We Need a Crash Course in Citizen Science

05/11/2012 03:06 pm ET | Updated Jul 11, 2012
  • Stuart Firestein Professor and chair of the department of biological sciences at Columbia University

If you cannot -- in the long run -- tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing is worthless. --Erwin Schrodinger, Dublin, 1950

When Darwin traveled on the Beagle and wrote The Origin of Species over a more than 25-year period, he financed the whole thing himself. He also reaped the rewards, since the book, and those that followed it, were bestsellers. In fact, they made him quite wealthy. Science no longer proceeds this way. It is fantastically expensive, usually requires the combined efforts of many researchers and technicians, demands an infrastructure of buildings, laboratories and special equipment like colliders, telescopes, and all those fancy instruments you see on episodes of CSI. Science is now a largely public venture and it requires, more than ever, public money. Scientists therefore have both a responsibility and, quite frankly, a necessity to educate this paying public, to engage them in the scientific enterprise.

A brief historical perspective to see the importance of this may be useful here. The beginning of Western science is often taken as the publication of Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in the late Renaissance. Notoriously Galileo got in some serious trouble with the Church powers over this work, due, we are taught, to its heretical propositions about the universe, or what were then still called the heavens. In fact it was not so much what Galileo said about the relation of the sun and the earth in his famous work; the Church fathers are believed to have mostly agreed with it, being intellectuals themselves. The real objection was that Galileo, following the trend of the Renaissance occurring all around him, published this seminal work in Italian. It was the first book of science ever to be published in a vernacular language rather than in classical Latin or Greek. It was not the ideas, heretical though they were, but rather their potentially wide dissemination that so worried the Church fathers.

And indeed Galileo's landmark work began a tradition of publishing science in common languages -- Descartes in French, Leibniz in German, Hooke and Faraday in English, and so forth. The public's direct experience of the empirical methods of science, as much as the science itself, was likely responsible for the cultural transformation from the magical and mystical thinking that marked Western medieval thought, to the rationality of modern discourse.

Today, however, we find ourselves in a situation where science is as inaccessible to the public as if it were written in classical Latin. The citizenry is largely cut off from the primary activity of science and at best gets secondhand translations from an interposed media. Remarkable new findings are trumpeted in the press, but how they came about, what they may mean beyond a cure or new recreational technology, is rarely part of the story. The result is that the public rightly sees science as a huge fact book, an insurmountable mountain of information recorded in a virtually secret language. It's no small matter for the citizenry to be able to participate in science and understand how their lives are being changed by it.

No less compelling is that loads of your money, in tax dollars and corporate spending, are going to support it. U.S. government support of scientific research and education is nearly 3.0 percent of the GDP -- to be more blunt about it, that's some 420 billion dollars annually. And private sector research more than doubles that.

Then there are all those thorny ethical issues that keep bubbling up from science -- stem cell research, end of life definitions, health care expenses, nuclear power, climate change, biotech agriculture, genetic testing -- just part of a list that promises to continue growing in the future.

Clearly what we need is a crash course in citizen science. A way to humanize science so that it can be both appreciated and judged by an informed citizenry. A way of teaching and writing about science that engages the public while it informs them, but does not overwhelm them. Aggregating facts is useless if you don't have a context to interpret them, and this is even true for most scientists when faced with information outside their particular field of expertise. I'm a neurobiologist, but I don't know much more about quantum physics than the average musician, and I could no sooner read a physics paper in a science journal than I could read the score of a Brahms symphony. I'm an outsider too.

So what is the way in? How do we get to appreciate and understand and participate in science without having to collect a few PhDs? Though it may seem a curious perspective, I suggest ignorance. Not the kind of ignorance that that results from willful stupidity, from ignoring the facts, from maintaining obstinate opinions -- rather the kind that fuels learning, searching, exploring; the kind that is in fact one of the pillars of science. It is thoroughly conscious ignorance, knowing what we don't know, that is the beginning of every scientific endeavor. And this ignorance is accessible to an intelligent but untrained public. You don't have to be an astrophysicist to understand the puzzle that there is not enough matter in the universe to account for the gravity that we observe and something must be missing -- something we can't yet see or measure. You don't have to be a neurobiologist to appreciate that remembering a thousand little things a day is a memory feat that is harder to explain than how we remember important equations and historical dates. And dozens, hundreds more similar problems and puzzles. When scientists talk about these questions, which are finally what their work is about, you can understand them without years of training because they are still working on them as well. You don't need a textbook to appreciate science and to adopt a scientific perspective, you need to hear about the questions. If journalists and scientists would write about the questions and not just the latest discovery of some pill or gadget then we would gain an appreciation of the grandeur of the scientific effort and it would rightfully become a part of our mainstream society again.

For some reason it seems easier to access the artistic side of the culture, while the science part is daunting. But science and empirical thinking are as indelibly a part of Western culture as the arts and humanities. Maybe more so. For the 15 generations since Galileo science has molded our thinking and altered our worldview, from how we think the solar system is organized to how we communicate over this nebulous but ubiquitous thing we so appropriately call "the Web." This brand of science spread among other cultures and made itself into a global venture long before the word "globalization" was popularized. For better or worse, our world has been transformed in record time and to a degree unimaginable at the beginning of it all some 400 hundred years ago. And now you live in that world. Your children grow up in that world. You rely on that world. You should know about that world.

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