Saturday, April 01, 2006

Debate on the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker

A four-second video taken on April 25, 2004 from a canoe in Arkansas' Cache River National Wildlife Refuge led to the claim of the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The claim was announced in a publication in the journal Science on April 28, 2005, and nearly a year later, on March 16, 2006, there has been a challenge to the claim.

The different "spin" put on the debate by different media outlets is almost as interesting as the debate itself.

The New York Times addressed the impact of the observation:

Along with eyewitness sightings, the tape was the centerpiece of a spring 2005 paper, also in Science, that caused great jubilation among conservationists and birders and prompted the federal government to commit $10 million for ivory-bill conservation.

and the discussed the reluctance of the challenger (Sibley) to criticize the report:

Mr. Sibley said he went public with his critique reluctantly. But, he said, "I think that this identification is wrong and I feel that I'm obligated to correct that." He added, "Conservation has to be based on science."

The initial proponents in turn made an interesting criticism of the Sibley group: "Their description of how a bird flies is incorrect." It might seem that, whatever else is debated, people should be able to agree on "how" a bird flies.

The Times discussion even had some legalisms. J. Michael Reed at Tufts University is quoted: "The burden of proof is to demonstrate that it's an ivory-billed woodpecker and I don't think they've done it."

A report by NPR was far less scholarly than was the Times piece.
NPR reports:

But skepticism is growing. Some experts say the video doesn't show an ivory-billed woodpecker at all, but a common cousin of the bird.

This type of debate is common in science. Someone makes a big claim, publishes the evidence, and then skeptics take whacks at it.


Now David Alan Sibley, an author of famous birding books, offers his take. He says the bird in the video isn't really perched on the tree.

"We're saying the bird is behind the tree, and it has lifted its wings, spread its wings completely over its back and is starting to flap its wings as it pushes away from the tree," he says.

One notes a distinction between this criticism and the way the Hwang matter played out. In the woodpecker saga, there is a debate about the interpretation of the evidence. The debate goes to the data. In the Hwang matter, the people who criticized Hwang knew that the data was faked. The scientist peers who were not "insiders" never criticized the evidence or the interpretation of the evidence. Interestingly, the journal Science is involved in both stories.

In March 2006 the criticism by the Sibley group was published in Science. AP reported:

In the journal, one set of researchers argues that a bird videotaped in 2004 by David Luneau of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock was probably a common pileated woodpecker.

A research team headed by David A. Sibley of Concord, Mass., said the quality of the video is not good enough to clearly see the white stripes on the bird's back that would mark it as ivory-billed. Also, the large amounts of white seen while the bird is flying can be accounted for by the underside of the wings of a pileated woodpecker, the researchers wrote.

[The co-authors of the paper by Mr. Sibley included Louis R. Bevier of Colby College in Maine, Michael A. Patten of the University of Oklahoma and Chris S. Elphick of the University of Connecticut.]

Wikipedia has a detailed discussion:

A group of seventeen authors headed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reported the discovery of at least one Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a male, in the Big Woods area of Arkansas in 2004 and 2005, publishing the report in the journal Science on April 28, 2005.

One of the authors, who was kayaking in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, Monroe County, Arkansas, on February 11, 2004, reported on a website the sighting of an unusually large red-crested woodpecker. This report led to more intensive searches there and in the White River National Wildlife Refuge undertaken in deepest secrecy—for fear of a stampede of bird-watchers—by experienced observers over the next fourteen months. About fifteen sightings occurred during the period (seven of which were considered compelling enough to mention in the scientific article), possibly all of the same bird. The secrecy permitted The Nature Conservancy and Cornell University to quietly buy up Ivory-billed habitat to add to the 120,000 acres (490 km²) of the Big Woods protected by the Conservancy.

The Wikipedia article makes clear that there was skepticism of the Cornell claim before the paper published by Sibley. For example:

In a paper published in The Auk in January 2006, Jerome Jackson expressed skepticism of the Ivory-bill evidence:

Prum, Robbins, Brett Benz, and I remain steadfast in our belief that the bird in the Luneau video is a normal Pileated Woodpecker. Others have independently come to the same conclusion, and publication of independent analyses may be forthcoming...For scientists to label sight reports and questionable photographs as “proof” of such an extraordinary record is delving into “faith-based” ornithology and doing a disservice to science.[9]

The cite for the Jackson paper is Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis): hope, and the interfaces of science, conservation, and politics. Auk 123:1-15.

The cite for the 2005 paper in Science is Fitzpatrick JW, Lammertink M, Luneau MD Jr, Gallagher TW, Harrison BR, Sparling GM, Rosenberg KV, Rohrbaugh RW, Swarthout EC, Wrege PH, Swarthout SB, Dantzker MS, Charif RA, Barksdale TR, Remsen JV Jr, Simon SD, Zollner D (2005). “Ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) persists in continental North America”. Science 308 (5727): 1460-1462.

The cite for Sibley's critique is:
Sibley, D.A., L.R. Bevier, M.A. Patten, and C.S. Elphick. 2006. Comment on "Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) persists in continental North America". Science 311:1555a.
And the cite for the rebuttal to Sibley is:
Fitzpatrick, J.W., M. Lammertink, M.D. Luneau, Jr., T.W. Gallagher, and K.V. Rosenberg. 2006. Response to comment on "Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) persists in continental North America". Science 311:1555b.

One reader asked of the relation of the woodpecker story to intellectual property. At an abstract level, the woodpecker story shows how an article published in a prestigious journal such as Science can create economic value. The published article generated a pledge of $10 million from Congress. Further, before going public, the Nature Conservancy/Cornell bought up land, giving them an economic interest that the story be believed. This issue of imprimatur is quite similar to the complaints of Bob Park about the Patent Office granting patents to BlackLight. Although the underlying science (certainly in Park's eyes) might be false, the grant of the patent created economic value for BlackLight, because they can get investors by pointing to the patent. Similarly, Cornell caused certain things to happen by pointing to the paper in Science. If the story proves false, there has been a misallocation of resources. This would be similar in theme to the misallocation of resources caused in the Jan-Hendrik Schon flap, wherein publications in the journal Science (ultimately retracted) caused other people (and the federal government) to invest in areas which had little chance of generating any academic or financial payout. The issue of imprimatur is also relevant to the problems the journal Science has had in publishing the false work of Woo Suk Hwang. There the underlying science was unquestionably wrong. Nevertheless, because of the imprimatur, third parties made decisions on funding (for example, Proposition 71) that cannot be undone simply by a retraction of the papers. Further, in a rather bizarre twist, although Hwang's papers have been retracted, Hwang's patent applications have not been withdrawn.


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