"....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.”
"All truth passes through 3 stages: First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident."
-- Arthur Schopenhauer
Sunday, March 12, 2006
-- Think Of It This Way... --
This is a post for the skeptics out there... Suppose you come and tell me you saw a Summer Tanager in your backyard, and I say no you didn't, you saw a Cardinal. Next week you tell me you saw the Summer Tanager again, and I say you're mistaken it was more likely a Cardinal. Eventually you bring me a photograph, I say you doctored it, it was originally a photo of a Cardinal. You bring me a video, I say it was taken in another state, not in your backyard; when your 2 birding friends see it with you, I call it 'groupthink' -- nothing you say or show me can 'prove' you've ever had a Summer Tanager in your backyard -- on the 20th occasion of you're reporting a Tanager, I say, how in the hell can I believe you when you've given me 19 false, mistaken, unconfirmed, or doctored reports in the past. In simplistic terms this is essentially the scenario with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker over decades, earlier unconfirmed reports becoming a priori a basis for discounting future reports. It is nothing less than an unrecognized close-minded form of circular or self-fulfilling-prophesizing, or self-reinforcing groupthink, if you prefer. It's amazing that in popular press skeptics still get away with saying the Ivory-bill hasn't been seen for 60 years when all the evidence indicates otherwise. Again I'll reiterate that the potential damage already done by overblown skepticism (and the stigmatization that follows) far exceeds any potential damage from overblown optimism -- we're talking about the life or death of a species here!
In the meantime, many of those same skeptics will be running around in a few weeks doing "spring bird counts" and generating some of the most wholly imprecise and non-valid data to be published anywhere in biological science. But so be it. (I don't want to get into a debate here about the meaningfulness of notoriously poor-quality single-day count data, but simply find it interesting that skeptics will so persistently aim their scientific guns at Ivory-bill sightings, while giving other common birding activities a free pass.)
On a different note, a BirdForum poster has called attention to the following article on prospects for the Ivory-bill in Alabama:
This is a post for the believers out there... Suppose you come and tell me you saw a Summer Tanager in your backyard, and you and I both know that Summer Tanagers were extremely rare if not extinct in the region where we live. I say that given the rarity of the species and its similarity to the Cardinal I would like something other than an undocumented sight record. Next week you tell me you saw the Summer Tanager again, and I say that I am excited by the possibilities but the implications of the sightings are so large the validity of the sighting has to meet a very high standard. Eventually you bring me a photograph that you say shows a Summer Tanager but it needs a good amount of interpretation (i.e. it is not what one gets when does a Google image search for "Summer Tanager"). You bring me a video and it has the same problems as your photo. I am beginning to wonder what sort of criteria you use for validating your observations but admire your intense interest in the species.
The next thing I know you have gone to the press with an exclusive story of the "rediscovery" of Summer Tanagers, you have set up a way for the public and government to buy your property, all of the property around it and fund you and your friends (who corroborated your sightings) so you can make more detailed observations of Summer Tanagers. Before going public you failed to engage those people or groups who might require additional documentation. The following spring, when your backyard has become the mecca for Summer Tanager fans around the world, you have people looking all over your property and the adjacent property to confirm your observations. Unfortunately no definitive observations are forthcoming. World experts on the Summer Tanager express their doubts about your previous "sightings".
Given the lack of new sightings and reconsideration of the original ones, some people are thinking the "entire exercise may be nothing less than an unrecognized close-minded form of circular or self-fulfilling-prophesizing, or self-reinforcing groupthink, if you prefer". Rather than wanting to entertain the idea that the Summer Tanager is not present in your backyard you point out that it could well exist in someone else's backyard. And you then start to question the integrity and character of those who do not believe your original observations - even though each day that goes by without a corroborating sighting increases the possibility that their skepticism is more appropriate than your optimism.
Or you could think of it some other way.
BTW if you told me the bird in your backyard did not have a crest, and did not have a black face, I will believe you. If you say you saw a red bird, then you're going to have to do better than that.
Even promising medicines that don't pan out are often funded and explored until there's reasonable disproof of earlier promise.
The skeptics don't have to prove anything until they say: "There is no reason to spend money or do searches for an IBWO." Or they say:
"Stop trying to help a bird we've proven doesn't exist".
Then there is a standard of proof.
Again, it's possible all these experts including field experts could be ALL wrong in ALL their sightings. But I don't think it's my position to stomp my feet and
demand they stop what they're doing
because I was not there when the
alleged IBWOs were sighted.
Come on, Paul. Making an obvious reductio ad absurdum argument is not going to raise the level of discussion. If the researchers had simply said they thought the species existed and wanted more funds to look for it then the issues would be entirely different. The reason people are now skeptical is that the researchers are saying that unidentifiable black and white spots on a grainy video are the biggest conservation story in the last half century and in need of major funding from a decreasing supply of funding. No one is stomping their feet and demanding someone stop searching. And certainly no one is doing that because they were "not there when the alleged IBWOs were sighted". No one needed to be there because the researchers came back with video. And as a result the world now knows that black and white spots still exist in areas where they were formerly thought to be extinct.
w.r.t the video, I sort of agree. But again, I wasn't there when the video was shot even though I see the canoe occupant looking right at the bird.
My whole point is you don't know what any of these people saw or didn't see.
Are you arguing Cornell should have
waited until incontrovertible evidence was obtained? And that they should have proceeded with an unfunded search. Maybe give 2 professors a sabbatical and hope for the best? Would anyone have believed them if they said... "we think a few of us have seen the bird?" Could they find the bird
by repeating the usual and sending
a pair of ornithologists into the swamps?
When researchers think they have a cancer drug, they apportion funds to prove it through many phases of testing. Maybe they saw the Luneau bird when it flew and thought it was an IBWO.
Maybe they caught the jizz of the bird. Some bad/wrong evidence doesn't mean all the evidence is wrong even if it does point to lapses in scientific rigor such as the 6-pixel bird theory. Maybe I'm not as indignant as I should be?
I just see the skeptic camp congealing into rigidity.
There seem to be fewer skeptics who still want searching to continue.
But they don't first claim they've cured cancer and then frantically try to find a cure with the funds that are then granted to them.
I saw the the video, and thought, hmmmmm.
Then, I heard the ARU recordings, and thought, uh oh!
So, I researched the IBWO phenomena further, and found claims of recent sightings from throughout the species' former range and beyond it, such as Indiana and Ohio. Population estimates of >100. I thought... This is getting a little on the fringe.
Am I worried about several million tax dollars spent on searches and land acquisition/management on something that may not exist? No. Even though I hope the IBWO exists, I am still not going to fret over the money if it doesn't. It's a mere drop in the bucket of the Federal budget. Buy some acres here, buy some there, put some money in long-term management. Sounds O.K. to me.
What if you, yes YOU, saw the bird.
And from the jizz, from the way it moved, from that 3-10 second glance that separates a Connecticut Warbler from a Common Yellowthroat ... YOU might think the bird was rediscovered.
You wouldn't have doubts at least at first. You would think the bird was there. If everyone in, say, your office, or your house, thinks they saw the bird, separately or otherwise, then
Cornell is acting on the presumed validity of their own, and other visual sightings. I don't see where that was done in bad faith.
Now once the ball got rolling, they may start to realize that they
ALL might have been fooled but by that time, the thing was rolling like a juggernaut. Again, I didn't see what these people saw.
Such an experience is somewhat
ineffable. I just don't feel I'm in such a strong position to second guess just because they
didn't see the actual big white bill. I don't have this indignance towards Cornell's actions.. at least not yet.
I heard people saying.. I can see
that the guy looking at the bird
from the Canoe in the Luneau
video wasn't looking at the bird.
How can they tell?
Being able to admit that one's first opinion on something was wrong is typically looked on as a sign of character. It takes a great deal of character for such an admission when it results in a loss of status or income. The magnitude of the "rediscovery" was such that any "on further review" statements from the principals will be especially hard on them and their followers, but may need to be made if preserving their credibility is as important to them as preserving nature.
Given the amount of PR and money these pillars of the conservation community have been able to scare up, anyone with a conservation issue should now feel there is no evidence too shaky for use in trumpeting one's cause.
But perhaps they are so caught up
in the search now and maybe they have less skepticism too. Maybe they are a lot more sure because of their "visual" experiences. Accurate or not, they've been "evangelized" by
seeing a black bird that seemed to have white on its back. It's like they've seen God, if you will.
I'm trying to get into their mindset.
They may feel that they have "born-witness". It's a holy, transcendent experience to them.
If they're wrong, they'll come down to reality but probably they will be the last ones to do so.
Does anyone really know the answer?
For some it's probably extant and needs to be given the benefit of the doubt. For others, extinct until proven otherwise. And for some, it's both.
Links to this post: