02 December 2011

Amateur Science

Well, that sounds kinda bad, doesn't it?  However, in my experience amateur science can be both good and bad.

There are certainly examples of both good and bad professional science out there. Examples of good science include the breakthroughs for AIDS drug cocktails that essentially lifted the automatic death sentence from AIDS sufferers - at least in the United States. At least if you have health care insurance. As I write this there appears to be a breakthrough on the horizon for a malaria vaccine; malaria kills millions, mainly children, every year.

One example of bad professional science is the scientist who fudges data - or worse, makes up data - in order to get the publications needed to get ahead. The competition is incredibly fierce to go from student to PhD, to post-doc, to term-appointment scientist, to career scientist in a public agency or university. Sadly, there have been a number of examples of (generally younger) scientists who under this pressure have cheated on their research. When discovered - and all successful science is subject to repeat verification testing - it generally means the end to someone's aspiring career. The science journal that had to retract the flawed paper will not be interested in dealing with that individual again. Would YOU trust someone to do research on a drug you needed if you found out that the person had been dishonest?

Let's consider now an example of bad amateur science:
I received an Ask-a-Geologist query that wasn't a query, but instead a statement that the Great Comet of 1811 had caused the 1812 New Madrid Earthquakes in the Mississippi Valley. The writer ignored the time-gap, and also ignored readily-available astronomical information out there that the Great Comet of 1811 had never come within 100,000,000 miles of Earth. Instead he gave several reasons why he was sure that the features on his property proved this causal link - and then said a USGS geologist had agreed with him. He pointed me at a web-site that he claimed had all the data... his personal website.

Aside: All US Government employees must take IT security training at least once a year - due to the ferocious hacking attempts that happen from 8am to 5pm Mainland China time. One of the Big Red Flags we are told to avoid is social engineering like this - an attempt to steer us to do something we normally wouldn't do. Do NOT Open a Link - unless you are looking for it yourself.

A quick check with the USGS geologist (whom he named) proved that he had in fact lied to me. This kind-hearted lady told me she was giving a free public lecture on earthquakes, and had stood still long enough to politely listen to him. She said she had emphatically NOT agreed with his half-baked idea.

I use that expression deliberately: the individual had not done his homework on several fronts. He had not researched the astronomical information that I found within seconds on the internet. He had no idea what an abandoned stream meander was, something basic in a first-year geology class, or even simpler, available in the first third of a basic geology textbook. Instead, he painted the feature on his land as a comet impact structure. Still avoiding the website that he seemed anxious for me to click on (he kept including copies of the link throughout his message, along with oblique references to curiosity come-ons like "fossilized human remains"), I read his text again. To even a casual observer it was apparent that he was cherry-picking only information that supported his idea. He chose to ignore explanations and additional data that the USGS geologist had offered him - they weren't convenient.

Cherry-picking only the data that supports your hypothesis is fundamentally dishonest. Lying about what someone said to you is fundamentally dishonest. Dishonesty is fundamentally the polar opposite of good science. 

Consider now an example of good amateur science:
This took place during the third of the three Zahid expeditions to map the Wabar impact site in the middle of the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. We were a group of about 23 individuals including several PhD scientists interested in mapping and studying a very recent asteroid impact. The party also included a cook, several automotive engineers, a front-end loader specialist, even a senior manager of sales for Zahid Tractor company, which marketed the AM General Hummers we were using, and had funded this expedition.

Without exception, every person was interested in the expedition's objectives. They had to: the temperatures reached 132 F during the day and never dropped below 100 F during the sandstorm-dusted nights. The the breakfast menu each morning was invariably "Grit Eggs", "Dust Toast", and "Sand Meal", while lunch each day was invariably "Sand-wich" or "Sand-burger." Why else subject yourself to such conditions unless you were somehow interested in the research effort?

Whenever we had breakfast, whenever we stopped for lunch, whenever we relaxed around dinner (when a sandstorm was not flattening our cook-tent), people would all ask questions. As we would gather detailed geologic mapping data (Gene Shoemaker), close-spaced magnetic data (me), or ground-penetrating radar imagery (one of the Saudi university professors), we would discuss it. Everyone would listen, and early on the front-end loader driver tentatively offered a suggestion for why not check for structures under the crater impact crater rims. Gene and I both got excited: yes! That's a great idea - let's do that this afternoon when the heat drops below 110 F. That opened the dam-gates, and everyone started to offer ideas and suggestions. Some would fit with what we already knew, some were inconsistent, and some we thought should be chased down by one team or another. Everyone was a participant, everyone was a contributor to the research effort.

This was an excellent example of participative science - the final results were much greater than if just the professional scientists had been operating in isolation. Here's the thing: most people are interested in what surrounds them in the world - most people and almost all children are curious, natural scientists. And most people, if they are not upbraided but instead encouraged, can become natural scientists participating in a greater research effort. A PhD is NOT required to be a scientist. If you ever visit a university, you will find that there are professors - and there are non-professors. There are people who run the laboratories who are not professors and may or may not even have college degrees - but the research would shut down without their quiet, tedious work and contributions.

As participants in science, they are scientists.

A Second example of good amateur science: A group of researchers created an online game called FoldIt to simulate protein folding, and used teams of online gamers to help solve the structure of an enzyme.  This was aimed at a problem that had vexed researchers for decades. It was finally put out to the world in the form of a game-challenge, asking for help. Gamers took on the challenge and solved the problem in a mere three weeks.

As participants in science, they are scientists.

Another example:
Researchers trying to process vast amounts of radio-telescope data in the SETI project (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) realized they did not have the computing power to deal with the data properly. It would require billions of dollars to pay for it. Someone suggested the idea of distributed computing: put it out as an elegant screen-saver. Millions of personal computers that would otherwise stand idle for hours on end could then automatically download a packet of data, process it, and then upload the results to a central server at Berkeley. Anyone with a personal computer can do this. You can do this while you are asleep.

As participants in science, they are scientists.

I can go on and on with examples: people participating in the Christmas Bird Count, people volunteering to check ponds for frog eggs, etc. These, unfortunately, you cannot do in pajamas in front of a personal computer.

Here's the take-away, in three parts:
1. Anyone can participate in science. You don't need a PhD.
2. However, you must accept the fact that good science requires you do your homework, and
3. You MUST be determinedly honest about every facet of it.

You - virtually anyone - can contribute to the advancement of science, helping others and gaining great personal satisfaction in the process.


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