Are Citizen Science Endeavors Actually Doing Science?

A Response to Dr. Adam Stevens’s Citizen Science

Dr. Adam Stevens recently wrote a critique of the contributions done by the participating citizenry in projects such as Zooniverse and FoldIt. Dr. Stevens says that he does not mean to be patronizing to the people taking part in these noble endeavors. Regardless of those targeted by his post may feel, I take him at his word that it was not his intention to come across in such a way. His is merely an argument of semantics and I find it best to let him speak for himself:

But… let’s not pretend that it is something that it is not. It’s not, as far as I’m concerned, “citizen science”. It is data crunching, plain and simple, and I think it could be so much more.

Before we pick apart all the things he did say in his post, let us first be clear about what he is not saying. Dr. Stevens is in no way saying that the participants in these tasks are not qualified to sort and identify barred-spiral galaxies from elliptical galaxies. He is not invalidating their aid (being offered gratis) due to a misguided belief that people without scientific degrees are incapable of such tasks. What Dr. Stevens is saying is that the work they do is simply not science. The offerings from the public, as he puts it,

[a]re what happens before the science starts [emphasis his]. Looking at these images, clicking, sorting, categorising, isn’t the science. The science is in the interpretation that happens afterwards.

And therein lies the error. It is his very definition of what “science” is. This, it should be stressed, is no trivial matter. Words have tremendous power, possibly even effecting how we perceive the world around us. If we suddenly disenfranchise the invaluable contributions offered to the scientific community by the masses as a result of altering what it is called – “citizen science” to “data crunching”- then they may be less inclined to take part in scientific ventures in the future. I truly don’t see it that differently than, say, civil unions versus marriage equality for same-sex couples. Even if the only thing different between the two was the classification, it is still thusly separate entity and therefore somehow lessens or cheapens it.

Steps of the Scientific Method: Flow Chart

Steps of the Scientific Method: Flow Chart;
Courtesy of Universe Today

To be clear: I am not advocating calling what the participants of Zooniverse do “science” just to make them feel better and keep them engaged in the process. Rather, I believe, as previously mentioned, it is Dr. Stevens’s definition of science that is at fault and thereby undermines the importance of what sites like Zooniverse bring to the table. In 2010, Mr. Tega Jessa wrote an article for the Universe Today titled “What are the Steps of the Scientific Method.” Included in the article was the following infographic, which neatly summarizes the entire article’s position of what the aforementioned steps are. Now let us scrutinize the Galaxy Zoo using Dr. Stevens’s definition compared to that of Mr. Jessa’s article. According to Dr. Stevens’s definition, those responsible for obtaining the images – creating the satellities, programming exposure times, picking targets, etc – were not, to paraphrase The Sarcastic Rover, doing a science. However, according to Mr. Jessa, they were taking part in the step of Making Observations. The next step in the scientific method after observing is to Organize and Analyze Data – what those logged in Galaxy Zoo are actively doing.

Perhaps what Dr. Stevens takes issue with is that the sorting and categorizing seems like something that can be done by a computer and thereby reduces the people involved in the endeavor to mere flesh-and-bone machines. For example, the Mars Expoloration Rover, Opportunity, looked at rocks (Observation) and using spectrometers determined their chemical makeup (Analyzing). But it was the human scientists that were able to figure out what all that meant (Drawing a Conclusion) – that jarosite, a hydrated iron sulfite mineral, is indicative of former long-term exposure to liquid water and therefore Mars once had liquid water. There are two points to be made about this: just because humans have largely outsourced their analysis of monstrous quantities of data to machines does not eliminate the step from being a part of the scientific process. The computer is a very recent invention and therefore data-crunching, sorting, and categorizing used to be something people did more often. The second thing to note is that humans are just really good at this sort of thing. We possess pattern recognition skills that would be the envy of all computers (if they were capable of such emotion).

A point worth mentioning: Dr. Adam Stevens cares about science outreach. In the discussion and disagreements that many are having regarding the position he took within his blog post, this fact should not be lost. Within his article, he speaks of how he wishes laypeople could be more engaged. Towards the end of the article, he refers to the Zooniverse project, Planet Four, saying:

Planet Four is apparently aiming to map “features [that] indicate wind direction and speed”. So why not ask people to say what they think the wind direction is? Add a button to the side to add an arrow (or more than one) to the picture to show the wind direction. Better yet, let them compare two images and say which one has a stronger/faster wind. Yes, ‘scientists’ might balk and say that people can’t make these kind of inferences without all the necessary information and a background in planetary science, but it would have the potential to provide interesting results and lifts the activity from mere number crunching to people making real inference from real data.

This simple change, I feel, would elevate the whole exercise, making it real science and stopping what I think is somewhat patronising slave labour.

His website has a page titled, “Outreach,” where he discusses ideas for programs, workshops he has done, and mentions how he can tailor these student-centered ideas to adults if need be, for cryin’ out loud. Clearly Dr. Adam Stevens is not someone who is out to alienate those without PhDs from scientific undertakings; on the contrary, he wants more public awareness and involvement. However, it is my fear and concern that by limiting his definition of what it means to do a science and denigrating the contributions being made by the members of citizen science organizations such as Zooniverse, Dr. Adam Stevens’s public stance could have the complete opposite and undesired effect.

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3 Responses to Are Citizen Science Endeavors Actually Doing Science?

  1. Pingback: What counts as ‘citizen science’? | Dr. Karen E. James

  2. Pingback: Pearls across the Zooniverse: When Crowdsourcing Becomes Citizen Science | Florida State Tribune

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