Hooray for Citizen Scientists!

In last week’s episode of Sciency Words, we met “Steve” and learned how this strange and unexpected aurora-like phenomenon ended up with such a friendly, normal-sounding name.  But there’s another important aspect of Steve’s story that I didn’t really touch on: the role of citizen scientists.

Photo of “Steve” by Elfie Hall, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Toward the end of this paper from Science Advances, the same paper which linked Steve to another aurora-related phenomenon known as S.A.I.D., I found a paragraph that I feel is interesting enough and important enough to quote in full:

STEVE has highlighted the importance of citizen science.  Although independently observed previously by auroral photographers both amateur and professional, citizen science has proven to be a bridge between amateur observers and traditional aurora scientists.  This bridge has facilitated the advancement of our understanding of both the night sky and magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling.  We emphasize that this collaboration with the citizen scientists was not simply through crowdsourcing and image analysis of a large data set. Citizen scientists discovered a new category of auroral observation by synthesizing complex information and asked the scientific community for input on these observations.  This example can help change the nature of scientific engagement between the scientific community and citizen scientists and move communication from one way to two way, with curiosity transitioning to participation and finally to stewardship.

Citizen science is often portrayed as something new, something that’s only become possible thanks to computers, the Internet, and technology in general.  And I think that’s fair.  The mystery of Steve might not have been investigated as thoroughly as it has been, or it might not have been investigated at all, if not for Facebook.

For most of the 20th and early 21st Centuries, cutting edge science has required a lot of extremely powerful, extremely sensitive, and extremely expensive equipment.  If modern science is seen as inaccessible to the average person, that might be in part because the average person could not afford to perform science him or herself.

But it wasn’t always so.  Most of the great scientists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries were essentially hobbyists, people who indulged their curiosity using the kind of tools they either bought off the shelf or built with their own hands.

So in a way, I think of citizen science as science returning to its roots, with ordinary men and women contributing once more to the important discoveries of our time (like the discovery of Steve).

6 thoughts on “Hooray for Citizen Scientists!

  1. Government science was really an invention of the world war era. Prior to that the requirement for expensive equipment and extensive labor was fulfilled by universities, privately funded through endowments and tuitions.

    Governments are good at marshalling expensive equipment, but lack all other capacity for science.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think government funded science deserves some credit. NASA’s robotic space exploration program has done some outstanding work. At the same time, though, NASA’s other programs have been struggling for decades, in large part (I’d say) because of bureaucracy and meddling by Congress. So I do agree with your overall point.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m in the camp that it’s wrong to view science as only something professional scientists do. Anyone who tries various routes to work and measures how long each takes is doing a form of science. A mechanic diagnosing a problem, coming up with possible causes, and then trying solutions, is testing hypotheses. When we view science as something beyond regular people, we create a divide that causes many people to see it an elitist club, one that shouldn’t be trusted.

    That said, it’s pretty tough for a lone hobbyist to make dramatic progress in knowledge the way Galileo or Newton did. Too much of the low hanging fruit has been picked. Of course, that’s only true until someone finds a completely unexplored area. The next Darwin or Einstein will probably be someone investigating something that few if any people had thought to study before.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As usual, I agree with you. Anyone who uses the scientific method to solve a problem is doing science.

      But I’m referring more to cutting edge experimental science, which has become prohibitively expensive. No hobbyist was going to find the Higgs boson or detect gravitational waves.

      But if citizen science means ordinary men and women are contributing to the great discoveries of our time, and doing it in a hobby-like way, I feel that means science is getting back to its roots. And I’m happy to see that happening.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve always have more fun doing experiments that I could almost do at home (if I had the chemicals) than the ones that require really expensive equipment. Good old-fashioned color changes in a beaker is enough for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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