Saturday, July 07, 2007

Dual standards

Not to be confused with double standards.

A fair bit of the shouting in the Ivorybill arguments stems from a failure to comprehend that there is not just one single evidentiary standard, nor one single important question, involved. There are in fact two fundamentally different ones.

The first, and the one that the vast majority of birders seem to feel constitutes the only important question, is "Has the species been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to still exist?" This is the question applied whenever a rare bird record is being evaluated for inclusion on a regional checklist, one's own life list, etc. The standard here is "when in doubt, leave it out." If there is a reasonable doubt (which means a doubt for which one can give explicit, logical reasons, not just a gut reaction) about the matter, then the occurence has not been proven and should be left off the list. Obviously, this is the question that birders snap to, being in general rather obsessed with maintaining lists. In this situation, data that are suggestive but not conclusive have no value. And a "body of evidence" is only as strong as its single strongest piece; it is not an additive process.

The second question, which birders are disinclined to even consider valid but conservationists must keep foremost, is, "Is there evidence that provides a reasonable suspicion that the species might exist?" Again, "reasonable" means that explicit, logical reasons can be given, not just hope, wishful thinking, or gut instincts. The standard here is very different, and might be termed the "course of least regret." This is a much more complex and subjective process, where the multifaceted tradeoffs between various choices have to be evaluated in an impossible N-dimensional matrix. Scenarios such as "A. We do nothing, even though the bird was not extinct, and miss the final opportunity to have saved it" versus "B. We reallocate resources from other projects to look for a bird that is actually extinct, possibly causing harm in other areas" have to be weighed. In this case, when there is doubt, your task is not to throw the record out, but to try to remove (or at least reduce) the doubt; in other words, go find out more to see if you can figure out what is really going on. In this situation, there is some additive value to a "body of evidence," especially early on in the process.

Ultimately, both standards and both questions should lead to the same answer, but this can take a great deal of time. This does not make people "wrong," "fraudulent," or "unscientific" in the meantime.


At 7:12 AM, Blogger TN Forester Mike said...

Good point.

As far as the criticism that others raise regarding diversion of resources from other "worthwhile" projects, I suspect the recent IBWO activity has drawn more people into caring about conservation than any event in a long time. I know people who have contributed to conservation efforts for the first time in their lives because of the IBWO. Anyway, it seems to me that in the South most of the funding during the past 30 years has been spent in bottomland hardwood areas that coincidentally are within the historic range of the IBWO. No one complained about those expenditures then. Many species have benefited by simply sharing the same habitat.

PS: The berries look great!

At 4:53 AM, Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Congratulations, Bill. This is your lucky day. You've just been tagged to play the Eight Random Facts meme. Click here for details. Enjoy! I just thought you needed a break from IBWO stuff.

At 2:27 PM, Blogger Birdwoman said...

Here’s a silly thing, but kinda fun. You’ve probably seen the “8 random facts” meme that’s been floating around the web for a while. Well, I’m tagging you with it! The rules of the game are that you write a blog entry disclosing eight random facts that your readers don’t know about you and then tag eight more bloggers to do the same. Contact them to let them know they’ve been tagged. Have fun with it!

At 4:29 PM, Blogger Ivorybill Septic said...

Check out the lovely pseudoscientific debate between Amy Molester, Tim Smallwood and Tom Isanasjol (a self-professed pseudonymous idiot with an extra chromosome) at:

At 10:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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