Citizen Science Musings: The Efficiency of Amateurs

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By Sheldon Greaves

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

While looking for grist for today's column, I stumbled across an interesting blog post by Anthony Burgoyne on "The Incredible Success of the 'Amateur' Scientist Model." In it he discusses certain features of amateur scientists that more than compensate for their lack of formal training. In fact, Burgoyne makes a good argument that it actually gives the amateur certain advantages over their professional counterparts. He writes:

The early 19th century, and in particular in Britain, was one of the greatest times for science in history (per dollar and hour of research it was much more effective than contemporary science), and this is due in significant part to the “amateur” scientists (like Herschel or Darwin) of the time. Why does the amateur scientist model work? Here are three possibilities:

1. There is more flexibility in research and exploration, and in particular a scientist can work on a problem he is more personally motivated about. (See Seth Roberts’ paper linked here for a discussion of some of these sorts of considerations.)

2. It involves less bureaucracy.

3. An amateur scientist can have more and different influences on him.

 One should note that while Burgoyne points to a time when there were actually very few "professional" scientists as we understand the term, there were those fortunate practitioners who could devote full time to it because of financial independence or patronage. Even though the comparison with our day is not exact, I think most of his points hold up.

He makes one point in passing that definitely weighs in favor of the amateur, which is that professional scientific research has become almost wildly expensive. Why that has happened is beyond the scope of this post, but the fact remains that even as increasingly cheaper and more powerful scientific technologies become available to the home experimenter, research seems to get more and more costly. This is has historically been one of the amateur's strong suits, as Scientific American's "The Amateur Scientist" column demonstrated on an almost monthly basis.

But the third point is particularly potent. Burgoyne spends the rest of his post on an educational précis of Charles Darwin, describing how his interest in nature evolved (the pun is unavoidable), and how he built his qualifications versus how an educated man of his time would have done so at Oxford or Cambridge: 

Darwin did not spend 12 years in elementary and high-schooling, he did not get a B.Sc. (he rather received a B.A.), nor an M.Sc., nor a Ph.D. (the closest equivalent to the latter was, of course, spending 5 years traveling around the world in a boat).

Burgoyne concludes that "the standard formal schooling route used by most people who then become scientists is probably sub-obtimal as a means to innovation and discovery." I would buffer this conclusion, since professionals tend to have a bit of amateur in them, and many amateurs are retired professionals. But it is undeniable that the discipline of any enclosed learning environment will set a stamp of sameness upon its graduates. By the same token, I know autodidacts who have massive holes and blind spots in their presumed areas of expertise. 

Perhaps most important is that the amateur, ironically by virtue of the fact that they are not always taken seriously or under comparable levels of scrutiny, has the freedom to look in places or try things that others can't or won't. The universe's reservoir of data does not corral itself neatly into bodies that align with the Library of Congress Subject List. 

Amateurs have access to a diversity of experience and knowledge base that is an advantage. We should encourage cultivating and nurturing this aspect of amateur science.

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2 Responses to Citizen Science Musings: The Efficiency of Amateurs

  1. ajb says:

    “versus how an educated man of his time would have done so at Oxford or Cambridge”

    I should note that there was no such thing as a B.Sc. at the time of Darwin’s formal schooling. To a large extent (and this is the point), there was no such thing as a standard path of education for a scientist at his time, and yet that time produced an explosion of scientific progress.

  2. Well done. To the three possibilities might be added that amateur scientists can sometimes support their science by earning an income and receiving small grants from certain aspects of their work. That’s been my formula for many years.

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