"....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
Thursday, April 15, 2010
-- Rohrbaugh Comments --
Hardly necessary, but another press notice that, barring future leads providing more impetus, Cornell's search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is officially suspended without definitive evidence for the species:
Cornell's Rohrbaugh of course defends the effort made and conclusions reached, (and I do too --- I just find almost indefensible their communication to the public of that effort), and continues to say a text will be published next year summarizing all the data... I'll believe that when I see it.
Even if they were to give it away, which I doubt, it will be worth less than the paper it's written on.
It's a shame that some of the tuition students pay to attend Cornell (and donations from other people) is wasted on such tripe.
I've read with great amusement the last 200 or so posts on "Ivory-Bills Live???!", but it is clear that some of the participants do not understand what constitutes valid evidence in a scientific enterprise, nor do they realize that the continuing controversy over the status of the IBWO is no different than dozens of similar scientific debates in which a new idea has been at first supported by only tenuous evidence. I know that it's asking a lot, but perhaps some reference to things other than birds can help.
Take the first point. Because no single piece of evidence for the existence of the IBWO is indisputable, the skeptics argue that the aggregated evidence is worthless. However, not all science is represented by a chain of logical steps, where the failure of one link breaks the chain. Many generally accepted propositions are supported only by large numbers of individually weak data points.
Consider the expansion of the universe, a generally accepted idea. The experimental basis is simple: more distant galaxies have larger observed red shifts, which are measures of the rate at which our galaxy and the observed galaxies are moving apart. However, the weight of any individual observation of a large red shift is tiny; it just means that a galaxy is moving away from us. Worse, the closest, best observed (not to mention best photographed!) galaxies have small red shifts or even blue shifts (they are moving toward us) because these nearby galaxies' relative motions to our galaxy are larger than the local expansion. It is the fact that essentially all distant galaxies have large red shifts that supports the notion that the universe is expanding, yet individually these galaxies are not well-observed, they are just fuzzy spots whose few photons are fed into a spectrometer.
In contrast, the magnitude of the Hubble constant, which describes the RATE of the expansion and, by extension, the age of the universe, IS the result of a chain of measurements of varying accuracy. Until relatively recently, the weak link was the estimate of the distance to the Hyades star cluster, and the error introduced was so large that the "accepted" value of the Hubble constant gave the age of the universe at 10 billion years, while the age of the oldest stars (whose evolution is well understood) is clearly about 16 billion years! I always thought that this was a problem (!), but it never particularly concerned the astrophysicists, and recent, more highly precise measurements, have resolved the issue.
The fact that there have been numerous visual reports of IBWOs is evidence of some weight, even though it is not indisputable, because the IBWO is a creature that indisputably existed in recent times. (This is what separates these observations from those of bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster.) I do not argue that the evidence is overwhelming or even particularly persuasive, but if someday a hundred or so reports have accrued from people who knew what to look for, while the passenger pigeon (which also has look-alikes) remains essentially unreported, then I would probably conclude that the IBWO is indeed alive. On the other hand, it would be extremely hard to derive the size of the population from such data.
With regard to the second point, the entire flap is very similar to the controversy surrounding Richard Smalley's discovery of buckminsterfullerene (C60 or "buckyballs"), for which he and his coworkers won the Nobel Prize in 1996. Smalley had strong evidence (published in Nature in 1985) that he had preferentially generated SOME 60-carbon molecule by blasting a piece of graphite with a laser, but he had no direct evidence that this molecule actually had the now-familiar soccerball structure that was illustrated on the cover of the journal. At the time, chemists everywhere were carping (both in public and in private -- but there were no blogs then!) that the evidence for this extraordinary claim was grossly deficient, that the molecule must have some other, more ordinary-looking structure, and that only because Smalley was such a big shot that he could publish such a piece of trash in Nature.
The original Smalley data are akin to the photograph by the Project Coyote people, or better, one in which they had nailed a yardstick next to the roost of the blurry bird. They can easily argue that they have a picture of a really big woodpecker, and the "only" question is: Is it an IBWO or the Shaquille O'Neal of pileated woodpeckers? At this point, I'd have to vote for Shaq!
Of course, no one was more aware of the deficiencies of the C60 work than Smalley himself, and in his second paper, he showed that by laser-blasting graphite doped with the element lanthanum (La), he could make a molecule that had the formula C60La, and naturally he proposed that the lanthanum was INSIDE the buckyball. This was greeted with even more howls of disbelief, with the skeptics arguing that this was just a metal atom stuck to a piece of graphite, but one could now see a division between chemists who were thoughtfully critical and those who were unreasonably critical. You see, Smalley also showed that it was necessary to put a lot of energy into C60La, more than enough to break several carbon-carbon bonds, in order to separate the lanthanum atom from the carbon, and this observation is inconsistent with almost any structure other than the soccerball or something very much like it. However, even though the logic was compelling, MANY chemists held out for rigorous structural proof.
The data presented by Cornell are similar in flavor to the second Smalley paper or perhaps slightly less strong. The Cornell analysis naturally points out the features that support the proposition that this is an IBWO, which they also have claimed to have seen, but not photographed, on several occasions. The skeptics simply dismiss the visual observations as mistakes, but they have to work very hard in their analyses of the video to discredit it, and their alternatives are not really satisfactory either. Prior to moving back to Louisiana last year, I was not so happy about the bird in the Cornell video: it's all too easy to imagine these guys rushing to press with a sensational result. But having now watched many pileated woodpeckers in flight with the video in mind, I find it hard to see how an objective person can view the bird in the video as a normal pileated woodpecker. Yes, if one postulates the existence of a pileated woodpecker with abnormal plumage of just the right sort, or if one postulates some specific flight mechanics, one can explain the data, but it is a strain. The balance of probability favors the simpler explanation: this is an ivory-billed woodpecker.
Fortunately, highly controversial proposals attract the attention of many people, and in the case of C60, two chemists who had been working on exotic soots eventually realized that one of their samples, prepared by striking and electric arc between carbon electrodes, had properties consistent with buckminsterfullerene. They were able to purify and fully characterize this material, and when they published their results in 1990, five years after Smalley's initial proposal, C60 became available in essentially unlimited quantities. At that point it became very hard to find people who had been critical of Smalley's initial claims. Most of the skeptics were now saying, "The structure of C60 is just what you would expect, and the only surprise is that chemists hadn't observed it 30 years earlier!" or "What's so special about C60; it isn't good for anything!"
This final stage of acceptance has not been reached with the IBWO, and may never be. It is possible that the bird is extinct. But if it is NOT extinct, it will not be found by people who are sitting on their butts. It takes a bit of romanticism and ambition and luck to find something truly unexpected. Little good comes from criticizing those who have begun such quests, but there is a real risk of discouraging those who have not yet started. As long as the evidence is there for everyone to see, thoughtful people can provide an appropriate level of skepticism without resorting to name-calling.
The point of greatest merit made by the skeptics is that substantial public funds have been diverted for the preservation of IBWO habitat without certain evidence that the bird still exists. While I also do not think that these expenditures are justified, the skeptics clearly believe not only that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", but also that extraordinary actions also require extraordinary evidence to support the need for such action. More to the point, if audible "double knocks" do not constitute evidence of the IBWO, then is the counting of northern spotted owls by their calls a valid exercise? The latter practice, which is just as subject to fraud and error as anything in the IBWO saga, has been used to justify (in part) both draconian federal action and extraordinary economic and human hardship. The preservation of virgin forest is a desirable goal, but the end does not justify the means. Any money spent (or misspent) on the IBWO is trivial by comparison, and as far as I can tell, no humans, at least, have yet been hurt.
If the IBWO is already extinct, it is merely a shame, because the actions that led to its extinction are easily understood, and, as someone else said, forgivable in the context of the time. If the IBWO is not extinct, but its numbers are so few that it extinction is inevitable, then it is a crime, where those bearing the greatest guilt are the skeptics who have denied its existence for most of the last century. I recently made the mistake of buying The Sibley Guide to Birds, not realizing that he did not illustrate those birds that HE believes to be extinct. This is a gross disservice to science. In principle, anyone might be fortunate enough to photograph some "extinct" bird, not knowing what it is. What a shame if someone got a picture of a Bachman's warbler, looked at Sibley's book and concluded that it could be nothing else than an "abnormal" hooded warbler!
The 4096 character limit, of course, is a Google-instituted rule, which serves some purposes, but is annoying.
I think there is pressure in some quarters to apply birding standards rather than scientific standards to endangered species conservation. At the risk of speaking for them, I think the USFWS has approached the ivory-bill matter by asking themselves, “What is the best working hypothesis that accounts for the available data?” That is a scientific standard. It is this same approach that has been used countless times before in evaluating the status of endangered species, many of which are quite difficult to find without a major investment of resources. In my opinion it has served well enough. There was a time when I truly felt a lot of anger toward those who would have us throw away the ivory-bill without a good faith effort to determine if it is still with us. Now it is moot. We can quibble about the effectiveness of search efforts or whether funding has dried up too quickly or too slowly. What is not going to change is that we independents will continue to search and try to obtain clear imagery. And I don’t know, but I suspect that the USFWS will continue to apply scientific standards to endangered species conservation, as it always has.
Haven't you heard, lots of people HAVE found them. Quite a few in fact. Mike Collins has seen several. So did Hill's team, so has Fred Virrazzi, the latter very recently.
So cheer up, no need to worry.
This isn't about science and methodologies and having to find a best fit explanation, it is simply about bird identification and it doesn't work on the balance of probabilities. You betray a lack of knowledge of the subject that would lead to much too ready acceptance of records. It is not enough to accept a double-knock just because owls are recorded in a 'similar' way. It doesn't need 'extraordinary' evidence, it just requires the normal standard of proof - a reliable observation of the bird, sadly now due to the number of erroneous claims, this sighting will need to be duplicated. That means the bird will need to be seen again by other acknowledged competent birders, but as will all mistaken identifications, the bird can mysteriously never be found again.
The best working hypothesis is that the people who have reported them (in an extremely poor fashion it must be said) are, in my opinion, quite clearly unreliable in the field. Not because they have 'seen' an IBWO but because of their tell-tale slapdash approach to the whole thing.
Bill Pulliam comes across as a thorough and competent birder and you can gauge his opinion of the claims listed above from his comments here. We disagree over the Luneau video but in the absence of further evidence in follow up searches, that has become less of an issue these days.
CT - can you stop deriding any point not in support of the world being full of IBWOs as not 'serious'. I would remind you, respectfully, of how the vast majority of knowlegable birders view this site.
I might just add to that, that I'm not in full agreement with Cornell, nor USFWS individuals, nor Bill P., or anyone else associated with "believers" in this debate. I have differences with all of them (occasionally expressed through backchannels and not publicly here). In fact, I'd go so far as to say, I may be truly the most fully scientifically skeptical person in this whole debate, but as you yourself say, this isn't altogether about science, it's about bird identification.
I haven't posted on this topic for a very long time, but I won't let your quote pass without responding.
When you make posts like "Why Skeptics Don't Get It" referring to skeptics collectively as "stubbornly boneheaded" and have a blog called "Ivory-bills LiVE," saying you are "confident of its presence" while deriding those confident it was extinct, you obviously are not "the most fully scientifically skeptical person in this whole debate."
Just a wee bit of narcissism flying around . . . Hey, I'm sometimes guilty of it myself; had to develop this wicked sense of humor to survive (hey, hole-in-the-truth, I hate to encourage you, but if you "Google" up "menudo" you'll understand CT's shot about salsa). Thanks TonyP, BTW, your science lessons (and I'm old enough to remember the original Bucky Fuller) are welcome, and you might get some people thinking, regardless. I hope my stuff was some that at least gave you a giggle or two . . .
Back to the narcissists, with spat saying "The vast majority of birders..."
Shoot, define birders . . . I suggest a birder is someone who says they are, and science and rational reason ain't high on their radar screens... First liar probably doesn't have a chance...
Reminds of the recovery circles I sometimes post in (just my years away from the bars accords me senior statesman status). People are alcoholics when they say they are, and danged if they ain't the biggest bunch of pain-in-the-patooter know-it-alls around, with the newbies among the worst.
I was like them once, only I ran into some "steamroller intellects" like a few who've posted here. Real mean sorts. Only solution was to outlive them, and then quietly admit they were right.
Spat -- I have not actually expressed here a detailed opinion about the quality of Hill et al's evidence, just on the subtext under the "9 pairs" claim. I have said here and elsewhere that I think one of Hicks' sightings is the best of the recent bunch, Arkansas included. His field notes are more detailed and specific, and clearly made promptly after the encounter. He basically documented a sighting of a rare bird as best as one can without any corroborating witnesses or photographs: he described what he felt he saw in detail, and made sketches while his memory was still fresh to clarify his descriptions. What else can anyone do under those circumstances? He, along with many of the initial crop of AR observers, was an established birder with no preexisting credibility problems, post hoc smear campaigns notwithstanding. Opinions may vary on the sufficiency of his details, but there's nothing idiotic, inane, or incompetent about the report. If you will accept no sight records at all, fine, but no need to slander those who produce them. As you should know if you actually do serve on review committees, you are passing judgement on the evidence, not on the observer. It's not personal. Many of the best birders in the land have had records denied by review committees because there simply was not sufficient evidence that could be produced; conversely, some total novices have nailed slam-dunk photos of really good birds.
Cy... come on, get serious here. You've even got me agreeing with Buck Nelson himself on this one. Actually Buck and I agree about a lot of things; just not usually things involving woodpeckers. None of us is completely detached, objective, and 100% rationally scientific. That is just not humanly possible. And in what way is bird identification not science? You have data, you draw conclusions from it, methodologies and standards vary, every step is carried out by fallible emotionally-laden humans. Juts like any other scientific endeavor.
Even though most of what you said is ridiculous, the following statement is the most ridiculous: "The latter practice, which is just as subject to fraud and error as anything in the IBWO saga, has been used to justify (in part) both draconian federal action and extraordinary economic and human hardship. The preservation of virgin forest is a desirable goal, but the end does not justify the means. Any money spent (or misspent) on the IBWO is trivial by comparison, and as far as I can tell, no humans, at least, have yet been hurt."
The feds are certainly a bunch of morons but to say that people have been hurt because of protections afforded to the Spotted Owl and its habitat is simply insane. Human greed is the only thing that has "hurt" anyone due to those protections. There are plenty of trees in the northwest and elsewhere to log without cutting any more old growth.
Yep, that describes all of the "believers".
Surely you jest??
You really are delusional about the IBW and what science should be about.
Do you exist? You can prove it, can't you? Is the evidence of your existence just a working hypothesis in the scientific process? Is your existence certain or probable?
How about the Giant Squid? Does it exist? Is it certain or just probable? Is its existence just a working hypothesis?
How about the Javan Rhino?
And: "I might just add to that, that I'm not in full agreement with Cornell, nor USFWS individuals, nor Bill P., or anyone else associated with "believers" in this debate. I have differences with all of them (occasionally expressed through backchannels and not publicly here). In fact, I'd go so far as to say, I may be truly the most fully scientifically skeptical person in this whole debate, but as you yourself say, this isn't altogether about science, it's about bird identification."
Back channels? Why only back channels? Are you afraid to say it publicly for fear of being banished from The Church Of The Holy Lord God Bird? Come on CT, man up and say it publicly.
You haven't got the slightest idea of what "scientifically" means.
You and others try to make it look like this is all about some "working hypothesis" about a possible life form on a planet in another galaxy, billions of light years from Earth. It's actually about a bird with a 30 inch wingspan right here on Earth. Don't exaggerate or over-complicate it.
Uh, get proof before claiming it?
Who gives a rat's ass what he drew or said or wrote or what his reputation is or was? I saw a 200 foot long pink and blue serpent in a mud puddle in my yard yesterday. It was eating a Great White shark. I wrote it down in detail and even drew a picture of it. I assure you my reputation is solid. That's proof positive of its existence, right? You do believe me, don't you?
And: "If you will accept no sight records at all, fine, but no need to slander those who produce them. As you should know if you actually do serve on review committees, you are passing judgement on the evidence, not on the observer. It's not personal. Many of the best birders in the land have had records denied by review committees because there simply was not sufficient evidence that could be produced; conversely, some total novices have nailed slam-dunk photos of really good birds."
If any "observer" expects others to agree with him/her and take their word for an extraordinary claim, then yes it is personal. When any "observer" with an unproven claim (especially an extraordinary claim) condemns and/or "slanders" others for questioning, criticizing, doubting, or not believing that claim, then yes it is personal.
Yeah, some birders have had their alleged sight reports denied, and rightfully so if they had no proof. And yeah, some novices have nailed slam-dunk photos of some things, so their report is backed up by proof (as long as the photos are genuine), and their report is accepted. What's wrong with that? Should novices with proof be taken less seriously than birders with no proof, especially regarding extraordinary claims?
And: "None of us is completely detached, objective, and 100% rationally scientific. That is just not humanly possible."
While that is true for most, it's not necessarily true for all humans. You actually make it sound as though it's ok to be pseudo-scientific when claiming to be scientific. Excuses, excuses.
If you think Hick's 'field notes' are describing the sighting of a near extinct species to ANY degree of satisfaction, then you are simply wrong.
They are so poor it's literally unbelievable.
What about Hill's evidence?
You didn't sound so sure a few days ago so why not answer the question
directly instead of focussing on one VERY poorly documented sighting by Tyler Hicks?
All those knocky-knocks and kents?
What do ya reckon?
Yes, it's the same profile number, not just a coincidentally similar screen name.
Those who seem overly fixated on badgering me for my own opinions may find them in great detail and excessive length at:
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