Science Cheerleader contributor Stephen Zachary explains, among other things, why citizen scientists are so damn cool (and “creative” when it comes to our uncommon use of certain words). He manages to fit me, Franklin, Stalin, Steve Jobs and Jane Goodall in one brief essay!
Facets of Citizenship
Between the growing public involvement in tackling climate change and our new President, who is looking to promote continuing adult education and a reinvigorated national research agenda, it seems like this “citizen scientist movement” we have here is on the up-and-up. Successful grassroots campaigns, businesses, and politicians preach that if you’re ever going to rebrand, do it on the way down; nevertheless, it may be time to turn a critical eye on our current moniker, lest we fail to capitalize on some of the abstract principles that brought us to this point in the first place.
Even though the present usage of “citizen” is meant to signify something innocuous along the lines of “layperson,” it can sometimes carry with it the aftertaste of concepts like obedience and conformity. Yet here we are on a website founded by a cheerleader turned scholar turned activist — clearly an atypical set of roles, blended together in the hopes of shaking up the relationship between science and society. Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs (among many others) have autodidactic backgrounds to thank for their success and their canonization in what might be called a “Citizen Scientist Hall of Fame,” so quite a few forerunners of this movement took unusual paths as well. A trademark of many autodidacts is fervid individualism, which serves the dual purpose of overcoming the social challenges of being self-taught and promoting the type of resiliency that helps ideas weather the storms of criticism and misfortune. Franklin, a revolutionary in the truest sense, obviously thought of citizenship as a fluid concept and had a healthy respect for dissent.
This isn’t to say that the people we call “citizen scientists” should act as rogue agents or subversive forces against institutionalized science. A certain amount of swagger, though, seems appropriate, because it is the unique perspective fostered through non-traditional education that gives the citizen scientist her strength. For instance, anthropologist Louis Leaky chose a woman without a college background to study primates in the wild, his intuition being that the task at hand called for a person without any academic prejudice. As a result, Jane Goodall got her start in science and was on her way to becoming a famous primatologist. Though she would later attain a doctorate degree, Goodall’s innovative viewpoint was born and fostered during her stint as an amateur.
In addition to individualism and freedom from bias, autodidacts also show a great deal of creativity. A subtle mark of self-taught individuals is that they tend to use certain words in uncommon ways, on account of the fact that they lack a shared learning environment that, for the rest of us, reinforces socially prescribed uses and misuses of nuanced terms. As a result, the literature produced by autodidacts tends to be vivid and provocative. This creativity extends beyond the world of poetry and novels and enters the scientific realm with the effect of bridging ideas, exploring previously overlooked questions, and even the development of new fields. Walter Pitts, a cognitive scientist informally associated with MIT, taught himself mathematics, logic, and neuroscience, putting that knowledge to use later when he played a role in the emergence of artificial intelligence theory and cybernetics.
Of course, most people can only contribute to scientific advancement through incremental steps that promise virtually no prestige or glory. This being the case, why are so many people working to bring science literacy and activism to the public? One fundamental reason behind all the effort is the desire to shrink the ever growing information gap between scientists and the public at large. The amount of knowledge accrued and passed down over human history is impressive, to say the least, but what’s staggering is that new gains are added at a seemingly exponential rate every generation. We’re at a point where the renaissance man may be an endangered species, if only for the fact that the human brain is not a limitless encoding and storage device. Doctorates commonly take seven or eight years; and, even after the degree is conferred, committed scientists can still have a difficult time keeping up with the volume of new findings in their field of expertise.
And while some have blamed the structure of academia for the information gap, that suggestion doesn’t hold much water. Even if we admit that academics run in somewhat incestuous circles, that seems to be the nature of the beast when a knowledge base grows so large that hyper-specialization becomes a necessity. Colleges and universities are reaching out to the public to share their content through programs like MIT’s OpenCourseWare and YouTubeEDU, so it seems like academia is at least making the effort to close the information gap. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not the public at large will do their part by taking advantage of the growing number of resources available to them. What does seem clear is that reliance on the trickle down effect — to the extent that one exists in the advanced sciences — won’t be enough.
Closing the information gap isn’t a question of sharing knowledge for knowledge’s sake: modern scientists are increasingly focused on refurbishing and transforming the world in which we live, and a simple comparison of daily life across the last six or seven decades makes that crystal clear. So the issue is whether or not the world of the future, shaped by the scientific advancements of today, will be something that’s handed to us or something that we help shape by being informed and vocal.
Which brings us back to the semantic issue. Along with the Stalinist incarnation of “citizenship” — characterized by deference to authority — comes another, more appealing, connotation: the citizen as a meaningful and engaged participant with a stake in what lies ahead. “Citizen scientist” is probably a perfectly fine expression — it’s up to the public to decide, however, what the phrase really means.

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