Thursday 27 August 2015

Human Bias - Collaborative Identification

At it's most basic, birding is a lone pursuit.  Identification begins from the moment the first sights and sounds of a bird engage the human senses.  But, shared birding experiences are often better.  Collaboration in anything brings rewards, be it democracy, project and committee work of bird identification.  In the past, unless birders were out in the field together collaboration in bird identification tended to involve discussion around some field notes and possibly some sketches... photos if you were lucky.  The internet and the digital era have opened up a whole new avenue for discussion and there are numerous forums and chat rooms devoted to birds including bird identification.  But what frustrates many people about social media is the lack of decision making power, consensus and action.  Very often discussions allow ideas to be aired but that is where things fizzle out.

Collaboration in decision making online just got a whole lot more interesting with the arrival of Loomio from a collaboration of organisations in Wellington, New Zealand.  While this brilliant tool has been seized initially mainly by social and democratic movements, in time this may become a very everyday mechanism for online decision making.  Perhaps just as commonplace as social media itself.  In time could this technology even mark an end to the classic rarity assessment process?  Consider an all-encompassing website that compiles records, encourages consensus on bird identification and generates and maintains the official list for a region or nation.

Of course there are potential pitfalls, including the potential for populist opinion to dictate an identification.  Bird identification is not a democratic process.  A bird only has one identity.  The goal therefore of collaborative identification is to reach the correct conclusion, not the populist one.

So what safeguards need to be built in to such a process?

Rarity Assessment Panels
The primary goal of a rarity assessment panel is to maintain the integrity of an official regional or national list.  For anyone who has participated in a rarity assessment there are multiple challenges including understanding the criteria for identifying the subject, the abilities to objectively and correctly assess the evidence, the ability to think laterally when needed and perhaps a certain level of scepticism and an eye towards biased or even embellished note-taking.  Typically records are assessed by individual voting members and records may go through recirculation more than once before if necessary being discussed more collaboratively to reach a consensus.  Expert opinions are often sought from outside the committee in order to ensure a correct outcome.

I often perceive birders as among the most diverse group of people one could imagine.  Birders the world over share the exact same love and passion for birds, which is what makes it such a universal interest.  What surprised me most about my time on the Irish rarity assessment panel (the IRBC) was the singular focus by everyone that I served with on maintaining the integrity of the Irish list.  All voting members down through the years seem to have had an inherent hunger to reach an accurate conclusion as to the identity of each bird and also to validate each record.  Only when those objectives could not be reached satisfactorily was there disquiet among the committee members.

The more I have thought about these fundamental aspects of rarity assessment the more I have come to realise that these form part of what drives all birders.  Birders want to get their identifications right and really hate it when that bird just gets away or is simply too difficult to identify.  This is part of what drives human cognition generally.  We strive to categorise and label everything and this overwhelming drive can lead to a number of human cognitive biases.

Bird of Unknown Origin
Most twitchers hate to hear a bird labelled thus.  Very often decision making for a rarity assessment panel extends beyond the mere acceptance of an identification to an attempt to divine its origin.  Many potential vagrants happen to be kept in captivity and national and regional lists tend to exclude records involving birds which are suspected to have escaped from captivity.  The true origin of some birds can be a matter for considerable and heated debate.  In many cases rarities assessment panels tend to take a more conservative view of these things than many within the general birding community, particularly those with an interest in regional or national listing.  For an online collaborative assessment system to deal with this conundrum would require some thought but I still think it could be overcome.  One way of doing so would be to establish criteria for acceptance of potential vagrants and to maintain an ongoing review of such criteria as circumstances change and patterns emerge.  This at least creates a framework for general agreement.  But the reality is no individual or group can ever divine the true provenance of a bird in the wild without a ring or other marker to pinpoint it's true origin.

Collective Bias
Of the many forms of cognitive bias group think may be among the most pervasive.  I like the simple and effective pie-chart graphic used by Loomio to illustrate consensus building.  This certainly lends itself to the premise of democracy that the majority rules okay.  I wonder however at the same time if this graphic actually encourages group think.  After all if I join a discussion where already my opinions are at odds with the majority I may feel a natural pressure to conform with the group.  Of course then there are the rebels who are more at home in the minority percentile and for whom conformance and agreement with the group is an anathema.  There are many birders who simply don't accept the peer review of their sightings.  No system however democratic will invite 100% take up.

There will always be leaders and followers.  Collaborative decision making in theory allows for all voices to be heard but some voices will always be louder or more persuasive than others.  Even among seemly democratic structures cliques and factions form.  Meanwhile lobbyists and bullies also have a disproportionate influence on outcomes in many cases.

I have often felt that the best way to approach any complex question is to exclude myself from the noise of debate and first try to resolve the answer for myself.  I believe collaborative discussion is the best way to reach a decision but I think it is really important for everyone to have clarity of the subject before engagement.  I believe that any online tool that might in time be used for assessment and identification should have at it's heart a measure of built-in protection to prevent collective and other forms of cognitive bias from influencing the decision-making process.  Examples might include blind surveying, anonymous contributions and statistical process controls etc.

Bird identification for many is a very personal pursuit.  Many of us learnt to identify birds on our own through trial and error.  And, many prefer to continue to work that way.  Collaborative identification occurs all the time in the field, through online chat rooms and email groups, and within the deliberations of rarity assessment panels.  In the near future we may begin the see the replacement of formal rarity assessment panels with a more collaborative online assessment process.  We need to be mindful however that bird identification is not a democratic process - there can after all only be one correct outcome.  But we also need to learn to accept that some birds are best left unidentified and that the true provenance of most birds can never really be known.

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