Joho the Blog[2b2k] Amateur astronomers, and science as a network - Joho the Blog

[2b2k] Amateur astronomers, and science as a network

I met today with Aaron Price, who’s with the American Association of Variable Star Observers, a group celebrating a hundred years of gathering data from amateurs and professionals about variable stars. AAVSO has an archive of over 19 million variable star observations. Aaron is particularly interested in enabling and encouraging amateurs to become increasingly involved in the scientific process, ultimately collaboratively writing publishable articles. (I’m putting this my way, not his, so don’t blame him for my infelicities.)

We talked a bit about who should be called a scientist. My own view is that if you have this discussion without any context, then you look to paradigmatic scientists — works in a lab (perhaps), designs and runs experiments, formulates hypotheses, has academic credentials, wears a lab coat. In such cases, when there is no actual need driving the question, arguments about edge cases can’t be resolved. On the other hand, if something hangs on the question — does the person get funding, get invited to address a conference, is allowed access to equipment, get to claim a particular standing in an argument, etc. — then the question is more likely to be settle-able. For that reason, most discussions about whether citizen scientists are scientists (or, are “citizen journalists” journalists, etc.) should be addressed (in my opinion) first by asking, “Why do you ask?”

This seems to me to be an illustration of the way everything (well, almost) is becoming a network. In the old days, when science was a lot like publishing, the line between scientist and layperson was fairly well (but certainly imperfectly) drawn. In a networked world, it’s not simply a matter of redrawing lines, so that now citizen scientists are inside the Circle of Science. Rather, the nature of the lines is different. All members of a network are connected. The question is the nature of the connection, and that can change instantly based on interests, skills, credentials, and the project underway. The old lines disconnected; the new ones connect. And that makes it far more difficult to come up with persistent answers to questions like “Who is a scientist?” or “Who is a journalist?”

Often, in a networked world, it’s better not to insist on an answer. More important than deciding exactly who is inside the charmed circle is figuring out how to make the network smarter — which almost always means extending the network as far as it can possibly go.

8 Responses to “[2b2k] Amateur astronomers, and science as a network”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gautam Ghosh and Gautam's Blog Posts. Gautam's Blog Posts said: I liked this post: [2b2k] Amateur astronomers, and science as a network: I met today with Aaron Price, who’s wi… […]

  2. Well, speaking as someone who has been a professional journalist (columnist), years ago wanted to be a professional scientist (mathematical physicist), and who had a huge amount of award-winning anti-censorware research attacked and destroyed for lack of what amounted to professional standing – “get funding, get invited to address a conference, is allowed access to equipment, get to claim a particular standing in an argument” MATTER. They are how one functions in the network, unless one is content to labor unpaid, minimal standing, etc (which might be preached as being part of “the network”, but one can’t eat network extension).

    “Often, in a networked world, it’s better not to insist on an answer.”

    Nonsense, You’ll get an answer *very* quickly the moment you need to some money, or get slammed by someone high up in the hierarchy, or consider yourself treated unfairly, and so on.

  3. Seth, of course those things matter. That’s what I was saying. The question “who is a scientist?” is unsettleable _unless_ something hangs on it; “those things” are things that can hang on it. Such questions are more settle-able when they _matter_.

    And, yes, of course those things matter within the network. The difference is that they no longer create an unbridgeable gap out across the network. Those who are “content to labor unpaid” are actually doing some important work for science.

  4. > The question “who is a scientist?” is unsettleable _unless_ something hangs on it;

    Right. And the point of my reply is that this is trivial – if NOTHING hangs on it, it’s not meaningful except perhaps in a most abstract angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin sense.

    > The difference is that they no longer create an unbridgeable gap out across the network

    What “difference”? Are you saying, that if someone is willing to work without funding, equipment, status, and so on, well, they can still do science or journalism? Yet they couldn’t do that “in the old days” because of an “unbridgeable gap”? I don’t think it’s best to term that as “the network” if we’re talking about doing unprotected unpaid labor.

  5. I don’t think it’s trivial to say that terms like “science” don’t have meaning apart from actual use cases in which decisions have some consequence. It’s not hardly original (cf. Wittgenstein and language games, or Austin: But, we spend a lot of time arguing over questions like “Are bloggers journalists?” and “Is billiards a sport?” without anything depending on the answer, which makes the questions impossible to answer. Indeed, we had a couple of thousand years of thinking that things have essences independent of our uses of them. So, not trivial, although not original.

    I don’t get your second point. We can now do projects we couldn’t do before because we are able to network in tens of thousands of volunteer contributors. You may think that volunteering is offering to be exploited (since you consistently refer to it as unpaid labor), but we simply could not do projects like Zooniverse and AAVSO’s without the network. Thus, it seems to me that the network makes things different, and I have trouble understanding why you disagree. You may not _like_ the difference, but it’s different.

  6. Ah, I would say “Are bloggers journalists” is a way of describing a dispute where a very great deal depends on the answer, rather than being a mere philosophical categorical debate. I suppose the same is true of “Is billiards a sport”. If you read those extremely narrowly and removed from all social context, of course you can get to something so abstract that I call it trivial and meaningless. But that’s hardly useful, again apart from those philosophical categorical debates.

    You seemed to have redefined your claim. The original post says things like “the nature of the lines is different”. Unpaid labor remains unpaid labor, no matter how much more can be added to a project. The nature of the lines remains the same – there is a hierarchy, and allocation of funding, access, status, etc along it. Adding more exploitation at the bottom is doesn’t change this nature.

  7. “Are bloggers journalists?” only is resolvable when something depends on it, as in, “Should we let bloggers into the press conference?” Addressed on its own, as a matter of definition, it cannot be resolved. We actually agree on this, Seth.

    The nature of the lines change. What used to be a very hard boundary to cross — you were a scientist if you had a degree, etc. — now are far fuzzier. Networking “exploited” volunteers enables them to talk with one another, to get the ear of official scientists (yes, the network also contains a hierarchy), to make hypotheses, to bring evidence against other hypotheses, etc. The old dividing line is now far more easily crossed. This does not mean that there are no hierarchies, and that official scientists don’t have privileges others don’t.

    BTW, a question for you, Seth: Do you equate “unpaid” and “exploited”??

  8. Agreed – the disagreement is over the meaningfulness and relevance of “as a matter of definition, it cannot be resolved”.

    Where is there any evidence that the boundary is easier to cross, except that you redefined it? Are you claiming that more unpaid labor changes the significance of having a degree? I can’t see how that would follow. One can always chat. Begging the higher-ups could always be done, and the odds don’t improve because that’s not the bottleneck (in fact, if anything, that would be an argument it’s harder, because there’s more competition among the masses for any scarce resources). The statements do not support the conclusion.

    I’m glad we’re agreed there are still hierarchies (hyperlinks don’t subvert them).

    Your question ironically is another abstraction versus practically matter. Do I consider, categorically, as a matter of definition, “unpaid” == “exploited”? No. However, when in the context of the “liberation mythology of the Internet”, it’s virtually certain that one is dealing with exploitation of the powerless for the benefit of the powerful.

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