At once a retreat for solipsists and egomaniacs and a tonic for the anxious and alienated,

At once a retreat for solipsists and egomaniacs and a tonic for the anxious and alienated, birding is also a force of enlightenment. These essays explore the culture of birding in relation to science and society. Instead of seeking the frontiers of ornithological knowledge around the poles, in tropical forests, on remote islands, or far out at sea, I’ll focus on the heart of Megalopolitan suburbia, where ideas, birders, and birds from all parts of the Earth converge.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Birding vs. the Dunning-Kruger Effect, or how Rummy never got over "The Doors of Perception"

I don’t know if Aldous Huxley shared his brother Julian’s interest in birding, but I’d expect he was aware of the hobby’s mind-expanding qualities. Although visually impaired, Aldous was deeply concerned with visual experience and its relationships with various categories of subjective and objective knowledge—an appealing combination to me during my late 80s college days, when birding and philosophy competed successfully for my attention with school, work, family, friends, girls, etc. In those busy days and nights, nothing seemed so important as the nature of knowledge, and it was obvious to me then that my knowledge of nature, gained through birding, gave me an edge over some of my fellow seekers.

I thought of Aldous recently during a cell phone conversation with a birding friend.

“Don’t tell me you’ve got an Arctic Tern!” my friend implored, “We were there yesterday at low tide for the faunathon, and the place was dead.”

“Hugh,” I said, standing thigh deep in salt water and mud, “you’ll need a rising tide if you want to get higher!”

My reference was to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in particular the depiction of Dr. Gonzo’s grotesque drug frenzy as a meritorious alternative to mid-20th Century American depravity, in the style of the Vegas strip and the people who voted for Nixon. Aldous saw all of that coming and more, but that didn’t stop him from keeping his sights on better things. Standing in a flooded marsh, I wondered where I lost my 60s paperback imprint of Antic Hay—probably left it in somebody’s room, back in the 90s.

The mind-altering effects of birding are familiar to anyone who’s tried this popular form of nature study, but, of course, they are difficult to explain to those who haven’t. Birding is not necessarily the sort of thing that will get you into a bathtub full of green water, listening to Surrealistic Pillow, and longing for electrocution; nor is it apt to make you regard a vase of flowers as divine or a lawn chair as imponderably dangerous. But it might find you thigh deep in green tidal muck, elated, and aware that you’ve solved a simple question that had frustrated hundreds of very talented people for more than a hundred years—in this case, “How might one find an Arctic Tern in New York?”

No doubt Hugh suspected I’d gotten a bit twisted on rare birds (he might also have suspected Ma Huang, formerly a popular birding pharmaceutical until the bad behavior of a few irresponsible professional athletes and serial dieters ruined it for everyone) but, at the very least, he had to acknowledge that I knew how to find Arctic Terns—and that I knew how to have fun.

Birding is edifying not only because it yields knowledge of the natural world, but also because it gives its practitioners the rare ability to gauge their own strengths and weaknesses. Birds are real organisms, living in real populations within actual ecological communities. Two birders visiting the same forest will record very similar lists of bird species detected. Comparing notes, the objective and subjective dimensions of knowledge will snap into focus effortlessly. You missed Blackburnian Warbler because you can’t hear high frequencies; I missed Great Horned Owl because I’m lazy and don’t enjoy patiently searching through potential roosting trees; we both missed Pileated Woodpecker because they occur at low density and might be encountered about 20% of the time during an hour-long walk; and I pulled out Red Crossbill because I’d been told this nomadic species was on the move recently and was therefore better prepared to detect and identify a faint and distant “gip-gip-gip” that might have reached your ears but gone un-noticed by your naive cerebrum. So and so reported an Ivory-billed Woodpecker? The less said about that, the better, but see, the Pileateds are still here after all.

Contrast this situation to a popular culture where writhing tendrils of multi-media data contest like Medusas, disdainful of refutation, verification, and interpretation alike, and it should be clear that birders have an opportunity to enjoy remarkably accurate—and therefore consistent, from person to person—insights into how much they know, how much their peers know, and whence springs the difference. Active birders cannot fake skill or knowledge. Those who try are readily exposed and gain none of the esteem that presumably motivates such deception.

For instance, although we have seldom discussed such matters in many years of birding together, I know that Hugh is better able than I to discern the subtle shape of a White-rumped Sandpiper at long range; that Tom is better able than I to distinguish the song of a lone and distant Blue Grosbeak from a chorus of closer Orchard Orioles and Indigo Buntings; and that Patricia is better able than I to detect the shape of a motionless Least Bittern, partly concealed in the reeds of a marsh. They are aware of these differences too, I’m sure, just as they probably can think of examples where my skills or knowledge exceed their own, or those of others among our peers.

This sort of clarity seems rare and precious in a popular culture where journalists compete to repeat BP’s incomprehensible and contradictory assertions (e.g., that it’s not worth even trying to estimate the flow rate of their oil spill but that they must nevertheless continue to apply a particular volume of a particular toxic chemical to disperse the plumes); where self-styled proponents of fiscal propriety denounce taxes but embrace lay-offs and furloughs; where most people regard the statements of the Old Testament as more factual than those of researchers who study evolution or climate change; and where one of the architects of the Iraq war scored points for epistemological insight by trotting out his own variation on the theme of “to do is to be, to be is to do, or doo-be-doo-be-doo.”

A recent piece by Erroll Morris in The New York Times explores the Dunning-Kruger Effect, people’s tendency to deny or remain unaware of their own ignorance or ineptitude. Might birding offer a solution? I think so, because, in addition to yielding verifiable and deeply satisfying connections with the real world around us, any kind of genuine nature study tends to shift huge spheres of potential knowledge out of the realm of “unknown unknowns” into that of “known unknowns,” where they might at least inspire a modicum of respect and concern in the hearts of our planet’s self-appointed stewards.