by Denny Olson
You have heard a lot of us Audubon-types referring to the 29% drop in North American bird numbers in the last 50 years. We have also mentioned that we think climate change is real, and because of it, our grandchildren may be missing somewhere between 26 and 63 bird species in the Flathead in the next 80 years. They will mostly have moved their ranges farther north, but some may very well be extinct. These numbers are estimates derived from science. We humans like to think of things as either “true” or “false”. Once we’ve decided which, we don’t have to bother with thinking about it anymore. Politically, positions on many issues have become hardened, with many Americans resistant to anything but their truth. It may be time for a primer on the way science works.
Science does not find truth. It only looks for truth — but really, really hard, and with rules. Instead of having a solid opinion, and then looking for evidence to back it up, good science starts with an honest question, a possibility, and then looks for solid evidence to answer the question. Sometimes, person gathering new information doesn’t even know there is a question until later! Sometimes the evidence takes decades to gather. Often a new tool or technique needs to be invented — like when Galileo made his own telescope, invented by a Dutchman a few years before, to simply start watching the moon, Venus, and Jupiter and writing down his observations. Later, he realized that he had gathered evidence that the world might not, indeed, be flat …
Those techniques, of the scientist, are quite different from “my mom said so” or “I heard it on the internet” or ” a guy said this really loud, many, many times, so it must be true”, or “some guy in a basement somewhere on his computer tying everything together into a vast scary worldwide conspiracy”. (Ever wonder why not one, out of millions of horrible people from inside the conspiracy, has a pang of conscience and tells us about it? Ever?) And, there still is a Flat Earth Society — that communicates with each other by, um, satellite … There are lots of guesses, hocus-pocus and outright lies out there on electronic and social media trying to masquerade as “truth”. Their object is to throw so much hogwash out that no one has time to sort it out with quality and quantity of evidence. First order of business in the art of critical thinking should be — what are the qualifications of the “truth-bearer”, who is funding the project, and do they have a pre-existing opinion?
To clarify, science only looks for the truth, and the honest scientist can only say that “it appears that this may be true because the evidence keeps pointing that way”. For thousands of years, the Earth was flat. Until it wasn’t.
And the good scientist always keeps the option open that what we think is true can change based on new evidence. But the other side of that open-mindedness is that we make hundreds of decisions every day based on what we think to be true — based on evidence. That bus coming straight at you at 60 miles per hour — based on evidence — will probably kill you if you don’t step back. So far, it has done just that every single time. But, you are welcome to test that hypothesis. Perhaps Isaak Newton was wrong about “momentum” and “mass and velocity” and “for every force there is an equal and opposite big mess on the road.”
So, with all that in mind, the troubles that birds are having, and the trouble they may have in the future, are only estimates and conclusions based on the best available evidence so far. Anyone can go out and gather evidence for themselves to come to a different conclusion. But keep this in mind if you do. Other scientists will examine the ways you gather your evidence, and make their own conclusions about whether it was good evidence or not. It’s called “peer review.” That’s just the way science works. And that’s why it works. We have computers and moon-landings and miracle medicines and amazingly detailed insight on how the life on our Planet harmonizes with itself. Because of science. Political opinions have not contributed a whit to what we think to be true … based on evidence.
So, this November, go vote like a scientist.