Black Swans and Ivory Bills

Did you listen to Gene Sparling telling the story of seeing the Ivory Bill? Do, if you haven’t – it’s a real treat. Apart from anything else he’s funny as hell, in a marvelously relaxed leisurely drawling way. I first heard it by accident, I turned the radio on at random and in the middle, so didn’t know what it was at first, some guy talking about being out in the woods and what a remarkable place it was, I wasn’t paying much attention until he started talking about a bird – and then when he said ‘I thought “that’s the biggest pileated woodpecker I’ve ever seen”‘ I was galvanized and began paying very close attention indeed.

And it’s not just a good story, it’s also interesting epistemologically. It’s kind of a black swan story, kind of a story about falsification, and the difficulty or impossibility of being sure of a negative. It’s about the fact we’ve talked about here more than once: the fact that not having found X does not necessarily mean there is no X to find. It could mean that, but it could just mean you haven’t found it. And it can be very very difficult to know which.

Because Sparling wouldn’t let himself think he’d seen what he suspected he’d seen, at first – in fact for quite awhile. Why? Because he didn’t want to be ridiculed as a loony, a Big foot finder, an alien abduction believer. And he thought he couldn’t have seen what he thought he’d seen. But actually, on consideration, the possibility that it was what he thought it might be except that it couldn’t be (because Ivory bills are extinct, he said solemnly, they’ve been extinct my whole life) is really not nearly as far-fetched as either Big foot or alien abductions. And Big foot, in turn, is not as far-fetched as alien abductions. So there’s a scale of far-fetchedness here: 1, 2, 3.

Here’s why the Ivory Bill possibility is not in Big foot territory, at least in my view. 1) It was last seen in the ’40s, which is only six decades ago – not a very long time. 2) There are some swampy hard-to-navigate places in its old range where people wouldn’t have seen it if it had been there. Those two things are enough, really. Not to make it likely that it wasn’t extinct after all, but to make it not absurd. As Sparling was persuaded. The only mention he made of the bird he saw at first was a posting to a message board of his canoe club, where it was his custom to post notes on trips. He said he’d seen a very odd pileated woodpecker, which was very large, and had the black and white colouring on his wings reversed. People in the know would know what that meant – but he didn’t say it in so many words. And that’s all he said and all he intended to say – but another canoe club person emailed him and said ‘Gene, you have to do some research on this, you have a responsibility.’ So he did. And what’s interesting is that the research told him what he hadn’t known: that the bird’s known range included Arkansas, where Sparling had seen his bird; he had thought it didn’t, that the range was in Texas but not Arkansas. Once he learned that, the possibility seemed less outlandish – so he went ahead and risked being seen as a wacko.

But there it is, you see. No one had seen an Ivory Bill since the ’40s – but there were Ivory Bills there, all the same. No one knew there were, but there were nevertheless. That’s how it is.

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