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The Hobbs/Becher debate stimulated me to read the article of Sibley et al. and the reply of Fitzpatrick, et al. in the journal Science magazine. See 
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/311/5767/1555a.pdf

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/311/5767/1555b.pdf

By contrast to what happened last year,  I like the way science is being done this year better.

April 28, 2005 the Cornell team announced  the re-finding of a single male Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBWO) in Arkansas on the Scienceexpress website. See http://sibleyguides.com/ivorybilled.htm. Our own Tim Barksdale is one of a long list of co-authors. The announcement set off a great celebration of rejoicing that a bird thought to be extinct still lived!

The Cornell team evidently went public before it had time to analyze all of its data, especially its thousands of hours of sound recordings. The team had made great efforts to keep its work a secret, but the secret apparently was leaking out. So Cornell published prematurely to "get ahead of the story" -- i.e. get ahead of  the rumors.

In mid-summer, news also leaked out that Jerome Jackson (a leading authority on IBWO), Richard Crum and our own Mark Robbins (both also distinguished  ornithologists) were about to publish a paper challenging the Cornell discovery. See http://nuthatch.typepad.com/ba/2005/07/upcoming_paper_.html#more. Actually, as best I understand it, they were only going to challenge Cornell's conclusions about what the Luneau video showed.

The leak about the Jackson, et al paper set off a nearly hysterical debate within the birding community, with some folks attacking the unpublished paper  and others arguing its case.  The debate became an emotionally-charged flame war on BIRDCHAT and several other listservs.

Think about it. An emotionally-charged debate about one paper published prematurely and another not yet published!

The Jackson/Crum/Robbins team  never published their paper. Cornell did some more analysis of its data and produced some sound recordings. One member of the Jackson team (I forget which one) made the mistake of saying publicly that the sound recordings settled the matter. It appeared that the Jackson team pulled their paper because the sound recordings convinced its authors they were wrong.

Since last summer, there have been symposia at which ornithologists have argued the Cornell evidence pro and con, and Jerome Jackson has since published a paper in the Auk. (The additional Cornell data, including the sound recordings, evidently did not settle the matter for him). Efforts to find IBWO in the field have been redoubled this winter. That's the way science works. Scientists argue about existing data and look for additional data to settle the argument. The emotional volume is still turned up too high, but it is coming down.

What I like about the present debate is that both the Sibley team article and the Fitzpatrick team rebuttal are published side-by-side in the same journal. (One cogent criticism of the Jackson team paper was that its authors did not plan to publish it in Science). I also like the fact that both articles provide illustrations so that I can see what the authors are talking about.

I don't want to reopen debates about the sound recordings, sight records, etc. here. Suffice it to say that allegations that IBWO still lives in Arkansas are somewhat like allegations in the early stages of the occupation of Iraq that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Lots of credible sources say it's there. But unless IBWO is rediscovered and better photos are made, the day will come when the public will lose faith in the evidence we now have.

Meanwhile, science is doing what science is supposed to do. Scientists are arguing about existing data and searching for more data.


Bob Fisher
Independence, Missouri
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