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What birding is or isn’t

August 15, 2007

From the comments section of the Ivory-bill post. I thought it was distinct enough to justify its own post…

An anonymous commenter said…
this is great for birding, but it isn’t science.

I don’t even know if it’s that great for birding. This whole exercise, especially the comments in the last couple days have really inspired me to think about what birding is and what it isn’t, especially in the way we’ve always thrown around the term “citizen science” to describe what input birders have with regard to “real” science, based in the scientific method and all. I mean, all birders really do is collect population data, what individual birders get out of that on a personal level doesn’t affect what folks do with that data in the least. I guess that’s what Hill and others mean when they say the Science (big S) won’t begin until the bird is found.

Where we are now is where science and birding intersect to some extent. As birders we’re all aware of the impact of observer expectation bias, and those with more experience try hard to prevent that from influencing how birds are reported. Who among us hasn’t seen the sun glint off the bill of a Common Loon and think Yellow-billed just for that second before sense takes hold. As a birder, our reputation is on the line with every rare report, and a reputation is really all we have. Birding on an individual level is a meritocracy, those that put the work in to become good get the reward that comes with respect from peers. I’ve been in the field with some people I consider to be very good birders, and with regards to rare birds there’s a tendency to be conservative, and rightly so when your personal reputation is on the line.

As an amateur scientist, it does bother me that Hill doesn’t at least seem to consider the ramifications of his IBWO bias. But especially as a birder, and one who has worked hard to develop field skills (and one who has been occasionally been guilty of observer expectation bias), it really bugs me that he treats this sort of thing so cavalierly. Using his position as a scientist to continue to push what is really bad birding is a little insulting. I have no doubt that Hill has a grounded understanding of what science is, he certainly wouldn’t be able to get where he is if he hadn’t. I don’t know if he understands completely the birding aspect. The Ivory-bill issue is is some weird amalgamation of both birding and science, but I think right now it’s more of the first.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t plug my dad’s blog. Seems I’ve gone and dragged him into this as well…

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10 Comments
  1. Beloved Aunt permalink
    August 15, 2007 5:45 pm

    My two cents (okay, maybe more like 3 cents) …

    First, of course Geoff Hill knows the difference between science and non-science. It’s the fact that he knows better which makes so much of his “work product” so infuriating. He is very artful in the way he blurs the facts (no credible evidence for living IBWO) with his own bizarre “feelings” about reality (a small colony of IBWOs exists and the birds have been observed). That consistent artfulness belies any claim that he is merely sloppy, in my opinion.

    The point about birding versus science is interesting because I have often asked: why is ornithology particularly susceptible to the nonsense associated with the IBWO? In other fields (e.g., cell biology), ultra-high-profile papers littered with irreproducible garbage and dubious or false claims are publically retracted, occasionally with convincing mea culpas. Not so in ornithology.

    What’s the difference? I think the difference is the existence of this “established” community of amateur fans (I initially wrote “scientists” but deleted the term as simply incorrect). There is no comparable group of well-intentioned hobbyists casting a shadow over other scientific disciplines, e.g., there are not “amateur molecular biology” clubs in small towns throughout the US.

    I use the phrase “well-intentioned” for a reason, however, because molecular biologists are dogged by groups who bear more than a passing resemblance to those who promote the idea of The Living IBWO. Those would be the creationists and “intelligent design” promoters who thrive in the same grey area produced when (1) a difficult issue to address scientifically (“proving” something to a metaphysical certainty) and (2) deep psychological/emotional attachment (“There is a Lord God Bird!”) become entangled.

    Sadly for some, my experience with creationists suggests that the only way for ornithologists to distance themselves from the nonsense is to isolate, scorn and ridicule those who refuse to adhere to basic scientific principles. Pretending that there is a genuine “scientific” controversy only encourages the propogation of unscientific garbage (e.g., “sightings” and unprovable “alternate explanations” in lieu of genuine contributions to knowledge about the world).

  2. August 15, 2007 6:30 pm

    I agree. A professional geneticist is less likely to have an amateur question his work as it would be unlikely for a lay person to have the sort of knowledge needed to do so. Not so an ornithologist, as an adept amateur birder may likely have the field skills to prove him wrong. There’s a real personal connection when it comes to birds that I think drives some of those that go into ornithology, I know if because it’s one of the reasons I’m a birder. It’s also a curse though because it means that there are that many more people there to pile on when something like the IBWO business goes on.

    While it may be only a hobby, it certainly requires a set of skills honed though years of experience and study that can’t be discounted and shouldn’t be taken lightly by the likes of Cornell and Auburn with promises of “interesting” discoveries just around the corner.

    Since I got linked again to Nelson’s blog I’m re-instituting comment moderation for the time being. I’m not interested in censoring anybody and I’ll happily accept any comments that are on topic and civil, this post is essentially a continuation of the conversation that was started in a previous post anyway. If a comment doesn’t show up and fits the above criteria just hold on and I’ll get to it.

  3. Beloved Aunt permalink
    August 15, 2007 6:40 pm

    N8, you wrote:

    A professional geneticist is less likely to have an amateur question his work as it would be unlikely for a lay person to have the sort of knowledge needed to do so.

    That may be true but my point was different. Also, I would not (and did not) choose genetics to make my point because, in fact, professional genetics are appropriately called to the table by amateur scientists all the time for making sexy, newsworthy claims (particularly in the sociobiologicaly subfield) that are inaccurate and/or scientfically dubious.

    My point was that amateur cell biologists and molecular biologists (to the extent they exist) do not attempt to control the discourse of professionals in the manner that “birders” have managed to hijack ornithology.

    Ornithologists’ interest in “sightings” of the IBWO should have vanished a long, long time ago, just as molecular biologists’ interest in studying “qi” or “orgone” is non-existent. Rest assured that if some allegedly “credible” scientist like Jim Watson started talking about purifying bacterial “qi” or “orgone” or finding the gene for “psychic power,” he would be laughed at roundly and scorned. That laughter and scorn would be appropriate and deserved and, in part, the expectation of that laughter is why the US is considered to be a leader in the study of molecular biology.

    When imaginary standards of “civility” begin to trump standards for decent science, we are in trouble unless we are prepared to substitute science with something else. Again, the “civility” card is played as often by creationists as it is played by promoters of The Living IBWO for a very good reason: it’s one of the few cards that they have.

  4. August 15, 2007 8:21 pm

    My point was that amateur cell biologists and molecular biologists (to the extent they exist) do not attempt to control the discourse of professionals in the manner that “birders” have managed to hijack ornithology.

    Fair enough, but birders and ornithologists have different aims and to a certain extent should understand that and work within that construct instead of trying to make a science of sightings. I think they do a good job with that by and large, this Ivory-bill business is the exception rather then the rule.

    When imaginary standards of “civility” begin to trump standards for decent science, we are in trouble unless we are prepared to substitute science with something else.

    Yeah, I understand your point. While I may be prepared to jump into that fight with regard to fundamentalist hijacking of our public school system and policy, I still believe that birders are a small enough demographic with enough common ground that it may not be necessary, at least I haven’t been jaded enough to go that far. That may change in the Birding ID quiz fallout. If that was published as an attempt to poll the ABAs members for those who’ll justify that mess it will be pretty disappointing.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    August 16, 2007 6:56 am

    Some really nice good quality thoughts here – I’d like to make a more measured comment at this moment, but I’ll have to settle with throwing out a few thoughts – sorry. First birding is a pastime, a hobby, an activity.

    Science is a particular approach to critical thinking and commitment to a fundamentally skeptical approach to the universe – it relies heavily on “Falsifiability” .

    see” here ” for an intersting graphical representation and further thoughts on the idea (especially in light of the previous comments on creationism and other truth claims. In this link, Ivory Billed Woodpecker alive in 2007 is OUTSIDE the boundary of knowledge.

    Testimony (saying you saw something) – isn’t really science – although it might produce data with which one can ask scientific questions (within the limits of the data).

    “celebrity” and “authority” are a big big part of this story. Birders have reputations which are awarded them by other humans based on their trustworthiness.

    In this case however the sighting was “accepted” by hundreds of otherwise skeptical people once fitzpatrick “said” it was credible – and clearly if you read the piece by Ghallagers wife that ran in Audubon, Tim knew this – convince Fitz and you are go, fail to convince Fitz … you got nothing. No rabble of birders influenced Fitz … the call was made by him, in the privacy of his own mind, in his office. He set up the conditions whereby all this “interesting” non falisifiable testimony is being brought to bear, and if I didn’t think Hill was being genuine it would see like a big parody of CLO – a practical joke – right down to the latest split second incidentally captured video and this totally nutty “three ivory bills flying over” nonsense.

  6. Anonymous permalink
    August 16, 2007 7:09 am

    good question,

    why is ornithology particularly susceptible to the nonsense associated with the IBWO?

    I think ANY field would be susceptible to the nonsense, if the most powerful reseach institutions in the field were pushing the issue – I mean if fermi lab held a press conference and made some assertion about physics – much the same thing would result.

    The bigger question is why are other scientists so relatively eager to be seen as “believers” – why do people have to qualitfy their opionons by saying “I hope there are IBWO, but the data are inconclusive” – why does what you “hope” matter?

    If Fermi made a bad conclusion physicists would ring the accelerator for the chance to be seen as knocking down the competeing theory.

    I think alot of it has to do with the fact that Fitz has a lot of power and he EXPLICITLY decided to make this discovery MEAN something about the overall condition of humanity. His comments are full of values and statments of “bigger meaning” – the bird was framed as a referendum on our relationship with nature from the outset and that question he meant to use popularity to establish truth.

    popularity does not make something true.

  7. August 16, 2007 8:31 am

    “I hope there are IBWO, but the data are inconclusive” – why does what you “hope” matter?

    Right, I mean we all “hope” it’s there. Who would have ever said said, “I really hate that Ivory-bill, I wish it were extinct.”? I think they keep throwing that out there because Cornell and Auburn and all want people to think they’re on the up and up. Because there continues to be money in it. Ornithology needs birders to keep pumping money in the programs so that they keep running, Fitz knows this more than anyone and those fancy digs he’s got didn’t build itself. Ornithologists like Fitz encourage birders to cast a shadow over his science, but that means birders reserve the right to turn on him when they realize he’s full of it. CLO does a lot of good things (ebird for one) but breeding surveys of Lesser Prairie-Chickens just don’t bring in the green.

    His comments are full of values and statments of “bigger meaning” – the bird was framed as a referendum on our relationship with nature from the outset

    Fitz was hedging his bets, he expected the proof to be just around the corner and he was bamboozled by Harrison and Gallagher. All he’s got now is the bigger meaning, and his ego and the money prevent any public concession. He’s using that personal relationship people have with birds, liberal guilt at having destroyed that habitat, and the Cornell(tm) name as a club to keep banging the Ivory-bill drum. And now the new corporate ABA is doing the same thing to hawk magazines and memberships, effect on birders and science be damned.

    I think Fitz knows exactly what he’s doing, and likely knows that the Ivory-bill is a bust. I suspect Hill though, really thinks there are Ivory-bills in the Choctawhatchee, and his outlook is skewed to the point that the “tortilla image” is passed around as suggestive. When anyone with birding experience can see that it’s not in the least.

  8. August 16, 2007 9:03 am

    Also, with regards to my previous comment, seems I love HTML. Sorry about that…

  9. Anonymous permalink
    August 20, 2007 5:58 am

    Fitz was hedging his bets, he expected the proof to be just around the corner and he was bamboozled by Harrison and Gallagher. All he’s got now is the bigger meaning, and his ego and the money prevent any public concession. …

    I think Fitz knows exactly what he’s doing, and likely knows that the Ivory-bill is a bust.

    Interesting piece in Science about Fitzpatrick have you read it?

    I don’t know if he was “hedging” – and I don’t think he was “bamboozled”. Don’t you think that he simply decided to “believe” – he made the choice freely – there was no attempt to decieve. Fitz decided to have “faith” in the testimony of Gallhager. All the accounts seem to indicate that Fitz became convinced that there was no possibility that Ghallager could have made a mistake. Where is the “Bamboozlement”?

    Clearly once he believed he EXPECTED to find the bird in a way that no one could question … I don’t think this is hedging.

    He took a series of weak claims and tried to combine them into a strong claim. I think at some point a legitimate feeling of something greater at stake over-rode his skepticism and made skepticism seem irresponsible.

    It was simply a risk he was willing to take – his reputation for the chance – the hope of saving the species.

    As the science article says “he gambled”.

    What did he loose?

    Lastly, he didn’t need this bird to have the “larger meaning” – he’s always had that – heck he has it even if the bird is extinct. If we succumb to the idea that we need charismatic animals to “save habitat” – it just goes against all we’ve learned about ecology and conservation.

    In some ways this is the biggest let down of someone as sophisticated and wise as cornell going for all this (without having the bird documented) – in a way it means that saving the swamp, restoring the swamp for itself – isn’t reason enough.

    Do we need a panther to save the everglades, wolves to save the northwoods ??? haven’t we moved beyond the “save the whales” sentimentality and come to see that there is intrinsic worth in saving habitat and designing our relationship with nature so as not to use it up? If a guy like Fitzbatrick can’t push the conservation adgenda WITHOUT recourse to charismatic mega fauna – who can??

    I’m worried that species conservation is a dead issue – environmentalists have nothing interesting to say anymore – the center of progress has moved on to architects, engineers, designers and efforts like what Bill Gates and Buffet are doing … people who are not looking for “hope” or inducements in the form of resurected woopeckers to frame an issue.

    It is sad … but jetting around with Henry Paulson looking for extinct birds is not a model of environmental leadership.

    The word “sapsucker” says it all.

  10. August 20, 2007 9:02 am

    Interesting piece in Science about Fitzpatrick have you read it?

    Yeah, I’m able to get it at work. Rather damning and it confirms to some extent what I posted in a previous comment.

    Where is the “Bamboozlement”?

    Maybe it’s just a distinction without a difference. Bamboozled, I guess would imply Galllagher was unsure about his sighting and still pushed it on Fitz, when evidence was that he was as certain of his crappy sighting as he was about anything. Or maybe I just like the word “bamboozle” and was looking to fit it in somewhere.

    Clearly once he believed he EXPECTED to find the bird in a way that no one could question … I don’t think this is hedging.

    Fitz certainly expected that the “proof” was right around the corner and that Harrison and Gallagher were going to get it for him. I think this motivated him to prepare for the Science paper with the intention that the as-yet-unattained killer evidence could be slotted in, a sort of coup de grace.

    Fitz is shrewd enough to know that the evidence they had at that time wasn’t gonna cut it, but maybe I’m giving him too much credit there. Lack of further evidence put him in the position of defending the Luneau video and the awful sight records as the Science article suggests. So I think he was hedging at first with the article, and then the evidence never came and he had to run with it because it had leaked and his reputation was suddenly on the line.

    What did he loose?

    A good part of his and CLO’s reputation amongst those to whom it matters most. I think Fitz wants it both ways, he wants to be “Fitz the great ornithologist” and “Fitz- friend of the birder” He got tied up in both of these things to his detriment.

    If we succumb to the idea that we need charismatic animals to “save habitat” – it just goes against all we’ve learned about ecology and conservation.

    Yeah, I agree. But the rabble always needs something to make them care. But if they really wanted to save the Big Woods, would a cuddly bear cub do the same thing? And the hunters and canoers use the area too, that should be enough to fight for the continued survival of the lowland forests, at least on the local level, lord knows the higher ups could care less.

    but jetting around with Henry Paulson looking for extinct birds is not a model of environmental leadership.

    This gets to the heart of it, at least as far as Cornell is concerned. It’s never about the birds as much as it is about the money, and Fitz is very very good at getting money.

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