Pretending to Know

One of the challenges of studying loons is that they are so well-loved. Many people have observed them, written down notes about them, and — here’s the problem — shared their speculations about all aspects of loon biology with others. Those of us who study loons are in a position of power, because the public looks to us for information. It takes some humility, when a journalist asks us a question about loons, to admit that we do not know the answer. Admitting ignorance is embarrassing. It disappoints the questioner. It makes us feel inadequate and uninformed. Yet admitting ignorance is vital. Our willingness to say we understand fully some aspect of loon biology that we do not — on websites, at conferences and in print — poses great problems for loon science and conservation.

Wait. Published material on loons should help move our understanding forward, right? Yes and no. Well-researched, robust science on loons improves our understanding; anecdotal, speculative work based on small samples of loons, inexpertly analyzed, and passed off as fact does not. In the field of loon behavior and ecology, a huge “grey literature” exists, which consists of popular loon articles, books, websites, unpublished Master’s theses, and low-brow pseudo-science that eked its way into the lower echelons of science journals. When such sketchy information makes up the majority of the material publicly available about loons, there is a real danger that speculation and pseudo-science might drown out real science.

There is good news, however. Our understanding of loon biology is better now than ever before. Across the continent, loon researchers have started to mark individual loons, examine many aspects of their ecology and behavior, use powerful statistical tests, and publish their findings regarding loons in peer-reviewed scientific journals. This last step is critical, because peer review means that three or more scientists are criticizing a paper submitted for publication anonymously and candidly before publication. In most cases, scientists who review loon research do not themselves study loons, so they can bring an important bit of objectivity to the process and read what a loon scientist writes without preconceived notions about the species. Reviewers who are not loon researchers, in effect, are helping pull the study of loons into the mainstream of scientific research. If scientific studies on loons are treated with the same level of rigor as those on fruit flies, downy woodpeckers, wolves, elephant seals, and angelfish, loon science will eventually become as robust and reliable as science carried out on other species.

Such rigor in loon study is long overdue. Now that we see multiple populations of loons declining in number or reproductively, we must do better. We need to advance from “there are still loons on my lake, so the population is stable” to careful, longitudinal quantification of adult survival, juvenile survival, breeding success, and other demographic parameters that can contribute to a valid statistical population model.

Why does it matter? Because when we fall into that very human trap of expounding upon a topic without a foundation of scientific fact, people sometimes listen and use our pronouncements in ways that we did not foresee. Case in point: the Minnesota loon population. Any population ecologist who looks at the data — well, lack of data, in this case — will tell you the following. We truly have no idea whether the population of loons in Minnesota is rising, falling, or remaining steady. We simply have not marked adults, carefully recorded their rate of return to their territories, measured the number of chicks they have produced, marked those chicks, measured the rate at which those chicks return, and plugged all of these data into a statistical model. Without such a thoughtful, complete analysis of survival and reproductive success, any statements about the Minnesota loon population are simply speculation — speculation that could be seized by others to undermine conservation efforts. Indeed, one difficulty faced by the “Get the Lead Out Minnesota” campaign (which anyone who loves loons and wildlife should support strongly) is that there are many baseless statements to the effect that the Minnesota loon population is stable in the media and the grey literature.

So, a plea. Let’s emulate population ecologists in describing our knowledge of loon populations in Minnesota and elsewhere. Let’s apply rigorous techniques and wait until the research has run its course to reach any conclusions. In the meantime, let’s have the courage to utter those most honest but difficult few words: “We don’t know”.