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Wednesday, 08 August 2007 00:00

Alternative science

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Although my series on alternative fuels is done, I think I will stay in the alternative universe.

Science, which is defined as the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation and theoretical explanation of phenomena, is based on adherence to the scientific method. The scientific method broken down by physics professor Jose Wuda at the University of California-Riverside basically follows a series of steps:

• Observe some aspect of nature.

• Invent a tentative description—called a hypothesis—that is consistent with what you have observed.

• Use the hypothesis to make predictions.

• Test those predictions by experiments or further observations, and then modify the hypothesis according to the results.

• Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there is no discrepancy between the hypothesis and experimental results, observations, or both.

Don’t get bored. Hang with me here. Ornithology, according to, is “... the branch of biology concerned with the scientific study of birds.”

When ornithologists announced the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker (last documented in the U.S. in the 1940s) one would assume that rigorous scientific inquiry and strict adherence to the scientific method had led to such an astounding announcement. One would be wrong.

Here’s a quick capsule of the ivory-billed debacle (or “Lord God What a Mess”): To give credit where credit is due, the current ivory-billed hoopla started, appropriately enough, on April Fool’s Day in 1999 when a Louisiana State University forestry student convinced his professors he had seen a pair of ivory-billeds in Honey Swamp in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area. A subsequent search by ornithologists and renowned birders proved fruitless. However in 2004, kayaker Gene Sparling posted on the Internet that he had seen what he believed could have been an ivory-billed woodpecker on the Cache River in Arkansas. Sparling also noted that he had seen some aberrantly colored pileated woodpeckers in the same area. Enter Bobby Harrison, ivory-billed devotee and photography professor at Oakwood College in Alabama. Harrison, who had been looking for ivory-billeds for 30 years or so, called Sparling and convinced him he had seen an ivory-billed. Next, Harrison and fellow Ivory-billed fanatic Tim Gallagher of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who, as luck would have it, was just finishing his book, The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, went to the swamp in the Big Woods, and, lo and behold, the last chapter of Gallagher’s book flew by. After the two fell about the swamp sobbing, they reported their sighting and waited for others to corroborate it – and waited and waited.

Serendipity struck again. While further sightings could not be substantiated, a video camera attached to a canoe and left running caught on tape what could definitively be described as maybe a big black and white bird. And that was all Cornell needed. A press conference was called in DC and Bush Administration lackeys ohhooed and ahhhed over the amazing scientific “rediscovery.” Subsequent searches in 2005, 2006 and 2007 have failed to provide hard evidence of the bird.

Not to be outdone, ornithology professor Geoff Hill of Auburn who, coincidentally, authored his own ivory-billed woodpecker book — Ivorybill Hunters: The Search for Proof in a Flooded Wilderness — reported, in 2005, that he had discovered ivory-billed woodpeckers along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida. Once again, subsequent searches have failed to document those claims.

Along with human searchers, Cornell and Auburn both employed automated recording units (ARUs) and remote cameras. Cornell estimated that their ARU surveys in 2004-2005 alone were equivalent to three years of continuous recording. Auburn has thousands of hours of ARU recordings from Florida. All of these thousands and thousands of hours of recordings from Florida and Arkansas have one thing in common — they have failed to produce a sonogram that matches the only known recording of an actual ivory-billed woodpecker. And the only images captured of large woodpeckers by thousands of hours of remote camera surveillance at “interesting” foraging sign and cavities “too large for pileated woodpeckers” have been pileated woodpeckers.

Undoubtedly the scientific method has to be tweaked somewhat when it comes to ivory-billed woodpeckers:

• Start with observers who desperately want to see a particular aspect of nature.

• Observe some aspect of nature like a large black and white bird.

• Invent a tentative description (hypothesis) – ivory-billed woodpecker.

• Make predictions – ivory-billed woodpeckers exist in Arkansas and Florida.

• Test those predictions – hundreds of thousands of man and machine hours that fail to document hypothesis.

• Disregard the discrepancy between the hypothesis and observations.

• Take all your “may have beens,” “could have beens” and “hoped-fors” and wrap them in pseudo-scientific jargon like “putative kent calls,” “impenetrable swamp,” “wary, elusive bird” etc., and you have all the scientific documentation you need to assert the continued existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

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