The Corpus Callosum

When I was at work today, I saw a headline that irritated me.  I decided
I would blog about it when I got home.  But now the headline has
been changed.  I will still blog about it, though.

The original headline was: Report: Alternative energy quest endangering
birds.  Now, it is worded differently:

href="http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/E/ENERGY_BIRDS?SITE=TXWIC&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT">Report:
Birds endangered by energy development

By DINA CAPPIELLO – 4 hours ago

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the Obama administration pursues more homegrown
energy sources, a new government report faults energy production of all
types – wind, ethanol and mountaintop coal mining – for contributing to
steep drops in bird populations.

The first-of-its-kind government report chronicles a four-decade
decline in many of the country’s bird populations and provides many
reasons for it, from suburban sprawl to the spread of exotic species to
global warming.

In almost every case, energy production is also playing a role…

The original title can be seen href="http://www.kplctv.com/Global/story.asp?S=10037266&nav=0nqx">here;
the actual report (the source for the news article) is at this site: href="http://www.stateofthebirds.org/">State of The Birds. (4.2Mb href="http://www.stateofthebirds.org/pdf_files/State_of_the_Birds_2009.pdf">PDF)

The main point of the report is that many species of birds are
endangered, or getting to the point of being endangered.  A
secondary point is that human activity is endangering birds.  A
tertiary point is that energy production is one of the main kinds of
human activity that endangers birds.  A quaternary point is that
all forms of energy production are deleterious to birds, including
alternative energy.


The report does mention that all forms of energy production contribute,
including alternative energy.  However, the original headline
implied that the quaternary point was the main point of
the article.  That is not even close to the truth.  In fact,
it would seem to be a deliberate misrepresentation. 

My faith in the editorial process as been partly restored by the fact
that someone noticed the lie, and reworded the headline.  This is
a matter of concern, because so many people get some much of their news
just by scanning the headlines.  If the headlines are lies, then
they serve to reinforce erroneous notions that people have.  This
is due to the phenomenon of href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias">confirmation bias. 

As to the point about alternative energy, I do agree that it is a valid
point.  It in important for policymakers to keep in mind the fact
that alternative energy is not free of environmental impact.  But
to conflate the effects of, say, geothermal energy, with those of
mountaintop-removal coal mining, is plainly misguided.

Nowhere in the report is there any attempt to rank energy-producing
activities in order of the detrimental effect on birds.  That was
not the point of the report. 

A dufferent article on the same suject, from CNN, mentions:

Of the more than 800 species of birds in the United States,
67 are federally listed as endangered or threatened, the report said.
Another 184 are “species of conservation concern” because they have
small distribution, are facing high threats or have a declining
population.

An article in the href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/19/AR2009031902055.html">Washington
Post properly emphasizes the main point:

“Just as they were when Rachel Carson published ‘Silent
Spring’ nearly 50 years ago, birds today are a bellwether of the health
of land, water and ecosystems,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in
a statement. “From shorebirds in New England to warblers in Michigan to
songbirds in Hawaii, we are seeing disturbing downward population
trends that should set off environmental alarm bells.”

The version in href="http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/03/stateofthebirds.html">Wired
focuses on an interesting subtext:

The first federal State of the Birds report was released
Thursday, marking the beginning of an unprecedented collaboration
between government researchers and conservation groups — and the
underlying data comes from you…

…That collaboration, said Farnsworth, will magnify the utility of
bird data that’s already being gathered by thousands of Americans every
year. More than 93,000 people participated in this year’s annual Great
Backyard Bird Count, counting 11 million birds over four days in
February. Tens of thousands of other people contribute millions of
sighting records year-round to efforts like the Avian Knowledge
Network, eBird, the Landbird Monitoring Network, HawkCount and Project
Feederwatch. All that’s needed are binoculars, a bird book and a
notepad…

The href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/20/science/earth/20bird.html">New
York Times also picks up on the theme of citizen involvement:

John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell laboratory,
which also oversees citizen bird-counting, said that a wealth of data
gathered in such volunteer efforts had helped scientists make major
strides in assessing the health of bird populations and in drawing more
general conclusions about the environment.

Beyond taking part in counting efforts, the report urged ordinary
citizens to assist conservation by drinking shade-grown coffee
(coffee-growing in the shade helps preserve the winter habitat of
species like warblers), donating unused binoculars for distribution to
biologists in the tropics, reducing pesticide use, landscaping with
native plants and keeping pet cats indoors.

But in order for citizens to be involved, thaey have to be properly
informed.  That means that editors have to write headlines that
are not lies, and citizens need to read the entire article, not let
themselves be swayed by the mere headline.  For important issues,
it is helpful to use a site such as Google News, to read multiple
articles on the same subject.