Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/May 1899/The Bering Sea Controversy Once More


MR. CLARK'S interesting and, on the whole, fair review of my article on Expert Testimony in the Bering Sea Controversy, printed in this journal in 1897, might be allowed to stand, without comment, as the best possible vindication of the work of the Bering Sea Commission of 1891-'92, and as strong corroborative evidence of the soundness of the position taken in the article referred to. One or two quotations which he makes, however, are placed in such relation to other parts of the paper as to imply meanings which a reading of the article as a whole will show were never intended. This is notably true of the description of the frame of mind in which a scientific man should approach or conduct any investigation, which Mr. Clark quotes, and the further statement that, unfortunately, he often fails to come up to the standard set, and especially when his own interests are involved.

It might easily be inferred that these remarks were meant to have special application to the members of one or both Bering Sea commissions, while as a matter of fact they were a part of the general introduction, occurring some time before any reference is made to the commissions. I should greatly regret having any one understand that there was the slightest intimation of the existence of a "handsome retainer," or anything of the sort, in connection with any or all of the Bering Sea investigations.

As far as the American representatives on the first commission are concerned, it is no harm to say that the pecuniary residual was unfortunately affected by the wrong sign, and this was doubtless the case as well with Dr. Jordan and his colleagues.

As to the truth of the statement regarding the "scientific expert," no evidence need be offered here, for it is furnishd by every court in the land, and not a day passes that does not witness a struggle between "experts" who have nearly always started from the same premises, but whose conclusions are diametrically opposed to each other. What I do want to say is that this is quite consistent with the perfect honesty and good intent of the experts themselves. It is the result of the limitations to which the operations of the human intellect are still subjected, and it is a fact always to be reckoned with in matters of this kind. There should be no skepticism as to the honesty and frankness of Sir George Baden-Powell and Dr. George M. Dawson in assuming an attitude so opposed to that of the American commissioners in 1892.

Mr. Clark regards my article of 1897 as a "prediction of failure for the new commission," an assumption quite unjustified and unsustained by the article itself, in which the fullest recognition is shown of the great value of the work of Dr. Jordan and his colleagues. Indeed, the article was purposely prepared and published before the meeting of the second commission, that it might not seem to be in any way a criticism upon its work. Now that both commissions have made public their findings, the whole matter is easily accessible, but Mr. Clark is hardly just to the first commissioners on either side, by the slight reference he makes to their separate reports to their respective governments. A more careful study of both might have led to some modification of his views, even concerning the partition of authorship which he has ventured to make. It is no mean compliment, however, to find him admitting, in regard to the report of the American commissioners, that "not a single statement of fact in it has proved fallacious, and the more exhaustive investigations of 1896 and 1897 corroborate its conclusions in every particular." And this admission lies adjacent to his assertion that "the investigations conducted by the two commissions [of 1891] were, from a scientific point of view, of the nature of a farce." The fact is, Mr. Clark seems to have strangely misunderstood the character of the investigations which were contemplated and desired. The natural history of the fur seal was not the question submitted to the joint commission, except in so far as it specially affected seal life in Bering Sea and the measures necessary for its proper protection and preservation.

"Facts, causes, and remedies" were the subjects to be considered. There is an old saying that the flavor of the pudding may often be revealed by chewing the string, and no long and exhaustive investigation was necessary to enable the American commissioners to arrive at what Mr. Clark admits to be the "facts, causes, and remedies" for the Bering Sea problem. Not many weeks were occupied in the field, it is true, for the commission was delayed in its appointment and notification, and the season was nearly over when it reached the islands. But, as Mr. Clark justly remarks, one member of the commission, Dr. Merriam, was already exceptionally well informed concerning the habits of the fur seal, and some things may be so in evidence that even a physicist can see them.

It is true that the joint report of the commission of 1891-'92 was meager, and the explanation lies close at hand in the unwillingness of the American commissioners to swerve from what they were convinced was absolutely true. Mr. Clark will look in vain for the "handwriting of diplomacy mingled with that of science," for the appearance of which in the report of the commission of 1897 he offers apologies, except, indeed, it be the diplomacy of going straight at the facts without concealment or evasion, on which Americans have sometimes prided themselves.

The joint report was limited to that, and only that, on which the commissioners were actually agreed, and the American commissioners have explained in their separate report that had they been willing to concede certain points the joint report would have been greatly augmented in volume. Mr. Clark has reviewed the conclusions of the commission of 1897, which he justly considers a most important and valuable document. It has not escaped his attention that in a number of the paragraphs of this report the American commissioners have committed themselves to the approval of several doubtful statements, such as that "the pelagic industry is conducted in an orderly manner, and in a spirit of acquiescence in the limitations imposed by law"; that a certain number of females may be killed without involving the actual diminution of the herd; the "tendency toward equilibrium theory"; that the herd is still far from a stage that threatens extermination, and others. These statements he excuses as "balm for the wounded feelings of the pelagic sealer"; "a concession to diplomacy"; "a diplomatic concession to take the sting out of the real admission"; "another concession to diplomacy," etc. I do not wish to be understood as questioning the necessity or wisdom of inserting these paragraphs in the joint report, but is it not a little strange that with them. in, and apologizing for them as he does, Mr. Clark should have selected this as a model of what the report of a scientific commission ought to be and sufficient of itself to forever fix the value of the scientific expert in the settlement of government disputes? As I have already intimated, no one appreciates more highly than I the great work done by Dr. Jordan and his associates in the study of the natural history of the seal. May not the work of the two commissions, as bearing on the problem of the fur-seal industry be summed up about as follows?—The report of the American members of the first commission related facts, declared causes, and proposed remedies. The American case at the Paris arbitration rested on these. As almost universally happens, arbitration resulted in compromise, unsatisfactory to both parties, and, as has since turned out, decidedly unfavorable to one. The commission of 1897 has made a joint report of considerable length and much importance, in which the "facts, causes, and remedies" of the report of 1892 are in a sense confirmed, but with a number of concessions that do not strengthen the American contention regarding pelagic sealing, the justice of which seems to be admitted by Mr. Clark. But the practical question is, What has been the effect of either or both of these commissions upon the fur-seal industry? It would be unkind to press this question upon one who characterizes the work of the first commission as above quoted, and who speaks of the second as having, after being in joint session one week, "concluded its labors, reaching a full and satisfactory agreement." If he really wishes to know what progress is being made under such an agreeable state of affairs, let him inquire of the International Joint Commission, which is endeavoring to arrange all outstanding differences between this country and Canada.