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Science and Truth: We’re All in It Together
THE greatest bird news of our lifetime occurred at the height of the George W. Bush administration. In April 2005, amid a pageant of flags and cabinet ministers in Washington, John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, announced that an ivory-billed woodpecker had been spotted for the first time in more than half a century in an Arkansas swamp.
President Bush pledged millions for habitat restoration. This and hundreds of other papers heralded the news. Public radio did one of those field reports in which you can hear the reporter’s canoe purling through swamp waters.
The news was exciting because the evidence of this new truth was overwhelming. There was an empirical article in the journal Science, an online video of the bird, audio clips reminiscent of its famous tinhorn squeak and seven sightings of the bird by credentialed experts.
Moreover, the ivory-bill is charismatic megafauna, regally beautiful and a natural mascot for fund-raising: a magnificent blast of snow in its trailing feathers, a jaunty red cap for a crown and a Harry Potteresque bit of white lightning down its neck. For it to appear after so many years was mythological, a message of forgiveness: maybe our environmental sins weren’t so bad. Not since the dove returned to Noah’s Ark has a bird’s appearance been so fraught.
Right away, though, there was controversy. Several academics, among them Richard Prum and Mark Robbins, questioned the evidence but held their criticisms when privately shown more and better data.
Then something new happened. Outsiders and other disbelievers kept on coming. A painter of birds, David Sibley (joined by several academics outside Cornell), dissected the video frame by frame and saw a common pileated woodpecker. Uh-oh. Then an amateur birder, Tom Nelson, began to gather the Internet commenters on his own blog. For the next several years, tomnelson.blogspot.com was a watering hole where weekend bird enthusiasts, field guides and others produced reams of counter-evidence and arguments, and so completely dismantled each piece of ivory-bill evidence that few outside the thin-lipped professionals at Cornell still believed in the bird.
Almost any article worth reading these days generates some version of this long tail of commentary. Depending on whether they are moderated, these comments can range from blistering flameouts to smart factual corrections to full-on challenges to the very heart of an article’s argument.
Look at the online version of this piece and you’ll already see (I hope) a long string of comments. These days, the comments section of any engaging article is almost as necessary a read as the piece itself — if you want to know how insider experts received the article and how those outsiders processed the news (and maybe to enjoy some nasty snark from the trolls).
Should this part of every contemporary article be curated and edited, almost like the piece itself? Should it have a name? Should it be formally linked to the original article or summarized at the top? By now, readers understand that the definitive “copy” of any article is no longer the one on paper but the online copy, precisely because it’s the version that’s been read and mauled and annotated by readers. (If a book isn’t read until it’s written in — as I was always told — then maybe an article is not published until it’s been commented upon.) Writers know this already. The print edition of any article is little more than a trophy version, the equivalent of a diploma or certificate of merit — suitable for framing, not much else.
We call the fallout to any article the “comments,” but since they are often filled with solid arguments, smart corrections and new facts, the thing needs a nobler name. Maybe “gloss.” In the Middle Ages, students often wrote notes in the margins of well-regarded manuscripts. These glosses, along with other forms of marginalia, took on a life of their own, becoming their own form of knowledge, as important as, say, midrash is to Jewish scriptures. The best glosses were compiled into, of course, glossaries and later published — serving as some of the very first dictionaries in Europe.
Any article, journalistic or scientific, that sparks a debate typically winds up looking more like a good manuscript 700 years ago than a magazine piece only 10 years ago. The truth is that every decent article now aspires to become the wiki of its own headline.
Sure, there is still the authority that comes of being a scientist publishing a peer-reviewed paper, or a journalist who’s reported a story in depth, but both such publications are going to be crowd-reviewed, crowd-corrected and, in many cases, crowd-improved. (And sometimes, crowd-overturned.) Granted, it does require curating this discussion, since yahoos and obscenity mavens tend to congregate in comment sections.
Yet any good article that has provoked a real discussion typically comes with a small box of post-publication notes. And, since many magazines are naming the editor of the article as well as the author, the outing of the editor can come with a new duty: writing the bottom note that reviews the emendations to the article and perhaps, most importantly, summarizes the thrust of the discussion. If the writer gains the glory of the writing, the editor can win the credit for chaperoning the best and most provocative pieces.
Some scientists are already experimenting with variations of this idea within the stately world of peer review. New ways to encourage wider collaboration before an article is published — through sites like ResearchGate — are attempts to bring the modern world of crowd-improvement to empirical research.
Already, among scientists, there is pushback, fear that incorporating critiques outside of professional peer review will open the floodgates to cranks. Not necessarily. The popular rejection last year of the discovery of a microbe that can live on arsenic was mercifully swift precisely because it was executed by online outsiders. Not acknowledging that crowd-checking and amateur commentary have created a different world poses its own dangers.
Take the case of the ivory-bill. The article in Science has never been retracted. Cornell still stands by its video. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service acted as though the ivory-bill existed, and, in 2008, it asked for $27 million to support recovery efforts. Here’s the thing: The ivory-billed woodpecker is the Schrödinger’s cat of contemporary media — dead to those who’ve looked inside Tom Nelson’s blog but alive to the professionals who can’t bear to.
Some may fear that recognizing the commentary of every article will turn every subject into an endless postmodern discussion. But actually, the opposite is true. Recognizing the gloss allows us to pause in the seemingly unending back and forth of contemporary free speech and free inquiry to say, well, for now, this much is true — the ivory-bill still hasn’t been definitively seen since World War II, climate change is happening and caused by mankind, natural selection is the best description of nature’s creative force. Et cetera.
The weirdest part of the ivory-bill’s resurrection is that if you look back through the past four decades, it turns out the bird has come back to life many times before. The ivory-bill seems to rise like a phoenix at times of environmental anxiety. And each time the sighting has been debunked, and then afterward some great section of wilderness has been declared protected and everyone feels better for a while.
After a 1966 disputed sighting in Texas, 84,550 acres became the Big Thicket National Preserve. When the ivory-bill was sighted/not sighted in a South Carolina swamp in 1971, the outcome was the creation of Congaree National Park. Alex Sanders, who as a member of South Carolina’s House of Representatives fought to preserve the land, told me that when people ask him where the ivory-bill is, he says, “I don’t know where he is now, but I know where he was when we needed him.”
Nice line. But you have to wonder: if we’d cinched our sense of reality with just a bit more reason instead of mythology, maybe we’d still be seeing the ivory-bill for real.
A contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and the author of the forthcoming book “Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character.