Saturday, July 30, 2005

Seeing Is Believing

To much fanfare, Science magazine announced in its on-line edition of April 28, 2005, that the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird believed extinct--at least on the North American mainland; some might still be found in Cuba--had been spotted in the Big Woods region of east Arkansas in 2004 and early 2005. A blurred 4 second film strip was presented as evidence. Now, Andrew C. Revkin reports in the New York Times, other ornithologists have begun to question the sightings, in large measure because no one has seen the bird or birds since then and they find the video unconvincing. James Gorman writing for the New York Times on July 24, just three days after his colleague--the Times seems oddly obsessed with this story--attempts to flesh out the controversy over the ivory-bill. He shows that several of the critics believe that the people who reported seeing the big woodpecker firmly believe they saw it. More to the point here, Gorman makes clear that the birders who went into the swamp were primed to see an ivory-billed woodpecker.

A skeptic by nature, I doubted the initial reports, although I'm willing to grant that there might be a few ivory-billed woodpeckers in the swamps of Arkansas or Louisiana or in Cuba. But I'm interested in this case because it focuses attention on the larger questions not only of how we identify positively what we see but also how we tend to see what we are prepared at a deep unconscious level to see. It's not just a question of faulty identification either because the people involved often know the difference between, say, a pileated woodpecker and an ivory-billed woodpecker, a coyote and a wolf, a grizzly and a black bear. Sometimes the alternatives are less apparent. Thus, there are persistent, periodic reports in Florida of a black cat, slightly smaller than a panther and usually taken to be a jaguarundi or a black panther. None has been captured, and the sightings are often dismissed out of hand by wildlife biologists--not an appropriate response to what are clearly not hallucinations. Over the years only one has offered what seems a plausible explanation: otters. "Sometimes a river otter can look like a cat, and it's about the size of a jaguarundi" Sonny Bass, a wildlife biologist at Everglades National Park, once told me.

I've watched dog trainers treat dogs according to their expectations of how a Labrador retriever or malinois, for example, should behave. Based on preconceptions reinforced by experience, the expectations are met frequently enough that become for the trainer articles of faith--the truth about that breed. Presented with a mutt or a dog of a breed they don't know, they tend to waver. The best trainers, like the best teachers, learn how to judge and motivate the individual dog or person, but that takes time and the ability to step outside of often deeply ingrained biases to look at that individual.

Correct identification of something or someone is really what Ezra Pound, citing Confucius, called proper naming. In the Analects, Confucius himself said: "If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success." The result is such a breakdown in order that ultimately "the people do not know how to move hand or foot."

In human affairs the result of improper naming can be disastrous. Just look at the killing by plains clothes anti-terrorist police of Jean Charles de Menezes in London. He was ethnic and wearing a "bulky top" and came out of a building under surveillance and ran, and for that he got shot seven times in the head and once in the shoulder, as a life threatening terrorists. We can guess the police were primed to see a badass. Menezes's cousin told the Guardian newspaper that his cousin wore a heavy top year 'round because, being a Brazilian, he found London cold. Being a person of color in a neighborhood beset by hate crimes, he understandably would view a gang of thugs with suspicion, even if they identified themselves as police.

Fear ruled, making correct analysis and naming impossible. Unfortunately, that's not just true of London.


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