How can we tell citizen scientists from deniers?
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…
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.