The science of birds falling from the sky

It’s a curious event: in January, thousands of red-winged blackbirds fell out of the sky in a relatively small area in Arkansas. Days earlier, in western Arkansas, 85,000 drum fish died. About the same time, in Baton Rouge, 500 dead birds were found in one area. That seems unusual.

Let’s get to the bottom of this with science. Conjecture in the media is that fireworks from New Years’ celebrations stunned them. Or maybe there was some poison. Scientists conducted autopsies on 13 of the birds. They tested the birds for bacteria, viruses, poisons, and opened them up to see what was wrong.

Their conclusion? The birds died from “blunt force trauma.” They all have hit a telephone pole or something in mid-air. All at about the same time. I believe this is an example of science at its best. And worst.

This is because our best scientists have determined that the birds died from “blunt force trauma.” This is likely a fact, and I can’t disagree. But by considering only the facts, the scientists have offered speculation that is equally disguised as fact: the birds flew into something.

What if there is another explanation? A cloud of gas or dust, or a firework nearby, that temporarily dazed them or blinded them? Without the ability to navigate, they fell or flew into a hard object: the earth. This would be a possible explanation for why the birds died from “blunt force trauma” but without a convenient telephone pole or tree to mysteriously be in their flight path–all at once.

A major limitation of science is that it cannot control time. The scientist is not able to retroactively install video cameras and data sensors at the scene (or on the birds) in order to monitor them and see what really happened. A scientist, like a doctor, can only rule out possibilities that are generated from reasonable hypotheses. In fact, in medicine, counseling, and psychology, a diagnostician uses the notation “R/O” in the notes to make a list of the possible diagnoses that must be considered before making a conclusion.

This is really the basis for the television show “House,” in which a patient has one or more dramatic symptoms (that are usually life threatening or at least scary). The medical residents and House make a diagnosis and begin treatment. Sometimes the pathology creates new symptoms, and other times the treatment itself causes new problems. Sometimes you see the team meet to discuss possibilities, which are written on a whiteboard and end up being crossed off the list one by one. Often the final diagnosis is not even on their list. This is the process of science.

But what has been left out? The assumption is that all possibilities are listed. What have we left out of our research and theory? That’s really what Purpose Research is all about.

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