Is the answer to the democratization of Science doing more Citizen Science?

I have been following, with keen interest, the post and comment thread pertaining to “Democratising science” at the blog I monitor daily, … and Then There’s Physics. I think the core subject being discussed is a little different from my interest, but it’s all the same big ball of thread. I posted a very long, historically-oriented comment there, wondering and somewhat rhetorically asking what has changed in the United States to make its relationship with Science appear so different?

I write this hear to spare ATTP the need to moderating that additional discussion and because, frankly, it belongs here as a major and different new thesis.

I got into Science as an amateur. Sure, I had a big advantage, because my dad was a Professor of Chemistry at a small liberal arts college in New England. That gave me a mindset, somewhat offset by my parents’ fierce conservative Catholic views, and access to resources, such as a computer I could learn to program in FORTRAN while in Sixth Grade. Both the inevitable conflict between Science and conservative Catholicism and the access to computing dominated my life, in its search for values, and in the perspective I’ve had about almost everything.

But there was Astronomy, my first scientific love. It was neat: You could do it on your own, with a telescope, or someone else’s, and cameras, and even binoculars, and what you learned and gathered and saw was limited by your patience, in New England, your tolerance of cold winter nights with clear skies, and the book-learning you did about the sky, the stars, the constellations, the Main Sequence, spherical trigonometry, the Equation of Time, magazines, and from fellow enthusiasts, skywatchers, stories of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, telescope builders, and the similarly inclined. For those of us who found Mathematics intriguing, there was the inklings and draw of the mysterious Calculus. It was incredibly empowering for a young person, a nerd, to be able to understand these patterns in a Universe, most of which was so far away.

And then, NASA, and the exploration of near Earth space, and the Moon, and Mars, and spacecraft, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena …. I got reports about Surveyor III, complete with how these experiments were designed, how the arm spaces were mapped for sampling, how resistance and density in the soils of the Moon was measured by monitoring the back-EMF in the robotic arm used to trench on the surface, how non-orthogonal coordinate systems were natural, and not that intimidating.

And now, way off most people’s radar screens, there is this thing called citizen science. It’s this hobbyist science and the kinds of lyceum-oriented science I wrote about in my comment at ATTP, and it is turned into a real thing. That oughtn’t be surprising. Guy Stewart Callendar was a citizen scientist, even if he was a trained steam mechanisms engineer. Facts are, some people want to do science, and are willing to pay for the privilege and training. Some just devote their spare time, skills, and mind. In any case, it is a serious thing, despite some prejudice shown it by some professionals.

Now, I’m a practicing statistician. Professionally I work for Akamai Technologies in Cambridge, MA. My formal training is that of a software engineer (more than simply a title, with Dijkstra and Meyer as heroes), steeped in numerical analysis and quantitative methods, and that of a test engineer, by professional circumstance. That role led me to re-embrace and indulge in Statistics, which eventually became my life. Predominantly, although not entirely self-taught, I have served many clients and, if I were to identify what I do that brings them the most value, I’d say it is rigorous and unflinching integrity in sources and methods, as well as some facility with picking up applicable if new methods, and teaching their use.

However, outside of work, my biggest scientific and technical efforts lie in the support of furthering this citizen science, whether at the Azimuth Project, which, for other that the Azimuth Data Backup effort has been fairly peripheral, or trying to understand the fresh water hydrology of the Town of Sharon, Massachusetts, using time series of precipitation, well levels, water depths, and water flows in a clutch of areas streams. I have been grossly remiss in my pursuit of the latter, both to that project and to myself. It has not been without reason: Struggling to advocate for sensible energy policy in Massachusetts, educate locally on climate risk and disruption, helping to lead others in this direction, arguing for the moral imperative that climate mitigation deeply is.

But I am wrapping things up, and doing Science and Statistics in its support is the only sane thing I can do to respond to the utter craziness of policy erupting like the pus of a breached boil from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. To the degree it pertains to my comment at ATTP, this article neatly sums up both, I think, the opportunities and the issues which might impeded democratization as a practical matter. Clearly, assessing and filtering results from the efforts of citizen scientists is valuable and even essential statistical effort and project, and everything I do from the data collected in support of Sharon’s water concerns is intended to further the efficacy of such contributions. But the deliberate and considered evaluation of methods for assessing citizen science inevitably draws attention, as Kosmala, Wiggins, Swanson, and Simmons point out in their article, to the variability and measurable subjectivity of professional scientific assessments, especially in the field. Part of the difficulty is that, for whatever reason, field scientists generally do not see the necessity of calibrating themselves, even if some of these have been done and reported.

Sure, professional science is indispensable, and the results from the hugely interdisciplinary field of Climate Science are indisputable, an “emerging scientific truth,” as Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson refers to them. But here are some observations:

  • A lot of Science is best learnt by doing, not merely studying.
  • Scientists teaching and working in the field is probably the best symbolic and practical way of breaking down barriers between concepts of Science as Ivory Tower, and Science as relating to Everybody.
  • The funding scene is such that, if citizen science can be exploited for scientific gain, everyone wins.
  • The prejudice in peer reviewed journals against research based upon data collected from teams of citizen scientists really needs to be revisited and highlighted. Sure, there’s every reason to be skeptical, and Statistics offers ways of assessing that. But don’t flinch if we statisticians ask the same from the professionals.
  • A person does not need to believe in something to be skilled in collecting useful and pertinent data. Accordingly, there’s a role for nearly everyone in the scientific enterprise, no matter what their views.
  • Science is a Big Tent. In fact, it’s probably the biggest tent there is. Doing it breaks down barriers. Doing it gives perspective. Doing it can be an almost Buddhist exercise.

So, my answer to scientific democratization is doing more citizen science, and encouraging the re-creation of lyceums and popular scientific societies.

About ecoquant

See Retired data scientist and statistician. Now working projects in quantitative ecology and, specifically, phenology of Bryophyta and technical methods for their study.
This entry was posted in American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Meteorological Association, American Statistical Association, AMETSOC, astronomy, astrophysics, biology, citizen data, citizen science, citizenship, data science, ecology, education, environment, evidence, life purpose, local self reliance, marine biology, mathematics, mathematics education, maths, moral leadership, new forms of scientific peer review, open source scientific software, science, science education, statistics, the green century, the right to know. Bookmark the permalink.

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