Woody’s Last Laugh
How to identify and avoid 50 common mistakes caused by uncertainty.
Woody’s Last Laugh explores a simmering controversy amid scientists, conservationists, birders and the media: the supposed “extinction” of American ivory-billed woodpecker. Among the first to identify rampant mental errors inside conservation and environmental professions, the book identifies 53 distinct kinds of cognitive blunders, psychological biases, and logical fallacies on both sides of the woodpecker controversy. Few species have ever provoked such social rancor. Why are rumors of its persistence so prevalent, unlike other near or recently extinct animals? Why are we so bad mannered with each other about a mere bird? How is it that we cannot agree even on whether a mere bird is alive or dead? Woody’s Last Laugh uncovers why such mysteries so mess with our heads. By exploring uncharted borders between conservation and mental perception, new ways of evaluating truth and accuracy are opened to everyone.
Author Dr. J. Christopher Haney is a biologist, conservation scientist and lifelong birder. For 12 years he was Chief Scientist at Defenders of Wildlife. In 2010, following the Deepwater Horizon oil blowout, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service invited him to lead the largest pelagic study of marine birds ever conducted in the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2013 he has been president of Terra Mar Applied Sciences, an independent public-interest conservation research firm which he founded.
If there is one lesson Dr. Haney hopes his book delivers, it is to not overvalue our thinking skills. Human reason is fallible, even among scientists and technical experts. To improve our essential relationship with nature, conservation practices will need to devote as much attention to the unbridled thoughts as the unswerving sentiments. Dead or alive, however, the ivory-bill got the last laugh on us all.
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When I was appointed Co-chair of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service team charged with preparing a preliminary recovery plan for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, I had naive notions about the work ahead. Dr. Haney’s book would have been an immense help in navigating the many strange behaviors, misconceptions, and bitter disagreements that ensued. Woody’s Last Laugh reveals that I, too, fell to faulty thinking about the Ivory-bill and the question of its continued existence or extinction. I highly recommend this book for anyone involved in endangered species recovery as a way to avoid the many cognitive biases that we all face. ~ Jon Andrew, Co-chair of Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Team (retired)
This delightful book reviews the enduring fascination with alleged sightings of the “extinct" American ivory-billed woodpecker to illuminate the role of well-understood cognitive biases and reasoning errors in science and conservation. Who would have thought that an “extinct" bird can tell us so much about the quirks of the human mind? ~ —Dr. Norbert Schwarz, Department of Psychology, University of Southern California
Whether the “extinct” Ivory-billed Woodpecker really survived in the swamps of southern Arkansas might unleash passionate debates only among diehard bird lovers like myself, but Woody's Last Laugh turns an arcane discussion between specialists into a fascinating, witty and easily understandable demonstration of how our very human passions can tempt serious scientists to make avoidable errors in judgment. This book is definitely not just for birders. ~ —Jacques Pitteloud, Swiss Ambassador to the United States of America
In Woody's Last Laugh, Haney artfully exposes the foibles of human thought and resulting proclamations regarding the Ivory-billed Woodpecker's assumed demise. When it comes to forming beliefs, we are all subject to cognitive biases, as facts become subordinate to emotions and "truth" becomes what we want it to be. Regardless of whether you're a "believer" or a "denier" of the Ivory-bill's persistence, Haney's meticulous but entertaining dissection of the controversy will inspire self-reflection as to how we navigate evidence and group-think in the Age of Misinformation. ~ —William Hayes, Ph.D., Professor of Biology, Loma Linda University
An excellent book, revealing how scientists and environmentalists, like all of us, suffer from the same dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. These mental blind spots played a devastating role in the narrative around the ivory-billed woodpecker, even around the basic Schrödinger's cat-like mystery of whether it's dead or alive. Dr. Haney uses an excellent probabilistic thinking approach to have a much more nuanced and thoughtful approach to the question rather than the simple binary approach promoted by cognitive biases. Along the way, Woody's Last Laugh illustrates the numerous dangerous judgment errors that we all need to avoid if we want to have a truthful view of reality. ~ —Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, behavioral scientist, trainer in addressing cognitive biases, and best-selling author, including of Pro Truth: A Practical Plan f
As the author observes in Woody's Last Laugh, we are all “the creation of idiosyncratic experience…[who cannot] escape a pull of our genes or the push of our environments when assimilating the perceptions that we come to hold.” Can one illuminate ‘hard’ science through the lens of personal experience? Yes, this book does exactly that in an effective, entertaining fashion. Readers are escorted on a bird’s mysterious journey that uncovers how our flawed preconceptions came to dominate belief on whether and when a big woodpecker even still existed. Painstakingly researched and referenced, Woody draws on such diverse fields as conservation biology, ecology, history, economics, statistics, and psychology to make its penetrating insights. At the same time, and fittingly, it is a highly personal reflection wherein the author provides a window on how his personal origins and passions led him always to question how humans have come to understand the natural world. ~ —Dr. Mark Eiswerth, Professor, Department of Economics and Instructor, Environmental and Sustainability Studies, University of Northern Colorado, and