Watching Ghost Bird at the Dryden

I was curious (especially after reading Dayna Papaleo's positive review in The City Newspaper) and headed to George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Ghost Bird.

The film lays out a tale of hope and skepticism. The ivory-billed woodpecker was one of the largest woodpeckers in the world, but logging of its natural habitat in the southeastern United States, and (to a lesser extent) hunting resulted in its extinction. Declaring something "extinct" is a fickle thing because something is only extinct until one is seen again. And that's what happened … sort of, anyway. A bird watcher managed to barely catch a few frames of video of a large woodpecker in an Arkansas swamp that was thought to be an ivory-billed. Years of searching yielded no conclusive evidence (nor any tangential evidence like the tell-tale large nesting holes). Further muddying the search was that pileated woodpeckers — common in that area — could be almost as large and (to all but the best-trained eyes) look a lot like the ivory-billed.

As such, it's more a documentary about the complicated interplay between science, money, and hope. True scientific research (that is, research that does not have a specific economic or ideological goal) seeks the truth. But as researchers rely on money and jobs as much as anyone else, this creates pressure to conduct research that gets research dollars rather than what should be done next (in an interview with director Scott Crocker by Ben Radford, Crocker relays (sans formal attribution) that the "process of acquiring funding for research [is] akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall: whatever project sticks gets the green light. This 'stickiness factor' of proposals is often determined by very unscientific agendas having more to do with commercial and public relation interests.") And then there's the hope — against all odds — that humans did not actually wipe out a species.

As a believer in scientific research, I was rather shaken to learn that a pair of scientists had their paper silenced because it called into doubt the video depicted an ivory-billed woodpecker. I firmly believed that science was immutable to outside forces — that reasoned dissent was so integral to science that it could not be bribed away. Finding that I'm wrong breaks a few of the fundamental rules I had about what to believe.

I had relied on peer-reviewed and approved studies as the gold standard. But that assumed the review process was open and any rigorous argument would be published for review. And so (as I did a couple weeks ago) I'll revisit global warming and specifically whether it's significantly caused by humans. I understood that the self-perpetuating nature of research funding meant that (at least today) research projects whose thesis supported human-caused global-warming theory would be more strongly funded through traditional means of government and educational institutions. However, other wealthy interests were equally providing funding to discredit the theory: petroleum companies in particular would derive great benefit if global warming were not caused by man, so I had a high level of confidence in human-caused global-warming because of that balance.

Alas, the publishers of reviews are biased. So given that new information, where do I turn? Unfortunately I'm cornered into the milquetoast "the results are inconclusive." In other words, if I can find a rationale for significant bias, I can only ascertain that I can't confirm or deny the claims made as a result.

So let me formally split global warming. I don't think there is significant bias in the study of global temperatures, so based on research I've seen, the global average surface temperature is increasing. But as for the human influence on that warming trend, because of the bias from political, social, and economic forces, I cannot determine a reliable source. That said, I have yet to see where the addition of car exhaust, tires, garbage, or pollution has improved a natural habitat, so I'll continue to work to reduce my ecological impact.


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