"....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, June 22, 2008
-- Anecdote/Antidote --
boring post ahead...
S'pose John Q. Birder is assigned section 3 of the Smithville spring bird count circle. He records, among other things, 1 barred owl, 2 pileated woodpeckers, 5 wood thrushes, 7 house wrens, 16 cardinals, 38 starlings, 90 cedar waxwings, 200 chimney swifts, and a partridge in a pear tree (...okay, scratch that last entry). Of course, this is pure anecdotal data, barely worth the paper it's recorded on according to some folks' criteria. So s'pose the next day, to confirm these shaky findings, a team is sent out running transects of the same area, but only recording as REAL scientific data those birds that are captured on film. Would the second 'scientific' study bear the same results of John's initial count data or differ markedly? It certainly could differ very markedly --- resulting in much lower bird counts (for several species) if only photographic/physical evidence is accepted, and all other sightings/auditory detections discarded. DUHHH!!
This is part of the problem with a study (of anecdotal evidence) from last month making the rounds. It employs subtle tautological reasoning sometimes typical of field ecology and even medicine, the authors having essentially assumed in advance the truth of assumptions (that anecdotal evidence is weak) employed to reach their conclusions (that anecdotal evidence is weak). No doubt these same authors (like everyone else) accept anecdotal evidence in innumerable circumstances when it suits their purposes, but in the case of rarities the double-standard rears its head, and things change ostensibly for the sake of 'science.'
The accuracy and correctness of 'scientific' analyses (which can be fallible) is presumed over the fuzziness of anecdotal data (though it can be spot-on). If anecdotal evidence were automatically weak and imprecise, and 'scientific' findings empirical and accurate, then when the two differ, one would naturally accept and act upon the scientific analysis. The problem is that LOTS of 'scientific' analysis IS also remarkably weak, biased, incomplete, and/or methodologically flawed, while anecdotal reports (which must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis) can on occasion be quite accurate. "The illusion of reality" the authors refer to can stem as easily from supposed 'science' as from anecdotal reports. (And heaven forbid if anecdotal and 'scientific' evidence are ever in general agreement with one another --- I s'pose then the scientific data must come under great suspicion ;-)
In regards to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker the question is not whether-or-not 100's of anecdotal reports over decades accurately reflect the range and population of the species. The critical scientific question remaining open is more basic: are there 0 Ivory-bills, or 1+ Ivory-bills, in existence at the present moment (and have doubters been wrong for 60+ years)? The authors offer no evidence pertaining to that question. The way to get that evidence is to do the searches now underway (which cost money), which have never been done before and are a part of science. Moreover, somehow the authors fear that as a species grows rarer, it is guaranteed to generate continual (even increasing) false reports... in which case I s'pose by now we should be inundated with false reports of pterodactyls, or at least passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews.
The authors' primary concern, once again, is actually the allocation of funds, and I don't even have great qualms overall with the position they advance... but to the extent that the paper purports to report real scientific knowledge about circumstances for the 3 species reviewed (wolverine, fisher, IBWO) I do have concerns about that depiction of certainty.
Finally, in their last paragraph they bring up the "precautionary principle" in conservation, more-or-less admitting it is prudent and good (to act upon possibilities while awaiting further scientific data), but dismissing it as "policy" and not "science." The reason it is prudent though, is precisely because ecological science can be weak and sloppy (THAT is, in part, what makes the precautionary principle "prudent"). In the instance of the Ivory-bill, anecdotal evidence is so widespread, across so many years, and circumstances, and individuals, that 'prudency' should take sway until stronger, more complete science is gathered (the delusion is that such science was gathered in the past when it is only just now being done).
In short, prudency ought precede science, not the other way around (...i.e., in the global warming controversy, it is prudent to make changes now without waiting for the science debate to definitively conclude, by which time it may already be too late). And for those who feel the IBWO efforts are playing out at the expense of other worthy projects, well frankly, that is how virtually ALL Government expenditure works (doesn't make it right, but means the IBWO situation is not exceptional --- every Gov't. expense could, in someone's mind, be better spent on something else).
No doubt funding for the IBWO endeavor is already diminishing even as we await a summary of sightings claims from the previous season (and again, I'd contend it is sightings, and not sounds, signs, nor other analysis that is paramount here). Despite the many man-hours spent, the number of credible sightings actually seems to be declining, or at best staying level as time goes on --- this is not a good sign given the amount of time and number of people involved, but at least it runs counter to the skeptics' assumption that further time and effort in the field automatically guarantees more sightings (false positives). Only a few individuals have reported more than one visual encounter with the birds, and the sparseness of sightings (and difficulty of finding/photographing) largely meets with expectations for a very rare flying creature over expansive habitat. As a practical matter though that sparseness (and lack of photography) after a couple years will lead to the reduction of funding ahead as patience wanes. Science is working as it should. What would not be adequate science is sending a lone graduate student into the wild to gather this same info and assume his conclusions either thorough or definitive.
Speaking of birds....
Three guys died in an accident and went to heaven. When they got there, St. Peter said, "We only have one rule in heaven. Don't step on the ducks!"....yes, assumptions are what it's all about.
So they enter heaven and sure enough, there are millions of ducks all over the place. It was almost impossible not to step on a duck and though they tried their best to avoid them, the first guy accidentally stepped on one.
Along came St. Peter with the ugliest woman the man had ever seen. St. Peter chained them together and said, "Your punishment for stepping on a duck is to spend eternity chained to this ugly woman".
The next day, the second guy stepped accidentally on a duck and along came St. Peter, with another extremely ugly woman. He chained them together with the same admonishment as the first.
The third guy observing all this and not wanting to be chained for all eternity to an ugly woman, was very careful where he stepped. He managed to go for months without stepping on any ducks. Then one day, St. Peter came up to him with the most gorgeous woman he'd ever laid eyes on and chained them together without saying a word.
Grinning, the guy remarked, "I wonder what I did to deserve being chained to you for all eternity?"
She replied, "I don't know about you, but I stepped on a duck!"