Why didn’t they ask Evans? by Professor Chris Turney, published in the Polar Record, in 2017, has indeed stirred a lot of opinion. I myself felt compelled to address some of the issues raised in the article, in a post entitled, In Defence of the Defendable (awful title, I know).
On February 10th 2019, New Zealander, Bill Alp, published his Commentary on Chris Turney’s Why didn’t they ask Evans on this website, and even more recently, Chris Turney published his response to Bill’s article, entitled Response to Comment by Mr Bill Alp.
So today, said Mr Bill Alp, is publishing his response to that. Enjoy.
Response to Chris Turney’s Article:
Response to Comment by Mr Bill Alp
The article Why didn’t they ask Evans? by Professor Chris Turney was first published in Polar Record in September 2017. It claimed that Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Edward ‘Teddy’ Evans, contributed to a shortage of food for the returning polar party at key depots and that he failed to pass on a vital order from Scott for the dog teams to come out and meet the returning polar party.
I found Turney’s arguments to be unconvincing (poorly researched, with an unbalanced presentation and full of distracting detail) so I wrote Commentary on Chris Turney’s Why didn’t they ask Evans (Alp, 2019), which has been published in full on two websites:
tomcreandiscovery.com at: https://tomcreandiscovery.com/?p=4427
ResearchGate at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329864229
Turney’s 2017 article exceeds 9,000 words, raising many subtle arguments, inferences and implications. Much of his material appears to be only loosely related to the matter at hand, so I confined my Commentary to what for me were the three main questions:
- Given its sensational press coverage, does the article provide a well-reasoned and balanced analysis of factors contributing to the fate of Scott’s Party?
- Does the article present convincing evidence that the polar party’s food depots for the return journey had been tampered with?
- Does the article present convincing evidence that Scott actually gave the alleged instructions to Evans?
Professor Turney has subsequently published a long response to my Commentary (Turney, 2019). This article acknowledges and comments on his response. While the bulk of his response is simply a re-presentation of the original material, he did respond to my three concerns noted above. In short:
- He does not see any need for his research and analysis to be balanced. If reporters choose to create a distorted (sensational) impression of his article, that is not his concern, not his responsibility and he has no accountability.
- He agrees with my analysis showing that the returning polar party never went onto short-rations whilst returning across the Ross Ice Shelf. He agrees they consumed the quantity of food Scott had originally planned, right until their final week.
- He agrees that his pivotal reference to Gran’s 1961 book, the basis of his claim that Evans failed to deliver Scott’s orders, does not actually appear in Gran’s book.
On the subject of sensational press coverage, Turney responded “one can often only hope that the accompanying reports will be accurate and without sensation. Sadly, this is not always the case.” (Turney, 2019) He does not acknowledge his own contribution to sensational reporting, triggered by the unbalanced nature of his article.
Antarctic scholars have for many years agreed that Scott’s planned sledging diet fell well short of the calorific and vitamin content required for heavy sledge hauling, yet Turney was silent on this matter. As noted in my Commentary, Scott and his men were effectively on a ‘starvation diet’ from 10 December 1911 until their deaths in March 1912. Without that knowledge, reporters (not just the Daily Mail, as implied by Turney) have presumed that Evans’ alleged food thefts caused malnutrition and starvation in Scott’s Party. A short paragraph like the one in my Commentary (160 words) would have provided reporters with sufficient contextual knowledge to avoid this particular line of unjustified sensationalism.
The abstract of Turney’s 2017 article states, “The evidence focuses on the shortage of food at key depots …” The paragraphs below probe how well his article lives up to its abstract.
Before diving into the detail, one naturally asks, “Was the quantity of food allegedly stolen by Evans material to the fate of Scott’s Polar Party?” A high-level approach to answering this question is to investigate whether Scott’s Party was able to stay on full rations throughout, (i.e. to eat as initially planned by Scott), or whether at some point they had to go onto short rations in order to eke out an insufficient quantity of food. My Commentary shows that the party did not go onto short rations at any point whilst returning across the Ross Ice Shelf. Turney has grudgingly accepted my conclusion, stating, “While Mr Alp well may be correct that Scott and his men were not forced to go onto short rations, neither could they draw upon what should have been excess rations.” (Turney, 2019) This means the alleged thefts, if they occurred, had no material impact on the fate of Scott’s Party, which consumed the amount of food that Scott had always intended.
Having established that the amount of food stolen was immaterial or imaginary, I shall now examine the four pieces of evidence’ provided by Turney to justify his claim about Evans’ theft(s):
- Theft at Upper Glacier Depot,
- Theft at Southern Barrier Depot,
- Theft reported by Katherine Scott,
- Theft reported by Oriana Wilson.
Alleged theft at Upper Glacier Depot Turney claims, “But the shortfall in anticipated food happened at least twice. The first occurred on the Polar Party’s return journey at the Upper Glacier Depot on 7 February 1912 (Fig. 2), when the team found a full day’s biscuit allowance missing” (Turney, 2017, p. 505). However, the journals of Scott and Wilson for that day clearly show the shortfall was discovered in the morning, whilst the men did not arriving at the depot until evening.
A wretched day with a satisfactory ending. First panic, certainty that biscuit-box was short. Great doubt as to how this has come about, as we certainly haven’t over-issued allowances. Bowers is dreadfully disturbed about it. The shortage is a full day’s allowance. […] Soon after 6.30 we saw our depot easily and camped next to it at 7.30. (Scott, 2011, p. 393)
We reached the Upper Glacier Depot by 7.30 p.m. and found everything right which was satisfactory, after a breakfast which was give up to a discussion as to the absence of one day’s biscuit. (Wilson, 1972, p. 240)
The first shortfall therefore was detected in their on-sledge biscuit box, managed by Bowers, prior to reaching the Upper Glacier Depot. This does not support Turney’s claim about Evans stealing food from that depot.
Alleged theft at Southern Barrier Depot. The second alleged theft relates to the Southern Barrier Depot, which the polar party reached on 24 February 1912. Scott’s wrote, “Found store in order except shortage of oil – shall have to be very saving with fuel – otherwise have 10 full days’ provisions from tonight …” (Scott, 1911, p. 403) Scott’s recorded 3 days later, “31 days to depot, 3 days’ fuel at a pinch and 6 days’ food.” (Scott, 1911, p. 405) Turney sees this apparent one-day discrepancy as proof of food theft (by Evans), “…they were short of a day’s full rations …” (Turney, 2017, p. 506). However, Scott’s diary says nothing about any shortage. What Turney overlooks is that the entry for the 24th was written at lunchtime and the entry for the 27th after their evening meal, so when Scott wrote “otherwise have ten full days provision from tonight” he was including their evening meal in the count. Scott actually increased their food allowance the next day. When they reached the next depot, they had three days of food rations left. Clearly, there was no food shortage of food at the Southern Barrier depot. Turney is mistaken.
Theft reported by Katherine Scott. Her opinion, recorded by Curzon, was based solely upon Scott’s sledging journals. Turney quotes Curzon, “It appears Lieut Evans – down with scurvy – and the two men with him must on return journey have entered & consumed more than their share.” (Turney, 2017, p. 500) Scott’s journals have been published in full, and have been perused by scholars for over 100 years. I am not aware of any other person making the same interpretation as Curzon. I suggest this part of Curzon’s notes is of no value to Antarctic historians.
Theft reported by Oriana Wilson. Her report, recorded by Lord Curzon, is problematic. Together they claim that an unstated quantity of pemmican was removed from an un-named depot on an unknown date, based on a note in Oriana Wilson’s possession (but not in Wilson’s sledging diary) which she subsequently destroyed. Whilst Turney believes this “… provides a crucial part of the expedition’s story” (Turney, 2017, p. 500), I do not share his belief. There is no supporting information in any other journal. I suggest this part of Curzon’s notes is of no value to Antarctic historians.
All four examples put forward by Professor Turney are deeply flawed. He has not produced a shred of evidence to support his vilification of Evans. My original Commentary stated, “As the article stands, the claim that Evans took food beyond his fair share, to the detriment of the polar party, is unproven. I find Professor Turney’s research supporting this allegation to be incomplete, unbalanced and therefore unconvincing”. (Alp, 2019) Turney’s response to my Commentary does not alter my opinion.
Failure to pass on Scott’s instructions
The abstract of Turney’s 2017 article states, “The evidence focuses on … the failure to pass on orders given by Scott”. This section of my response probes how well his article lives up to its abstract.
Turney makes a bold claim that Evans failed to “act on orders given to him on the Plateau [by Scott on 3 January 1912]” (Turney, 2017, p. 506). He would have the reader believe Scott amended his pre-existing instructions to Atkinson for the dog teams to come out to meet the returning polar party. Turney based his claim upon a single thread of reasoning, originating in Gran’s 1961 book Kampen om Sydpolen, which is not available in English. His article states (Turney, 2017, p. 507):
Whilst no orders were apparently written by Scott for the Last Supporting Party, it does seem they were issued on the journey. By the time the two final parties had reached two-and-a-half degrees north of the Pole, Scott had settled on his plans for the dogs on their third journey. Meeting privately with Evans he sent his second-in-command back and ordered the dogs should return across the Ross Ice Shelf to meet the returning party between 82° and 83° S (Gran, 1961).
I wrote to Turney on 15 October 2017, requesting a translated version of Gran’s text relevant to the alleged orders to Evans, but received no response. In order to make progress I purchased a copy of Kampen om Sydpolen and asked a Norwegian work-colleague to locate and translate to English all paragraphs that mention dogs or Meares. I was expecting to receive something akin to Roland Huntford’s paragraph:
Evans also carried a message from Scott changing the orders for the dogs yet again – for the fourth time. Meares now was to come to out and meet Scott between 82° and 83° S., some time towards the middle of February (Huntford, 1979, p. 457).
Imagine my surprise when my colleague reported that Kampen om Sydpolen contains no such statement. At no point in his book does Gran say that Scott gave orders to Evans for the dog teams.
Turney subsequently commented on this matter in his response to my Commentary, “Mr Alp is correct that the Norwegian does not explicit [sic] describe Scott telling Evans he should send the dogs back across the Ross Ice Shelf during his final meeting with the second-in-command”. (Turney, 2019) In other words, Turney’s 2017 claim of Evans’ disobedience relied upon a non-existent quote – at best misleading, at worst a deceptive practise.
Turney did not explain his reliance on a non-existent quote. Instead, he chose to answer a different question – the wrong question – choosing to provide “statements by Gran that make clear Scott gave orders for the dog teams”.(Turney, 2019) This is not helpful because there has never been any doubt that Scott provided instructions to Meares and to Atkinson about the third dog journey. Scott’s written instructions to Mears appear in both Evans’s book South with Scott and in Wilson’s sketchbook. Atkinson’s short verbal summary of Scott’s detailed instructions appears in Volume 2 of Scott’s Last Expedition.
What I was seeking from Turney was the actual text from Gran’s book, upon which he based the claim that Scott provided Evans with instructions for the team. Turney raised three points in answering the wrong question:
- He referred to a discussion between Scott and Meares on 11 December 1911, the day Meares turned for home. I fail to see how a December discussion could provide details of what would be discussed between Scott and Evans the following month. Whilst an editorial comment ‘[to be led by Evans]’ has been slipped in, Scott did not announce who would be in either support party until well after 11 December. Turney’s first point does not provide any insight into what Scott actually said to Evans on 3 January 1912.
- He then referred to Scott, on 18 February 1912, expecting to be soon met by Meares and the dogs. However, Scott’s journal of 18 February (at Shambles Camp) says no such thing and neither does Wilson’s. One is left wondering about Gran’s source – the men with Scott on 18 February all died on the return journey, so how could Gran know what was in Scott’s mind on that day? Perhaps he was confusing this with his 29 February 1912 discussion with Evans, when Gran said he proposed a rescue party be sent as far as the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. In any event, the second point raised by Turney does not provide any insight into what Scott actually said to Evans on 3 January 1912.
- He then referred to pages 184-185 of Gran’s book, being Gran’s summary of the events of January and February 1912, outlining how those events influenced the third dog journey. Turney fails to mention however that the first paragraph on page 184 refers explicitly to the written instructions issued by Scott to Meares in October 1911, establishing context for what follows. There is no suggestion on pages 184-185 that the 1911 instructions to Meares had been superseded by new instructions to Evans. Failure to mention that Gran was referring to Meares’ original 1911 instructions, rather than implying Gran was referring to the alleged new instructions to Evans, may be at best be seen as misleading, at worst a cunning practise. Turney’s third point does not provide any insight into what Scott actually said to Evans on 3 January 1912.
Turney concluded. “Based on these statements, I do not consider it an unreasonable interpretation that the orders were provided to Evans on the Polar Plateau. Indeed, it is hard to not [sic] to make any other interpretation.” (Turney, 2019) It is clear Turney has not directly addressed the central issue of whether Scott actually provided instructions to Evans for the dog team. In order to show that Evans was disobedient in not relaying instructions, Turney needed first to establish that the instructions existed. He has produced nothing to support his vilification of Evans. Without evidence that Scott instructed Evans about the dogs, Turney’s claims, a ‘house of cards’, collapses.
My original Commentary stated, “As the article stands, the claim that Evans failed to convey Scott’s revised orders is unproven. Verifiable research and analysis would strengthen the claim. I find Professor Turney’s research supporting this allegation to be incomplete, unbalanced and therefore unconvincing.” (Alp, 2019) Turney’s response to my Commentary does not make me alter my mind.
Curzon’s meeting notes
As stated above, Lord Curzon’s notes, which seem to impress Turney as being rather valuable, do not provide any useful or usable evidence about the alleged theft(s) of food by Evans.
One can sympathise with the widows, deep in their grief process (second stage – anger), seeking to apportion blame, but Curzon could be expected to do better. Curzon’s notes might perhaps be more useful in an article about the grief process, as an example of individual and institutional responses to disaster. They are not useful in the current context.
Turney has provided a rambling argument, around the date of onset of Evans’ scurvy, which seems to be circular in nature. A circular argument occurs when the premises presume, openly or covertly, the very conclusion that is to be demonstrated.
Turney begins with a presumption that the guilt-driven Evans decided to create a defence that food theft was justifiable, in order to treat his scurvy. He claims Evans manipulated the timeline for onset of his scurvy so that it aligned with a date when his party reached a depot with alleged food shortages (Southern Barrier Depot). He presents this as proof that Evans stole food. This type of circular argument does not stand up to scrutiny.
It may also be noted that Turney has not proved there was any shortage of food at the Southern Barrier depot (see Alleged theft of food at Southern Barrier Depot, above).
There is also an “elephant in the room” here. Biscuits and pemmican, the foodstuffs Turney claims were stolen, do not contain a significant quantity of Ascorbic Acid and are therefore not an effective treatment for scurvy. It was widely known at the time of the expedition that fresh food was the only effective treatment (remembering this was well before Ascorbic Acid had been identified). Turney produces no evidence that Evans believed biscuits or pemmican could cure his scurvy.
It is clear that Turney has focused on the worst that has been written or can be hypothesised about Teddy Evans. The concept of confirmatory bias comes to mind.
Confirmatory bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This bias leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) they would like to be true. Once they have formed a view, they embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmatory bias suggests that the individual does not perceive circumstances objectively. They pick out those bits of data that make them feel good because they confirm the prejudices. Thus, the individual becomes prisoners of their own assumptions.
- Turney has not provided any proof that Teddy Evans stole food from return depots.
- Turney has not provided any proof that Scott gave instructions for the dog team to Teddy Evans s around 3 January 1912.
- Curzon’s diary notes do not provide any useful contribution to Antarctic history.
Alp, W.J. (2019). Commentary on Chris Turney’s Why didn’t they ask Evans. https://tomcreandiscovery.com/?p=4427
Gran, J.T.H. (1961). Kampen om Sydpolen. Oslo, Norway: Ernst G. Mortensens Forlag.
Huntford, R. (1979). Scott and Amundsen. [Kindle version] Retrieved from www.amazon.com
Scott, R.F (2011). Scott’s Last Expedition, Ware, England: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
Turney, C. S. M. (2017). Why didn’t they ask Evans? Polar Record, 53(5), 498-511
Turney, C. S. M. (2019). Response to Comment by Mr Bill Alp. Retrieved from www.thesouthpole.eu
Wilson E.A. (1972). Diary of the ‘Terra Nova’ Expedition to the Antarctic 1910-1912. H.G.R. King (Ed.). London, England: Blandford Press