Nansen, Amundsen). If Amundsen is the standard of excellence, then yes, Scott by comparison can only be judged an incompetent Pole seeker. Even if judged by "British" standards, Scott comes up short; obsolete as his methods were, with better planning and execution he probably could have gotten back alive, "average" weather or not.
Unfortunately, the best that Scott's apologists can say for him is that, had the weather been more cooperative, he might have gotten most of his party back barely alive and a distant second to one of the best polar explorers of his age. Vindication indeed!
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26 May 2008 First placed online.
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12 February 2012 A stylistic error in underlining heading 6 was corrected.
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