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[2b2k] Citizen scientists

Alex Wright has an excellent article in the New York Times today about the great work being done by citizen scientists. (Alex follows up in his blog with some more worthy citizen science efforts.)

Alex, who I met a few years ago at a conference because we had written books on similar topics — his excellent Glut and my Everything Is Miscellaneous — quotes me a couple of times in the article. The first time, I say that the people who are gathering data and classifying images “are not doing the work of scientists.” Some in the comments have understandably taken issue with that characterization. It’s something I deal with at some length in Too Big to Know. Because of the curtness of the comment, it could easily be taken as dismissive, which was not my intent; these volunteers are making a real contribution, as Alex’s article documents. But, in many of the projects Alex discusses (and that I discuss in my manuscript), the volunteers are doing work for which they need no scientific training. They are doing the work of science — gathering data certainly counts — but not the work of scientists. But that’s what makes it such an exciting time: You don’t need a degree or even training beyond the instructions on a Web page, and you can be part of a collective effort that advances science. (Commenter kc I think makes a good argument against my position on this.)

FWIW, the origins of my participation in the article were a discussion with Alex about why in this age of the amateur it’s so hard to find the sort of serious leap in scientific thinking coming from amateurs. Amateurs drove science more in the 19th century than now. Of course, that’s not an apple to apples comparison because of the professionalization of science in the 20th century. Also, so much of basic science now requires access to equipment far too expensive for amateurs. (Although that’s scarily not the case for gene sequencers.)

2 Responses to “[2b2k] Citizen scientists”

  1. science as a body of knowledge is in a strange position now, particularly with the boundary-destroying internet challenging the people of the world to create new histories and mythologies to explain to ourselves and each other who we are, how we got here, and what to do next. At one time the basic principles of Newtonian science could be taught, explained, illustrated by simple experiments that offered in a concrete, practical way that proof by experiment was superior to the opinions of grey-clad authorities or words printed on a page, taken on faith. Now the subjects of science are so great or so tiny or so subtle that they are hardly observable, let alone easy to experiment on. The evolutionary success has taken it to a place where its claims cannot be verified (or even understood) outside of the lab, where the unassailability of its claims is professed by those vested in it to its educated faithful, and where the skepticism which once gave science a foothold against dominant dogma is now considered the mark of a hopeless ignoramus when turned against a scientific claim. Embarrassingly, science can no longer say “see for yourself” when it comes to climate, astrophysics, microbiology, or invisible particles travelling great distances to collide with one another.

    I may be off topic here, but am looking forward to your book.

  2. There are so many things that changed. It is true that people are challenging to create new histories. I just wish that if there are any changes that will happen it’ll be for the best.

    Mary from calculer pourcentage d’augmentation 

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