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The Polar Controversy between Frederick Cook and Robert Peary (June 2021): Conclusion: Why Is the Polar Controversy Important?

by Robert M. Bryce

Conclusion: Why Is the Polar Controversy Important?

Richard Sale’s conclusion that “no one will ever know for certain” whether Cook or Peary, “if either, was telling the truth,” is not a practical standard in examining any historical incident involving conflicting, unwitnessed accounts. Instead, the judicial standard of establishing something beyond a reasonable doubt is far more appropriate, and the evidence available since the opening of each explorer’s personal papers adequately conveys that both of their claims were deliberate hoaxes. Nevertheless, there are those who have championed each explorer’s claim over time, hoping to see the proper man receive credit as a matter of justice, and some who continue to do so today.

At first glance, who first reached the North Pole might seem a matter of little consequence, but a thorough study of the Polar Controversy suggests matters of greater import. Upon closer scrutiny, it can be seen as a case study in human belief, the psychology of what humans call truth, and the impossibility of discerning truth once personal devotion, that most powerful and indestructible of human motives, takes hold. In such instances, personal credibility becomes bound with belief to the point where admitting to having sincerely believed a lie becomes a personal impossibility, despite all evidence to the contrary. This tenacity of belief leads to side choosing, which drives such important human activities as tribalism, religion, politics, and, ultimately, the writing of history. Thus, a matter of seemingly little consequence—who first stood at the exact spot of the North Pole—that has no physical reality but is only an abstract notion in people’s minds, becomes a useful exploration of that terra incognita that is still more remote than the North Pole ever was—the inner workings of the human mind itself.

Though the accounts documenting the history of the Polar Controversy have varied in merit, objectivity, and factual reliability, each presents something of use for delving deeper into the controversy and better understanding how perceptions of it have changed over time. By reading through the sources discussed here, readers can witness for themselves how the discourse has at times changed with the revelation of new evidence and at other times remained static out of devotional adherence to each explorer’s legacy.