Well, yes...I suppose it is...but rather than just mock this little game of semantics, can we learn something from it?
A bit of insight into what 'not proven' means can be found on the Devon Birds website. Here's a quote:
'Records will be accepted if a majority of the Committee agree that the evidence presented is adequate. The criteria used by the Committee are necessarily strict to maintain the credibility of the Annual Report and Devon Birds database.'
'if...the evidence presented is adequate.' Notice that? What we as observers have to realise is that when we send in a rarity description we are not telling the records committee what we've seen, no, we are presenting evidence for what we've seen. We are making a case. And, as in a court, the evidence may, or may not, be adequate to prove the case in the eyes of that court. The case might possibly wind up 'not proven'.
In a courtroom the decision will affect lives, of course. But what's at stake in the County Records Committee room? Well, it's there in the above quote: '...the credibility of the Annual Report and Devon Birds database'. The committee is simply trying to safeguard the credibility of the county's Annual Bird Report and birdy database for posterity, trying to keep them free of anything that might in the future be pointed at with a raised eyebrow and a "Hah! Re-e-e-e-eally??!" *
Logically then, our description - our 'evidence' - will need to meet a very good standard. And the rarer the bird, the higher the bar.
Unfortunately we don't necessarily see it in such sanguine terms. Our view might be that we've seen what we've seen, and we are graciously offering the records committee our description for their files. And quite often we're a bit miffed at being asked to go through such a process at all. So if our offer is deemed 'not proven', well, it's been turned down, hasn't it! Our offer has been...yes...rejected!
We don't tend to take rejection well. We're much better at taking offense.
I suspect this is why we've seen the move from 'rejected' to 'not proven'. In a sense, I think the records committee represents the Establishment. It doesn't mean to, and certainly doesn't want to, but it does. In previous generations, most folk would willingly kowtow to various forms of the Establishment. Indeed, historically many birdwatchers would have come from its ranks, would have seen no problem with having a committee act as guardian of avifaunal records, and certainly not been upset by a 'reject' decision. "On the chin, dear boy..." Feelings towards the Establishment are very different today. Many, understandably, do not wish to conform. Folk are much more prone to bristle, fume and kick hard against what they will now see as imperious, high-handed behaviour by jumped-up, self-appointed twerps in questionable authority. Records committees do not wish to be seen as imperious and high-handed. Or jumped-up twerps. Hence...softly-softly...whisper it...
Not Proven...sorry about that...
To put it simply, we're more touchy these days, and need gentler handling. I reckon the move from 'reject' to 'not proven' is a recognition of that shift in sensitivity, and though a bit of a cheesy move perhaps, suggests to me that records committees are keen not to alienate us, but to win us over and gain our support. Anyway, that's my little theory.
On a different note, some have asked what happens when a committee member submits a rarity description. Well, that's easy. All his mates on the committee clap him on the back and out comes the rubber stamp marked 'Accept'.
Okay, seriously. I've seen it happen many times, and their descriptions go through the process just like anyone else's. It is worth noting at this point that the vast majority of descriptions which pass through a committee's hands are unanimously accepted. A very small number are unanimously deemed not proven, and another small number give rise to a split decision or otherwise come up for discussion. In my experience that statistical outcome was equally true for committee members...with the notable exception of the 'unanimously deemed not proven' bit - after all, I think you'd expect someone on a records committee to be better than that.
So, what occurs when a committee member's description came up for discussion? Well, it happened to me a few years ago. I was asked to step outside for a bit so the others could freely express their thoughts, then I was invited back in - with my fresh pint - and clapped on the back while somebody got out the rubber stamp marked 'Accept'. But of course, this is what you would expect. These were my imperious, high-handed buddies after all, and I was one of their number...
Here is the description that had bothered them...
|What do you think? Safe decision? Ah, you're thinking, has the observer conclusively ruled out Pallid Harrier? Hmmm. By the way, nowadays there is a nice electronic form that you can download from the Devon Birds website.|
You might recall from Part 2 that in London in the 1980s we didn't get descriptions in advance. Unless they had been posted to us personally, the first time we got to see them was at the next committee meeting. I well remember one meeting when a committee member presented a description of his own for us to consider. Just to be on the safe side I shan't say which county, but I will tell you this: it was a Goshawk. Status in London at the time? Seriously rare. Probably still is. Add to that the fact that Goshawk is notoriously hard to describe convincingly - along with Black Kite it is probably responsible for more 'not proven' decisions than everything else put together. So, the description was read, and there was a lot of coughing and shuffling and looking at the table, while our happy Goshawk observer beamed excitedly at his colleagues...
I'll cut to the chase. Yes, it was accepted **. Yes, I obviously think it was well dodgy. And yes, it probably still happens on occasion. As I said in the last post, what we have here is a subjective, imperfect system. But, as Steve Waite pointed out in a comment on Part 1: if you want to gather and preserve records, what's the alternative?
* Like Sooty Tern at Staines Res, say...
** By the way, that's not a cue for any London readers to reach for their 1980s LBRs...though I wouldn't blame you.