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Fraud on the wing

The linkurl:__New Yorker__;http://www.newyorker.com delves into a scientific fraud this week (see below). This one, upward of five decades old, was uncovered largely by ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen, an assistant prof at Michigan State who is co-author of ?Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide,? linkurl:reviewed here.;http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438916a.html In preparing the guide, she took to task one Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, member of the Royal Fusiliers, inte

By | May 29, 2006

The linkurl:__New Yorker__;http://www.newyorker.com delves into a scientific fraud this week (see below). This one, upward of five decades old, was uncovered largely by ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen, an assistant prof at Michigan State who is co-author of ?Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide,? linkurl:reviewed here.;http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438916a.html In preparing the guide, she took to task one Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, member of the Royal Fusiliers, international spy, and world renowned ornithologist who died in 1967. The intriguing picture of Meinertzhagen as played out in the pages of the __New Yorker__ is that of a bombastic schemer who may have rewritten history in his favor on a number of occasions. Many of such occasions took place in the British Natural History Museum in Tring where he apparently poached bird specimens from the vast collection there to later re-label and pass them off as his own. Such a fraud is particularly worrisome for someone like Rasmussen, so she with British Museum curator Robert Prys-Jones, systematically examined the South Asian contributions of Meinertzhagen and returned hundreds to their rightful place. While the linkurl:extent of the fraud and its impact on the field;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/20051017/01/ is still becoming apparent. Several interesting messages fall out of the __New Yorker__ story. One is Rasmussen?s history. Raised by her mother, a seventh day adventist, and deeply interested in birds she recounts to writer John Seabrook about devouring every page of every birding book she ever received as a child ?except for the chapters entitled ?Fossil Birds.? Her mother told her not to read those.? Similarly, while at the Adventist-run Walla Walla College in Washington State while earning her masters in biology, she says Darwin was not taken seriously. She says her eventual acceptance of evolution was not so dramatic. ??You don?t really need Darwin to be interested in bird diversity, which is what fascinates me. You need him to explain it.?? Second, Rasmussen?s story makes a strong case for keeping the specimens in places like Tring. If current efforts to fully digitize and discard the expensive, but extensive collections are successful, uncovering frauds such as Meinertzhagen would be impossible. Third, Seabrook gives us some nice insight to the chummy, clubby, moneyed world of old science that essentially looked the other way as Meinertzhagen defrauded the very notions of science. While the environment and reasons for defrauding science have changed, we should all be on the lookout for the conditions that continue to foster it. __Note: Unfortunately, the article doesn?t appear to be accessible online. You might have to pick up the May 29 issue to read it.__
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