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December 28, 2010

[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.)