Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Ivory-bill Strangeness.

Updated in light of day...

Proof that the World has gone mad. Not 'mad' as in 'delightfully quirky, Mad magazine, Monty Python, comic book loony' harmless mad, but 'mad' as in, well, 'dark and brooding, cutting itself with scissors in a darkened bedroom at midnight'-type mad. I present 4 lines of evidence for which no single event is proof in its own right, together they present a compelling case that the World has, in fact, gone ,well OK, not mad.... but at least increasingly strange. Btw, before I start, no one has to take this personally - the time for wondering if anyone whould have done anything different is long past, and points 3 and 4 are at least genuine requests for more info. Liberally scattered with smilies!

1) Gambling on a Ghost Bird
If you're one of the normal population who doesn't have access to this, then I suggest you read (if you haven't already)
Tom Nelson
Birders World

The whole thing is very enlightening, but I am baffled by this last remark

"Whether that uncertainty will haunt Cornell remains to be seen. "In some people's minds, the failure to find better evidence in the last couple of years has not been good for the reputation of the Lab of Ornithology," says Russell Charif of Cornell. That specter doesn't worry Fitzpatrick. "I move with the actions that I deem appropriate for the possibility that the birds are there," he says. "And I don't look back."

Come out and say it guys, I can think of no explanation for that, or many of the other statements in there... except to think that no one thinks we're actually looking for a real bird any more. So we pretend it's there and act as if it were. No harm done there, except this leads me to...

2) How much?
Sometimes when I go out for a little refreshment on a Friday and get up on Saturday morning to find I've been mugged by a sweaty monkey who rubbed mud in my hair, bruised my knees, took a crap in my mouth and stole £50 from my wallet, I think that maybe it's time to change my ways and not p*ss so much money up the wall. Apparently, though, I haven't even started. If you believe what you read elsewhere on the web, there's possibly been some debate at the US FWS really about whether they have written a meaningful action plan. There's some political thing going on here. Still, 3 cheers for habitat creation!

3) However, I will concede it's all about evidence, which brings me to... that mystery photograph competition.
Now I would think, without even looking at the picture... that these birds have to be unidentifiable. If they were identifiable, they would have been identified. They look like ducks or shorebirds or something. I'm pretty certain that if they were IBWOs the white trailing edge to the wing would be visible. And it isn't. But as a bit of harmless fun and to get some opinions on the process of bird identification, it does no harm. but I spluttered on my tea when I read that this was actually presented (yes PRESENTED) at the AOU meeting. With no conclusion, but what was the point? First... are these the only putative woodpeckers that were photo'd? Give us some context... let us see what Pileateds, Red-headeds, look like in these automated images. Point out how these birds are different. Show us some Pintails and Mallards and everything else that's so much commoner in the swamp than Ivorybills. Without that, this whole mystery photo thing and the way it has been handled smacks of either desperation (or mischief! :-))) ). Sort out the data! Which leads me to...

4) New videos!
These videos are not identifiable... because if they were they would have been identified, again. They look pretty much like the Pileated Woody in the Luneau video, but then again, so would any black and white bird. I have the same criticism as for the mystery photos - it is very unhelpful to present these data without context. Were these the only b+w woodpeckers videoed flying around in the swamp? If they were, they I think we'd all concede that it's very unlikely they hit on IBWOs first and only time. So, show us the videos of Pileated, etc. Show us a video of Brian going 'Pileated' and a Pileated flies off from the tree trunk. That way we can see why these birds are different. Unless they're not. Show us the videos of someone going 'IBWO... no, Pileated, sorry' etc. I can't believe that never happened.' How many woodpeckers were videos that winter. How many Pileated, how many Red-headeds? It goes back to the way science works, or doesn't in this case. CONTROLS! As we tell people in the lab... 'No one cares about your work as much as you do', so sort the data out and tell people why you think it shows what it shows. What we don't let people do is to take half-baked data out into the World and challenge the reader to make of it what he will. The IBWO is an odd case because unusually, there are lots of people who care about the data as much as the workers do, but I feel that the release of these data in a half-baked, see-what-you-think way is almost like taking advantage, challenging other people to do their work for them. In fact it really is taking the mickey note another :-) . I think it's right and proper that this video is released, but if anything new is to come of it at all, we need to see the videos of things that weren't IBWOs too. Otherwise it's like working in a vacuum. Context context context.

See, i was constructive!


Luneau Atheist said...

The IBWO mania is just another in a long line of manias in human history. Tulips in Holland in the 17th century, Communists in the 20th, the dot com bubble, multiple real estate and stock market bubbles, pet rocks, Cabbage Patch kids, Nintendo Wii, and on and on. Start with a seed (often valid) and drive it to it's illogical conclusion. It just seems to be part of human nature to become "irrationally exuberant".

In the case of the IBWO, the seed was an interesting sighting by Kullivan. Calmer, clearer heads recognized that the follow ups have shown nothing more of note. Those caught up in the mania buy into the theory that while a small pile of junk is just compelling, a huge pile of junk is proof. Sorry, but they're both just piles of junk.

John said...

The photo of the 3 thingies in flight was the July/August photo quiz in Birding, usually a pretty good publication...why they chose to run the bird equivalent of a rorschach test I dunno. Usually there is something instructive about the quiz. This time not so much. They look a bit like night-herons or green herons to me, but they could be anything. They do mention the photo was taken from the Chocktaphahooweee so I guess they are suggesting they might be Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Maybe. Or maybe it's a deeper epistemological point they are making. Or it's just stupidity.

After seeing all the photo and video evidence it's clear that photographic styles have changed. I'm gonna give it a try...set focus halfway to the bird, use camera motion for additional blur, position the subject far off center and behind trees...