Thursday, March 19, 2009

Openness, Fakery, what not

There are some strange things being said in the blogosphere about openness and secrecy as pertains to the Woodpecker Incident from the Undisclosed State. It needs to be made clear that all the data that was put up by Gary Erdy and Steve Sheridan was their own private property, collected (and in one sad case fabricated) using their own equipment and their own uncompensated time and effort. No government agency or other institutional entity has any jurisdiction over or rights to any of it; it is entirely Gary and Steve's to do with as they please. I don't know why anyone would think that the Feds or State or anyone else even had the right, much less the responsibility, to reveal and distribute this information any more widely than Gary or Steve gave them permission to. It was shared with various people, private, state, and federal, under agreements of confidentiality. It became public when Gary and Steve chose to make it so, and not a moment before then. The only request from any government was to omit mention of the location or names of reviewers who might give away the location. As for anonymity of reviewers, that is standard practice in peer review. This is not a question of academic, government, or scientific openness; this was purely about the intellectual property rights of private citizens.

Edit: Folks from the state DNR tell me that there were some stronger and more official arrangements between themselves and Gary and Steve, including agreements to share information, notify of intent to publish, participate in a review process before publication, as well as permission to install cameras and carry out research in a State Natural Area and loans of some equipment. There may be some disagreements among the parties involved as to exactly what compliance with these arrangements would have looked like and if it was in fact achieved; much of that is beyond the point I was making. My point is that all involved in general deferred to Gary and Steve as having first priority in the handling of the images that they collected (and created... though that part was not known even to Gary), and in most ways respected and deferred to their ownership rights. The gov't agencies did not employ a strong hand in attempting to control what Gary and Steve did with their own data, and in my opinion this was the correct approach.

I also noted with amusement someone who credited me with being right on all the major ID points; well, other than having missed that the image was entirely fabricated. That last bit is quite a whopper, however; more on that later. But anyway, that isn't even true. I, like many other people, maintained that the neck stripe was not correct for a Pileated; we were all wrong. The bird does not have a dorsal stripe hidden behind its wing, as I suggested was possible; it has no dorsal stripes to hide. What I was "right" about was that ultimately the bird does not reconcile neatly with any species; this was in fact the majority conclusion of the knowledgeable birders who saw this image before the forgery became known. Only loud voices online (seemingly many from people who know little about birds per se) gave the impression that there were any kind of definite opinions as to the bird's ID; most bird people agreed it was not conclusively identifiable from what could be seen. And now we know exactly why.

As to missing the forgery; sadly, forgery is missed all the time. Careful fakery can be hard to detect simply from the properties of the fake item. Indeed, images and objects are fabricated and falsified on a massive scale all the time in our our society; we call it entertainment. Once forgery it is uncovered the clues may become obvious in hindsight; but in real time the world is a different place. It is also worth mentioning that the people who eventually pushed Steve to admit his forgery were the same people who had been involved in this process all along. As the size and distance data (collected and analysed by all these same "incompetent experts") became increasingly troublesome, the questions for Gary and ultimately for Steve became more and more difficult to sidestep, until finally the truth came out. Publicity pushed this process forward, but I don't believe the online ranting actually contributed one single teeny bit of information that led any closer to finding out the real situation here. I in fact warned Gary weeks before he revealed the information on their website that the distance numbers, as presented, could cast doubt on the veracity of the image. We all expected new numbers to resolve this conflict; instead they verified it, doubt was cast, and secrets revealed. All of which happened through the exact same channels, and among the exact same cast of characters, as every other stage in this process.

On beyond the technical details of what might or might not have been examined in this case, I think there is a bigger lesson that underlies the problem here. I for one, and probably most people who looked at the forged woodpecker image, fell victim to logic and reasoning. It simply made no sense to fake an image, risk so much, and still leave the result so ambiguous. Hence we were not as worried about the risk of forgery as we should have been. The argument was sound, except for one flaw. We assumed implicitly that someone who would fake an Ivorybill image would do so logically and rationally. But clearly this is not true. Rationally someone in Steve's position would never take the risk of faking an Ivorybill image, good or bad. No one would. Even if you were out for money, the payoff is likely to be small and the shame from exposure great. Far more lucrative ways to get money dishonestly exist. So, if an Ivorybill hoaxer is not going to be motivated by reason or logic, ergo, reason and logic have no bearing on whether evidence is likely to be real. Steve's forgery made no sense, still makes no sense. We were correct to believe that it would be nonsensical to have faked that image. We were wrong, however, to conclude that this meant no one would do it. As we should have remembered, rationality is often a minor aspect of human nature.


At 3:57 PM, Blogger cyberthrush said...

Thanks for the clarifications and your take on things Bill. Lot of questions still left, but I imagine they'll slowly get covered.
From his former website (or maybe private email, I forget) I understood that Gary was working with DNR and USFW and that they requested he not give out location or name reviewers. I assumed from that they had major input on how info was disclosed, so if that is not so and gary is more in charge than I implied, my bad on that.

At 6:13 PM, Blogger emupilot said...

Bill, this might not be a good time to ask you, but have you (or anyone else to your knowledge) done analysis of the two Fielding Lewis photos? I assume it is impossible to eliminate the possibility of a decoy, but it seems like they could be checked to see if the proportions line up with Ivory-bill. They could also be checked to see if the postures are actually a little bit different between the two photos, which would eliminate the possibility of a single decoy.


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