Thursday, April 8, 2010

Science vs. polite society or "What is going on here?"

So. We've come to an impasse, haven't we? I'm talking about the "does mama go out to hunt or does she not" debate.

This whole discussion brings up a very important point about being a scientist vs. being an observer, a rehabber, a naturalist, a hobbyist, a zookeeper, a trainer, a handler. That point is that being a scientist is a lonely place to be sometimes.

Because in normal conversation, in polite society, people gently persuade each other based on majority rules and people give in, if there's enough pressure to do so, in order to keep the peace. The problem for the scientist is that we cannot, we must not ever skew our data or deny our data just because a lot of other people are saying it's wrong! Whenever conventional wisdom is challenged, the person doing the challenging will be attacked. Usually it's very mild, but it can go as far as it did with Galileo in certain societies that hold fast to their current understanding.

Science is all about holding empirical observation above conventional wisdom. That is why I can't just say, "Oh well, I guess she'll go out hunting any day now", no matter how much people want me to say that and no matter how many people have written up that barn owl moms go hunting and leave the babies behind.

Let me also say here that I'm talking about normal circumstances. Obviously, if the mother is starving or the father disappears, she will have to hunt to survive. She's not that stupid. But under normal circumstances, their roles are very clearly defined, and their bodies are even adapted to serve those roles.

So even if a moderator on a site says, "Well, I guess everything we've researched says that barn owl moms will start to hunt, STACEY still insists that they won't."

I have no choice because in my years of observing WILD nests, I've never seen the mom go out to hunt when the father is already doing so. I can't change that observation, and I can't make it more palatable due to peer pressure of any kind, or I would not be a scientist!

I could, however, be wrong. And that's fine! I'm not married to being right, because a scientist must ALWAYS be ready to be WRONG or they cannot grow to the next level of understanding!

And sometimes it can get a little crazy, because people with great authority will sometimes espouse things that are flat out wrong, year after year, no matter what the scientific data really is.

One classic example which drives me crazy is the curator of a very prestigious zoo who is on all the talk shows, speaking with great authority about the different animals. And he ALWAYS says in a confident, authoritative voice, "Owls hunt by echolocation just like bats. Did you know that they can hunt in complete darkness? That's because they have echolocation!" Meanwhile, biologists all over the country are yelling at their TV the way sports fans do when their team screws up. Owls do NOT have echolocation and they do NOT use echolocation to hunt!

I mentioned this to my mentor at Caltech and he just looked at me funny and said, "Stacey, he is not a scientists!" He was completely dismissive of anyone who is not a hard core scientist and did not expect this person to have the least level of understanding of the truth.

I tend to think that even "nonscientists" can learn what's true before declaring a falsehood on national television year after year, but hey, that's just me. Apparently most scientists just don't care. They see their world as a closed off world and people outside of that world don't matter at all. But people outside that world matter to me, which is why I wrote a book for the general public rather than yet another paper to be stuffed away in some journal somewhere.

Besides, scientists have been studying wild barn owls in owl boxes and wild nests for decades and decades. They have their own little world and why open themselves up to all this stuff with actually answering questions?

Well, because it does matter. When people connect with an animal the way we've connected with Molly, they want to understand the animal. And when we come to understand her, we start to really care about her and we start to understand the pressures she faces and the price she'll pay when we are careless with things like rat poison. We can put a name and personality to those nameless and faceless wild creatures "out there" in the "wilderness". If we care, we will do something about it, get involved in conservation or rehabilitation. We might volunteer to help wild animals.

So for me, existing in an ivory tower has never been an attractive idea. It defeats the purpose of learning about our wild cousins! Don't we study them to understand? And don't we try to understand so that others can also understand? I mean, we can't all throw ourselves into a decades long study of every species on the planet, so we divide the job and then we all report what we've observed and we all learn from each other. Not just in biology but in all things.

So that's why I keep saying that she won't hunt. Not because I'm stubborn, but because that's been my observation. I do not claim that those who say they've observed the mother hunting are "wrong" either. Perhaps there are differences in locale. It's a known fact that birds have different cultures in different areas, as do whales, chimps, flocks of chickens (oh, those ARE birds), and people. So perhaps the barn owls I've studied have been in certain areas under certain conditions where the male could hunt adequately, so I haven't seen the mother go out to hunt.

Perhaps a scientist in, say, Minnesotta, has seen otherwise, perhaps due to more pressure on the pair to produce more food in a more hostile environment. I chose Minnesotta randomly. I know nothing about the place.

There can be differences between one habitat and another, so there can be differences in the data gathered. Just as Molly and McGee have susrprised us by eating rabbits, they may surprise us in other ways.

But that's what makes it all so interesting! You can't know for sure what's going to happen or what you're going to learn. So scientists just put their observations out there and wait to see what else happens that may negate their data (which is fine) or fine tune their understanding.

The key is to understand that no data is perfect, especially when you're watching animal or human behavior. An anthropologist, for example, might interpret a particular custom a certain way until he/she finds a deeper insight that completely changes hisher thoughts on the meaning of that custom. Same thing for an ethologist.

Here's an example from Jane Goodall. For years she thought that chimps were the peaceful cousins of humans, that they were the shining example of how we were before we became violent and bullying and warlike. For years and years she observed this gentle way of existing and scientists had no reason to think otherwise. Then, to her horror, the chimps separated into gangs and began to have turf warfare in much the same way as L.A. street gangs, complete with senseless killing and kidnappings. All kinds of horrors went on that reflected the way humans go to war and bully the weak and commit atrocities.

She had to completely change her thoughts on who these beloved chimps really were. The book about this is aptly called "The End of Innocence". She means her OWN innocence about the creatures she had studied and loved for years and years.

But that's how we move forward. We crawl forward through tunnels of uncertainty, scrabbling for the truth as if scratching the hard ground with our bare hands, trying to dig a hole to China, all the while thinking we've really arrived at scientific certainty and understanding. Ha! We are just learning, all of us.

So please do not think I'm being obtuse. I just have to stick by the data I've got until I see data that tells me otherwise. Then I'll be very happy to say, "I was wrong!" If a scientist cannot say, "I don't know" or "I was wrong", then they are too egotistically tied to a certain interpretation and are not effective as scientists.

I hope this helps to explain things a little more!

Also I realize this blog is not like the book, but I'm using it to straighforwardly explain things rather than using story and anecdote to make my points as I did in the book.



Ter-o-fla said...

This was very helpful.
You make good points.
There are many instances where this comes into play in our societies.
It is good that you point this out.
I hope many people read it. :)


kasm said...

I suppose if I wanted anything but the facts as someone knows them, Id learn only by chatting on Mollys site. For me, its the gathering of knowledge from different sources, and the credibility of those sources. What I like about Mollys site is the thoughts people put out about the things they're seeing. It helps me question what Im interpreting about Molly, McGee and the owlets. But... without scientific data, Im really not apt to believe much at all. Not even my own eyes. The reason I love finding you online is because you tell us what you know and all the passion and emotin in the world simply isnt going to change what you know. So, thank you. I hope any insult at the owl box is is far less than the pleasure.

whippy said...

Thank you so much Stacey.

I am anxiously waiting to see if Molly indeed, leaves the owl box to hunt for the owlets.

I don't think she will. McGee is a great provider. We'll see huh?

Thanks for a wonderful blog.

LaPartera said...

I wish all scientists would change their minds when faced with facts that contradict their beliefs. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Often new, contradictory evidence is ignored, shoved aside, discounted. Thomas Kuhn's excellent book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions discusses this phenomenon in detail. It's an old book (about 1960) but still highly relevant.

CZ said...

Thanks so much, Stacey.

That was so funny what you said about the moderators on Molly's site. They have become such egomaniacs that even if told their facts are inaccurate, will cling to those facts and repeat them over and over.

I have stopped reading the chat because it is just spoiling the viewing for me.

Thanks for having this blog. BTW, I am about 2/3 finished with your book and am enjoying it.

caboval said...

Stacy, I love reading your blog and you write with such passion! I just want to say, I am a moderator in the chat room of Molly the Owl. None of us claim to be "experts" and I really found my information by googling Barn Owls and by constant observing of Molly and her owlets. I have piles and piles of documents by my computer for reference.I found that one site said that Molly will join in the hunt for food as the owlets get older. BUT Im not an expert, I am just a person with a new found passion for Barn Owls and have tried to find as much information as I can on the internet so that I make an informed response to the million of questions we get in the chat room. We are all learning by observing Molly as time goes and its facinating! We do this out of the kindness of our hearts and its on a volunteer basis. I find Im on the computer for 10 to 12 hours a day answering all sorts of questions about Barn Owls. I do the best I can. It breaks my heart that someone would leave the chat room because of the conflicting answers but I have to say, we are doing the best we can under these circumstances.
Just wanted to put my 2 cents worth. I really do enjoy your story about Wesley and it brings tears to my eyes for you when he passed. I think they have emotions as well and it must have been heartbreaking for you. I look forward to reading more of your blog! Hugs, caboval

CatGirl said... old do you think Molly the owl is? I'm enjoying your book and love to see you comment on the site.

CatGirl said... old do you think Molly the Owl is? I'm enjoying your book and love to see you comment at the site.

Magicsmom said...

Just about a half hour ago, with my own eyes I saw Molly leave the box and return with a mouse, go inside and give it to her owlets. My personal belief is that she's hunting because McGee simply is not bringing enough food to sustain her and the owlets. Of course, I am no scientist myself, so that's just my personal opinion.

Anonymous said...

Stacey, you add such a warm human face to the world of science!

Kathlene said...

so far this is one of the best pieces I've read so far on your blog... ok got to go read more!
thanks again