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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Bird Brains

Regular readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of quote mining. For those who don't know quote mining is the taking of remarks and presenting them out of context, most often in a way that distorts their meaning. I've had some fairly interesting arguments with people about this practice and have always come down against it. If we really go into the wayback machine, it's possible to locate one of my first ever complaints about quote mining when I critiqued the wonderful world of Graham Hancock. Incidentally, this was also the first installment in my occasional series "The Insanity Parade," which has touched on such other wonders as Ramtha, electric windmill cars, and deep fried astronauts. In any case, Hancock is remarkable because he doesn't just take a few quotes out of context- he actually completely ignores the thrust of a scientific article, interpreting it in a way that supports his hypothesis, but is utterly opposed to the article's own meaning.

I was reminded of Hancock during my recent foray into a website that, like Hancock, also has its very own highly implausible but deeply treasured creation myth. I refer, of course, to Conservapedia, the "Trustworthy Encyclopedia."* Thanks to their in-depth reporting, I recently learned that scientists are unable to determine how birds can possibly navigate during lengthy migrations. This is a question, you see, because many birds travel so far during migratory cycles that simply "knowing the way" by sight is an inadequate explanation. Fortunately for me, the Conservapeons appear to have a solution. Sort of:

And for those who don't want to scrutinize the image, the headline reads:

Atheists and materialists continue to search in futile for a magnetic explanation for remarkable homing and migration capabilities of birds. No material explanation exists; even butterflies exhibit remarkable migration. [all spelling original]

Oh noes, scientists! Your treasured "materialism" has been challenged! Even worse, you're being forced inexorably to the conclusion that god himself is whispering navigational instructions to birds in flight.** Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right: God is the original LORAN! What ever will you do?!

Well, most likely we'll read the damned article that the conservapeons link to, which gives a rather different perspective:

Do Migratory Birds 'See' The Magnetic Field?

Every year millions of migratory birds fly towards their wintering quarters and come back in next year´s spring to breed. Behavioral experiments have shown that the Earth´s magnetic field is the main orientation cue on their journeys.

Nevertheless, surprisingly little is known about the neuronal substrates underlying these navigational abilities. In recent years, it has been suggested that sensing of the magnetic reference direction involves vision and that molecules reacting to the Earth´s magnetic field in the birds' eye form the molecular basis for a vision-dependent compass mechanism.

Cryptochromes, which fulfill the molecular requirements for sensing the magnetic reference direction, have recently been found in retinal neurons of migratory birds (Mouritsen et al., PNAS, 2004).

Furthermore, studies investigating what parts of a migratory bird´s brain are active when the birds use their magnetic compass showed that the cryptochrome-containing neurons in the eye and a forebrain region (“Cluster N”; Mouritsen et al., PNAS, 2005; Liedvogel et al., EJN, 2007) are highly active during processing of magnetic compass information in migratory birds.

Sensory systems process their particular stimuli along specific brain circuits. Thus, the identification of what sensory system is active during magnetic compass orientation, provides a way to recognize the sensory quality utilized during that specific behavior.


These findings strongly support the hypothesis that migratory birds use their visual system to perceive the reference compass direction of the geomagnetic field and that migratory birds are thus likely to "see" the geomagnetic field.

Look, there's quote mining, and then there's linking to an article that soundly contradicts your absurd beliefs. If it were any less direct, any less self-defeating, I wouldn't be as stunned, but this is just incredible. The conservapeons claim "science has no explanation," and then link to an article that says, "not only does science have an empirically validated explanation, we're nailing down ever more precisely how it all works." And perhaps what's even worse is that the Conservapeons wouldn't do this unless they were sure they could count on the Lemming-like**** critical thinking skills of their readers. Oh, well, it's written on Conservapedia so it must be true.

And ironically enough, after this experience, I'm left wondering if perhaps the brains of birds aren't just a tad more sophisticated than the average conservapedia editor.

* Considering that the Conservapeons apparently think that ignorance is strength, you should perhaps reinterpret the meaning of "trustworthy" in this context.

** Which explains why he doesn't have time to do other stuff... like warn us about typhoons.***

*** And as a secondary point: if there's no "material" explanation, then we've pretty much entered the realm of the supernatural. Does it seem flat-out lazy to anyone else to explain bird migration with "God did it"? I mean, sure, I can see using that for the origin of life but, sooner or later, don't you have to come up with something a little more concrete? Apparently not.

**** Yes, I am aware that Lemmings do not actually commit mass suicide. It's a useful analogy, okay? You all know what I mean at this point, right? Okay.

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