By David Mattson
Welcome to the world of grizzly bears. This web site provides a wealth of information about Ursus arctos, with a focus on the North American variant of this species called “grizzly bear.” The topics that I cover are wide-ranging, including evolution, history, physiology, morphology, nutrition, life history, and diet. The buttons on the title bar of this page are internal link to these topics and more.
The site is definitely a work in progress, which means that I am continually adding to and upgrading the information. Assuming that I don’t die nor am enfeebled during the near future, I plan to add pages covering demography (i.e., birth and death rates), human-bear relations, and other aspects of bear behavior. Some topics I present in greater depth than others either because there is more published research to cover, or simply because it is of greater interest to me.
My Intended Audience and My Motivation
So, who is the intended audience of this site? Quite frankly, I view myself as the primary audience. Or, to put it more generously, I undertook the research, synthesis, and interpretation that you find presented here as a means of gratifying my curiosity and associated intense desire to better understand the inner and outer workings of grizzly bears in relationship to the world as it is now, and as it was in the past. Having said this, I sincerely hope that you will find what I present to be as interesting, useful, and even exciting as I find it.
You will notice that this site contains many maps, figures, and other graphics. This (perhaps) glut is a direct reflection of my highly visual orientation to the world. I do, indeed, find that a picture can be worth a thousand words. As a result, most of my text is organized around graphics, which each present the essentials of some body of evidence supporting a key point. Yet I realize that every image benefits from being explained, interpreted, and set in context, which is what I attempt to do with the text that accompanies each visual. Although graphics are commonly referred to as “visual aids,” I tend to think of the written part of this site as “textual aids.”
I have based virtually all of this site’s content on the results of research and inquiry done by myself and a host of other scientists and scholars. So I consider what is presented here to be very much evidence-based. I do provide anecdotes, but usually either to illustrate a point or to fill a void in existing research results. I also credit scientists or scholars by name where I have relied heavily or otherwise substantively on their data or research. On the other hand, I have not attempted to exhaustively cite all of the research I draw on, nor have I filled the text in classic science fashion with numerous references to end notes, foot notes, or literature cited. I find such in-text clutter to be distracting. At some point I do aspire to provide a relatively comprehensive list of all the journals articles, books, databases, and other texts that back what I present on this site, which will help those who want to dig into the primary literature or who are in need of assurance that I didn’t indulge in fabrication.
I see interpretation and informed speculation as an essential part of the information on this site. In fact, I see these derivative enterprises as the most creative aspects of my entire effort. Nor do I see speculation and interpretation as incompatible with an evidence-based approach; they are essential to making meaning of arcane data and other scientific cyphers. And meaning-making is fundamentally what I am up to here.
How Does this All Relate to “Science”?
Scientists are acculturated to a particular way of “making meaning,” which typically entails minimizing the odds of erroneously concluding that something is “true” when, in fact, it isn’t (i.e., minimizing type I errors). This emphasis is commonly viewed as an essential part of adding to an intersubjective body of “reliable” knowledge. In this context, “reliable” is meant to signify a hypothesis about the world that has been subjected to and survived repeated critical tests. Frankly, I find this construction of the scientific enterprise to be a bit delusional and, in fact, merely a doctrinal myth. Nor do I find the myth to be a very useful guide in principle. Sociologists and psychologists have found that the observable reality of scientific practice is far more vagarious and personal—often driven by the quest for power, prestige, funding, and professional advantage. And the creative, imaginative, inferential act is an essential feature, organized around inspired views of how the world might work.
So…what does all of this blah-blah about scientific practice have to do with the content of this site? I find that an emphasis on constructing models—or hypotheses—that are supported by the weight of evidence to be quite useful for gaining provisional insight into the world. Moreover, I find a comprehensive approach to be essential, which is to say, an approach that considers and attempts to integrate all relevant information. Most of what you find on this site is a result of such an approach. Put another way, what you will not find is a slavish concern with minimizing type I errors, invoking some inflated notions about contributing to a body of “truth.” Nor will you find an emphasis on minimizing type II errors; that is, erroneously not concluding that something is “true” when, in fact, it is. My emphasis is on sharing a view of grizzly bears and their world that I find to be the most likely one after examining all of the evidence that I consider to be relevant.
A final important note on this topic: Virtually all of what I share is provisional. In other words, the synthesis, interpretation, and informed speculations are only as good as the available evidence, the state of current research, and the extent of any passing inspiration. All is subject to revision in light of new evidence and new insights, which is, in my opinion, the essence of scientific progress.
The man at right is Thomas Kuhn. He authored a seminal book entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that features a social-psychological perspective on scientific practice rather than the philosophical ideal that has been the focus of so many before and after.
A Web Site, a Book, or Journal Papers?
I deliberated for a long time over which medium to emphasize as a venue for sharing my extensive ruminations on grizzly bears. I ditched the idea of journal papers early on because this medium is incredibly limited, yields a fragmented product, and is subject to the hide-bound and conservative ritual of peer review (see my comments below). A book (or books) initially appealed to me, but this medium debars extensive use of graphics (because of expense) and is part of a paradigm that is fast fading. This led me to consider developing a web site—something about which I know very little. Yet I am plugged in just enough to know that the online digitasphere has become the primary source of information for just about everyone. I use the web extensively. And space on the web is essentially unlimited, provided you are willing to pay a very modest sum to the purveyors of hard drives in cloud space.
So, with a web site in mind, the next question is: What provides the imprimatur of authority?...that which communicates to the reader: this is God’s strewth? Such considerations loom large for scientists given that their identity rests on claims to expertise derived from participating in the cleansing rituals of science. Peer review is viewed by many in this community as central to the purifying and gate-keeping function (see below). According to this view, without peer review and editorial oversight, God only knows what erroneous views of the world may proliferate, which is especially alarming (for some) if such an out-of-control process were to operate under the guise of true science. The current heated debate over proliferation of online Third-World-based journals is evidence of the rectitude-driven alarm among many scientists concerned about the purity of the faith. As you can probably tell by my tone here, I see much of the traditional views to be highly conservative and driven by an obsession with the political status of science and scientists as gate-keepers of truth. Not unlike what I have observed in other religions.
In the end, I came down squarely in favor of producing something that satisfied me, and not an editor, peer reviewer, or other veiled censor. I have too few years left to prioritize anything else. So, do you, the reader, take what I present here as some sort of sanctified text? I have no pretensions along those lines. I merely offer you what I have produced based on serious and enthusiastic engagement with all of the evidence I could find, informed by 30-year’s-worth of experience analyzing data and observing grizzly bears. Hopefully you find what I present on this site to be enjoyable, intriguing, informative, believable…and even inspiring. All of this at face value. You be the judge. I’ve enjoyed the process.
In case you're wondering, the guy at right is Bill Nye, The Science Guy, striking a pose that I imagine any self-righteous defender of the faith would adopt(?).
A Concluding Aside on Peer Review
Almost all of the scientists who I know consider peer review overseen by exacting editors to be a centerpiece of the practice of science; a guarantor of quality, worth, and truth. Peer review presumably weeds out the inferior, erroneous, and otherwise shoddy science to leave only that which shines like a beacon in the wilderness of ignorance…or, at least, scrupulously subjects a hypothesis to critical tests that yield unequivocal judgments regarding whether the hypothesis stands or falls.
Leaving faith-based assumptions aside for the moment, I see a minimum of four different functions that are served by peer review: (1) Gate-keeping and censorship; (2) Improvement; (3) Maintenance of identity and community; and (4) Access to power and resources. The gate-keeping function presumably weeds out research that is unworthy, erroneous, or spurious. You are either in or out. So a lot about power and control; closure and restriction. Interestingly, this function can trace its’ roots directly back to Papal censorship. The improvement function elicits feedback from reviewers on how to improve the design, scope, and reporting of research, with an eye to making it all better. This function is much about openness, empathy, and inclusiveness. Very different from the gate-keeping function. The social-psychological function is a lot about membership in what is perceived to be an exclusive community. In this regard, peer-review is the scientist’s version of communion; a purifying, redemptive, and signifying ritual. Finally, I see the political function as increasingly central, especially since World War II. Peer review is an often-invoked (again) ritual by which those in power and those with money (often the same) are assured that science, scientists, and scientific institutions are arbiters of truth and even virtue. Trust us, defer to us, and give us money. I saw this phenomenon is spades while working for the U.S. Geological Survey.
Interestingly, if you take an empirical rather than faith-based approach to assessing the truth-ensuring efficacy of peer review, the results are quite different from those claimed by the catechism of science. The research on peer review (yes, there is such a body of work) shows that peer review more often than not functions to maintain the status quo, silence those who would question prevailing paradigms, and stymie genuine innovation. It also works to weed out “error” at a rate you would expect only by chance. So, as a gate-keeping function, peer review seems to resemble activities of ancestral Papal censors while offering little of what the scientific myth would claim.
So…what do these somewhat arcane ramblings have to do with this web site devoted to presenting information about grizzly bears? Most obviously, I have not subjected the contents to peer review. I have rejected the gate-keeping function, scorned the ritualistic maintenance of a supposed exclusive community, and eschewed any political claims linked to peer review. I feel no regrets or equivocation on these fronts. However, I did forgo the undoubted improvement that comes with peer review. This is a definite short-coming of the material I present on this site, but something I was willing to abide given my priorities. Which were, first and foremost, to get the material out in a timely manner after having dithered for years, if not decades. In my experience, peer review can definitely lead to improvement and the detection of obvious errors…as often as it yields unwarranted assertions, displays of ego, displays of doctrinal indignation, and outright critical errors. With that in mind, I welcome any comments or recommendations for improvement.