The citizen scientist – time to change?

The internet has created a new movement in science of the Citizen Scientist (aka sceptics in climate). This movement now rivals “official” sources for credibility in areas like climate. Is it time for this movement, which is so critical of “official” science for poor standards, to raise its own standards?

“Science” as we know it today, has very little in common to “science” when institutions like the Royal Society were founded in the 17th century. Paradoxically, we sceptics are arguably far closer to the this 17th century scientific “ideal” than most of today’s academics. Like them we are largely individuals who pursue knowledge for personal interest without being funded & directed by government grant bodies. In contrast, most modern “science” is part of a factory-style sausage-machine of scientific-clone-workers with next to no knowledge outside academic-science or indeed of the philosophical basis of “science” and knowledge.

So, there is much to praise about us sceptics, “climate auditors” or citizen scientists. But, as Lewandowsky is keen to assert, the internet is also full of conspiracy theorists: whether it is those who believe aliens will come to destroy planet earth because of humanity’s treatment of the planet, or those who believe big corporations are behind everything.**

(**Such as big oil making money from rising energy prices and with its huge wind interests must be funding those sceptical of those trying to increase the price of carbon and bolster profits from their wind interests).

So perhaps Lewandowsky in his naivity has raised a serious point: what is so different between “citizen scientists” who look at the facts and see academics conspiring to “hide the decline” and “conspiracy theorists” like BIG OILERs?

This raises some awkward questions:

  • How do the public know when to trust citizen scientists like us sceptics and when not?
  • The genie of the internet made it possible to create communities of citizen scientists and that genie cannot be put back in the bottle … but just because it cannot be stopped, should these “citizen scientists” be encouraged?
  • The prevailing mood of sceptics is that “official” science should be better. But as “science” is now so much of a grant-led sausage machine needing scares like global warming, can “official” science ever be good enough not to need us citizen scientists?
  • Can “official” science (in all its areas and not just climate) ever be made good enough not to need us citizen scientists?
  • “Official” science is trying to ignore the phenomenon of the internet-powered citizen scientists (or as with us sceptics undermine our credibility by calling us “deniers”). That is rightly backfiring as the public realise that the real “deniers” are those who have been denying the pause in temperature. As a result “sceptics” are becoming more and more credible. But does that mean that all who appear as “citizen scientists” should be seen as credible? And who judges?
  • We sceptics have an ethos of robustly critiquing each other that far surpasses anything seen in “peer review”  … Or perhaps we sceptics owe “warmists” a debt of gratitude, because they have taken the time to critique our work which has generally raised the standard. But not all areas of citizen science have the same rigorous debate and even in climate, not all sceptic blogs either attempt or achieve the same high standard as for example Climate Audit. This situation is anarchic – but it has worked – but can it be relied on to continue working or do we need to do something to make it work better?

Conclusion

As a result of the debacle over climate, and the high standards of notable sceptics, our credibility has grown, or at least sustained, as that of “official sources” like the IPCC and Met Office have dropped. The result is that sceptics, albeit unofficially, are becoming a real force in the development of public policy. For example, few can doubt that if it were not for sceptics, much more of the anti-industry/CO2 policy would now be strangling our economies.

However, do we really deserve our success?

Whilst we have been highly critical of others for their poor standards, we have ourselves operated in a way that if official scientist behaved like us, it would have brought down howls of indignation. We have no organisation, we criticise “official” science for poor standards, but we ourselves have no recognised standards as we effectively say and do whatever we like.

Is this really the way those who are affecting government policy should behave? Is it time to stop being so hypocritical? Is it time to change? Can we change? Should we change?

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10 Responses to The citizen scientist – time to change?

  1. There is an article about “citizen science” in the Guardian today.
    http://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2014/jan/06/placing-citizens-at-the-heart-of-citizen-science
    They seem to think it means mobilising lobby groups and activism!

    • Thanks – a very interesting article. This line is very telling:

      “One of the greatest challenges we met when researching this report was finding examples of modern-day citizen science actually led by citizens themselves – or, more accurately, by non-scientists”

      There are none so blind as those who do not want to see.

  2. TinyCO2 says:

    You can’t expect the same from citizens than you should demand from those who are paid for by public money. Sometimes you might be lucky and get better because the person is truly inspired or conscientious but usually you get people with a bit of spare time. What impresses me most about key sceptics is the pure professionalism in spite of no money or encouragement from the state.

    I liked Anthony Watts from the start but I decided I could completely trust him to do his best when he wrote about attending some event. He’d been offered enough money to fly but instead he chose to drive so he could visit some temperature stations en route. Given that the US hadn’t surveyed its stations much, if at all, this was outstanding dedication from a citizen. Only good guys act like that.

    Steve McIntyre demonstrates his credentials when he does his thing to some paleo study. Others are jumping up and down with theories and he says nothing. Behind the scenes he’s sending emails and prising the data from the authors. He deconstructs the paper like a surgeon and only when he’s ready does he reveal his conclusions. Boom, another one bites the dust. He’s like the professor you admired but were terrified of at Uni because he never suffers fools gladly and in comparison you know you’ll always be the fool.

    There are quite a lot of others with significant contributions and you know them as well as I do. But they don’t amount to the immensity of the climate science community, let alone climate itself. Most of us are just the cheering section. We don’t have the time or the skills or the drive to be a real addition to the science but I think we encourage and create an atmosphere which might attract more… super sceptics? We’ve created something the warmists seriously covet – a community. They are mystified why we come together, how we continue and why, despite our lack of resources, we are having an effect.

    Dan Kahan asked why sceptics (and even warmists) didn’t adopt the best practices of communication science. The answers were broadly similar – we don’t like PR; if we did, we don’t have the time to use it; we don’t have the money to hire a professional; and (though no one put it bluntly) we couldn’t be arsed. To try and turn sceptics into a real force, might kill the very thing that keeps it going. Enthusiasm.

    When you try to turn a hobby into a job it often kills the joy of doing it. Instead of spending more time thinking about it, you find reasons to think of something else. One of the most powerful elements of sceptic posts is that they come from the heart. Each person might bang on about the same pet peeves but they’ll be different from the next person and expressed in their personal style. Warmists want to believe that there’s just a few paid deniers pounding out fake posts in an astroturfing frenzy but you can’t mistake all those different personalities. If you try to harness that, might it kill some of the verve, some of the passion? Would people who feel comfortable offering what they can, when they can, withraw altogether if they thought they might come across as unreliable in a more formal situation?

    • TinyCO2 says:

      I should add. This is not a rejection of the idea, just a suggestion to explore it cautiously.

    • Thanks. I knew when I wrote the article that I really had no idea how to answer my own question. Even if we knew what we could do to improve the way we work wouldn’t mean we ought to do it. So your point that “When you try to turn a hobby into a job it often kills the joy of doing it.” is very relevant.

      We should try to over-organise, but neither do we want total anarchy if for nothing else, we have to be ready to e.g. take legal action against people intentionally lie about us. So we need (at times) to act as a “community”.

      However, I wouldn’t just want to confine our discussion to climate. In the same way that “environmentalism” grew out of movements in the 1970s, I think “citizen science” may come to be if not a “antidote” to environmentalism at least a complimentary movement focussed on science.

      Unfortunately the law of unintended consequences means that even if we think “citizen science” is a good thing given the appalling behaviour over climate, it doesn’t mean that it will always be a force for good … or it might be overwhelmingly good.

      At one extreme I can see citizen scientists starting to question fundamental blocks in science which have caused stagnation leading to whole new areas of inquiry. At the other I can see a highly sceptic community developing which makes it albeit impossible for government to ever convince the public of anything scientific because their arguments are constantly being attacked.

      And perhaps the most paradoxical conclusion I have reached recently is that many warmists are not only citizen scientists, but having such a robust group to argue against has strengthened our arguments and vastly improved our credibility.

  3. Morley Sutter says:

    In order to assure good standards among internet scientists, good methods of science must be emphasised, namely: accurate, systematic observation to obtain data;; accurate recording of data that are available to all on request; making a model from the data (which might include a prediction but it must be testable) and rigorous testing of the prediction. How the model is tested can vary but must include the experimental design appropriate to the prediction. The passage of time might be necessary to test the prediction adequately. All of these steps should be done openly.
    Of course there is no defense against false data or lying, so all these steps must be replicated independently wherever possible. Reliable science is difficult and time-consuming whoever does it.

    • I agree, except that when we look at “science” what we actually see is all those papers written in the various journals and not the original data. if we start with the assumption that citizen science will have further successes like it has on the climate, does that mean we ought to have “journals”? Or do blogs fulfil pretty much the same function?

      But if blogs, what happens in 100 years time if someone wants to refer to that “paper” … or is such a concept relevant? What happens when wordpress closes down? Do we rely on internet archives?

      Regarding data, I can see problems. For example, I am considering doing a survey of sceptics. I can see the raw data being relevant for years to come. We rightly criticise academics for refusing to release data, so I would want to make it available. But we also know that certain academics intentionally fiddle data in order to lie about sceptics so I would certainly not release data to those whose activity is known to be fraudulent.

      So some data is likely to remain secret until enough time has passed … so I recognise that I should be “archiving the data” … that makes sense in a University, but it doesn’t have a meaning in a community of citizen scientists. Even if I personally archived my own data … who would know how to find me when I’m old and grey and have probably forgotten what I did with the archive?

      In the past all these issues were resolved because science was done within the doctrinal ground of academia. But there are not the same kinds of systems outside academia. Perhaps it is not an issue – but it does seem hypocritical to criticise academia for its (lack of) data retention, when even though the problem is much less, we sceptics don’t even talk about the issue.

  4. MACK1 says:

    You are absolutely right but I have one point to add: many scientists and academics have no interest in dealing with outsiders, be they journalists or experts in other fields. On climate change, many experts are in truth ambivalent, but rather than speak out and attract controversy, they simply say nothing. This leaves the field open for third-rate dogmatists who respond to encouragement from the large number of vested interests who wish to promote the CO2 hypothesis. One advantage of the internet is that experts with careers to worry about can comment anonymously, and that should be encouraged.

  5. Derek Alker says:

    Peer review in open media (PROM) is surely the way forward?
    ie,
    http://www.principia-scientific.org/

    “PAL” review got us where we are..

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