Science and Truth - We’re All in It Together
THE greatest bird news of our lifetime occurred at the height of the George W. Bush administration. In April 2005, amid a pageant of flags and cabinet ministers in Washington, John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, announced that an ivory-billed woodpecker had been spotted for the first time in more than half a century in an Arkansas swamp.
President Bush pledged millions for habitat restoration. This and hundreds of other papers heralded the news. Public radio did one of those field reports in which you can hear the reporter’s canoe purling through swamp waters.
The news was exciting because the evidence of this new truth was overwhelming. There was an empirical article in the journal Science, an online video of the bird, audio clips reminiscent of its famous tinhorn squeak and seven sightings of the bird by credentialed experts.
Moreover, the ivory-bill is charismatic megafauna, regally beautiful and a natural mascot for fund-raising: a magnificent blast of snow in its trailing feathers, a jaunty red cap for a crown and a Harry Potteresque bit of white lightning down its neck. For it to appear after so many years was mythological, a message of forgiveness: maybe our environmental sins weren’t so bad. Not since the dove returned to Noah’s Ark has a bird’s appearance been so fraught.
Right away, though, there was controversy. Several academics, among them Richard Prum and Mark Robbins, questioned the evidence but held their criticisms when privately shown more and better data.
Then something new happened. Outsiders and other disbelievers kept on coming. A painter of birds, David Sibley (joined by several academics outside Cornell), dissected the video frame by frame and saw a common pileated woodpecker. Uh-oh. Then an amateur birder, Tom Nelson, began to gather the Internet commenters on his own blog. For the next several years, tomnelson.blogspot.com was a watering hole where weekend bird enthusiasts, field guides and others produced reams of counter-evidence and arguments, and so completely dismantled each piece of ivory-bill evidence that few outside the thin-lipped professionals at Cornell still believed in the bird.