Tuesday, August 02, 2005

How science works

First, a survey of some second-growth forest revealed some grainy video that seemed like it might show the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. The species was thought to be extinct, though rumors of its existence persisted in the US and Cuba.

Then Rick Prum (formerly of KU) and Mark Robbins, the collection manager in the bird division at the KU Natural History Museum, raised questions about what exactly that video showed. Did the white flash on the video show feathers under the wing or on top of the wing? It wasn't clear, and it was possible that by diverting resources to this previously logged forest, more critical habitat was being ignored.

Then the original team, including experts from the Cornell Ornithology Lab went through hours of automatic recordings made in the area, and found distinctive calls.

Recordings Convince Skeptics That Ivory Bills Are Not Extinct - New York Times:
Even the most skeptical ornithologists now agree. More important, even the skeptics now say that newly presented recordings shows that at least two of the birds are living in Arkansas.

Richard Prum, an ornithologist at Yale University, one of several scientists who had challenged evidence in the most recent rediscovery of the ivory bill, said in an interview that he was now "strongly convinced that there is at least a pair of ivory bills out there."

Mark Robbins, an ornithologist at the University of Kansas, and also a critic, listened to the same recordings with a graduate student and said, "We were absolutely stunned."

He said the recordings, provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, were "astounding." Of a critical paper that he and Dr. Prum and another scientist had submitted to the Public Library of Science, he said, "It's all moot at this point; the bird's here."
Science is a process. The original team was right to publish the results they got. The skeptics were right in questioning the results, and the original team did what they needed to overcome the objections.

That's the scientific process at work.

If someone is still arguing about this video and the existence of ivory-bills in 50 years, that won't be science anymore.