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Citizen Science as a Cure for Scientific Isolation

(Note: this piece originally ran last Friday on Sheril Kirshenbaum’s “Culture of Science” blog in three installments:

  1. Citizen Science as a Cure for Scientific Isolation
  2. The Promise of Citizen Science
  3. Ending Scientific Isolation

Thanks again to Sheril for the opportunity to write for her site.)

Introduction

The myth of the solitary scientific genius is pervasive. You know the one I mean: the man (almost always) who works alone, communing directly with the innermost workings of the universe with his powerful brain and forging new ways of scientific thinking by sheer force of will. This myth is probably most common in physics, probably because of the heavily theoretical focus of the field, but it’s not exclusive. Einstein, Darwin, Newton, Curie, and so forth are seen as solitary workers, making new science without reference to any other person.

If only it were that simple, of course. Real science, as opposed to the cartoon version, is a lot of drudgery. Einstein spent nearly 10 years on his general theory of relativity, publishing several false-start papers with incomplete and incorrect versions before his triumphant 1916 final edition – and even then, others were faster than he was in figuring out how to solve his equations. Einstein’s three famous 1905 papers (including his special theory of relativity, so much in discussion thanks to the recent OPERA neutrino experiment) were developed after a lot of reading, correspondence, and conversation with his colleagues. I think it’s safe to say that relativity would have been discovered without Einstein, though whether it would primarily be the work of one person or a collaboration is beyond my ability to know. (For example, much of relativity in its various forms was worked out independently by Henri Poincaré, Henrik Lorentz, David Hilbert, and others.)

That’s just Einstein; others’ stories are similar. Newton famously said he stood on the shoulders of giants to see farther, though that may in part have been an insult to one of his colleague-rivals (I have joked in classes that Newton didn’t have friends so much as a large group of frenemies). The main thing is that even without direct collaboration, no scientist produces anything of value in complete isolation. Some degree of separation may be necessary to clear the head, gain perspective, and the like, but reference need always be made to the work of others, even if that work is ultimately rejected in favor of something new. And of course the final referee is the natural world itself; comparison with evidence ultimately decides which theories stand or fall. We remember Kepler’s model of the Solar System; how many people remember Tycho’s model?

Let’s not idealize the process of science; I’m not saying either that evidence will be unambiguous, or that scientists are perfect human beings, because neither of those are true. Einstein himself propagated the idea of the solitary genius, Newton was obsessed with priority for his ideas alone, and so on. Perfectly good theories may not get a fair hearing, but there’s where another problem lies. Just because a theory isn’t well-regarded doesn’t make it good, any more than a widely-accepted theory will stand forever, supported by evidence. Science is an ever-evolving venture, with new pieces of evidence getting absorbed into the framework, or far more rarely leading to complete revisions.

The Promise of Citizen Science

I think one major antidote to the idealized thinking about science is the citizen-science movement. You may have participated in some: these have names like GalaxyZoo (identifying galaxies from large astronomical surveys), Fold-it (solving problems in protein-folding), NestWatch (cataloguing nesting sites for birds), GIMPS (Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, hunting for prime numbers), and so on. (Start with The Zooniverse for a large collection in one place; also All of these projects are led by scientists, but the work is done by…well, anyone with access to a computer. Interesting discoveries can be made by ordinary people in this way; the famous “Tatooine” exoplanet, in orbit around two suns, was identified by a PlanetHunter user, to cite just one example.

If these projects are done right, the professional scientists make their citizen-scientist collaborators welcome, and feel part of the team. After all, they are not just helping with drudge-work, though certainly they do assist with something that would take the professionals a long time, simply by the sheer number of eyes looking at the data. I’ve had my students help with GalaxyZoo as a lab project in introductory astronomy, and with a class of 30, we were able to help identify a large number of galaxy types in a 90-minute period. This was a college class, but nothing we did couldn’t be done by high schoolers or even patient elementary-school children.

I’m not saying citizen-science projects are equivalent to intensive scientific training, of course, but they are an excellent way to widen collaborations and engage the public’s interest. Another way they can help is to decrease isolation of people who may feel lost in the world of science, an unfortunate consequence of our information-overloaded society. Most highly-trained theoretical physicists don’t create world-changing theories; it’s a rare person who sets out to change paradigms, and even rarer for that person to succeed. However, a citizen scientist may be able to discover a new exoplanet, or figure out a protein-folding algorithm, or a number of other things which would be difficult to do under ordinary circumstances.

Citizen Science and the Amateur-Professional Divide

Professionally, I’m a bit of an amphibian: as a cosmologist, I have credentials as both a physicist and an astronomer (though I speak astronomy as a second language, with a heavy accent). In fact, in two jobs I’ve held since earning my Ph.D. I was hired because I can teach astronomy, something I wouldn’t really have anticipated when I was taking classes in quantum field theory and other topics in theoretical physics. I also write a lot about astronomy on my blog, though it isn’t specifically devoted to the subject.

I do try my hardest to get it right, though. I’ve met a number of amateur astronomers who are more sophisticated than I am in many respects: they have great equipment (I don’t even own a telescope these days), and really know the subject. I wouldn’t say my background in astronomy is any better than theirs, even though I’m supposedly a “professional” and they are technically “amateurs”. The distinction is blurred even further by the discovery of comets, asteroids, and the like by amateur astronomers, who can often do better than the big observatories at spotting things of that nature. (Astrophotography is definitely an area where the “amateurs” have an edge, too: if you have only one night of telescope time at an observatory, you often can’t spend much of it getting beautiful pictures, as interesting as that may be to you personally.)

I’m all in favor of this. Science is a participatory activity, and the more skilled people involved with it, the better.

The Fruits of Scientific Isolation: Crackpottery

Amateur scientists of various sorts have large organizations, meetings, and networks. On the other side of the spectrum is the crackpot: the person who believes they have single-handedly solved a major problem in physics (usually), overthrown Einstein’s theory of relativity or quantum mechanics, or shown that black holes don’t exist by dint of argument and shaky reasoning. Like internet trolls, they are the bane of any conversation about theoretical subjects: if you engage them, you are automatically taking what they say seriously; if you ignore them, they win because you don’t have a legitimate argument to use against them; if you ban them, they’re like Galileo, righteous rebels against the entrenched establishment.

Crackpots often buy into the myth of the Lone Scientific Genius, the person laboring alone in obscurity who manages to overturn established theories and single-handedly brings in a new paradigm. Despite this, their longing for community is palpable: they want to be acknowledged by authorities, even as they publicly revile the same institutions. One common statement reads, “I have submitted my papers to the Physical Review (one of the premier physics journals), but they reject them without comment.” They blog, but they also go onto other people’s blogs, demanding acknowledgment of their ideas.

It’s easy to make fun of crackpots; even the name is mocking, but I don’t know of another. One thing that occurs over and over in conversation with them, though, is how frustrated they are with what they perceive to be high barriers of entry to science. Some are quite well-educated, and although some of them probably could use a bit of therapy, that goes for many scientists too. I’m thinking along different therapeutic lines: can citizen science projects, with their community of users, be at least a partial vaccine or antidote to crackpottery? By reducing isolation and providing the chance to truly participate in big scientific projects, the obvious love for science may be channeled to more productive ends than trolling. My feeling is that many hard-core crackpots often have other issues, but those who may be tempted down that path simply by scientific isolation or bewilderment have a community waiting for them in citizen science.

Ending Scientific Isolation

Citizen science is not a replacement for professional scientists, of course. If done properly, projects will save professionals a lot of time and energy, but it’s not a labor-saving device (which is an offensive idea anyway!). Unlike simply using computers to save calculation time, working with citizen-science projects creates community, and community benefits flow both ways. Projects like these increase diversity of culture and of age.

Scientific isolation is really no different than any other kind of social isolation. Getting people involved can keep scientists’ own interest at high peak. Inspiration is no small part of public science outreach, after all, and what better way to inspire than for people to actually participate as part of a community?

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