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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.

Web ivorybills.blogspot.com

"....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

Monday, August 13, 2007


-- Where's Heisenberg When We Need Him --

Geee, how 'bout we discuss the Luneau video for a change ; - ) ...

Mike Collins, re-analyzing the Luneau video, found himself critical of Cornell's interpretation of the first few frames (bird behind the tree trunk prior to take-off). A bit paradoxically he still believes the bird is an Ivory-bill based on the flight frames, but seems more in accord with the Sibley/Bevier et.al. interpretation of the initial few frames (if I understand him right). See his Aug. 9/10 entries here:


I believe his point about the geometry of the bird behind the trunk is interesting, but not conclusive, given that we simply can't know how the bird's body and feet are truly positioned for the split seconds captured. The Cornell interpretation would be difficult were the bird actually perched stationarily, but with it being in rapid motion, odd things can happen and the possibilities greatly widen. Still, it has always troubled me that the bird's head is never seen in that opening sequence as one might expect given the pose that Cornell argues for. In fact regardless of the bird's posture, it is odd that we don't see it's head peek around the tree trunk in typical woodpecker fashion just prior to fleeing approaching humans (or have we already missed the 'quick peek' by the time the video captures the tree?).

As I've contended before, without seeing that head or feet (
nor do we know the topography of the backside of that trunk) there is no definitive way of knowing that the bird is actually even perching on the trunk and thus a woodpecker. This may appear the highest probability but is simply not a certainty. And, if it is a woodpecker, there remains no definitive choice between IBWO, normal Pileated, or leucistic PIWO, just a stream of ultimately subjective analysis/judgments being made and passed off as "conclusive," which they are NOT. In the end, the best the PIWO-proponents can say is that a PIWO-interpetation is possible, and Pileateds have higher probability. There is NO MORE certainty here than with the sighters' claims of certainty that they saw an Ivory-bill, and the skeptic's ad hoc dismissal of such (full of conjecture but devoid of solid evidence of lying or mistaken ID). Unfortunately, we aren't dealing with rocket science here, just birding and field biology, both of which lack precision.

When all is said and done, it won't make a speck of difference what the Luneau bird is in regards to the Ivory-bill's potential existence in the Appalachicola, or Atchafalaya, or Pearl, or the Pascagoula, or Escambia, or Congaree, or Suwannee, or Altamaha, or Yazoo, or Big Cypress, or Green Swamp, or...or...or... Even if we knew for certain there were no IBWOs in the Big Woods or the Choctawhatchee that concludes nothing about other locales.
The vast majority of woodland birds go unseen and the vast majority of habitat goes unbirded most of the time. The way to argue that the Ivory-bill is extinct is not to spend hours debating 4 seconds of videotape, but to wait for humans to search 100's of thousands of acres of potential habitat and come up empty-handed; that will take time and money, and cynics have only themselves to blame that it wasn't done 40-50 years ago when it would've required far less of each. Meanwhile, as it is now being done, sightings continue to trickle in.

Sometimes I think all field biologists (or really all scientists) should be forced to study some of the work of Cantor or Godel or Schrodinger or Heisenberg, to better understand how uncertainty underlies all science, logic, and reason. Detachment and open-mindedness are required to grasp much of that uncertainty. And we are well passed the point of detachment or open-mindedness in the Ivory-billed debate. The insistent certainty of some skeptics, upon matters they can't possibly be certain of, is astonishing, to the point that any small piece of evidence put forth is quickly savaged in some quarters before thorough review. This is to real science what the Taliban theocracy is to democracy. In the end, real and patient science will win out (for one side or the other), but how long that will take remains in question.

As to the frequent concern voiced over other conservation projects being hurt by money going to IBWO searches, a simple suggestion: by far the single greatest peril to conservation on this planet is human population and longevity. I suggest those so very deeply concerned with this matter pledge to never have more than two children and agree to be euthanized by the age of 55. If everyone would do such it would (literally) do more for long-term conservation than all the piecemeal projects funded by Congress (...any takers?). Or alternatively, we can simply slash the billions spent on medical research and treatment to prolong human lives and move those dollars to conservation purposes... but only if you're serious.

And to end on a cheerful(???), forward-looking note, at some point we'll have the Auburn video to debate tirelessly 8 - ((( ... and soon --- prepare to celebrate!!! --- Karl Rove will be out of the White House (and possibly on the road in key states rigging more voting machines... but hey, I'm not certain about that).
As a chemical physicist, Stanford PhD, deeply schooled in the ways of quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle, I can assure that you can't be further from the mark about the idea that ignorance of uncertainty is what leads people to doubt the ongoing existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

I think that a level-headed analysis of the data and uncertainties is exactly what leads people to conclude that the bird has been extinct for over 60 years. Why you would propose the opposite is entirely unclear to me.

Yes, nothing is ever certain in science. (This uncertainty is, however, completely different from the type of uncertainty that is so elegantly quantified in quantum mechanics.) Theories and models are always subject to modification based on new evidence. I find that I am in good agreement with you about the state of the video, photographic and audio evidence for the presence of the ivory-billed woodpecker -- it is quite unconvincing. Where we seem to differ is the value we place in the subjective observational experience of a few individuals.

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has based their backing of claims of the rediscovery on the documentary evidence (like a scientist should). This documentary evidence, we both agree, is suspect. Non-faith-based scientists conclude that there is no strong evidence for the presence of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Without such evidence, the conclusion of the long extinction of the species is simple and clear.
yes, the "uncertainty" I'm referring to is more typically the mathematical uncertainty of Godel and not quantum uncertainty -- I tossed Heisenberg into the mix just because his name is more familiar to most people than the other 3 folks, and in a general abstract sense it still gets at the same point: we CAN NOT know things with certainty even when we think we do. If current evidence for the IBWO is weak that is not a reason to ASSUME it is false and drop all efforts (and some of us think the evidence is weak on BOTH sides); it is a reason to encourage people to gather more evidence for either side they are on; the only way to do that is with thorough searches of various locales. And with so much at stake one hopes to err on the side of the species and not make a premature judgment. If skeptics want to say they 'believe' the IBWO is extinct I'm ok with that, but when they say the IBWO IS extinct, they're not talking science. Or as Sagan so (over)simply put it, "absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence".
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