Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Only professional scientists can do science, only professional journalists can do journalism, only professional policy makers can create good policy - not anymore

I attended the Australian Science Communicator's new media forum last night, participating on the panel as a Gov 2.0 Advocate, along with a distinguished group of science communicators and academics.

One view expressed on the panel was that while scientists should communicate basic science to the public, the uninformed masses should not be involved in reviewing or doing science.

This reflects views heard in other professions over the last ten years - that bloggers should not do journalism or critique journalists and that the public should be kept at arms length in government policy development as they don't know enough to provide a valid contribution (explaining why some resist the use of consultations and policy co-design is rarely used across Australian governments).

This viewpoint by intelligent and highly skilled professionals is not, in my view, surprising. Anyone who has dedicated years of their life, slogging through universities degrees, post-graduate studies and climbing the job ladder knows they have earnt the right to do what they do. Anyone who hasn't put in those hard yards is often viewed with suspicion, even disdain.

This is partly a recognition that there's 'secret knowledge' and expertise required to undertake some of this work, however it can also be partially ego-driven - experts often define themselves by their expertise as it feeds their sense of value.

The changes in the last ten years have permitted many who don't have formal learning or specific career experience to learn about and contribute in fields such as science, journalism and policy creation. This can threaten some experts (who are often quite public about the divide between professional and citizen activities)

However for many others it presents opportunities to broaden their reach, tap into wider collective expertise and to build knowledge and understanding. This in turn can lead to greater influence and better outcomes - even greater funding or profits or positive social change. Greater understanding can also reduce the fear of 'otherness' and concerns and suspicions around elitism - which have dogged certain groups, such as scientists, in recent years.

Even more than this, people who are not acknowledged as experts often can provide a different view of challenges and different approaches to solving problems that sometimes experts, who can become locked into a particular professional worldview, or lack relevant broader experience, cannot see. This can lead to breakthroughs or new realizations.

Regardless of whether individuals support or oppose this trend of 'encroachment' of 'amateurs' into formerly elite fields, the trend is real - isn't it better to harness it rather than resist it?

After all history has demonstrated the fate of organisations and individuals who resisted social trends. They generally are not with us anymore, or exist in much diminished and niche forms.


  1. Can only doctors perform brain surgery? Can only engineers build bridges? Can only pilots fly planes?

    There is a good reason specialists perform certain functions and it has nothing to do with ‘secret knowledge’, ego, feeling valued or threatened. It’s called appropriate training. “The uninformed masses should not be involved in reviewing or doing science.” Quite right. It’s like saying the uninformed masses should not practise medicine. It’s common sense.

    Of course the public should know _about_ science, enabling them to appreciate new discoveries, policies and funding choices around science. But this does not require that they understand science as a scientist or that they perform or review science.

    In a study of science literacy in Australia only 3-4% of 1500 people surveyed answered six basic science questions correctly, e.g. were dinosaurs and humans alive at the same time? I think we should improve the public awareness of science before suggesting that non-scientists review and do science.

    To clarify, I am a science communicator because I believe all science should be communicated to the public (not just the basics). People are the stakeholders of publicly-funded science and they should partake in the discussion about science. Furthermore, I think people should be free to do whatever they like, be it science, journalism, or policy.

    But there is an important difference between science and journalism or policy. It takes much longer and more specialised skills to understand say quantum chromodynamics than it does a particular event or new tax. Good journalism and policy may come from ‘amateurs’ but good science is done by scientists.

  2. Amateur astronomers have been great in identifying commets and astroids. I think it's fine to keep professionals involved in the 'review' process but science isn't as opposed to amateur involvement as this forum may have suggested. I think there's just some resentment against all the "I'm not a climatologist but blah blah blah climate change blah" that gets better press coverage than the climatologist themselves.

  3. There's also something to be said about why people are able to 'do' journalism: technology makes it possible for someone to publish him/herself. More data is available to more people than ever before, so it's also easier now for someone to look at the data and make conclusions, and potentially shape policy. It is also possible to have more citizen scientists and amateurs doing scientific tasks that were previously limited to corporations and universities with million dollar budgets.

    Just having access to these tools does not make someone a journalist, scientist, or policy writer. There is a certain amount of training to know how to use these tools to do good reporting or good science. I find the same thing happens on large scales sometimes in schools - districts will spend millions on interactive white boards and laptops for the classroom, and then expect magically that 'education' will happen as a result. It is about how the tools are used, not the tools themselves. I am not saying a random person can't learn these skills - as a teacher, it is my job to help my students develop the skills to do just that. The problem is seeing the tool as what makes it possible. Journalists and fifth graders both write things down in a notebook. The difference is how they then use the tool after the information is in there.

    A person can wander around on the internet, find one data set that shows a decrease in temperature somewhere, and then say "climate change is a myth" based on that data. That one person is then amplified by the internet (the existence of which is why we see this now more than ever) and then people start to believe it because of the power of numbers. A good scientist would know not to use a single piece of data to draw a conclusion. Unfortunately, the common response is to call that scientist 'elitist'.

  4. I think there is a another issue not really being touched upon here, and it is the defining of how science operates.

    Science is a term that seems discrete and well defined. In fact, philosophically there is a feature referred to as the 'demarcation problem of science', which describes the difficulty in describing science as a category with clear parameters. So when we describe who does science, as Veritasium has done, we tend to think of brain surgeons and chemical engineers. Obviously these are professions that are impossible to succeed in without years of study, and impossible to even engage in without some evidence of the nature of this study (i.e., a reputable university). If this was the sum of what science entailed, there'd be no argument.

    Yet to do so would require a lot of special pleading and circular reasoning. Science is a scaffold of interlocking philosophies, values, knowledge and practices - to say all contributing factors are as strict in their academic and political requirements as those needed to do research or applied science is not just wrong, it risks creating an elitism that is not reflected by the reality of how science is actually done.

  5. Ok, this comes in two parts.

    There are many aspects of Craig’s argument that are misaligned with current research for the simple reason that he ignores the fact that there exist different types of knowledge. This basically makes his whole first post a massive oversimplification of a very complex problem. As much as I’d like to comprehensively elucidate on this matter, I will keep this post economical and implore anyone who has further interest to reply or contact me on twitter (@contacthelen).
    So, allow me to address the points that I feel are most inconsistent:
    “the uninformed masses should not be involved in reviewing or doing science”
    No one is arguing that no one other than a scientist/mathematician/journalist may even contribute to each respective field. Even a non-surgeon may ‘successfully’ perform an operation (delivering babies, 127 hours). In saying that, we must also consider what type of contribution we are talking about and with whom the contribution may ultimately be attributed. For example, reviewing and doing science are very different things. One might argue that a high school student is ‘doing’ science when he alters or controls for a variable in an experiment, this does not mean I will ask him/her to review the experimental design section of the paper I am reviewing on photonic lanterns. I’m also not likely to ask James Franco to perform amputations of those dear to me... So is it just semantics? Is Craig’s version of the avocation of non-scientists doing science the same as mine saying it is possible for non-scientists to contribute to science? No. At the end of the day, a contribution to a field can only be deemed legitimate by an expert within that field. Otherwise, any knowledge/contribution can be classified as legitimate by anyone and all knowledge becomes relative. Contributions by non-scientists require legitimisation by scientists, making the contribution possible only through the existence of the expert.
    The second offense is the suggestion that experts feel threatened by amateurs. We as scientists have never shied away from requesting assistance. In fact, I would say, compared to other disciplines, science is quite accepting of help from the non-expert. In science, it doesn’t matter who you are, if you were to suddenly provide a solution for reconciling quantum mechanics with general relativity then it would be perfectly acceptable- after it was reviewed by expert scientists. (Think of other fields, such as literary criticism; if you were to suddenly provide a Foucauldian analysis of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and said ‘there it is, done!’, you are unlikely to create even a ripple of interest.)

  6. Without knowing it, you have provided us with a perfect example of my previous point. Your two links and report on ways in which citizens helped scientists through a roadblock. In both of these cases, scientists had already worked (very hard I would say) to get to a point where they decided they could use some help. They posed the question. Would the laymen receiving the data from outer space in its raw form know a) that it was data intended to probe whether life existed on other worlds, b) de code the data to prime it for analysis, and c) come up with a repertoire of patterns that may indicate they have achieved their purpose?
    Would the computer gamers have spontaneously thought to themselves when playing ‘Foldit’; ‘hmmmm, this looks like an environment in which I could solve the structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus’ ?
    It was the scientists that recognised that they needed to find a source of greater spatial reasoning and from what I have read, it was the scientists that recognised the computer game may have been of some help. This is a far cry from the suggested feelings of concern for the ‘encroachment’ of amateurs.
    But expertise does exists and we should value it and we should be wary of the non-expert. In science, we must be sceptical of the amateur as we are sceptical of the expert.
    That is, it is much more dangerous in science to try and avoid the masses’ feelings of subordination than it is to perpetuate the practice of science, by scientists, whether considered elitist or not. Reducing ‘the fear of otherness’ cannot come by renouncing the fact that scientists are different from lawyers, who are different from sociologists, who are different from educationalists, who are each special in very real and discernible ways. It can only come through an acceptance and appreciation of expertise. Otherwise, how are any of these disciplines different??
    So what happens if we do accept the idea, as it is suggested? If we say that amateurs are as legitimate as scientists and should be accepted ‘to lead the way for greater positive social change’? What happens when anyone can do science; when we leave it to the non-professionals? Who legitimises knowledge then? The amateur? The masses?
    In fact, we have a very clear picture of what happens in these cases; The climate change debate happens, the whole practice of homeopathy happens, quacks like Dr Burzynski ( happen , the MMR debacle happens and more... And I daresay, the ‘benefits not outweighing the costs’ argument is not only limited to the scientific endeavour:
    My point overall is to say that yes, the ‘masses’ can contribute to science (and we are thankful that they do) but this is often guided by and legitimised by scientists. The role of the amateur should be appreciated but not over valorised to the point of considering her/him a scientist. Each of us has our own role in society, forcing a square peg into a round hole is inappropriate and unnecessary. Expertise does exist, we should value it, not resent it.

  7. Perhaps it is also worth considering the way communities are being marshalled to support and contribute to science through sites such as Scistarter -


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