Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Recent History

Less than a year ago, Steve Sheridan's photo from Illinois that showed an intriguing woodpecker with a red crest and white shield was made public. For quite some time before that, the photo had been known and circulated in secret.

In looking at that image, we all went to substantial lengths to explain its features and explain away its anomalies. The presence of the white shield, the absence of visible dorsal stripes, the shape of the neck stripe, all that was contemplated and discussed at length. When we found things that didn't quite add up, we attempted to account for them as tricks of light, oddities of posture, whatever. We did this even when we could not find any good supporting evidence that our hypotheses were plausible. Why did we do this? Well, because Steve appeared completely sincere and forthright about his image, and because it seemed clear that he would lose far more by fabricating an image than he could possibly gain. Even when we got the first hard data that suggested the image might be bogus, we assumed the data were wrong. Not until the third time those measurements were confirmed did the wall begin to crack; in fact, Steve actually cracked first and confessed before any of us had the chance to proclaim the image a fraud.

In the case of Steve Sheridan, both his sincerity and his photograph were faked. But why?

Steve had been searching in the area extensively. He had both audio encounters and sightings that he was unable to document with recordings or photographs. He knew there were Ivorybills there; he might have been right about this, we can't say. But he could not come up with the proof needed to get others to share his conclusion. In a fit of frustration, he fabricated the proof. In his mind he was only generating the photo that he should have been able to capture legitimately; he was not misrepresenting the presence of Ivorybills at the site, he was in fact trying to help the Ivorybills by getting others to believe in them as well. His certainty in the presence of real Ivorybills at the site probably made it easier for him to project the facade of sincerity and honesty about his bogus image. It is far easier to lie when you are convinced that the lie really could (or should) be true.

He may have been right; there may have been Ivorybills there, and he may have seen and heard them. Nonetheless, his photo was fake.

We who do not learn from our past are condemned to repeat it.


At 12:29 PM, Blogger concolor1 said...

I would suggest the term for this sort of thing is "pious fraud," and while I promised not to say anything too inflammatory, I've run across stories of similar examples, usually among religious sorts, where artifacts are created and defended zealously to the point they drive legitimate archaeologists nuts (Google up "Newark Holy Stones" as one example).

I've been doing some blogging elsewhere--under a different moniker--on this stuff, and many of them are being used to support the notion of "diffusionism," the notion that there was extensive New World/Old World pre-Columbian contact (which there wasn't, other than Vikings in Newfoundland and possibly Polynesians in South America).

Unfortunately, it all reduces to "junk science," and fraud is fraud, whether the goal is a "noble" one or merely a self-enriching one.

And alas, it requires far more ominiscience than I possess to be able to repeatedly distinguish the sincere ones from the charlatans.

Nor do I have any conclusions about which group is ultimately more dangerous.

At 2:41 PM, Blogger spatuletail said...

"We who do not learn from our past are condemned to repeat it."

er, yes.

said without a trace of irony, I presume?

At 4:13 PM, Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Hi, Bill:

An article by Daniel Mendelsohn in the current issue of The New Yorker (25 January 2010, pp. 68-74) on the seemingly unrelated topic of memoirs, especially fraudulent ones, may offer some insight into the propensity for some people to make claims about sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers that, upon close examination lack convincing details, and for others to accept them without question.

I quote here from Mendelsohn's article:

"One of the most interesting defenses of memoirs that turn out to be 'enhanced' or downright invented is that they accurately reflect a reality present not in the world itself, . . ., but in the author's mind." In other words, the mere process of believing something, no matter how outlandish, makes it true.

In defending what was later revealed to be a fraudulent memoir, the author says, "It is not the actual reality—it was my reality."

"The seemingly pervasive inability on the part of both authors and readers to distinguish their truth from the objective truth [emphases added] is nothing new in the history of . . . literature." Perhaps the same can be said of some "scientists" and the literature they publish.

"When readers defended . . . [the author of a fraudulent memoir] on the ground that his book, however falsified its 'memories' were, had nonetheless (as he had hoped) provided them with the genuine uplift they were looking for, they were really defending fiction; an uplifting entertainment that can tell truths but cannot tell the truth."

Reacting to the discovery that some of the events in a memoir describing government atrocities against indigenous Guatemalans had not happened in the way related by the author, one sympathetic college professor proclaimed, in a scholarly journal, "Whether her book is true or not, I don't care." So much for objectivity!

Mendelsohn concludes that the public's "susceptibility [to improbable claims] suggests how an immoderate yearning for stories that end satisfyingly [as in, for example, the continued existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker] . . . makes us vulnerable to frauds and con men peddling pat uplift."

Claims of sightings (or even photographs) by folks like Sheridan and Rainsong, and others before them, help perpetuate the fiction of the continued existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker among those people who, for whatever reason, want to believe that this species remains alive. In the minds of these people, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker will forever live among us, however scanty the evidence.

At 8:26 AM, Blogger fangsheath said...

It is no more difficult to argue that the same kind of mentality exists among some so-called "skeptics." Indeed, the word pseudoskepticism describes a kind of religious zeal among so-called skeptics to reject a particular hypothesis or collection of them. I find the use of the word fiction above is revealing. The agnostic, the true skeptic, is content with "your evidence is unpersuasive." The pseudoskeptic insists that disproof has occurred and the matter is settled.

I cannot help but notice that ivory-bill pseudoskeptics such as Tom Nelson have insisted on promulgating completely unsupported statements such as:

There is a population of aberrant pileateds on Bayou DeView in Arkansas.

A molting pileated may have white trailing edges on its wings.

Everyone who has reported an ivory-bill has seen only a single field mark.

Every recent ivory-bill sighting has been a few-second glimpse.

No genuine birder has had a recent ivory-bill sighting.

The prompt, uncritical internalization of such rationalizations, I submit, has all of the earmarks of religious piety.

At 9:22 AM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

Gentlemen --

Confirmation bias, or expectation bias if you prefer, is a universal feature of the human mind. No one has a monopoly on it, no one is immune to it. Those who make a habit of pointing out the expectation bias in others are doing this in part because their own expectation bias is to expect expectation bias. You may consider confirmation bias to be an intellectual weakness or character fault; if you do, you need to recognize that is is a universal deficiency possessed by essentially every person on the planet, akin to the inability to sprout wings and fly. Many people fight to suppress these tendencies in themselves, but they are never vanquished. This is why scientific consensus builds and shifts very slowly and with much debate. Many things we now consider blatantly obvious facts of nature took decades or generations to become part of the scientific consensus; these includes plate tectonics, atoms, evolution by natural selection, the big bang, and gravity. Many people don't seem to appreciate how some of these concepts were controversial well into the second half of the 20th Century; we now consider them self-evident facts.

In the case of the Ivorybill, skilled amateurs and professional academics and wildlife biologists of comparably high levels of knowledge, expertise, and experience come down all over the map in their conclusions and opinions. This means there is no consensus, no matter how irksome many may find that to be.

About the motivations for fraud: I recall in grad school encountering a study that indicated that academic fraud was more often done because of the intellectual convictions of the forger, not for personal or professional advancement. I don't remember the reference, however; and of course my memory could be faulty.

At 10:46 AM, Blogger fangsheath said...

For what it's worth, I am the first to acknowledge that there are tough questions to resolve regardless of which conclusion is correct. This bird, if extant, has proven remarkably adept at eluding clear documentation.

At 2:30 PM, Blogger Gail said...

Hi, I just came across your excellent blog!

I have been very concerned about dying trees, and the consequences to all of the species dependent upon them. I found and posted this article about a lack of food for wild animals:
Since then I have been trying to follow the Audubon Christmas bird tally to see if they detect any recent sudden decline in birds, but I guess, the reports aren't all finished yet.
Have you seen anything really significantly notable this year?


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