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How can we tell citizen scientists from deniers?

July 8, 2010

Richard Horton writes in the Guardian that a new form of scientific investigation (or perhaps dissent) is emerging – driven by the internet and ‘citizen scientists’. I think this is a terrible argument and here are some reasons why…

…scientists should be educated to embrace this new culture of science, not fear or resist it. A scientist’s training will need to include ways of engaging citizen scientists constructively, making their data more widely available, putting uncertainty at the forefront of their work, and managing public expectations about what science can do.

Richard Horton,  editor-in-chief of The Lancet writing in The Guardian 7/7/10

You don’t seem to differentiate between public and commercial science, the private sector being where most scientists work. So I have to ask: who is it paying for all this embracing of ‘citizen scientists’, this constructive engagement, this management of public expectation? The answer, clearly, will be the taxpayer.

So I then have to consider how I want my taxes spent. Do I want scientists to act as ambassadors, debating endlessly with these ‘citizen scientists’ and trying to sort wheat from chaff (there’s going to be a lot of chaff, you know). Or do I think my taxes are better spent by having scientists do science, and leave the political/social aspects to others? Needless to say, my money goes to scientists actually getting on with the work, not pandering to a load of punters suffering egregious outbreaks of Dunning-Krueger every five minutes – as demonstrated daily in this very forum.

Sorry if I appear dismissive of your ‘citizen scientists’ but I’m really dismissive of what one might also call ‘mob science’. The clear trend over my lifetime is for science to become more complex, more specialised, more arcane and certainly more difficult. There is also, for every day that passes, an intimidating volume of literature in any discipline that must be assimilated, else scientists of any stripe will find themselves left behind, marginalised or simply barking up the wrong tree. Science seems to me a full time occupation, less suited to amateur investigation for each day that passes, except where the task is simple observation (the work of citizen astronomers is laudable and most valuable in this respect. The same cannot be said for amateur climate science, most of which is laughably inept – just pop in to WUWT to see what I mean).

And I also want to know what importance we should place on the findings of ‘citizen science’? My money is on authority i.e. mastery of the subject matter – a lifelong dedication to study, research and exploration. Are we to accord these citizens the same respect and significance, despite the lack of qualification and experience? If not, what do we do with their work, their pronouncements, their prognostications? Ignore them and carry on as usual? Spend valuable time and taxpayer money sorting out the misconceptions, the broken math, the failed interpretations, the selective data, the cherry-picking and misdirection. Are we to assume that ‘citizen scientists’ are honest, have no agenda, deserve publication in peer-reviewed literature despite failing peer-review – which most of them will?

This is a naive and foolish position you support. In climate change, as with a number of contentious social issues that arise from scientific discovery, the aim of denialists is clear: distort, delay, obfuscate and pervert science through the use of disinformation, hyperbole, sleight of hand and straightforward deceit – read Abraham or Bickmore on Monckton’s ‘citizen science’. Vested interests will fund this ‘citizen science’ because it plays perfectly to their agenda – delay or prevent any mitigation of climate change and promote their short-term, self-serving, venal, selfish, business as usual neo-libertarian right-wing agenda. 

This whole farrago, foisted on us by deniers (for it was no warmist who leaked or hacked the emails, was it?) has used up vast amounts of the very taxpayer’s money that deniers claim to be so concerned to save from misuse. Yet the outcome is clear: the science remains intact. Nothing has changed, and the ‘citizen scientists’ you allude to have contributed nothing at all constructive to the debate.

Put your faith in expertise: I would no more trust a ‘citizen doctor’ than I would a ‘citizen architect’. Your call is for the levelling of knowledge, where expertise, accomplishment and authority over a subject (rather than over us ‘subjects’) is rendered arbitrary, just as our education system seeks to make the metrication of education arbitrary, catering only for the lowest common denominator because it is no longer acceptable to think some people might be more equal than others. But the fact remains that some people are smarter, more disciplined, more studied and applied, better equipped and far more reliable when it comes to matters of expertise.

We do not need more ‘citizen science’, we need a lot more humility. Science cannot be voted on, and as I trust surgeons to fix me up, I trust scientists to discover and inform. What I do with that knowledge is my business, for I am content merely to be ‘a citizen’.

…then along comes Whiten, who makes some interesting points as you will see…

whiten

Hello – and thanks for the comments. I agree on the importance of getting the science right, but there isn’t much proof the science has been wrong so far. It’s the study of chaos, so there’s bound to be problems now and again, but in general the science is robust. That’s not to say it can’t improve, of course.

And for that, the climate science needs the all help there possible.

I think we have to be careful here. Many hands do not always make light work. ‘Too many chefs’ is another phrase that might equally apply. There is much more potential for error and misunderstanding in the work of amateurs, no matter how well-intentioned. Add the political and cultural implications and passions aroused by climate change, and the potential for a considerable amount of time to get wasted foolishly is high. This is also exactly what deniers want, so of course they will champion the citizen scientist – at least, those who challenge the Orthodoxy. It is an invitation to pervert science through a kind of ‘democracy’ where social levelling cancels out expertise, and often excellence.

“What does not kill you,makes you stronger”.

You say this about denialist attacks, but bear in mind that the aphorism is dangerous when applied to broadly: Poverty may not kill you, but…

…and there is a time constraint. If you believe, as I do, that we will reach a point where mitigation can no longer succeed, then we will have failed to save the best of what we have made and done. Adaptation will then be very costly indeed, much of what we call civilisation will be lost or destroyed, and a great many will suffer. We still have time, but the delaying tactics of the denialists are putting us all at risk.

one of the essential and basic principles of democracy is the considering and listening of every voice there, before taking a decision or choosing a way of action.

Not always. Democracy is founded on the notion of representation. We can’t vote on every damn thing, so we employ people to make laws on our behalf, raise taxes and run things. And in science democracy is irrelevant, except that all scientists must have the right to publish if they pass peer review. It is a common criticism of denialists that none of them, while contesting the science in detail, ever manage to get published. (It’s because the science is crap).

And none of us is in a position of total certainty that there is no any “citizen scientist” out there, that could make a significant contribution to science…Be it so or not that option better to remain open, just in case.

I could not disagree with that point, which is why I do support openness with all data, so anyone can indeed see it, work with it – and if a ‘citizen scientist’ comes up with something, I believe he or she will get published. It is a matter of quality – and anyone can do really good work. But you must have the relevant skills, and the detachment that comes from doing proper science, not trying to score ideological points.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2010 6:37 pm

    Interesting that you approve of volunteers who sort through galaxies but frown upon those who are helping researchers collect and interpret valuable data here on Earth.
    Apologies for my bluntness but you’ve got it all wrong.
    If it’s money you’re concerned about, citizen scientists can stretch the value of your tax dollar considerably (have you spoken with any researchers heading up a citizen science project?). The Galaxy Zoo Two project–one of the citizen science projects you approve of, presumably–expects participating volunteers to generate outcomes equal to the value of what one grad student working full time for 200 years would achieve.

    Ask the ornithologists at Cornell for their opinions. My money says they’ll confirm that citizen scientists provide value and advance science, particularly in the realm of climate change research.

    I’d also like to encourage you to volunteer for any one of the citizens science projects featured on ScienceForCitizens.net (a site I cofounded). I promise you, you’ll be a changed man. 🙂
    -Darlene

  2. gpwayne permalink*
    July 9, 2010 6:56 am

    Hi Darlene, and thanks for your comments.

    I’m sorry that you and I are a bit at cross-purposes here – I am responsible since I didn’t make myself clear enough. Your projects are very worthy and I would support them fully (and I have participated in such projects in the past, so this kind of participation is not something I’m unfamiliar with).

    But is isn’t constructive to put words in my mouth – and my approval has nothing to do with this at all, that’s just you painting me as judgemental to make your argument more potent. It’s a fake assessment, and curiously that’s also where the disagreement lies. I admire and wholly support observational participation, and that’s what I said. Data collection is vital – you can rarely have too much of it – and I note most of the projects on your site are of this nature – collect data, be involved, take an interest. These are commendable aims.

    (The site is ScienceForCitizens.net – which is excellent by the way – do check it out if you are not familiar with the kind of participation Darlene is talking about here.)

    Where I failed to make myself clear in respect of climate change is that when citizen scientists cross the line between observation and analysis, we have the potential to get in hot water. This distinction is essential to the context of my remarks, because the entire ‘freedom of data’ issue surrounding the CRU affair isn’t about collecting that data, it is about ‘citizen scientists’ claiming sufficient expertise to analyse it – this despite the fact that where other data sets were provided or in the public domain, the results of ‘sceptical’ analysis have been found wanting.

    Climate change provides an excellent example of this analysis problem. Prominent climate change denier and cheerleader Anthony Watts set up a citizen science project called surfacestations.org, where the public were encouraged to locate and document temperature measurement stations whose readings Watts was convinced were exaggerating the temperature records through the Urban Heat Island effect. His followers duly submitted many photos and details of stations in such placements (where urban creep had engulfed the stations, for example). So far so good.

    What happened next was, in retrospect, rather ironic. The whole project had been conducted on the basis of knowing what the outcome would be – and all the contributors had invested their time to ‘prove’ what they already knew. What they didn’t expect, and still don’t concede, is that the stations affected by UHI, which were prominently older sites, were in fact under-reading temperatures, thus depressing the temperature record rather than inflating it.

    Here is the paper describing the analysis – performed by professional scientists:

    On the reliability of the U.S. Surface Temperature Record – Memme 2010. (http://www1.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub/data/ushcn/v2/monthly/menne-etal2010.pdf).

    There is also a good summary of the story and results here:

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/On-the-reliability-of-the-US-Surface-Temperature-Record.html

    Knowing what to do with the data, knowing how to place it in context, how to frame statistical analysis and perform accurate weighting, how to study standard deviations and assign error bars, how to relate findings to the body of work that precedes any new study – in other words, understanding all that data is where the conflict occurs. In climate change, when the data doesn’t support the sceptical conclusions, they fudge or ignore the data, thus exascerbating the conflict.

    This conflict is already a full-pitched battle, and it isn’t about science, it is about fear and political ideology. I would encourage anyone to get involved since involvement should encourage understanding; the main problem with climate science is the partial nature of the public’s engagement. This isn’t an observational problem, it is a problem that comes from biased or inept interpretation. Collecting data is an excellent way for the public to contribute, but it doesn’t equip lay people to know what the data means, especially in a cross-disciplinary field like climate change, and one so loaded with political and social overtones of massive and potentially catastrophic change to the very fabric of our global civilisation.

    So, let me be quite clear. Any collaboration with the public in respect of data collection is worthy, admirable and potentially valuable – as you suggest it will in effect save money. Asking professional scientists – in the specific context of climate change science – to sift through the turgid, mistaken, arrogant, biased and even deceitful interpretation of that data is a bloody waste of time and money.

  3. July 19, 2010 2:23 am

    Great piece!
    “We do not need more ‘citizen science’, we need a lot more humility”
    I’ve made that same point a lot and have had similar thrown at me as a sign of weakness. As you put it, we must trust a surgeon.
    Climate science has become a spectator sport (you wouldn’t believe how often I hear people arguing, “your side, my side” rubbish). Available data has everyone of these people who have Excel or SPSS making graphs to prove or disprove climate science. This is not how science is done and I agree with you that if someone did the work professionally, had something new to offer and presented it in a formal scientific manuscript, it would get published.
    the bulk of these arguments however, are in the form of homemade graphs posted on blogs which are easily dismissed. Some might be more creative, like Monckton, and the riddle might be harder to crack. Either way this does nothing to improve our scientific understanding and much of this citizen science (even that which supports AGW) does little but provoke inaction.
    Cherry-picking papers that support your view or making radical and unsubstantiated claims (Jo Nova is a good example of this) again sound scientific, but are not and do nothing but decrease scientific clarity.
    It’s okay that with the advent of the internet and cheaper equipment, that everyone now thinks that their a great photography, but the same cannot be said about science. It’s not a hobby nor is it a sport. It is, as you said, a full time job and best done by those who have gone through the training and present their work through appropriate peer-review scrutiny.
    It doesn’t mean that they are right, but it does mean that they are sweeping away some of the dust of ignorance. Citizen scientists are clumsy and more often than not just shift the dust around.

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