Hobbits? No hobbits. Really.

Shortly following my comment on the “debunking” of claims by South African palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger and others that dwarf hominids once existed on the Micronesian island of Palau, I was sent by an internationally-recognised expert in the field a bunch of references and papers concerning Berger’s work.

After reading these papers I am left with no choice but to partially retract my criticism of Scott Fitzpatrick and others who recently damned Berger in very strong terms.

It would seem that Berger has a bit of history when it comes to seeking out the limelight and publishing work that is soon torn to shreds by his peers. This doesn’t explain how Berger manages to get his research results through the peer-review process, and hence into print. But that’s by the bye; let’s just say that the scientist is unpopular with his colleagues, and not just out of jealousy for his fame and funding.

Earlier this year Rex Dalton had an article in Nature that reported on the furore over Berger’s work on Palau. Dalton refers to scientists getting “caught up in the entertainment process”, and how film-making can clash with the slow, rigourous nature of the scientific process. “[D]id entertainment needs in Palau overwhelm the evidence from field research?” asks Dalton, who then goes on to dissect Berger’s relationship with the National Geographic Society, and the nature of the society as both a media empire and sponsor of serious scientific research.

The criticism of Berger in Dalton’s article is mild in comparison with that of an editorial and two book reviews published in 2002 in the South African Journal of Science. Berger’s Official Field Guide to the Cradle of Humankind (Struik, 2002) is, we are told, “fatally marred”, “unfixable”, and epitomises “the peril that palaeoanthropology faces in the new South Africa”. Such was the ferocity and credibility of the attacks that there were calls for the publisher to abandon a second printing.

Here is the University of California at Berkeley’s Tim White commenting on Berger…

“Apparently more fascinated with fame and fortune … than with serious science, Berger has rapidly positioned himself to facilitate the exploitation of South African resources by his network of overseas friends. In this sense, he adopts a model of patronage, publicity, and power that was employed for decades in East Africa and as a result of which Kenyan palaeoanthropology today is but a ghost of what it might have been. Wearing the National Geographic sandwich-board, Berger poses as a South African Leakey, but without the experience, the family history, or the scientific accomplishments.”

And from Berger’s University of Witwatersrand colleague Judy Maguire…

“To conclude, I found the book to be fatally marred: in my opinion it is unfixable. As it stands, it has the potential to blemish and undermine the image and credibility of its sponsors and endorsers as well as that of the University of the Witwatersrand and the Cradle of Humankind itself, to say nothing of the quality of South African science reporting delivered for public consumption. The only salvation would be a complete re-write, with rigourous peer review of each section and the help of a technically competent editor.”

“Loyalty and support for one’s colleagues, however laudable, cannot be given at the expense of personal integrity: not to speak out against this unfortunate book is to commit the perjury of silence.”

So is Lee Berger the scientist equivalent of historian and media tart Niall Ferguson? This is certainly the impression I gain from the words quoted above. I shall leave it to those quoted to do the damning, but the evidence against Berger is there, even if not for all to see. On the one hand we have a photogenic, media-friendly academic, and on the other a bunch of respected scholars, some of whom publish their remarks in obscure publications that hardly anyone reads.

Now I’m sure the South African Journal of Science plays a valuable role in the regional scientific community, but Lee Berger is an internationally-known figure, and criticisms of his work deserve an international airing. Apart from those quoted by Dalton in Nature, the critics have been largely ignored while Berger continues to do his thing with impunity.