Tapping into the collective wisdom

Amateurs laid the groundwork for a new discipline with a new job title 'scientist'. There is still room for them in the Big House of science, writes Laurie Zoloth.

iStock and ESA/Hubble & NASA

Consider Caroline Lucretia Herschel, all 129 cm of her. It is 1772, and she is a singer living with her big brother William, an organist. At night, in the street outside their flat in the English city of Bath, they pass the time with their hobby, stargazing. Back then it was the way of scientific discovery. Caroline discovered several comets, including 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, which is named for her. She went from hobbyist to the first woman to be made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomy Society. Her brother – Sir William by then – was its first president.

Of course the Herschels are not the only famous amateur researchers whose work laid the foundations for a new discipline, and a new job title – “scientist”. Darwin was not paid for his research, nor at first was Michael Faraday. Many of the key discoveries, innovations and experiments of the time were conducted as hobbies, not only by the wealthy, but the eager, newly educated middle classes in Europe and the Americas.

Flash forward to 2013 and you see we have come full circle. Using crowdsourced science to find planets, identify species or find all possible ways to fold a protein is based on the fascinating idea of the wisdom of the crowd and the fact that human beings are very good at finding patterns within data. Keen amateurs are flocking to help, eager to participate in something serious and noble – the search for the Real. This assumption is optimistic and egalitarian, two things that are also fundamental to participatory democracy. Like government, the search for truth should be the business of all, not a few experts.

Consider the GalaxyZoo project, in which civilian scientists are promised: “You will not only carry out the classification of our sample of post-quenched galaxies, but we will collaboratively analyse the data, discuss the results, and write an article to submit to a professional journal. The results from this study… will improve our understanding of the role of mergers in galaxy evolution.”

Then there is the remarkable Encyclopaedia of Life community, with more than 70,000 members, that aims to understand every single species. “Our knowledge of the many lifeforms on Earth – of animals, plants, fungi, protists and bacteria – is scattered around the world in books, journals, databases, websites, specimen collections, and in the minds of people everywhere. Imagine what it would mean if this information could be gathered together and made available to everyone – anywhere – at a moment’s notice.”

The effort is not without problems, of course. Not all parts of science can be accomplished without very specialised training and some parts of science are potentially dangerous and ought only to be done with oversight, precaution and regulation. Gone are the days when we want random citizens in uncontrolled labs experimenting with biological chemicals. Most crowdsourcing is different – data is collected from thousands of sources, and the power of distributed observation leads to the power of collective knowledge.

Is the crowd always wise? Wikipedia, long the inspiration for the wisdom of the crowd, can be laughably wrong even about facts that could be easily checked. A philosophy colleague of mine has a lesson plan that includes teaching his students why crowdsourcing is fallible. He has his class make up facts on Wikipedia entries to see how long they last. In one case, he told me, he gave a sports figure a fake nickname, with a fake backstory, and watched as the person began to tell that fake story as if it were real.

Philosophers are always around to point out that collective wisdom, even collective observation, can sometimes be wrong. Take the case of peptic ulcers, long and enthusiastically thought by everyone to be caused by stress. For generations well-trained scientists were taught that the bacteria they saw in the microscope associated with ulcers were irrelevent, so they did not “see” them in the slides. It took Australian scientists Barry Marshall and Robin Warren to read the data differently, and prove everyone in the crowd wrong – and win the Nobel Prize for showing that the bacteria were the cause of the ulcers. Scientists, even amateurs, see within the frame of what they are taught, and it is always the ability to see beyond, to tear the fabric of the real, that makes a scientist great.

I am enthusiastic about crowdsourcing, because I am fond of what is called in America “Jacksonian” democracy – named after Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the US, who opened the White House to all, maddening the educated elites. This populist spirit gave energy to the young democracy, and this populist spirit is the same energy that fuels the crowdsourcing movement.

Scientists everywhere should understand that the same determination that led a young woman to believe she could find new stars with a homebuilt telescope on the pavement in front of her flat, can invigorate science today. At a time when every academic scientist is being urged by their university to become a businessman, and every discovery is bound quickly and tightly to a patent, the idea of allowing the whole neighbourhood into the Big House of science is a welcome and joyful one.

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