ESSAY: Data… and the American Dream, Part One

The birds were singing when I woke this morning, and that’s a fact. I can’t tell you how many birds or what species, but I definitely heard birds singing.

That is to say, I don’t have a lot of data. But I have a couple of hard facts.

1. I was awake, and

2. I heard birds singing

Paleontologists have been collecting data for the past 200 years or so, in the form of a fossil record, about large reptilian creatures who roamed the earth for either 177 million years or 165 million years — the exact number is still subject to debate. What is less controversial is the approximate time of their rather sudden extinction extinct: 66 million years ago. For some reason, the family known as ‘Dinosauria’ vanished from the fossil record at the conclusion of the Cretaceous Era — except for a select group of theropods that had, during the Jurassic Era, somehow managed to acquire feathers, and become what we now refer to as “birds.”

‘Xiaotingia’ fossil, Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature. Photo by Bruce McAdam.

When I was a young child growing up in the 1950s and totally enamored of dinosaurs — eagerly devouring every available library book on the subject — I got the distinct impression that all dinosaurs had long ago disappeared from the earth.

But from what I now gather, pretty much every professional paleontologist on the planet now considers birds to be descended from “dinosaurs that survived the Great Extinction.” We’re able to purchase deep-fried dinosaur at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

This revised theory about dinosaurs is based on additional data collected over the past 60 years, since I drew my first dinosaurs with a fat blue pencil. The additional data tells a certain story — suggesting that ‘birds’ survived the Great Extinction. Why bird-like dinosaurs survived this mass extinction — if they did indeed do so — is not yet clear from the data. I’m sure paleontologists have their theories about the question, but as with so many of life’s persistent questions, the answer remains a mystery.

When I was running for a seat on the Archuleta School Board back in 2015, I received a phone call for a local voter who was new to town and who said he wanted to understand my platform as a school board candidate. Truth be told, this gentleman was not very interested in the conditions at our local schools and how those conditions might be better addressed, but he was terribly interested in whether I would, if elected, promote the teaching of Evolution as the only true explanation for the planet’s natural history.

He clearly found the alternative theories, such as Creationism, totally repugnant.

I did my best to explain to him that, in my humble opinion, all theories about what may or may not have happened 200 million years ago were exactly that: theories. And theories come and go.

In 1955, I clearly understood that dinosaurs had all died off during the Great Extinction. In 2017, we have 10,000 living species of birds directly descended from dinosaurs that survived. I suggested that the data and the theories will continue to evolve, and so I didn’t have a preference for any particular theory about prehistory… since all such theories are subject to change, and can never be conclusively validated…

He didn’t want to hear this. He assured me that the Theory of Evolution was not a ‘theory’ at all — that it was a scientifically-proven fact. (I’m pretty sure this gentleman was not among the 921 Archuleta County voters who marked my name on the November ballot. I lost the election, by the way.)

The community of Pagosa Springs has not been around for 177 million years — not even 177 years. Nevertheless, we all have our various theories about its history, its current conditions — and its future, if any. Some of those theories rely on data, but mostly, our theories rely on anecdotes and wishful thinking.

In this article series, I’d like to explore some recent data, anecdotes, and wishful thinking about Pagosa Springs.

We’ll start off with an anecdote. An anecdote is “data” that references one particular event, experienced by one individual or by a small group of individuals.

We were sitting around the table at Riff Raff Brewing on a sunny afternoon, drinking beer. Our little group meets every Wednesday to drink beer and discuss the Pagosa Springs housing crisis, with the idea that we’ll eventually come up with some useful ideas for addressing the crisis.

Our waitress heard us talking about affordable housing, and leaned into the conversation to tell us that she is working three jobs but nevertheless has difficulty affording a rental in Pagosa. Her boyfriend had just rented a studio apartment of questionable quality for the outlandish price of $950 a month.

She said she hoped the situation would improve, in the not-too-distant future.

I suspect she would have gladly joined our discussion, had she not been working one of her three jobs.

Anecdotes like this are not generally considered useful data, in the age of ‘data mining’ and ‘artificial intelligence.’ The people who make important decisions — locally, or nationally, or globally — have become enamored of computer-driven research… cluster analysis… genetic algorithms… and the idea that “truth” can be extracted from databases more readily than it can from a waitress working at Riff Raff.

Here’s a bit of so-called data offered by San Juan Water Conservancy District president Rod Proffitt in his recent two-part Daily Post article, “Why ‘Dry Gulch’ is Now ‘San Juan Headwaters’”:

The current population of Archuleta County is approximately 12,000 and the Colorado State Demographer has projected the county population at 2050 to be 27,500. Extrapolating the demographers growth rate for year 2045 to 2050 (1.6%) through 2070, and the population may grow to 37,400. Assuming a 10% water usage reduction for conservation, and the estimated water demand associated with a population of 37,400 is 6,800 AF/year. PAWSD currently has facilities estimated to provide up to 2,500 to 3,000 AF/year in a drought year. Therefore a gap of 4,300 AF/year could be seen by 2070. A water supply gap, though initially much smaller, could appear as soon as 2025.

The above 100-word paragraph is basically the only ‘data’ offered by Mr. Proffitt in his 1,765-word attempt to justify a $60 million water reservoir.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at how ‘data’ can easily turn into ‘wishful thinking.’

Read Part Two, tomorrow…

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.