07/20/2011 06:28 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2011

The Case For "Citizen Science"

How do we know things? This question has been asked by scientists and philosophers for many years. In the case of medicine, we need to find the truth and apply it in ways that lead to improved health. That is our job. For many of us it is our duty and our passion. We seek truth so we can move forward to better ways of answering the really big question, "How do we heal?"

As I waited for my airplane to fly to an international meeting on bioregulatory medicine where I was speaking, I found the June 2011 edition of Scientific American. Besides a fascinating article on Quantum physics in biological systems, I fell in love with a concept called "citizen science." In an article on another subject there was an insert about how a university researcher interested in studying the death and disappearance of bees used everyday citizens to gather data and make a project possible that would have been far too expensive to consider using standard university methods.

This made me begin to ponder just how we got the idea that science was just for a small group of people? When did we begin believing that there were college professors who were somehow better able to ask and see answers? Of course people with advanced training have insight, but It is my personal believe that sometimes they are seriously biased and unable to see new things. I respect people with advanced education. Our world is much richer for their contributions, but I've also found that some discoveries in science have come from people outside that group.

Sometimes we need fresh vision. And sometimes we need inexpensive labor to pursue findings that a for-profit company would not examine.

My mother taught me that science was for everyone. It was an orderly way of investigating our environment and learning things that we could share with others to improve our lives. Recently, I was accosted by a denier of integrative medicine with this idea that normal doctors or clinicians should only use therapies that were proven, and that when a treatment wasn't fully proven, then it should be left for researchers. This idea that academics do research and clinicians simply operate like mechanistic monkeys didn't appeal to me. When I pointed out that much of our healing material in "conventional medicine" lacks the necessary research to be used in that model there was no response.

I believe that if a patient has a problem and there is no known solution, then it is the clinician's duty, and proper place, to seek out any options and discuss these with the patient's guardian. Ultimately, a good guardian will be doing the same thing, and thanks to the Internet we have much greater access to various bits of information. Doctors and patients are often seeking opinions from "Dr. Google," the problem is that she is not very discriminating and we need better ways to evaluate the information that comes from the Internet and other sources. This can make clinicians a bit crazy as clients descend upon us with a myriad of computer printouts promising the latest cure for cancer, but living things need access to information and we benefit from sharing that data. Of course it is best when this information is accurate because proceeding to treat with an ineffective therapy based on a false claim can delay or worsen a patient's chances of recovery.

So how do we balance this dilemma? Can we accelerate the flow of information and better evaluate that data so we can make advancement in medicine? Can we work cooperatively with all aspects of care in such a way that information can flow and develop in that process? I think we can.

Integration means "wholeness" -- it means that something is complete and unified. So many forces splinter our knowledge base today.

Part of integration requires ethical, truthful communication, and the funny thing is that generally this is good business. If a company produces an expensive drug, hides a major problem and then releases that drug to harm the public, it will invariably lose reputation. If a foreign herbal company puts Viagra or other toxic agents in an herbal formula, then they will be caught and discredited. And sadly, their dishonest efforts may end up tainting the reputation of ethical, honest and useful herbal companies. Sooner or later lies catch up to the group spreading them. Truth integrates. Untruth disintegrates. I suppose that is why all major religions teach truth as a way to a more desirable life and to health and happiness.

But what if we simply decided to talk with and support those people who tell us the truth? What if we withdrew from people who misrepresent things? What if we connected and encouraged others to tell us the whole truth and nothing but the truth? And what if we supported businesses that did that?

The word, "invest," means, "to give power to, to make stronger." If we start with ourselves and build lines of truth to other people, then we are involved in a major economic and civilization-building activity.

What if a patient had a terrible disease for which modern medicine had no treatment, and what if that patient's guardian found an article on the Internet and brought it to the professional's attention? Further, what if the professional sought out more information and found it might be helpful and elected to try that therapy with the owner's consent and understanding? What if the pet recovered? Shouldn't that professional tell someone else? Shouldn't they publish a case report in a journal interested in such things so that another academic professional could find the data when they searched for it?

I recently had just this series of conditions occur and now am involved in publishing another case report so others can further pursue this in the use of homeopathic medicines for pet cancer treatment. I am not the only one reporting such things as clinicians, basic science investigators and universities begin to connect and integrate their efforts. And we are finding intriguing applications for homeopathy and other complementary and alternative veterinary modalities.

I believe that this is precisely what we should do in medical veterinary practice. We need to study hard and be aware of all the options for our patients. We need to openly share what we know and what we do not know. We can help each other live better by seeking truth and then investigating its usefulness. You can see a YouTube video that promises we can cure cancer by holding our hands over a person, and you can test that without harming anyone. And you can follow steps to see if it seems credible before coming to your doctor. If your pet has cancer, please do something more than just holding your hands over their head as there are NO magic bullets out there for cancer. I find that working openly in a respectful integrative veterinary relationship allows us to apply the best of all worlds of healing.

Health and health care are complex. Health is more than what we eat. As a normal person, you can try something you find and find out if it helps or not in your opinion. If it doesn't seem to help then tell others. Build groups and generate support for things that do work. Bring them to the attention of your doctor and share them so that we can design and fund research to validate them -- and support those people who do that work with your prayers, intentions, money and effort.

A famous philosopher once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Life is a big game, and there are lots of reasons to live, but we surely can make life better by examining and reporting our findings, and citizen scientists are a major part of that endeavor. Won't you join in the game?

Interesting Reading:
Rigby M, Hill P, Koch S, Keeling D. Social care informatics as an essential part of holistic health care: A call for action. Int J Med Inform. 2011 Aug;80(8):544-54.
Bartel RA, Oberhauser KS, De Roode JC, Altizer SM.Monarch butterfly migration and parasite transmission in eastern North America. Ecology. 2011 Feb;92(2):342-51.
Silvertown J, Cook L, Cameron R, Dodd M, McConway K, Worthington J, Skelton P, Anton C, Bossdorf O, Baur B, Schilthuizen M, Fontaine B, Sattmann H, Bertorelle G, Correia M, Oliveira C, Pokryszko B, Ożgo M, Stalažs A, Gill E, Rammul Ü, Sólymos P, Féher Z, Juan X. Citizen science reveals unexpected continental-scale evolutionary change in a model organism. PLoS One. 2011 Apr 27;6(4):e18927.
Kremen C, Ullman KS, Thorp RW. Evaluating the quality of citizen-scientist data on pollinator communities. Conserv Biol. 2011 Jun;25(3):607-17. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01657
Selker HP. The citizen-scientist's role in advocacy for clinical and translational science. Clin Transl Sci. 2010 Oct;3(5):203-4.
Goffredo S, Pensa F, Neri P, Orlandi A, Gagliardi MS, Velardi A, Piccinetti C, Zaccanti F. Unite research with what citizens do for fun: "recreational monitoring" of marine biodiversity. Ecol Appl. 2010 Dec;20(8):2170-87.
Venuta R, Graham ID.Involving citizens and patients in health research. J Ambul Care Manage. 2010 Jul-Sep;33(3):215-22.