You Can Do Science Too
August 14, 2012 7:50 AM   Subscribe

Citizen science refers to science conducted by average persons, e.g., people who are not full- or part-time professional scientists but nevertheless have a keen interest in scientific inquiry. Citizen Science Center is a resource for books, papers, discussions, and project listings related to citizen science that aims to convince you to get your hands dirty and do science now.
posted by netbros (11 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

I'm doing my mad scientist laugh right now.

Now I have the tools to prove that relativity is a fraud!
posted by oneironaut at 7:56 AM on August 14, 2012

Speaking as a non-scientist, I love this. Thank you.
posted by gauche at 8:15 AM on August 14, 2012

Two examples of citizen science that I love, but can't fully confirm, are 1) The kid who found that warm water freezes faster, and 2) the elementary students doing a project on taste, put food coloring on their tongues and counted the taste-buds, discovering that the normal number of tasted buds varied over a much wider normal distribution than expected. (Giving rise to the super-taster notion.)

I'd like to hear more of these unexpected discoveries.

The guy who developed a theory of how the Tyrannosaurus hunted by leaning on trees comes close, but that's still a conjecture.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:26 AM on August 14, 2012

According to the blog, the purpose of this project is to DO good science, not just outreach or 'playsearch'. Thus standards must be implemented.....

For this to add meaningfully to the scientifi canon, rather than just add noise - or worse yet be co-opted/distorted by some outside agency, some sort of ethics/what-is-good-science document needs to be made.

If someone would write something like this bioethics document for each project, that would be a start.

I looked at the blog and the person's thesis and it appears awfully light on this stuff.
posted by lalochezia at 8:31 AM on August 14, 2012

If there's one thing that's going to get people involved in science, it's creating documents!
posted by DU at 8:49 AM on August 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

According to the blog, the purpose of this project is to DO good science, not just outreach or 'playsearch'.

Its silly to expect "citizen science" to produce the same sort of rigor as academic science. Of course it'll be noisier and less reliable. I think it can function in parallel to the academic science world and maybe generate new directions for study.

There's nothing that says that all science must be rigorous academic science or its worthless. Like with anything, if you lower the threshold for participation you get more noise and higher volume, which has obvious drawbacks but also obvious benefits that make it worthwhile.
posted by tempythethird at 9:08 AM on August 14, 2012

"Its silly to expect "citizen science" to produce the same sort of rigor as academic science."
You do realise that an awful lot (probably most?) of citizen science is run by academics and is therefore just as rigorous as the other science they do? I'm not sure you're quite getting the methods by which many successful citizen science projects work.
posted by edd at 9:17 AM on August 14, 2012

For this to add meaningfully to the scientifi canon, rather than just add noise - or worse yet be co-opted/distorted by some outside agency, some sort of ethics/what-is-good-science document needs to be made.

A couple of years ago, a bunch of people involved in the DIYBio / Biohacking community across Europe were invited to get together in London, to collaboratively write a sort of mission statement/community standards/ethics document. Maybe 15 people came along, all with different styles of lab set up in their homes or workshops, different research foci, and different motivations for getting into the hobby. They were a genuinely fascinating bunch to chat to and, for the most part, lovely people that I'd be delighted to meet again.

However, it very rapidly became obvious that the hobby, being non-mainstream and somewhat difficult logistically, selected strongly for determined people with a very independent streak. Even with pro bono help from trained "facilitator" whose usual job was in smoothing high-level negotiations between major companies, getting the group to agree about anything was a Sisyphean nightmare.

After a genuinely exhausting day that saw a few tempers stretched to near breaking point and the facilitator dancing on ever-thinning ice to keep the group on track, we did eventually manage to come up with a consensus document. It was useful, just much smaller in scope and less specific than I think any of us had hoped for. In the bar afterwards, the facilitator admitted that this was one of the toughest groups he'd had to work with. Partly because of the personalities involved, partly because, unlike a business negotiation, there's no hierarchy to enforce behaviour and no real cost to people who just decide to opt out.

...which is all to say that, while not impossible, getting this sort of thing done takes some serious cat-herding skills. Write anything too broad and you'll be correctly dismissed as irrelevant. Write anything too specific or set your standards too restrictively, and people will denounce or simply ignore you.

Of course, as edd says, there is a decent chunk of citizen science that's organised or assisted by academic institutions. The Manchester MadLab's DIYBio project is a good example, being a collaboration between Manchester Met and their local (external) hackspace. You could at least arguably include the iGEM competition (although most entrants seem to be university-supported undergrad teams) and things like the Galaxy Zoo. These systems are great, as they're a good way to chunk up useful questions in ways that allow hobbyists to make meaningful contributions to research, keeping that framework in place without being overly restrictive.
posted by metaBugs at 9:43 AM on August 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Especially with smartphones, citizen-science species spotting (plants or animals) is very easy, because your citizen scientist can snap a picture and give precise GPS coordinates. So a supervising scientist can look at the picture and say, "Nope, that's an endemic local butterfly" or "Wow, yes, that IS a southern whatsit butterfly that never comes this far north! And we have six reports of them across a five-mile area!" I've noticed state universities using this sort of citizen identification to help track climate change -- our county extensions have people note when their tulips come up, to provide a statewide map of tulip emergence which helps track how quickly things warm up in spring; there's a citizen-scientist brigade in Olney that counts albino squirrels; I've recently seen citizen-scientist projects in the area for insect surveys, bird surveys, crow-counting, and invasive plant surveys. Sometimes these come with education (the squirrel counters get training from the guys who run the project and learn what to report), sometimes it's easy enough (tulips coming up) that almost anyone can do it with little help.

But it gives a lot of important data to scientists and can help people get more interested in the science. Our state environmental scientists have lots of great data on crop response to climate change in rural areas, but far less data about suburban and urban areas (which may be differently affected due to, say, heat islands) and yard plants. Having thousands of hobby gardeners across the state report when their tulips come up fills in huge areas of the map that otherwise wouldn't be surveyed.

I helped with some crowd-sourced classification of bird pictures (Which pattern most closely matches the pattern on the wings? What color is the head? Etc.). Which got me interested in looking at birds and in the habit of classifying their colors and patterns and shapes. So now I use the resulting website/app all the dang time to identify visitors to my yard.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:18 AM on August 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Previously: What ways can a person contribute to significant science without being a full-time professional scientist?
posted by philipy at 11:14 AM on August 14, 2012

I'm doing my mad scientist laugh right now.

Not too loud, or you might get yourself in trouble.
posted by homunculus at 12:06 PM on August 14, 2012

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