In the hunt for endangered species, it is often said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” There is an alluring symmetry to that phrase, fitting nicely into the popular image of a universe that rests on elegant and concise laws. However, the order of our current reality may not match it without unsavory complexities.
Here is an elegantly simple equation: As goes the wilderness, so goes the wildlife.
A War That Roosevelt Lost
Prior to the Civil War, the southern old-growth swamp and forest extended from Texas to Illinois to North Carolina and Florida, and south to Cuba. This was the southern United States. After the Civil War, logging companies stripped the forest to such an extent that, by the 1930's, only a few relict old-growth forests remained. This forest was the required, exclusive habitat of a bird named the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, making it a specialist species, one that requires a narrow range of habitat, in contrast to one that can live in a wide variety of habitats, things like raccoons, starlings, goldfish, or sausage links. The bird is one of the largest woodpeckers on earth, spectacular, with a wingspan nearly three-feet wide, earning it the common name, Good God Bird.
As one might expect if one had informed expectations at that time, as the forest was stripped, the bird declined. By the 1920's, the species was rarely seen. Reasonably, ornithologists were alarmed. Some set out to survey and protect the species. In 1924, two ornithologists found a pair of nesting birds in Florida. They set up camp away from the nest. While away, two taxidermists armed with permits shot the birds. In 1932, a Louisiana politician, determined to prove the species was not in peril, got a hunting permit and shot one of the birds along the Tensas River, within an 80,000-acre remnant of southern old-growth forest named the Singer Tract, owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company and managed by the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company (CMLC). This tract was one of the last strongholds of the bird.
Nobody home. From the 1935 film, Singer Tract, Louisiana.
The CMLC rejected the proposal.
The efforts to save the tract actually served to accelerate the logging. In 1944, another Audubon staff member saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the tract by John's Bayou. He notified Audubon staffer and wildlife artist Don Eckelberry, who headed south to John's Bayou and followed the bird for two weeks. It was a female and had taken up roost in a tree. It was in a small patch of old-growth surrounded by clearcuts, watching as loggers took down the very trees it used for food. Eventually, the entire tract was logged and that bird was never seen again. It is survived by Eckelberry's artwork which is in a museum in Wausau, Wisconsin. This was the last certified sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Remains of Historic Chicago Mill and Lumber Company
building in West Helena, Arkansas. From Google Earth.
Apparently, logging set the birds free. Today, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a Category 6 bird, meaning it is "definitely or probably extinct". Probably, in that, numerous intriguing but controversial sightings of what may be Ivory-billed Woodpecker have occurred since 2004 (Collins 2011).
Thus, the urgency of small populations. Minimum viable populations are a trap door, below which a species free-falls to its death. Extirpation is urgent, Endangerment is critical, Extinction is forever. This is what we have got.
That phrase, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is cited when one fails to find a rare species in a given project area, the intent being restraint. Restrain everyone from the conclusion that it has been proven that the rare species does not exist in the project area, and that, therefore, they are free to drill, blast, clearcut, excavate, dump, defoliate, and pillage. This phrase is implicit in the summary section of many environmental impact reports. This phrase needs a larger context.
The Birth of an Industry
Here it is: It is well documented that some sixty years ago, the tobacco companies, under the advice of their lawyers, began a campaign to render unrecognizable the notion that there was a connection between tobacco and cancer. Their strategy was to pay scientists to skew research and to cherry-pick research that showed no link. But beyond that, they produced a steady stream of public statements that there was “no clinical evidence”, “no substantial evidence”, “no laboratory proof”, “unresolved”, “still open”, and not “statistically proven”, “scientifically proven”, “or “scientifically established”, and no “scientific causality”, “conclusive proof”, or “scientific proof” (Cave 2014). The objective was to confuse the public by manufacturing doubt which created a false controversy which led consumers to conclude that they were free to smoke and chew with impunity. Ingenious. One can picture the executives sitting back and lighting up congratulatory cigars. Suggested Surgeon General's Warning: Cigar celebrations protect free speech.
This is strange. Biologists may not have considered that they were using the same terminology that the tobacco companies used to create confusion, to “keep the controversy open.” On one hand, biologists use this argument to delay environmental degradation, and on the other hand, the tobacco companies used this argument to delay improved health. A two-edged sword. Although this was sixty years ago, they succeeded in befuddling the public, at least for a few moments, not about tobacco, but about the potency of absence. If something is not discovered, does that mean that it may exist? It is alleged, but we have ignored the proof, that there are television programs devoted to people who are searching for Bigfoot. Sasquatch. Yeti. How does one determine that something does not exist? Does it require absolute and infinite knowledge to make that statement? Apparently, some television producers want the public to believe so. Stay tuned for Episode Infinity: We Are Gods.
This is new. They argue, where there is a plethora of nothing, where there has been a consistent absence of empirical evidence of something, as negative results accumulate, possible existence always remains, and, here is the new idea, possible existence is powerful enough to balance or exceed any number of negative results. Thus, our world houses possible mermaids, unicorns, aliens, griffens, dragons, six-foot-eight tall invisible pucas, Dawkin's toaster, fairies, Sasquatch, elves, zombies, werewolves, angels on the head of a pin, and healthful cigarettes. What was once impossible is now possible. What is this? We know of no sober biologists searching for pucas.Disinformation Swarm
|How much do they pay you to act?|
This may remind many of the movie North by Northwest, an old Hitchcock thriller whose violent climax occurs on the forehead of Thomas Jefferson. In this movie, there is a train station scene. The protagonist, Cary Grant, is being chased by the police. To evade them he pays a railroad baggage handler, a “redhat”, to give him his uniform. Grant changes into the uniform and walks right by the police. The police find out he is dressed as a baggage handler, chase him into the train station, and lose him in a crowd of railroad baggage handlers, all wearing the same uniforms with the red hat.
Each of those men in the red hats is a possibility, the real wanted man. The more men in red hats, the more possibilities, and the more trouble there is identifying the real wanted man in the red hat.
In the U.S., the subject of climate change is controversial, or it is claimed to be controversial by those that dispute it – about 1 out of 3 citizens doubt it is getting warmer or that humans have caused it. Meanwhile, there is a swarm of disinformation about the level, history, and origin of atmospheric carbon, the historic temperature of the earth, climate cycles, environmental profiteering, scientific fraud, consensus, and dissent, and a hundred more topics. Each of these serves as a possible explanation for what is claimed to be a changing climate.
Men in red hats are everywhere. Now, it would be a restful thing if each possible explanation was weighted as to credibility, like horses at the racetrack. That mudder with the wooden leg, he’s has 25 to 1 odds. And the mare being wheeled off on a stretcher, don’t even think about it, she is 50 to 1. But that’s not the case here. Any possible explanation is being presented with weight equal to that of a carbon-fueled climate change. It is as if all the horses had 1 to 1 odds. This isn’t fair, right, or real. Everyone except the oddsmaker is going to lose his shirt.
There is data. Data is about as close to objective reality that a subjective being can get. However, data is going the way of the wooden pencil. It is as if, when someone is told it is 75 degrees out, he retorts, “That’s what you think!” So, maybe this the final product of the disinformation industry, when they assert that that objective reality is not objective reality, that the red hat is not a red hat. Dumbfounded in this new reality, there is suddenly no need to look for a man in a red hat.
It has been overheard, "We are living in a post-truth world.”
This is the larger context for what is thought to be evidence-based perception. While many aged ones amongst us hail from the 20th century, a world where numbers created realities - checkbooks, baseball scores, election outcomes, food exports, miles per gallon, hat sizes, megatons of TNT - this is approaching obsolescence. The information that we sift through on a daily basis to formulate perception, opinion, or decisions has become deliberately and inadvertently contaminated, even overwhelmed with skewed, cherry-picked, manufactured, and false data. Not content to contaminate the natural environment with purportedly harmless products, this swill has infiltrated our information, what we know, our minds, with the same. At the same time, the rational weight of evidence has been altered so that what is even remotely possible, virtually impossible, is considered of equal value, of equal potency to that which is demonstrably real.
This could make it hard to balance that checkbook. This is why children can't look under their beds at night. This is why witches were burned. This is what we have. As the absence of evidence increases, as more Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, Great Auks, Passenger Pigeons, Laughing Owls, and Carolina Parakeets drop out of sight, there is accumulating evidence that we no longer know and we no longer care about the difference.
Cave, Tamasin and Andy Rowell. 2014. A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain. Random House.
Collins, Michael D. 2011. Putative audio recordings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis).J. Acoust. Soc. Am., Vol. 129, No. 3, March 2011