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Certainty and doubt

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Old Thursday 25th January 2018, 14:48   #1
Fat Paul Scholes
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Certainty and doubt

Hi all,

I've been asked to speak to a charity that runs cetacean citizen science projects about concepts of certainty and doubt wrt identification. I have plenty of my own ideas about this - but I'll certainly have missed some, and it will be useful to see if my ideas are broadly agreed with/disagreed with. I'd welcome any general thoughts that anyone has on this quite broad topic - but I'd be particularly keen to hear your thoughts on any of the following questions:

Why do people make mistakes?
Why do some people make more mistakes than others?
How do you stop yourself from making mistakes?
How do you know when to apply doubt?
Is there pressure to make identifications? (and if so, from where?)
What are the drivers for 'getting it right'?

That should be enough to be going on with!

Thanks very much in advance.
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Old Thursday 25th January 2018, 15:11   #2
interoception
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Great question......A perfect opportunity to bring some Bayesian Neuroscience to Bird watching!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayes%27_theorem
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayesi...brain_function

So the question is -- how does the brain make sense of ambigous or incomplete information (such as a bird seen very brieifly?

As explained in the wikipedia link, perception (e.g. vision, seeing a bird) is strongly influenced by expectations.

For example, if I see a bird of prey in my garden, it's most likely a Red Kite, so I'm confident even if I only see if breifly. Same bird in an unexpected location my expectations are very different so I have either have more doubt, or am possibly more likely to misidentify it....

Of course, as humans our brains are all wired differently so have different sets of expectations and different ways of interpreting the information that enters our brains.

So that's one potential theory.....
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Old Thursday 25th January 2018, 15:17   #3
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I'd say the primary factors for all your questions would be character/personality but mainly experience. While I've been birding for over 40 years I'm very cautious about any uncertain ID and will normally try for a second opinion if others are around particularly if they're more used to the place we're in than I am. Last year I was watching birds down at Porthgwarra and, not having much sea-watching experience deferred to others' expertise. So I really did put myself in others' hands. With most birds I enjoy IDing through momentary 'jizz', trusting myself with a fleeting glimpse of movement but only with reasonably familiar species. Over the years another joy has been IDing through call and song. That aspect, as much as any, marks out time of year in a really special way.
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Old Thursday 25th January 2018, 15:28   #4
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I have said before that some people are not natural born athletes, others are not natural born birders and some, sadly, will never be very good. Some seem to lack an eye for detail and have problems even placing a bird in a family let alone a specific ID.

A lot is down to individual, born, ability, I'm terrible at mathematics but you don't need to be an academic to be a good observer. I personally know bricklayers and guys who work in warehouses who are better birders than certain Doctors and Professors, that's just how it is.

I doubt that pressure to make ID's is a factor in error making unless an individual is trying to impress e.g a group in which they are confident that they are a bit better than the rest.

'Confirmation bias' is a definite factor, where a given species is known to be present, Birdforum presents many perfect examples. If a poster leads with e.g 'I think this is a Barred Warbler', some will simply look for features to confirm the ID. This is why I never read what a poster has said before I look at a shot to attempt ID.


A

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Old Thursday 25th January 2018, 15:37   #5
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Just a couple of other points. My pressure to id is self-driven as I'm a bit of a lone birder. For many there seems to be something very competitive which could be a reason for mistakes. I love seeing a new bird but like to see it well if at all possible. I don't like uncertainty so probably make fewer errors. My favourite kind of birder is the one that gets lost in the wonder of it all rather than the ones who put themselves centre-picture! Lists are fine but only a tiny bit of what it's all about.
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Old Thursday 25th January 2018, 15:38   #6
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Keeping to the cetacean theme.

It depends what you mean by a mistake. In terms of ID assigning an incorrect species to a sighting is a mistake but so is not assigning a species when there actually is sufficient data to do so. Then there is the problem of not recognising that the distant splashing is a cetacean. Most mistakes are down to inexperience but then experience is nought if it is not judged. Someone can have tens or hundreds of hours of observing experience but if they work alone then their apparent knowledge is basically worthless, if it can’t be measured against others. I don’t know whether this citizen science project is an actual “in real life” observation project or a web based data categorisation project. If it is in real life then it is best done communally with multiple eyes and opinions to each sighting. If it is web based then the data needs to be run by multiple people before any credence can be given to a particular categorisation.

One also needs to stress that identification to species level is not essential, a dolphin sp.? identification is still useful. I have known people miss sightings because they are head in a book debating an id. But I don’t think the world of cetaceans is as fraught with misidentification as the world of birding. Most cetacean watchers do it for the thrill and the desire to be useful rather than the extending of lists, there are far less possibilities out there to begin with, particularly in UK waters. This applies to you point on attributing doubt, in parts of the UK there may only be one or two common cetaceans, so anything out of the ordinary should attract doubt. This again is very different from birding, as can be the role of photography. Most land based cetacean sighting are distant and often momentary, getting photos can often be challenging if not impossible. Often the identification clues will present themselves throughout a sighting and individual photographs won’t capture them.

In summary, give everyone training (there are good id resources at Sea Watch Foundation http://www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk...dentification/), make the observation experience communal (and ideally supervised) and don’t put pressure on for species level ids.
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Old Thursday 25th January 2018, 15:57   #7
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Originally Posted by interoception View Post
Great question......A perfect opportunity to bring some Bayesian Neuroscience to Bird watching!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayes%27_theorem
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayesi...brain_function

So the question is -- how does the brain make sense of ambigous or incomplete information (such as a bird seen very brieifly?

As explained in the wikipedia link, perception (e.g. vision, seeing a bird) is strongly influenced by expectations.

For example, if I see a bird of prey in my garden, it's most likely a Red Kite, so I'm confident even if I only see if breifly. Same bird in an unexpected location my expectations are very different so I have either have more doubt, or am possibly more likely to misidentify it....

Of course, as humans our brains are all wired differently so have different sets of expectations and different ways of interpreting the information that enters our brains.

So that's one potential theory.....
You make good, contextual points. My brain tries to make sense of ambiguous information by bringing me up short so that I can think around the information; sometimes what I read confounds my expectations; you indvertently provide a fine example that stopped me reading and so I had to interpret the word 'breifly' as 'briefly', which you had intended, of course. Mis-spellings and typos are just a minor curse in my reading life!
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Old Thursday 25th January 2018, 16:02   #8
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A good place to start is the great Inspector Harry Callahan: A man's gotta know his limitations.

With cetaceans, some sightings are always going to get away. Don't worry about it.

The views are often very brief and looking is therefore more important than trying to take photos. However, if an animal is showing well/close/often or breaching a lot, a photo (even a slightly blurry one) allows scrutiny time not otherwise available. As for distance, a 500mm will get you a recognisable shot of anything Common Dolphin size or bigger, as far away as the Runnelstone is from Porthgwarra.

Know key features of cetacean groups.

Know key features of cetacean species.

Be aware dolphins can be in mixed pods (leading to confusing arrays of features as different animals surface).

Pool knowledge. Value contributions.

Learn how to give good directions (this is a whole science in itself).

Check signs: there may well be a dolphin pod under that flock of wheeling, diving Gannets.

Practice estimating distances between surfacings and speed of travel so as to be looking at the right spot when an animal reappears.

Have a field guide but use it between sightings, not during them.

When you are completely certain (especially if you have had the best view e.g. because you got on the animal first) do not be deflected by others' doubts: they may not have seen as much as you.

When you are not completely certain, try to ascertain who has seen what, without stressing the importance of any particular feature. Gently query contradictory evidence. Don't check the field guide till this process is complete.

Be prepared to submit a minority report.

John
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Old Thursday 25th January 2018, 16:03   #9
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A few thoughts:

Why do people make mistakes?
  • Inexperience
  • Inability to learn
  • Over confidence
  • There is probably an optimal sweet spot somewhere

Why do some people make more mistakes than others?

As above

How do you stop yourself from making mistakes?
  • You never do - you try and minimise by binning marginal sightings.
  • You spend a lot of time on your hobby - the best birders spend a LOT of time birding

How do you know when to apply doubt?
  • If you cannot photograph it, consider whether the sighting is too marginal
  • Some birds are difficult to photograph - most aren't

Is there pressure to make identifications? (and if so, from where?)
  • Only in your own mind if you are a single observer, see above
  • In a group, yes potentially peer pressure - but that is always pressure to improve as an observer, so a positive impact

What are the drivers for 'getting it right'?
  • Peers
  • Self respect
  • Reputation


cheers, alan
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Old Thursday 25th January 2018, 16:05   #10
interoception
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& of course the brain's set of expectations are massively influenced by personality, learning (experience), mental state as well as the incoming information (e.g. in birding, vision, hearing).

So the other explanations in this thread fit nicely into the model.
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Old Friday 26th January 2018, 03:57   #11
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Originally Posted by Fat Paul Scholes View Post
Hi all,

I've been asked to speak to a charity that runs cetacean citizen science projects about concepts of certainty and doubt wrt identification. I have plenty of my own ideas about this - but I'll certainly have missed some, and it will be useful to see if my ideas are broadly agreed with/disagreed with. I'd welcome any general thoughts that anyone has on this quite broad topic - but I'd be particularly keen to hear your thoughts on any of the following questions:

Why do people make mistakes?
Why do some people make more mistakes than others?
How do you stop yourself from making mistakes?
How do you know when to apply doubt?
Is there pressure to make identifications? (and if so, from where?)
What are the drivers for 'getting it right'?

That should be enough to be going on with!

Thanks very much in advance.
There is well established theory in psychology (whose name unfortunately escapes me at this juncture), and models regarding errors, which defines causes related to experience and self perception of experience, which as I recall, seemed to define the "sweet spot" as knowing when to collaborate with others, with both novices and "experts" either side being more prone to errors as individuals.

Whether you can apply this in real time to nature sightings, I do not know.

It is important to properly define an error, however. The conflation of a single observer sighting or an unphotographed sighting as an error, is not the same as an established and quantifiable error (though, I think we can all agree that Alan clearly thinks otherwise ).

Owen
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Old Friday 26th January 2018, 08:48   #12
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There is well established theory in psychology (whose name unfortunately escapes me at this juncture), and models regarding errors, which defines causes related to experience and self perception of experience, which as I recall, seemed to define the "sweet spot" as knowing when to collaborate with others, with both novices and "experts" either side being more prone to errors as individuals.

Whether you can apply this in real time to nature sightings, I do not know.

It is important to properly define an error, however. The conflation of a single observer sighting or an unphotographed sighting as an error, is not the same as an established and quantifiable error (though, I think we can all agree that Alan clearly thinks otherwise ).

Owen
Thanks for this - do you mean Dunning Kruger?
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Old Friday 26th January 2018, 08:55   #13
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Thanks for this - do you mean Dunning Kruger?
That's the one. Was on the tip of my thumb (yes, thumb) but for the life of me couldn't get it to coalesce. Cheers.

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Old Friday 26th January 2018, 09:23   #14
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Another interesting one could be the "Johari window", which you may be familiar with as the 4 different windows in which we see ourselves, and others see us..

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johari_window

These windows could be changed slightly for bird identification...

Arena - Identification in which everyone agrees

Blind Spot - where others have the necessary skill/experience, but you are unable to identify

Facade - Where you come to a conclusion, where others are unable to.. unfortunately it goes a bit wrong here, as it could be because you are incredibly talented, you saw something no else did; or you are erroneously overlooking other confusion species. The dangers lurk in this window!

Unknown - Everyone is scratching their heads
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Old Friday 26th January 2018, 10:24   #15
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I think there's a different kind of pressure on you depending on who you are observing for. If for yourself alone, you may be happy to convince yourself that an observation was of a particular species, even though you may have some doubts about it, simply because of a drive to increase a personal list you hold. A person may ultimately know they're in the wrong but when they see their list increase by one species then they may feel justified in lying to themselves.

Recently I saw some birds on a beach and told myself that they were linnets. But then as I walked along the beach I began to think that they might be twite. I've not seen either species very regularly, perhaps only once every couple of years or so, and I had to make a note of the bird features and then do some research into distributions later when I got home in order to confirm what I thought they were: linnets. I simply couldn't accept the observation at first while I had some doubts over what species I was looking at. I think in that regards I'm quite honest with myself, I'll play it safe and go with a more likely species if I'm in doubt, although if I still can't decide after doing some research I'll put a question mark against the sighting.

But if you're recording as part of a bigger project, say BirdTrack, you may feel responsible not to mess up the data sets and so work extra hard to confirm the species before submitting. If there's any doubt about the species then people may hold back from submitting the sighting. I would say this requires a bit of compassion for the people whose job it is to work with and analyse the datasets produced from these citizen science projects; that you don't provide untruthful submissions that could lead to errors and misunderstandings in the scientific knowledge generated from the datasets. For example if a researcher used a dataset to study a particular species, it would be detrimental to them if observers had submitted incorrect sightings about said species.
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Old Friday 26th January 2018, 14:36   #16
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A Learn how to give good directions (this is a whole science in itself).
I remember sea-watching one windy day at St Ives quite some time ago, hearing this shout:

"Phalarope! Behind that wave there!"
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Old Friday 26th January 2018, 20:55   #17
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I remember sea-watching one windy day at St Ives quite some time ago, hearing this shout:

"Phalarope! Behind that wave there!"
MJB
Or the classic 'it's in that green tree' as you stand surveying a Bornean forest!



A
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Old Friday 26th January 2018, 22:38   #18
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Originally Posted by Fat Paul Scholes View Post
Hi all,

I've been asked to speak to a charity that runs cetacean citizen science projects about concepts of certainty and doubt wrt identification. I have plenty of my own ideas about this - but I'll certainly have missed some, and it will be useful to see if my ideas are broadly agreed with/disagreed with. I'd welcome any general thoughts that anyone has on this quite broad topic - but I'd be particularly keen to hear your thoughts on any of the following questions:

Why do people make mistakes?
Why do some people make more mistakes than others?
How do you stop yourself from making mistakes?
How do you know when to apply doubt?
Is there pressure to make identifications? (and if so, from where?)
What are the drivers for 'getting it right'?

That should be enough to be going on with!

Thanks very much in advance.
I expect a lot of this has been covered in the deep and meaningful philsophical theories above and answers above ... but some random answers ...

Why do people make mistakes?
Because we're human! But briefness of view, light conditions, expectation, alertness etc etc
Why do some people make more mistakes than others?
But do they? Maybe some who make mistakes are good at covering up, or don't mention the bird/thing if unsure
How do you stop yourself from making mistakes? Stay indoors
How do you know when to apply doubt? Not sure
Is there pressure to make identifications? (and if so, from where?)
- A lot of group birders, young birders, serious birders - there's a lot of pressure on a)finding good birds b)getting the id right.
The two seemingly contradict each other, but also balance each other - in ideal circumstances.
- Kudos to those who find good birds, but those who seem to find good birds but can't prove the id is right can become stringers, or at least can get stigmatised as such.
- There is also the concept of 'the expert' - need to be right, need to show others you're better than them etc. Humility in any field of expertise is a fine thing.

What are the drivers for 'getting it right'? Satisfaction in knowing it is right, pressure (as q above), degree of autistic tendencies, experience and repetition, depending on the individual

etc etc.
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Old Saturday 27th January 2018, 16:20   #19
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This might be useful to you as well..

http://sibleyguides.blogspot.co.uk/2...t-records.html
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Old Saturday 27th January 2018, 16:52   #20
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For me one of the big things to stop making a mistake is knowing when to let a bird go. Too many sightings i hear about in recent years in my area involve brief views, start off as possibles, end up as definite without seeing the bird again and the descriptions normally reflect this and end up rejected (sorry, not proven). This is not necessarily down to experience, too often you hear the same old excuses 'I've been birding 40 years', 'the committee has an agenda against me' etc but what it really boils down to is people have to be honest with themselves......
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Old Saturday 27th January 2018, 17:06   #21
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Like with large raptors: people misidentify cetaceans, because they are unidentifiable. All what is visible is usually a bit of back, animal is distant, seen in poor conditions, for a short time, distinguishing characters are of quantity (size, shape, behavior) not quality (e.g. white wingbar/no white wingbar as in many birds), and there are few opportunities to get experience and practice.

There are two good ways to stop making mistakes: get photo evidence (I recently got surprisingly good results with making short films on a smartphone while watching through bins at the same time) or go birding (whaling? cetaceing?) with more experienced people and learn from them.
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Old Saturday 27th January 2018, 20:18   #22
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or go birding (whaling? cetaceing?) with more experienced people and learn from them.
Whale-watching or cetacean-spotting if you like.

Whaling is a big no-no!

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Old Saturday 27th January 2018, 22:20   #23
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Whaling is a big no-no!

John
That was kind of done to death in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, yes ...
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Old Sunday 28th January 2018, 05:38   #24
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For me one of the big things to stop making a mistake is knowing when to let a bird go. Too many sightings i hear about in recent years in my area involve brief views, start off as possibles, end up as definite without seeing the bird again and the descriptions normally reflect this and end up rejected (sorry, not proven). This is not necessarily down to experience, too often you hear the same old excuses 'I've been birding 40 years', 'the committee has an agenda against me' etc but what it really boils down to is people have to be honest with themselves......
None of the above would fit with the definition of a mistake or error. Not believing someone's sighting, even if you are right in the belief that the system of thinking they used to reach an ID is flawed, is not the same as assessing data in error. The data has to exist for someone to reach the right conclusion, in order for the error to exist. I.e, two people/groups assessing a photograph or numerical set and reaching different, conflicting conclusions.

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Old Wednesday 31st January 2018, 07:12   #25
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Thanks very much for all of the input here folks - much appreciated, and I have plenty to be going on with.
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