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IVORY-BILLS  LiVE???!  ...

=> THE blog devoted to news and commentary on the most iconic bird in American ornithology, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBWO)... and... sometimes other schtuff.

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"....The truth is out there."

-- Dr. Jerome Jackson, 2002 (... & Agent Fox Mulder)

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

-- Hamlet

"All truth passes through 3 stages: First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident."

-- Arthur Schopenhauer

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


-- Fermi's Paradox… The Drake Equation --


Caution:  long-windedness ahead….

Off-and-on I read a fair amount of popular physics, often running across "Fermi's Paradox" along the way.

I've never quite understood how anyone could take such a paradox seriously (or, indeed, how a competent physicist could've concocted it).  And then I suddenly realized why I have this immediate aversion to Fermi's so-called paradox… it parallels somewhat the "paradox" of the Ivory-bill situation!
For those unfamiliar, here's a synopsis of the Fermi case adapted from Wikipedia:

'Fermi's paradox is the seeming contradiction between the probability that extraterrestrial civilizations exist in our galaxy and humanity's lack of contact with, or evidence for, them; the basic argument running as follows:

a) There are billions of stars in the galaxy, billions of years older than our Sun.
b) Some, perhaps many, of these old stars have Earth-like planets suitable for evolving intelligent life.
c) Some of these older civilizations would long before now have developed interstellar travel; a technology Earth is only just now investigating.
d) And once interstellar travel is achieved, the galaxy can be colonized, such that by now we should have had contact.

In short, the Earth itself should already have been visited. Yet there's no convincing evidence of such, nor any confirmed signs of intelligent life elsewhere, even in the more than 80 billion+ galaxies of the known universe. Thus, Fermi's question, 'Where is everybody?'


Or, in a different context, 'Where are those dang Ivory-bills?'

Fermi's Paradox deals with immense distances (and ages) of interstellar space and then makes huge unknowable assumptions about "development" and 'advanced civilizations,' and our own technological capabilities… BUT, perhaps there are 10 extraterrestrials in my living room right now, but due to my limited perception and their superior means they remain invisible to me… seriously, there's no way to know. Fermi's Paradox relies on using our current primitive, myopic knowledge to adjudge the potential of possible lifeforms millions of years ahead of us, about whom we'd likely understand little… 100 years ago what human would've understood the operation of a current-day smartphone?… I can't imagine what all we don't understand of any alien even 10,000 years ahead of us, let alone a million years ahead (...or, as others believe, perhaps every civilization much older than us, has already killed themselves off, as some theorize all advanced civilizations do). The whole matter is a preposterous thought exercise, fraught with pitfalls.

Similarly, at the other extreme, is the Drake Equation, which seems equally ridiculous -- Drake's Equation purports that there are almost certainly 1000s of other intelligent civilizations (in the Milky Way galaxy alone) based on values plugged into a certain contrived equation (though BTW, I don't object so much to the equation itself, but just to the idea that we can accurately determine valid, meaningful numbers to plug into it).

Both Fermi's Paradox and the Drake Equation are the sorts of things one could expect sophomore physics majors to argue over after a Friday night of late beer-imbibing… that professional physicists seriously discuss them boggles my mind. Both are too simplistic, and too chockfull of things unknown.

Anyway, the point is, this situation nicely parallels the Ivory-bill debate in some ways:

In the IBWO case we are dealing, not with vast distances of interstellar space, but great swathes of remote, barely-penetrable earthly groundspace, with beings that, if they exist, are few and far between, and easily missed etc. etc. (you've heard it all before) -- it is not so paradoxical that IBWOs should be exceedingly hard to find, hard to photograph, and hard to document at a level of certainty, anymore than finding alien life, even after decades of high-tech searching, should be easy.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, analogous to Drake's Equation, there is no amount of math or statistics one can slap onto Ivory-bill data (such as it is), that will be tight enough, conclusive enough, to say, "Ivory-bills exist" -- at this point ONLY direct, clear, well-documented, unarguable (and preferably repeatable), photographic evidence of living Ivory-bills will accomplish that… otherwise, the unknowns, the variables, the disputed assumptions and subjective elements whenever "analysis" is required, are too many. I don't make the rules, am just reporting how they seem to have evolved. We need evidence that EVERYbody agrees on, not evidence that requires extensive analysis.

[As a sidenote, there is BTW, one paradox that DOES concern me: it's one thing for humans to have difficulty encountering IBWOs, it's another for non-thinking, non-tiring, 24-hour-working cameras to fail to encounter the bird. Despite 1000's of hours of automatic, remote camera-recording (literally millions of picture frames) from habitat, cavities, and foraging sites that appeared favorable, we have utterly failed, over years, to detect a SINGLE Ivory-billed Woodpecker -- even though these birds must, to exist at all, regularly forage, roost, fly about, breed, etc.  This is the single most devastating result of the entire USFWS/Cornell search -- having said that, I'll quickly add that the cameras (which often malfunctioned, BTW) were used in relatively few areas -- compared to all the suitable habitat available.  Still, cameras were placed where, following much study, the best chance of capturing an Ivory-bill on tape was anticipated -- either Ivory-bills were not there, despite prior alleged evidence that they were, or we humans are bumblingly, mind-blowingly incompetent at ever understanding/predicting this species' behavior (personally, I'm voting for the gross friggin' human incompetence option, but I could be wrong, maybe they aren't there)].

Anyway (getting back on track), "FAV" asks in a prior comment what I think the bird is in Mike Collins' "flyunder" video. The problem with all of Mike's videos (and the "flyunder" clip is one of the more intriguing ones) is simply that the quality is too low. [Mike's own analysis of the "flyunder" clip is here, with the key footage and discussion beginning around the 3:50 mark.]  Mike, FAV, some others think they can draw empirical, analytical conclusions from such graininess; others don't believe the precision required is possible. Strong skeptics would put it simply as, "Garbage in, garbage out." I wouldn't go that far… you can definitely tease information out of garbage, but it tends, of necessity, to be limited and speculative, especially when human subjectivity enters the mix.
So I don't feel as confident about the precise size, features, or even speed of the "flyunder" bird as FAV does.  Even if the white appearance (or is it gray) of the dorsal wing, for example, is real (not some sort of artifact) it is too extensive for an Ivory-bill, so glare or photographic 'bleed' must be involved, but if bleed is involved than how much; 10%, 70%? I don't know all the specifics of the sunlight that day, or angles, or atmospheric conditions, or all the camera specifications, that may have affected filming or the look of a distant fast-moving object. As Donald Rumsfield :-( would say, I don't even know all the things/variables that I don't know. Maybe Mike's analysis is spot-on, but, for plenty of reasons, most folks aren't persuaded.
FAV asks which of 10000 species that bird could alternatively be… I WISH I could glean enough indisputable detail to make a good guess. But if my choices are, it's either an Ivory-bill, or it's one of 9999 other species, including possibly a leucistic individual, then I'm not willing to stake my choice on the former, based on this degree of detail. It's too easy, as optical illusions repeatedly demonstrate (and Sibley of course states), to fool ourselves. (...I happen to think the bird in the Luneau video is most likely an Ivory-bill, but again, based on that clip's poor quality, I'm unwilling to assert with certainty, it's even a woodpecker.)

We all know where Mike stands on his evidence… if he wants it to gain any more traction at this late point he needs to have a reputable but independent party, who hasn't already committed themselves in the IBWO debate, analyze the film clips and reach the same conclusions he has (and publish or post it somewhere)... No one in the broader birding community will assume that I or Mike or FAV are objective or impartial parties at this point on IBWO matters. Serious evidence needs to be looked at by other detached, but competent, third parties, whenever possible; even Cornell and USFWS are largely viewed as tainted in this arena, by now.

Like me, I imagine Cornell continues to receive an ongoing trickle of Ivory-bill "sightings" that are so weak (and sometimes comical) that there is no point in publicizing them and adding to the ridicule that already abounds. Similarly, even if say, Bobby Harrison has had 10 more sightings by now, I suspect he knows he'd be foolhardy to announce it publicly, without photographic evidence, accompanying.
So, I love Mike and FAV's passion and persistence, but they don't seem to understand that we're well past the time when even interesting, tantalizing, intriguing, but ultimately fuzzy evidence requiring interpretation, gets us very far. Collecting, analyzing and discussing grainy evidence is fine, but asserting conclusive results from it, and dissing those with different interpretations, won't fly in today's atmosphere. When/if the species is definitively, conclusively documented, there will be plenty of time for dissing! ;-)
Anyway, while skeptics argue from the Fermi perspective, FAV and Mike argue from the Drake perspective… and the nice thing for me about having them around, is that they make me seem like a moderate!

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