Doubting against doubt: finding the grail bird

Here’s a book review to wrap up Summer Book Week. Thanks are due to my father for posting (and copyediting) in my absence, and to him, my mom and my brother for sharing their expertise in “favorite books” posts.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usI try hard to avoid anything topical at Via Negativa, but as regular readers will remember, I made an exception for the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, announced late last April. In company with a lot of other folks, I saw it as a real emblem of hope – maybe ecocide can still be averted. Maybe there’s still time.

Since then, one of the most pivotal re-discoverers, Tim Gallagher, has had his book published by Houghton Mifflin, The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. This was no instant book, but had been in the works for some time; an epilogue gives an update as of February 2005. And Gallagher, the editor of Living Bird magazine, is no slouch as a writer.

Mostly, The Grail Bird is just a good yarn, filled with engaging portraits of the various characters who have stalked the bird for science, from the 18th century to the present. I hadn’t realized the extent to which scientists had helped decimate the last surviving populations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through their insatiable urge to collect. The attitude of ornithologists toward birds was strikingly similar to the attitude of early anthropologists toward the “primitive” people they studied: gather all the hard evidence possible, including corpses, because of course their continued existence is incompatible with human progress. The role of the scientist was to document the march of rare species and indigenous peoples toward extinction. But while the mainstream of anthropology has long since repudiated this truly primitive mindset, evidence suggests that ornithologists are having a great deal of trouble accommodating any other storyline.

The real hero of the book is Gallagher’s good friend and fellow ivorybill fanatic Bobby Harrison, a roly-poly Southerner with an insatiable hunger for Snickers bars and Dinty Moore beef stew and an uncanny penchant for taking the long way around, whether on foot in snake-infested swamps or traveling cross-county in his beater of a van. It’s Harrison, along with Arkansas natives David Luneau and Gene Sparling, who maintains a constant vigil in the swamp. Wave after wave of crack birders from Cornell and elsewhere spend varying lengths of time in the area trying to collect solid documentary evidence of the Ivorybill’s existence, but in the end it’s the fanatical Harrison and Luneau who come up with the brief, blurry videos that remain the most solid evidence to date (if one discounts the excellent audio recordings of ivorybill calls from several locations).

The Grail Bird ought to appeal to a much wider audience than just birders. The story of the ivorybill’s repeated rediscovery and subsequent dismissal by legions of skeptics throughout the latter half of the 20th Century left me pondering the nature of doubt. Ever since the so-called Enlightenment of the 18th Century, we have been accustomed to regarding unquestioning faith as problematic; I can’t remember ever hearing a critique of “blind doubt.” But following the crushing loss of the Singer Tract in the 1940s, the American ornithological community has fallen prey to a fey kind of fatalism in regards to the ivorybill. No proof is good enough, and any ornithologist so foolhardy as to claim to have seen it – or even to believe in the veracity of a sighting – risks irreparable damage to his reputation.

That was the case with John Dennis, who had taken what was generally acknowledged as the last irrefutable photo of an ivorybill in Cuba in 1948. His claim to a sighting in the Big Thicket of East Texas in 1966 was roundly ridiculed. With Harrison’s help, Gallagher is able to relocate a sound recording Dennis had made, and the analysis of the sonogram convinced audio technicians that the call on the tape could only have been made by an ivorybill.

In another coup of investigative journalism, Gallgher tracked down the previously unknown individual who took the controversial snapshots of an ivory-billed woodpecker in Louisiana in 1971. The then-head of the Louisiana State Museum of Natural Science, George Lowery, had presented the snapshots at the annual meeting of the American Ornithological Union that year and was astonished at his colleagues’ reactions.

Lowery’s pictures were met with immediate withering skepticism by most of the other ornithologists. The photos showed two different trees, but the posture of the bird in them was too similar. You couldn’t see its bill or feet. Somehow, it just didn’t look right. And yet the question remained: why would someone go to all the trouble of climbing fifty or sixty feet up two different trees to fake these pictures – particularly since the man who took them wished to remain anonymous?

In this case, the skeptical reaction appears especially unscientific. Not only did the skeptics’ explanation fail to satisfy Occam’s razor, but their refusal to even entertain the possibility that a population of ivorybills persisted in an area with extensive tracts of suitable habitat, as attested to by a well-respected biologist, was the very opposite of the open-minded search for truth that is the supposed hallmark of Western science.

Gallagher and Harrison are among the dedicated few who never allowed themselves to believe that the ivorybill had gone extinct. It’s not that they were ever fully convinced that the bird still existed, simply that they refused to dismiss what struck them as convincing accounts by credible witnesses. They dared to “doubt against doubt,” as it were. Significantly, neither is a professional ornithologist. Each is an amateur in the best sense of the word: etymologically, a lover, someone passionately dedicated to a pursuit. Of course, plenty of scientists are also passionate advocates for the natural world: one thinks of E. O. Wilson, Reed Noss, Michael Soulé. Without true passion to burn off the choking thickets of fatalism, I wonder, can the mind ever find room for dispassionate analysis?

It’s not that Gallagher doesn’t understand where the skeptics are coming from. He gives a very sympathetic portrait of one of his colleagues at the Lab, Kevin McGowan, whom he describes as “the resident skeptic.” For McGowan, it seems, a bird in the hand is worth a hundred in the bush.

He wants to see empirical evidence for everything. This may be because he was the curator of Cornell’s bird collection for a long time and is used to dealing with evidence that you can see or touch, such as bird specimens. He is careful and precise, and if he says he saw something, there is little doubt that he did. …[H]e has less than perfect vision. He is obsessed with visual clarity to such an extent that he insists on only real glass lenses in his eyeglasses, not plastic, despite the extra weight.

After seeing Luneau’s video, McGowan is finally convinced.

“I wanted to believe before,” he told me. “But it’s in my nature to be skeptical. I just couldn’t help but have doubts, even though I trusted the abilities of some of the people who’d had sightings. It wasn’t until I saw David Luneau’s video that I really accepted the existence of this bird.”

Seeing, as they say, is believing; everything else is hearsay, even the best audio recordings. This attitude is especially curious in a field where identification by human or electronic ear is more and more heavily relied upon to verify the presence of breeding or migrating birds. Cornell Lab has taken a leading role in promoting this kind of research, as well as enlisting legions of amateur birders as so-called citizen scientists for all kinds of studies, so it is only appropriate that the Lab should’ve led the ivorybill rediscovery effort. But even the Lab’s best people are not immune to the debilitating influence of irrational disbelief. Gallagher recalls interviewing one of the searchers, woodpecker expert Dr. Mindy LeBranche, on the evening of the day when she had a good, clear sighting.

I was annoyed that so many people were throwing out percentages about how sure they were that they had seen an ivory-bill. Ron and David were maybe 85 percent sure; Jim Fitzpatrick was 98.5 percent sure; now here was Mindy saying she was 99 percent sure of her sighting.

“What’s all this crap I keep hearing about people being 90 percent sure, 95 percent sure that they saw an ivory-bill?” I said. “What is it about your sighting that gives you that one percent of doubt?”

Mindy shot right back: “Because the bird is freaking extinct! For years I’ve been convinced of that. And that’s why I can’t be a hundred percent sure.”

As we spoke, I left the camcorder running, and it was still taping for a while after the interview was over. When I played it back later, it was interesting to watch the expressions on her face while conversations went on all around her. People were laughing and joking nearby, and she would occasionally laugh along with them, throwing out a comment or two. But every time she stopped talking, she would withdraw into herself. Her face at times looked almost horror-struck, almost like that of a person in shock – or perhaps like someone who has…well, seen a ghost.

Just in the past week, the news media have gleefully seized upon reports that a number of prominent birders and ornithologists are increasingly willing to air their doubts about the rediscovery. An article challenging the evidence is scheduled to appear in an as-yet unnamed journal, with rebuttals and counter-rebuttals. The New York Times quotes two prominent birders, David Allen Sibley and Kenn Kaufman, questioning the reliability of the evidence collected to date. Both have recently authored best-selling bird guides, and both took the unprecedented step of excluding the ivory-billed woodpecker. So for the damned bird to reappear just after they had literally written it off is a bit of an embarrassment, to say the least. (Sibley subsequently uploaded a PDF file of an insertable ivorybill page at his website.) As for the scientists,

“The people who originally announced this thoroughly believe they got an ivory-billed woodpecker,” said Mark B. Robbins of the University of Kansas, one of the three scientists preparing the challenge to the Science report. “They believe one thing, we believe another. This is how science plays out, the fabric of science getting at the truth.”

Except that in this case, the fabric of science appears to be a funeral shroud. As my brother Steve recently remarked, when did it become unscientific to assume that a species is still present until the last acre of suitable habitat is completely eliminated? There’s a kind of arrogance at work here that says that since we can’t find something, it must not be there. But do we really know where and how to look? Considering that the Cuban subspecies depends on pine forests rather than bottomland swamps, it’s clear that our knowledge of the ivorybill’s habitat preferences and adaptability is miniscule.

Sibley reviewed The Grail Bird for the Boston Globe last month. Though he says he liked the book otherwise, he takes strong exception to Gallagher’s critique of the scientific community. “[T]rue science, objective and unbiased, has to be based on concrete, testable evidence. Since 1944 there has been no conclusive evidence to go along with the sightings,” Sibley intones. At this point, though, I wonder if the doubters would be satisfied with anything less than a corpse.

See also Learning from the ivorybill, The finding and The thing with feathers.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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