The amateur ecology

This article appears in the issue November/December 2010, [Vol 19, Issue 10]


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It used to be easier for amateurs to have a big impact.

For example, Charles Darwin was not exactly a professional scientist. He was not a member of a university or some other institution. He supported his scientific work through his travel writings, and later in his life from the inheritance from his father. He was, however, well integrated into the community of scientists, and was a member of scientific organizations such as the Royal Zoological Society, the Royal Society and the Linnean Society.

Gregor Mendel, on the other hand, was an amateur from start to finish. He failed the qualifying exams to teach high school, and so worked for years in his monastery’s garden, noticing interesting relationships among peas. From this, he deduced the basic laws of inheritance, without having a clue about their genetic mechanism. Today, it’s practically a law that whenever you use the name Gregor Mendel, you must append to it the phrase “the father of genetics.”

Professional mediation

Science has had a tradition of embracing amateurs. After all, science cares about what you know, not what your degree says. Srinivasa Ramanujan was a self-taught math genius at the turn of the 20th century. Carolyn Shoemaker was a “homemaker and mother” until she became the best-known amateur comet finder around. Much more recently, amateur astronomers in the Philippines and Australia noticed a two-second flash of light on Jupiter. They alerted professionals who concluded that it was probably a small comet smashing into the giant planet.

But, two observations take some of the luster off the story of amateurs. First, the effect they have seems generally to be mediated by professionals: We know about Ramanujan, Shoemaker and the light-flash astronomers because professionals noticed them and accepted their work. Amateurs often need professionals to give them credibility.

Second, amateurs seem to be having a smaller impact than in the 19th century. They may be discovering comets, but they generally are not inventing new pharmaceuticals or subatomic particles.

This is not too surprising. Science has become so specialized that it is well nigh impossible to get up to speed without going through grad school and giving up one’s amateur status. Not to mention that many fields now require equipment far more expensive than an amateur could afford—although in some areas, including bioengineering, the prices are dropping precipitously.

Crowd effect

But this ignores the most obvious way amateurs are helping science. In field after field, crowds of amateurs are contributing data that, when put together, advance science in noticeable ways. In one year, Galaxy Zoo received 50 million classifications from volunteers looking at photos of stars and reporting whether they are spiral-shaped or elliptical. This has changed the professionals’ assumption that red galaxies are elliptical. Similarly, several sites aggregate reports on birds and other wildlife, building databases that will be useful to biologists and environmentalists. Some people play FoldIt, a game that harnesses the spatial abilities of the human brain to figure out how proteins fold.

These projects are clearly useful. But, they don’t require the volunteers to draw upon their scientific knowledge. They basically use the volunteers as intelligent sensors, or as clever processors.

New ecology

This is not a criticism. It, in fact, points to what I think is the most interesting aspect of the new amateurism. While amateurs are not as often coming up with big honking breakthroughs and hypotheses, together they are a hugely important part of the new ecology of science.

The old ecology was set in a plain with a cliff. On top of the cliff were the professionals, going about their work, and occasionally communicating down to the crowd on the plain. A hundred years ago, the cliff was more like an oversized step. Amateurs from the plain could make important contributions that the professionals would embrace.

Now the cliff is more like a hill off in one corner of the environment. It’s still too steep for amateurs to climb, but the communication is constant. The professionals are no longer constrained by the limitations of paper. They continue to publish in high-prestige, limited-access journals, but they also put lots of what they’re thinking, and much of their data, on the Internet. Amateurs swarm all over it. When, say, a mathematician announces the solution to a problem that has stumped the world, amateurs and professionals alike will kick its tires. Mistakes are found. Misunderstandings are ironed out.

The amateurs also interpret the work of professionals for people who have no training and perhaps little interest. The amateurs explain why this matters or why it doesn’t, how it applies to other fields, or how other fields apply to it. In this visible ecology, we can see the work of the professionals having its effect on the entire environment, becoming part of our shared understanding.

Open network

So, it is true that individual amateurs have less impact on science than they used to. And it’s true that the big crowd-sourced projects tend not to use amateurs as scientists but as sensors. But the presence of an open, connected network has fundamentally altered the environment so that there is now room in the ecology for a wide range of contributions by amateurs. They may not be making the big, breakthrough discoveries in some of the big fields of science, but the new ecology is changing how science is evaluated, understood and takes effect.


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