"....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, January 27, 2011
-- Scott Crocker Interview --
Time for another IBL interview, this time with producer/director of the independent film "Ghost Bird," Scott Crocker. Most readers here are by now probably familiar with this award-winning documentary, even if you haven't had a chance to see it yet. I actually emailed Scott these questions some months back, but probably wouldn't change them much if I were doing the interview anew today. His answers are both interesting and sometimes provocative. Enjoy....
1. CT: Although your film, "Ghost Bird," shows both sides of the IBWO story, I think it leaves the impression that you lean toward the belief that the original claims were mistaken/overblown, and the Ivory-bill is most likely now extinct. Is that a fair summary of your current viewpoint?
SC: I originally set out to make a film that explored both sides of the debate more fully and left the viewer to wrestle with the uncertainty of the Ivory-bill's continued existence. The further I got into the project however, this intention changed to reflect a more skeptical point of view. The main reason for this was the uncooperativeness of Cornell in not allowing their search team staff and associated recovery participants to be interviewed. Their circle of control widened out to individuals who were not employed by Cornell but were under their immediate influence.
Obviously, this limited who I could interview and which perspectives I could include in the film. As time passed, there was a broadening of the debate between believers and skeptics, and as passionately as it was argued by both sides within the birding community, this heated discussion didn't really travel beyond the birding world. My conversations with non-birders left me with the impression that while most folks had heard about the rediscovery of an extinct woodpecker, they were unaware that the rediscovery had been contested by other scientists and birding experts. Furthermore, people often attributed evidence to the rediscovery that had not been obtained, like clear photographs or roost holes with feathers or eggs in them. Since the confirmation of the Ivory-bill's existence carried more popular weight than the criticism of the evidence, the more skeptical perspective that Ghost Bird ended up having seemed to right the imbalance. Based on the general feedback I have heard from viewers, the film achieves this delicate balance.
On a related note, I am often asked what I think about the bird's existence. While I did a lot of poking around and had lengthy conversations with many of the better informed people chasing Ivory-bill's, I think the question misses the mark. Whether I think it is or isn't alive doesn't mean very much. The more central question that I believe the film raises for viewers is whether the search beginning in 2004 compromised the scientific method in its effort to confirm the species persistence. My personal answer to that question is "yes". That still leaves open the question as to whether the bird was seen flying through the Bayou DeView. Without irrefutable evidence to support the alleged sightings, only the eye-witnesses have an answer to that. The rest of us are left choosing between believing that they saw an Ivory-bill, or not. Unfortunately, no matter how you look at it, that is a choice of faith not science.
2. CT: Were there any individuals who you really wished to interview or otherwise include in the film who refused to participate, and can you say why they chose not to take part?
SC: While there are many people I wanted to interview for the film, most of them originally agreed to participate. It was only after agreeing to being interviewed that they retracted their consent. In the case of Cornell search leader Martjan Lammertink, his consent was retracted for him by the Lab of Ornithology's Director of Communications. Needless to say, that set a strong precedent with respect to the Lab's position on my interviewing their people. As I previously mentioned, the Lab exerted its influence over numerous others beyond just the individuals who had signed non-disclosure agreements with them. This sounds like paranoia or a conspiracy theory, after all we are talking about scientific research and a major university, both of which we expect to meet our expectations of openness and inclusiveness. However, my experience has been corroborated by both a senior editor and a writer at Science, the same publication that originally published Cornell's confirmation paper. The bottom line is that individuals who had agreed to be interviewed were coerced not to participate.
This leads one to ask why would the Cornell Lab of Ornithology do this? What is most telling is that most of the interview denials happened in 2005, before the public skepticism had really galvanized. My sense is that initially, the Lab's exclusivity and control of access to people and information was driven by their understandable desire to keep the story from being scooped. After all, they immanently anticipated finding an active roost hole and photographing Ivory-bills at close range. As the months flew by, their coercive behavior looked more and more defensive. After several search seasons ended empty-handed, their controlling behavior appeared more like damage control.
While it may sound shocking, I have spoken with a number of people who work in academia that say Cornell is hardly alone in this kind of activity which is becoming increasingly common as research funding gets tighter and the race to publish accelerates. Sadly, science takes a back seat.
3. CT: Were there certain people whose views you found particularly convincing and well-thought-out among all those you interviewed?
SC: Everybody I interviewed had something to offer so it is hard to single anyone out. I especially appreciated David Luneau's contributions. As someone who has searched for Ivory-bills for over a decade, both independently and with Cornell, he was able to put a lot into perspective. He is also really methodical and was possibly one of the most thoughtful scientists involved with the searchers. Where others were quick to express optimism, David seemed to maintain a healthy degree of open mindedness. Jerome Jackson has also been a great resource and was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge. This is nicely illustrated by one of the nine extra scenes included on the DVD where Jerome leads a tour of his collection Ivory-bill memorabilia. It's truly astonishing and a reminder both of the profound legacy of the Ivory-bill and the tragedy of its demise as a species.
4. CT: Have you been at all surprised by the success and positive reviews of "Ghost Bird," or did you reasonably expect that it would strike a chord with viewers?
SC: I knew the birding world was fascinated by this subject, but my decision to make the movie was based on my I belief that the story of the Ivory-billed woodpecker had an important environmental message for everyone. The bird is iconic in its own right but it is also emblematic of other species that have needlessly gone extinct or had their populations severely reduced. What I was not sure of was whether I could tell the story in a way that would successfully resonate with a wider audience. Having poured five years of my life into Ghost Bird, I am incredibly grateful for the positive reviews that indicate I accomplished this. It is professionally very validating to have one of the more demanding critics at the New York Times write that the film is "a multilayered story that will fascinate practically everybody."
5. CT: In the making of "Ghost Bird" was there any one thing that stood out for you as the most surprising or unexpected element/occurrence that you hadn't foreseen?
SC: The most surprising thing I discovered while making the film had to do with the way government funds for searching for Ivory-bills had been robbed from grants to protect endangered species like Kirtland's warbler. This struck me as a disturbingly cynical way of celebrating the rediscovery of a species already believed extinct. Unfortunately, it also made a lot of sense given the Bush Administration's lip service with respect to environmental issues while at the same time it was de-listing species or increasing tolerance levels for toxins. In keeping with this underhandedness, I found it appropriately ironic when Gale Norton, who first announced the Ivory-bill's rediscovery, left her position as Secretary of the Interior to work as legal consul for Shell Oil. It's a slippery slope!
6. CT: A real hypothetical here: IF, in the next year say, the Ivory-bill was once-and-for-all documented to EVERYONE'S satisfaction, would you do some sort of follow-up to the story? Either another film or re-release of "Ghost Bird" with new material added?
SC: At this point I feel like the film does a really good job of chronicling the arch of the story beginning with the announcement all the way through to the loud silence of the inconclusive end to the search. It is an important time capsule. Were the bird to be irrefutably documented tomorrow, that would definitely upset the thrust of the movie which is fundamentally about uncertainty. In a strange way however, the current film would then become more about its own uncertainty rather than our collective uncertainty, which is still a powerful and profound message in an age of overwhelming information masquerading as knowledge. That said, it would be very tempting to do an epilogue for the next printing of the DVD.
7. CT: For fans, when will the film be out for purchase on DVD?
SC: The DVD is now available with forty minutes of extra scenes at www.ghostbirdmovie.com. We also have a cool Ivory-bill t-shirt that collectors and fans of the contemporary artist Mark Dion will love.
8. CT: What project(s) are you working on now?
SC: Believe it or not, Ghost BIrd still takes up most of my time coordinating materials for community screenings, launching the Educational Edition and promoting awareness of the film and the issue of species loss. I do have a project in suspended development about alternative energy and the race to find a silver bullet to our disappearing petroleum resources. You can get a preview at http://www.worldsfastestsubmarine.com.
9. CT: Anything else you care to pass along about the IBWO saga and your film that readers might be interested in knowing?
SC: One conspiracy theory about the rediscovery that I didn't have time to finish exploring has to do with the role of the Army Corps of Engineers and their plans to redirect and control the waters of the Bayou DeView on behalf of agribusiness in need of reliable irrigation for soybean and rice cultivation. Once the Ivory-bill was rediscovered, their plans have been put on indefinite hold. Sounds far fetched, but this is a huge industry in the Brinkley area, and it wouldn't be the first time a swamp was saved from destruction by unconfirmed claims that Ivory-bills lived there (read about Alex Sanders and the Santee Swamp). I am not implying the whole thing was a hoax, only that one guy in a kayak may have embellished a little to help preserve "the natural state". The rest, as they say, is history. True or not, I think if a similar hoax could have saved the Singer Tract and its Ivory-bills along with it, most people would have welcomed the deception.
CT: Thanks Scott, for your interesting, thought-provoking responses here, and continued good luck in your future film-making endeavors.
==> I realize some readers may take issue with various comments Scott makes here. I don't want to stifle opinion, but I will ask commenters to remain civil and on-point with any critical feedback they wish to offer. (...I'm grateful to all my interviewees who take time from busy schedules to answer a blogger's questions, and they ought feel free to voice their sincere opinions without concern about the tone of reader-response.)
Can you or Scott provide a link that might enlighten?
(He's written more casually about it in a few other places.)
Jerome Jackson, Louis Bevier, and Martin Collinson are among other major skeptics who wrote extended critical analyses of the Luneau video. Cornell (and others) have offered counter-arguments to the skeptics' interpretations, but none that have been satisfactory or convincing to the critics. Do note that the Luneau video, source of so much controversy, is just one piece of the evidence put forth for Ivory-bills.
Re: evidence. I've watched the video and read Tim Gallagher's THE GRAIL BIRD, and Tanner's book, and listened to the recordings. It's an excruciating call, to be sure. I'm on the fence myself; hence, the interest in what the critics have to say. I'd like to form an opinion.
With full participation from Sibley/Prum/Jackson and zero participation from Cornell's people...this is cannot be described as only mildly tilting toward the skeptical camp. This is a highly one-sided work. Granted Luneau and Sparling are included, but they are not heavyweights in the birding world.
So the question arises for me: In spite of Cornell's resistance, did Crocker make a concerted attempt to find and interview authoritative figures who might be more sympathetic toward the CLO side of things? How about individuals from The Nature Conservancy or government funding agencies who could've shed light on funding sources or potentially defended some of these decisions? Where ALL of these individuals resistant to participation?
And a related question: Did Crocker attempt to interview Geoff Hill or any of the Auburn team? While they are not part of the Arkansas story they are central to a balanced understanding of the IBWO status as it is understood today. Hill could've offered valuable perspective on the Arkansas saga...unless he refused to participate. And the treatment of the Choctawhatchee search in one of the "extra scenes" seemed a little peripheral to me.
I enjoyed this documentary. For me seeing faces to go with the names in the recent history of the IBWO searching adds flavor and perspective. This piece is more fair than, say, one of Michael Moore's works. But it still hit to the left of the middle ground in my view.
One could argue that Butler's film suffers from a lack of input but from the opposite end of the spectrum. Unlike "Ghost Bird" however, "The Lord God Bird" not only asked for exclusivity from its interviewees, it voluntarily omitted the opposing point of view except as a token presence. Regardless, the resulting on-screen optimism produced by Butler and CLO's strategic micro-mamagement has not been supported by a satisfactory second coming of Ivory-bills in the real world. To the contrary, while I attempted to get more input from inside believers and was denied, the perceived skeptically skewed conclusion of "Ghost Bird" (or of David Sibley and his colleagues), has not been seriously challenged by conclusive documentation of any kind; not in Arkansas, Florida or anywhere else. This is not a matter of opinion or interpretation, sadly, it is a simple fact. It does NOT disprove the existence of Ivory-bills, it merely demands that the proof of their persistence be held to the same standard of science as everything else that exists.
In telling the story of the rediscovery I chose to make the denial of access I experienced another example of the bubble-think being practiced by the Lab of Ornithology and their inner circle in spinning the science to meet their personal conclusions. As we have all painfully learned, bubbles, be they ornithological or financial, may be cozy places where our beliefs can begin to look like reality, but they eventually burst. Sometimes the air goes out all of a sudden, other times it just slowly hisses until there is nothing left. In Arkansas and the Florida Panhandle I still hear hissing... This will remain the case until we have new photographs or video in living color that clearly show an Ivory-bill perched on a tree. That is not to much to ask of any other living bird, why should we accept anything less when it comes to the "Lord God" bird?
I am sorry that Dr. Hill declined to be interviewed for your documentary. I wonder if he regrets his exclusive agreement with Butler at this point.
I have not seen Butler's "The Lord God Bird". I spent a few minutes last night searching for a copy on the internet without success. It is a few years old at this point and so I don't know how I can see it or get a copy.
FWIW my understanding is that the only thing conclusive coming from Sibley and the skeptics is that they successfully introduced doubt about the concrete claims of Fitzpatrick/CLO vis-a-vis the Luneau video. That was their contribution and an important one it was. They succesfully reduced the Luneau video to the level of the Fielding Lewis photo's, the John Dennis recordings, and the Agey and Heinzmann feather from Florida in the late 1960's...provocative but inconclusive evidence that went, at least, beyond reports of sightings. The passage of time has strengthened the point.
To my knowledge no consensus exists that Sibley/Prum/Jackson/Collinson, et al conclusively showed that the video did NOT show an ivorybill. So, putting aside the now broad consensus that CLO overstated the certainty of the identity of the bird in the Luneau clip...there is still an argument to be made for the CLO point of view. That argument was not presented in you documentary as far as I could see, at least not substantially. If you could find no optimistic authority willing to make the point on film then that is all you can do.
I hear a much louder hiss coming from Arkansas than from the Florida panhandle. The Auburn group never claimed proof. And they have multiple clear sightings that were temporally corroborated with multiple forms (both double knock and kents simultaneously) of auditory evidence.
I think that IF these birds still exist they have been driven from these areas by the searchers themselves. The only possible paradigm of survival would be that of an extremely low density population, exceptional wariness of humans, and much greater habitat flexibility than the dogma that we have understood all these years.
The most damning evidence of the absence of these birds in my view is the failure to record an ivorybill on any of the remote cameras that have been installed in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and elsewhere. These cameras have been placed for years smack dab in the middle of the most perfect Ivorybill habitat anyone can find. Millions and millions of images of every moving thing in the woods. Not one Ivorybill has been reported from these images.
Which brings us back to your statement that, "no consensus exists that Sibley/Prum/Jackson/Collinson, et al conclusively showed that the video did NOT show an ivorybill." Is it the burden of David Sibley and his colleagues to prove that the Luneau Video is not of an Ivory-bill? Or is it Cornell's burden of to prove without a doubt that it is one? Were the video less ambiguous and not in need of substantial analysis (Sibley has questioned if we can tell if it is even a woodpecker), I might be inclined to give Cornell the benefit of the doubt given the importance of the rediscovery, but then I would be falling into the same trap that may have lead us into the fuzzy science that allowed the sightings in Arkansas to be elevated to the status of confirmation when the the same documentation in Florida has been applauded because it was never declared as proof.
When Cornell refused to cooperate with my request for interviews I was left with the choice of doing their work for them and finding people to defend their position, or allowing their inaccessibility to speak for itself in being symptomatic of the myopic hubris that guided them from the beginning. Subsequently, I allowed the skeptics to make their case without a significant opposing rebuttal because I didn't see the point in arguing over whether or not the evidence proves anything if we can't even find what it proved in the first place. That simply becomes a game of who was right and who was wrong, which may be entertaining but it doesn't seem to have contributed to our finding Ivory-bills.
As a final thought to further illustrate this, I would argue that if Ivory-bills were finally shown living in Arkansas tomorrow, it would not vindicate CLO's flawed scientific methodology in declaring the confirmation of their existence any more than the fact that they have not been found in the last seven years proves the skeptics more right. Ivory-bills or not, CLO's evidence for confirmation fell short of good science and, in turn, of what we should ask of anything we believe in but can't be certain is true. One remaining irony is that if Ivory-bills were in deed seen in Arkansas or Florida but eventually fled due to pressure from search teams, the birds might be better off if we stopped stalking them.
There's an old saying, "The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on." As we dither amongst ourselves, perhaps the bird has slipped past detection, and for now, that's everything our imaginations could ever hope for.
My point here was that CLO's reasoning for their belief in the identity of the bird in the Luneau video was not presented in your film, even in summary. I am talking basically about the content of their original SCIENCE paper (specifically as it relates to the Luneau video) and their subsequent rebuttal to the publishings of the skeptics. The Cornell people spent a great deal of effort, as I understand it, scrutinizing those images from every perspective they could imagine at the time. They tried to anticipate objectionist perspectives as best they could imagine them (little did they know) and they reached their conclusion based on video forensic techniques and analysis.
David Luneau is an academic computer scientist as I understand it. As such his birding activities are an avocation outside of his professional training. He was dependent on the Cornell video analysis to reach his own personal view that the bird in his video was an Ivorybill. He is therefore not someone who can argue for the identity of the bird based on the CLO methodology. It would take an individual trained in this area to defend the CLO conclusion. And for reasons of equality it would take an individual with a scientific and ornithological stature similar to Sibley or Jackson.
Whether an authority such as this could be found outside of Cornell is another issue altogether. And filming the explanation could be a tedious exercise that could quickly bore an audience. But I would envision a short segment with a summary explanation of Cornell's reasoning based on wing length, color patterns, wing beat frequency, the presence and subsequent absence of the perched bird (or "object"), etc. This would be something that would demonstrate to the viewers the same heft to CLO's argument that SCIENCE and it's peer reviewers understood in agreeing to publish the original piece. So much face time is given in your movie to the prominent detractors of CLO's conclusions that including a brief airing of the original CLO argument for the ID of the Luneau bird would've been reasonable.
I am as unimpressed as the next person with the apparently insular cloistered behavior of the CLO on this issue, at least recently (early on it was obviously reasonable to keep everything under wraps). This sort of ongoing provincial attitude toward data is often present in the administrative cultures of the various worlds of scientific research as it is in the corporate world and any other world. But...is it possible that some of the reticence of the CLO toward participating in your project is contractual in nature as it was with Geoff Hill? As opposed to just defensive closed-mindedness that is?
Would the birds, if they exist, would be better off "un-stalked"?. Certainly it is not helpful if they are driven away from their favored habitat in the quest for documentation. I would hope that these last several unsuccessful IBWO searches in the past decade have generated a reservoir of experience that might allow some future team to more artfully (and more successfully?) pursue documentation of these birds the next time a cluster of credible sightings occurs.
Documentaries on scientific subjects should at least keep the filmmakers’ biased adjustment mechanisms to a minimum otherwise the product squarely becomes art and some of us know how Oscar Wilde comprehensively summarized the value of that abstract pursuit.
Scott says “I originally set out to make a film that explored both sides” and “The further I got into the project……a more skeptical point of view” (developed). “The main reason for this was the uncooperativeness of Cornell…. to be interviewed.” He then explains the interview lockdown was more a product of Cornell’s expectation of further evidence and MORE PROOF being developed.
This reaction by Cornell and other supporting entities in no way inferred they and the 14 mostly prestigious co-authors had moved away from the original abstract’s scientifically based conclusion. A group collectively being unavailable for convenient and time saving questioning to the benefit of a film maker doesn’t negate or lessen the scientific evidence and PROOF presented in the original paper. Auburn’s and Windsor’s substantial data sets and highly suggestive evidence are also not lessened because Scott couldn’t get a camera on key people.
The Science authors who have collectively discovered more new species in difficult field conditions than all the thousands of film makers on earth will ever discover put their substantial stamp of FIELD EXPERIENCE on that paper. Its more than unbiased opinion that the author Barksdale, is more knowledgeable on white bleed, black bleed, color bleed, wing blur and twisting (collectively-video artifact analysis) than all the combined IBWO deniers and Science “note” authors combined. Science is a building process and the AR video and paper is strong but yes its not something you tilt back at the movie theater, popcorn in hand, and quickly analyze. A bit of tedious work is needed but it shows an IB was in AR, almost certainly FL and probably a few in LA and....
I will assume Scott’s field experience with animals is reflected as his film explains in detail the immense expected difficulty of clearly capturing a heavily hunted, wary, intelligent, roost living, rare species with a large pair range, moving in tens of thousands of acres. Surely he has noted that the IBWO, including bairdi had an exceedingly low rate of being recorded on film even during the decades we all agree that scores existed.
The bird is exceedingly difficult to film...it all fits exactly what has recently happened. We need no conspiracy theories, mass hallucinations, faith or accusations of lying to preserve land, to perfectly explain why birds are actually being seen but not filmed.
We are not film makers but do know that Hollywood often feels the need for scores of takes to get the exact information in a shot of rather sedentary subjects. So Scott’s unique perspective on that broad dichotomy of getting a vagile, fast moving animal that appears out of nowhere once every 30 days (if that) for 4 seconds versus the usual mundane problems the average film maker is subjected to should be an important segment of his film. Perhaps its not in the film and that would explain why some deniers do not value the rare but important data in the multiple IBWO films and putative films none of which approach what a PIWO MUST SHOW to be a PIWO but do meet IBWO characteristics.
Additionally all evidence deniers and some researchers practice a false faith that leads to not understanding the uniqueness of double knocks and kents when these are heard and reported by experienced, seasoned field researchers or birders. Many of these have also been recorded and there is only one sp of Campephilus in the US. There is also little appreciation or knowledge of the uniqueness of wing beat frequency by the deniers.
Scott then says about the IBWO, "Unfortunately, no matter how you look at it, that is a choice of faith not science". I was wondering if you discussed the bifurcation between the evidence produced in Cuba in -'87 (no sound recordings, feathers, video, roost pictures or lengthy sightings) and compared this to the extensive data sets produced in three US states in the last 6 years. How do we explain that no faith existed in the small "church" of Cuba consisting of 20,000 degraded acres yet he thinks faith is needed to accompany multiple data sets, films of birds, and hundreds or recent US DK and Kent recordings along with perhaps over 100 competent sightings in a "church" consisting of millions of acres.
As far as Cornell, yes they have made multiple mistakes but its inconsistent that the deniers attribute only false IBWO positives to CLO......when in actuality CLO is responsible for more false negative presence determinations of IBWO than false postives due to the poor design of the acoustical DK survey method.
CLOs constant pressure in the field, during the breeding season, as Scott alludes to has also been counterproductive and amazingly Auburn overdid it also.
Regardless a good segment of the masses had it just right and no theme swerving was needed. A part of the public will always know that puddle ducks don't sit where there are no puddles and Double Knock their wings while kenting----only a specific Picidae does. And PIWOs that faithfully flap at 8.7 Hz are IBWOs. And heuristic calculations by the Science "Note" authors were wrong and Audubon, Bent and Peterson were right. The IBWO flys rapidly then and now.... per the evidence.
Fred Virrazzi NJ
almost certainly FL
probably a few LA
It all adds up to nothing Fred. You can be as verbose and pretentious as you like but ultimately there's nothing there.
Keep at it.
>>> inferior quality signallers cannot afford to produce such wastefully extravagant signals.<<<
Perhaps there's a tag for comic book text balloons so you feel more in your element.
Seriously calling the work of multiple students who will receive advanced degrees from decent schools "nothing" is below par even for you.
I guess your right...working on a critically endangered species is a paltry conservation accomplishment compared to getting 200 twitchers all jammed at the stone gate as they chased the mega-tick Scops Owl with flashlights.
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