Thursday, October 12, 2006

Another national Ivory-bill hysteria begins to fade

Gradually, over the next couple of years, I predict that the mainstream media and the general public will essentially abandon the "Ivory-bill rediscovery" story, and organizations like the USFWS/Aububon/The Nature Conservancy/etc will abandon it too. (The Birdforum/Lunatic Fringe crowd will continue to find tantalizing Ivory-bill evidence far into the future).

The chronology of United States Ivory-bill claims here provides some useful historical perspective.

The last major Ivory-bill hysteria in this country occurred in a few years surrounding 1970. In those years, we had the Dennis/Big Thicket (Texas) Ivory-bill excitement, the Agey/Heinzmann claims (Florida), the Lowery photos (Louisiana), and the Santee (South Carolina) claims. I don't think the chronological clustering of those high-profile events is any coincidence--recent, "credible" Ivory-bill reports no doubt inspired other Ivory-bill searchers to get far too enthusiastic when any sort of weak "evidence" was found.

I think it's interesting that following the early 1970s, a good quarter-century evidently passed without truly massive excitement about purported Ivory-bills in the US. By the mid-1970s, I think it's likely that interested people had a belly-full of recent, high-profile Ivory-bill "false dawns", and with that mindset, the usual fleeting glimpses and double-knockies just weren't very exciting any more.

By 1999, I think enough time had passed that our collective "false dawn" memories had faded somewhat. Thus, starting in 1999, Kulivan begat the 2002 Pearl River search, which begat Cornell/Arkansas in 2004, which begat Auburn/Florida in 2005.

By now, I think people are again getting a belly-full of false dawns. When upcoming search seasons in Florida (and everywhere else) yield more goose eggs (and deer bleats, and maybe branch stubs), an ever-larger proportion of the public will tune out.

In some ways, I think periods of "Ivory-bill hysteria" can be compared to some historical financial hysterias (ie bubbles). Both types of hysteria can last a long time, but when they finally burst, it's in the collective memory for a long time, and the hysterical peaks are not reached again soon (if ever).

After this current Ivory-bill hysteria fades into the rear-view mirror, I think we'll be facing a very long period of general public/media disinterest in flimsy Ivory-bill rediscovery claims. Two or three decades from now, maybe the general public will once again be ready for another round of belief.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a waste of good careers.

Amy Lester said...

Great post, Tom.

If I allow my mind to idle freely in the pastures of sociological hoo-haw, I note that both these recent "peaks" appear to coincide with peaks of anti-science sentiment in the US.

I was too young to be paying close attention in the early 70s but was that not also near the time of peak interest in Bigfoot, Nessie, poltergeists, "psychic phenomena" and UFOs?

And the IBWO rediscovery occurred very near the peak of the intelligent design movement, orchestrated by a University with a widely publicized creationist club (as well as a class on "intelligent design" co-taught by a creationist). That movement was itself stoke and inspired by a nearly official anti-science policy adopted by the ruling Republican party, which used appointees to muzzle or spin the findings of NASA scientists (remember George Deutsch?), climatologists, and clinicians.

In short, the time was "ripe" for a big IBWO rediscovery in 2004 and early 2005.

2006 is pushing it. I suspect 2007 will be remembered as a very disappointing year for vintage IBWO sightings.

And yes I'm sitting in my armchair and pulling all this out of my butt so everyone should feel free to drive his/her bus through my the gaping roost holes in my arguments.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I was going to say "Nice Post" but Amy beat me to it.

It's all spinning down nicely in a trajectory that was all too predictable. Coldfusion went before, afterall.

But I still keep coming back to what the now defunct Carpenterio Real had to say. This would have all been on the backs of Fitzcrow and the CLO, but Auburn has let them off the hook.

It will be remembered as much as a Hillcrow story as a Fitzcrow story. Sad really, because Fitzcrow deserves more of the (dis)credit. But hey, he has escaped like a crayfish in muddy water.

Sometimes good things happen to bad people.

Anonymous said...

"In some ways, I think periods of "Ivory-bill hysteria" can be compared to some historical financial hysterias."

Or even religious hysterias, for that matter. If you take a good look over the history of the US, periods of fervant fundamentalism have occured in a noticable cycle as well. From burning witches at the stake to certain dominionist tendencies toward forcing the anti-science ID movement - which Amy mentions - down our throats, different types of fanatacism will emerge in any endeavor.

Speaking of which, didn't I once read somewhere that certain ornithologists felt Mr. Nelson should be burned at the stake? Hmmm....

Anonymous said...

But will Fitz, Remsen, Rosenberg, M. Collins, Gallagher, Harrison, and the rest of the "in denial" crowd ever admit that they blew it and yanked everyone's chains on the basis of hearsay?

No.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous wrote...
"What a waste of good careers."

Do you mean as in "ruined," or as in "they could have been doing real science"?

I guess only time will tell, but I don't see any careers crashing and burning so far. If anything, Fitz, Rems, et al. are rolling along without skipping a beat.

And we continue to hear about this and that upcoming search for winter-spring 06-07. I hope that Tom is right and that this silliness begins to fizzle sooner than later. [It wouldn't be silly if there really were IBWOs out there, but there aren't....sorry] But, it looks to me like they are simply regrouping after the setback of Sibley et al., zero IBWO confirmations, etc. and that they could milk this for several more years at least.

Anonymous said...

Ok, but I fear you Skeptics are throwing in the towel a little bit soon. We still have the joys of John Arvin's Texas search to look forward to.

And this time I am boldly predicting that Mr. Arvin will not announce IBWOs unless he has a good pic.

I know I was wrong the last two times. But this is Texas. I have full faith in all Texas leaders.

What could go wrong?

Signed,

TB

Anonymous said...

How can "The Conservation Story of the Century" ever really fade?

As most anyone who has been paying attention knows, this never came close to being the "conservation story of the century". No more than Britney Spears is the embodiment of beauty, Steven Spielberg is a genius or Robin Williams is still funny.

It is and was all about marketing and anyone who thought that finding a few thought-to-be-extinct woodpeckers was a bigger story than the deforestation and deicing of huge areas of the planet, while the entire atmosphere was being changed by unabated anthropogenic carbon emissions, also must think that the Audubon Society is really a conservation group and that drinking shade-grown coffee actually helps the environment.

Upper middle-class birders thought this was a big deal. Why do you think they announced it on NPR and why do you think they call NPR National Precious Radio. The audience for this event (and the people who bought the books, bought the cap, went to see the video and got the IBWO credit card) are the same people who have a lifestyle with such a huge carbon footprint that they would make Sasquatch blush.

The IBWO story was for that demographic what the “toddler stuck in the well” was for working class Americans. Something to take them away from their consumer-based humdrum lives for a short while and allow them to feel a more genuine emotion than they typically did when watching their favorite reality show. And that toddler in the well was to the issue of real children’s issues what the IBWO is and was to conservation.

Sure it’s easy to fool and entertain the American public. And that is what the CLO, TNC and others did. Something has to get this culture from one Superbowl to the next.
And maybe, as Tom points out, something now has to get us from one IBWO “sighting” to the next.

Amy Lester said...

Nicely done, anon at 6:01.

something now has to get us from one IBWO “sighting” to the next.

Have the killer bees made it to Boston yet?

Anonymous said...

...Sure it’s easy to fool and entertain the American public. And that is what the CLO, TNC and others did. Something has to get this culture from one Superbowl to the next.

I love you, man! Your rant was the best thing I've read on this blog, bar none.

DoubleTap said...

Amy,

No need to tell us you are sitting in your armchair pulling things out your butt.

The bird still flies and the species will most likely outlast
any of the coconuts on this page.

Anonymous said...

".. something now has to get us from one IBWO “sighting” to the next. "

Carpenterio Real, is that you? Come back as the Carpenterio. It's ok. We miss you.

Anonymous said...

"What a waste of good careers."

"Do you mean as in "ruined," or as in "they could have been doing real science"?"

Yes, I mean all of that and more. If you are Dr. Fitzcrow, you don't recover from something like this. You had a reputation. A good reputation. Dr. Hillcrow? Ahh, he's young and comes across as a dupe and will ultimately be forgiven. He may or may not go on to great things.

But Fitzcrow hears the snide comments from Veracruz. The jokes at CLO's expense. They will continue the rest of his career. When you are on the top, plenty of people want to knock you off.

But I feel sorry for all the good agency people. US F&WS people who will have IBWO "recovery" team on their resumes. And the years of jokes that will come from that!

Amy Lester said...

The bird still flies

I'm thinking of a memorable Johnny Cash photo right now.

Anonymous said...

The bird still flies and the species will most likely outlast
any of the coconuts on this page.

If anyone can find them that is. What with populations popping up here, there, and everywhere full documentation is surely just round the corner! Sorry, been hitting the crack pipe again.....
I have no doubt that our Lord high master Stringclodes will lead us to the IBWO promised land, he's the best....

Anonymous said...

"But I feel sorry for all the good agency people. US F&WS people who will have IBWO "recovery" team on their resumes. And the years of jokes that will come from that"

I would argue that feeling sorry for the Recovery Team is misplaced. They purposely chose to redirect precious resources away from real endangered species recovery efforts, where they could have put to far better immediate use. Why? Internal political (read  career) gain is a possibility that immediately comes to my skeptic mind. Certainly not something unknown with the Department of Interior (apparent Abramoff – Gale Norton connection as an example). Last summer I heard a colleague who is involved in the conservation world say that “the USFWS is to endangered species as FEMA was to New Orleans”. I thought at first that he was way off base, but the more I learn about the USFWS, the more I think he may have had a point.

coyotegulch said...

Hi Tom:

Thanks for the great blog.

I love this post for several reasons, but the commenter regarding the "upper middle-class" birders and how this story was tailor-made just for their consumption was abso-freakin-lutely right on the money--literally. Just look at the money that's been given to research groups, the whole credit card garbage, etc...the IBWO as a marketing phenomenon? The whole concept is disgusting! And speaking of NPR...

I just went to the NPR site this afternoon and listened to the Zeiss expedition audio; I was FLOORED that nobody thought the 'strong knocking sounds' were gun fire...which they WERE. Of course, a large percent of NPR listeners would not have a clue what gun fire sounded like. It was a cringe-worthy moment, during which I vowed to NEVER listen to NPR again...

I have, however, listened to the 1935 recordings and I have to say that they sound nothing like the recordings gathered by the U of Windsor team in Florida last year. I have pretty good ears, and to me the woodpeckers in 1935 were a chatty bunch. How could their behavior have changed so drastically in 60 years if these recent recordings are IBWOs?

Just another thing that makes you go "Hmmmm."