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Evaluating the Strength of Scientific Evidence:
The Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Mya Thompson
2005-2006 CSIP Fellow

A common misconception among secondary school students is that scientific results are set in stone and that scientific evidence is inscrutable. Examination of current scientific controversies can help students learn that scientific knowledge is based on constant revision in response to peer review.

In this activity, students examine the strength of scientific evidence behind the 2004 claim that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has been rediscovered after over 50 years of presumed extinction. Ornithologists are currently at odds over whether the video and audio recordings from the swamps of Arkansas and Florida constitute strong enough evidence that the bird still exists.

As an introduction, students research the Ivory-billed woodpecker’s behavior, habitat, and markings and examine evidence of continued survival of at least one member of this species. Using their new expertise, students then rate the scientific strength of scientific evidence in Ivory-bill sighting reports sent to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology by amateur birders throughout the country and use these ratings to decide where to send follow-up teams of expert ornithologists for field studies. Evaluating real-world scientific evidence in this current controversy helps to sharpen students’ critical thinking skills and develop their understanding of the nature of the scientific process.

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Copyright 2006 CSIP, Cornell University