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1 October 2006 The public perception of science and reported confirmation of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas
Jerome A. Jackson
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Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a) took issue with my “Perspectives in Ornithology” article in The Auk (Jackson 2006a) on events related to the reported confirmation of at least one Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis; hereafter “ivory-bill”) in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas. What they presented is ad hominem, focused more on the messenger than on the message. The message was that the evidence given by Fitzpatrick et al. (2005a, b) presents an interesting hypothesis, but no confirmation of the existence of a living ivory-bill. This conclusion was reached by independent scientists within weeks of the announcement of the reported discovery (Nemésio and Rodrigues 2005; an unpublished manuscript by R. O. Prum, M. B. Robbins, B. W. Benz, and myself, which was shared with Fitzpatrick and his colleagues, was tentatively accepted by PLoS Biology following peer review but was withdrawn by the authors). In the past year, these authors have been echoed by others (e.g., Sibley et al. 2006) with tenable alternative hypotheses. The burden of proof for the existence of ivory-bills in Arkansas is with those who claim confirmation. Nothing in Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a, b) strengthens the argument that the woodpecker exists. The answer to this dilemma is not found in dissection of minor details, but with unequivocal evidence of a living ivory-bill.

In summer 2005, when news media were filled with stories of the reported rediscovery, I was invited by Spencer Sealy, Editor of The Auk, to write a “perspective” piece on the unprecedented events. A perspective is much like an editorial. I was asked to write it because of my more than 40 years of work focusing on the behavioral ecology of woodpeckers, and more than 30 years studying and searching for ivory-bills in both the United States and Cuba. These efforts resulted in several publications, including the Birds of North America account for the species (Jackson 2002) and a book, In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Jackson 2004, 2006b). In addition to my expertise, I was also independent of the discovery efforts. The perspective of those involved in the discovery was, by then, well known. That I had a different perspective was also known.

Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a) and Fenwick et al. (2006) suggested that my “Perspectives” article was published without proper editorial protocols. That is not true. Such an article offers the point of view of an individual or individuals with recognized expertise on the subject. Perspectives are usually labeled as such and, indeed, my “Perspectives” article in The Auk (Jackson 2006a) was so labeled at the top of page 1. Perspectives in The Auk are usually invited and usually not subjected to the typical peer review system. Mine was not and, contrary to Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a:587), I have not claimed that it was. Because I questioned aspects of the reported rediscovery of the ivory-bill, however, I would have been remiss not to seek peer review. Indeed, Editor Sealy was anxious that I have the article reviewed; I did, and I forwarded reviewer comments to him.

Thirteen colleagues reviewed my manuscript and provided criticism, insight, and suggestions for improvement. Ten are acknowledged in the article; three asked not to be listed. While I am indebted for reviewer advice and for the efforts of the editor, I take full responsibility for the final perspective. In spite of accusations of error presented by Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a), I stand firmly behind the substance of the arguments I made.

In their rebuttal to Jackson (2006a), Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a) dwelt on semantics rather than implications, used quotations out of context, exaggerated the significance of their data, and used untruths and half truths as weapons of mass deception seemingly targeted at a public audience. I will not dissect details of their rebuttal except to demonstrate examples of their approach.

The word that catches a reader's attention here is “untruths.” I agonized over using the word, but it characterizes their approach (Fitzpatrick et al. 2006a:591) in referring to my citation (Jackson 2006a) of anonymous references: “He [Jackson] cites five 'anonymous' authors in arguing that science was compromised, but these were opinion pieces written by journalists and bloggers. None purported to be presenting a scientific case, and none was presented by anyone directly involved in scientific research.”

The truth is that I cited seven anonymous references and not one was used in a context arguing that science was compromised. The first (Anonymous 2005a) referred to a transcript of the 60 Minutes television program that focused on Cornell's search. I included it to provide an exact quotation of what Tim Gallagher said. The second, third, and fourth anonymous references (Anonymous 2005b, c, d) were to a U.S. Department of the Interior news publication from which I quoted a statement recounting the “dramatic discovery and confirmation of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker” and noted that “The U.S. Department of the Interior has done an exceptional job of 'selling' the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.” The fifth reference (Anonymous 2005e) was to a brief editorial in World Birdwatch, a publication of BirdLife International, the title of which proclaimed “Agreement over Ivory-billed Woodpecker Sightings,” though it was well known that there were scientists who did not agree that ivory-bills had been confirmed. World Birdwatch has since corrected that statement (Anonymous 2005f; see Nemésio et al. 2005). The sixth reference (Anonymous 2005g) was to an editorial in North American Birds that suggested specific applications and amplifications of the “ABA Code of Ethics” with regard to birders searching for ivory-bills. The seventh reference (Anonymous 2005h) was to an article in Audubon Mississippi that described a pledge that local chapters had made to respect the ivory-bill and its habitat. None, except the transcription of the 60 Minutes program, was from the mainstream media and, to be certain of the quotation, I used not only the transcript, but also the actual video of Tim Gallagher speaking. I cited no anonymous bloggers.

Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a) took issue with my use of the phrase “faith-based ornithology.” I stand by my assertion that the declaration of confirmation of the existence of ivory-bills in Arkansas was based on faith, because the data presented thus far have been subject to multiple interpretations by independent scientists.

In many ways, there has been more focus on the public perception of science than on science itself. This is not about whether or not ivory-bills could be in eastern Arkansas. We agree that they could be; we all want them to be there. This is not about the need to protect old-growth forest and link patches to create corridors of habitat that can provide for wide-ranging, old-growth species. We agree that this is an important conservation goal. This is about truth as defined by science, as opposed to truth defined by the perception of science. It is about the integrity of science.

Data and analyses presented have provoked legitimate, differing interpretations and professional opinions. These are not only acceptable but appropriate, healthy, and essential to the scientific process—and to good conservation. However, neither self-deception nor deliberate deception has a place in either science or conservation; in the end they can undermine the fabric of both. Whatever else they are, science and conservation are human endeavors, subject to all the foibles of humans: our biases, our desires, our emotions, and our interrelationships with others. They also are subject to errors of carelessness and misinterpretation but, through the processes of science, these are usually remedied. To an extent, the peer-review process so frequently mentioned by Fitzpatrick and his colleagues is a system that not only assures some control over the quality of scientific publications, but also tempers the influence of biases and other human frailties on the outcome of scientific endeavor. But the peer-review process sometimes fails.

Marketing campaigns—promoting everything from ideas to products to politics—often take advantage of the respect given to science. In advertisements for medications, for example, actors wear white laboratory coats and are shown in laboratory settings. Their appearances are often coupled with authoritative uses of numbers. If something is quantified, the thinking goes, it must be accurate. Perhaps not. I support the searches that have gone on in Arkansas and believe that more searches for this species are needed elsewhere. However, I still maintain that marketing was used to sell “confirmation” of the existence of ivory-bills in Arkansas when data were inadequate to stand up to scientific scrutiny.

In defense of their assertion that observers were not in error when they said that the bird they observed at 100 m or more was “much larger than” a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a:588) suggested that I had previously stated that ivory-bills were much larger. They quoted my description of two specimens laid side by side (Jackson 2004: 3): “By itself the Pileated was impressive; next to the Ivory-bill it was puny.” This out-of-context quotation amounts to deception. My next sentence (Jackson 2004: 3) clarifies my description: “It was not that the body of the Ivory-bill was so much larger than that of the Pileated, but rather that the bill of the Ivory-bill was so much larger and so different.” Observers of putative ivory-bills in Arkansas did not comment on the relative size of the bill or length of the neck of the bird they saw—two characteristics that a keen observer might have discerned. I stand by my assertion.

If the assumption one begins with is faulty, the outcome of the analysis, no matter how sophisticated, is also likely to be faulty. I submit that, because of low sample sizes and lack of details associated with mensural techniques, most of the numbers presented in the rebuttal by Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a) are relatively meaningless. I also hasten to add that I know ivory-bills are larger than Pileated Woodpeckers. That was never an issue. The issue that precipitated Fitzpatrick et al.'s (2006a) rebuttal was my contention that it is not scientifically defensible to state that a bird seen for a few seconds as it is flying away 100 m or so distant must be an ivory-bill because it was “much larger than a Pileated” as reported by several of the observers. This issue is discussed at length in Jackson (2006a) and I stand by my assertion.

In regard to the reported length of the seven observations of birds described as ivory-bills in Rosenberg et al. (2005), Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a) are correct that I erred in suggesting that none was reported as being longer than the four-second video taken by Luneau. One was reported as “about 7 seconds,” another as “just under 10 seconds.” The fact remains that both the sightings and the video are too short and have too many problems to inspire confidence.

Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a:590) suggest that I “dismissed” their evidence. To the contrary, I examined their evidence very carefully in light of our knowledge of the species and my experience as a scientist who has specialized in studying behavioral ecology and variation in woodpeckers, and I have come to a different conclusion. I have acknowledged the possibilities suggested by their reports. In Jackson (2006a) I referred to their “tantalizing reports” (p. 11), noted that their “use of ARUs has provided some tantalizing possibilities” (p. 12), and referred to the hope they have given us. I also stated my professional opinion that their evidence is inconclusive.

In regard to my interpretation of the Luneau video, Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a:590) again quoted me out of context. They suggested that I made only a “cursory comparison” of their photograph with known ivory-bill photographs and art work. My statement was that “even a cursory comparison of this figure with the photographs…or art…shows that the white…is too extensive….” (Jackson 2006a:8). They turned a figure of speech into a statement of fact. My own comparisons of the white on the bird in the Luneau video were frame-by-frame and were conducted in the context of having examined and measured more than 200 ivory-bill specimens.

Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a:588) asserted that their record of ivory-bills was “unanimously accepted by a state records committee.” It was not (Anonymous 2006a). A recent news story (by the wife of one of the Arkansas searchers) revealed that the vote was four to one (Peacock 2006). The dissenter's reasoning included the following: “For something like an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, you have to be pretty sure…. If you're wrong, it's like crying wolf. You have to be exceptionally certain.” The dissenter called it “'strange' that Cornell biologists interpreted every facet of the 4-second film as supportive of their interpretation that it is of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker” (Peacock 2006).

An error made by Fitzpatrick et al. (2005a) suggests that none of the 17 authors of the article read one of the references they cited. Fitzpatrick et al. (2005a: 1460) asserted that the last ivory-bills documented in Cuba were photographed by George Lamb in the 1950s. If they had read the paper cited (Lamb 1957) as documentation, they would know that no photographs were mentioned. If they had read my account (Jackson 2004:200) of Lamb's work, they would have found reference to a letter that suggested that Lamb only saw ivory-bills at roost time when there was likely inadequate light to take photographs. Published records suggest that John Dennis took the first and last photographs of ivory-bills in Cuba, in 1948; one was published in The Auk (Dennis 1948). This error of citation, however, ends on a happy note. Fitzpatrick and his colleagues have apparently located a photo that includes an Ivory-billed Woodpecker—taken by Lamb without the benefit of a telephoto lens. I applaud their efforts and success in locating this photo.

I report here a factual error in my perspective (Jackson 2006a) that was not identified by Fitzpatrick et al. The error is of no significance to the substance of the article, but should be corrected. In discussing efforts to restore ivory-bills, I mentioned the possible role of captive breeding and used the Laysan Duck (Anas laysanensis) as an example of captive breeding allowing reintroduction of a species. Although this duck is bred in zoos, I erred in assuming that captive breeding was involved in the reintroduction. It was not. Birds introduced to establish new populations were wild-caught individuals (Rebecca Woodward pers. comm.; Gummer 2006).

In addition to criticisms of my perspective on the science of the search for ivory-bills in eastern Arkansas, Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a) found fault with my assessment of the politics of the effort. They specifically took issue with my statement about the allocation of funds by the federal government for ivory-bill searches and conservation. I cited Dalton (2005), a science writer for Nature, a journal comparable in stature to Science, who indicated that funding for the efforts was not new money, but that it was money re-allocated from other projects, including projects focusing on other endangered species. Fitzpatrick et al. (2006a) quoted Department of the Interior administrators as saying this is not true, but their denial seems to rest on the definition of “allocation.” Perhaps somehow the money had not been “allocated,” but this is semantics. The bottom line is that projects concerned with other endangered species received less funding than biologists had anticipated as money was put into the ivory-bill effort. I confirmed this with federal biologists involved with other endangered species, as did Dalton (2005) and more recently Crewdson (2006). Crewdson noted that biologists spoke only on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Biologists I spoke with expressed similar misgivings.

Certainly the federal effort in support of the ivory-bill recovery effort is unprecedented. An initial federal funding package of $10.2 million was announced in the spring of 2005 (Anonymous 2005i). More funding has been announced since, including a postdoctoral position and a senior biologist position (Anonymous 2006b). It is instructive to compare this level of funding to the median of all federal and state expenditures for an endangered species in 2002 of about $14,000 (Trombulak et al. 2006). While I acknowledge that many species will benefit from these expenditures, the focus of the spending is on the ivory-bill. The conservation efforts are good, but does the end justify the means of achieving them? The focus of the efforts should be on the ecosystem rather than on the bird. As one journalist commented: “Conservation dollars are too precious and too hard to come by to be tied to the tail feathers of a bird that may not even exist” (Hendershot 2006).

I have long championed the possibility that ivory-bills have survived into recent decades (Jackson 1989, 2006a), but if they have not, the conservation momentum gained by announcement of their “discovery” should not be squandered (Jackson 2006b, c). We must capitalize on growing recognition of the (1) importance of old-growth forests, (2) positive roles of seasonal flooding in riverine forests, (3) need for extensive areas of forest, and (4) wisdom of creating habitat corridors linking these extensive forests, these green pearls of life. We must also focus on the restoration of integrity to science.


I thank J. Acorn, W. E. Davis, Jr., C. Elphick, C. Hagner, B. J. S. Jackson, J. Kricher, P. Pechacek, M. B. Robbins, N. Snyder, N. Tanner, A. Towne, and J. Zickefoose for critical comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. I thank Rebecca Woodward for providing information on the introduction of Laysan Ducks on Midway Atoll.

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Jerome A. Jackson "The public perception of science and reported confirmation of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas," The Auk 123(4), 1185-1189, (1 October 2006).[1185:TPPOSA]2.0.CO;2
Received: 13 July 2006; Accepted: 1 July 2006; Published: 1 October 2006
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