Citizens vs. geniuses

Published in ISGTW on September 14th, 2011 | BY FRANÇOIS GREY

It is a characteristic of our culture that we glorify scientific genius. Galileo Galilei, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking are just a few of the illustrious names from the canon of physics saints. Other disciplines have their own haloed ones. The role of the amateur scientist, in comparison with these greats, seems to vanish into insignificance.

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans painted in 1636

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans painted in 1636. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

In his 1623 book, The Assayer, Galileo Galilei summed up the case for genius thus:

The testimony of many has little more value than that of few, since the number of people who reason well in complicated matters is much smaller than that of those who reason badly. If reasoning were like hauling I should agree that several reasoners would be worth more than one, just as several horses can haul more sacks of grain than one can. But reasoning is like racing and not like hauling, and a single Barbary steed can outrun a hundred dray horses.

Ironically, Galileo’s central thesis in the book, that comets are sub-lunar objects, was completely wrong. Yes, even giants such as Galileo make mistakes. Sometimes Barbary steeds stumble. And quite often science is a lot more like hauling than racing. In these cases, the Internet can magnify the power of amateurs to produce astonishing results. This effect is what I call citizen cyberscience.

The power of citizen cyberscience

Figuratively, citizen cyberscience today is primarily about harnessing the power of dray horses. Not just a hundred, but – thanks to Web – sometimes a hundred thousand, to tackle a problem that involves a lot of intellectual hauling.

Of course there are many examples of volunteer computing, such as the recently released LHC@Home 2.0 project, but I’m thinking here in particular of that strain of citizen cyberscience, volunteer thinking, represented by projects such as Stardust@HomeGalaxyZoo or FoldIt, where it is human brainpower that is being aggregated, and not just processor power on volunteer PCs.

But citizen cyberscience can be a lot more than this. Because the whole premise that there are only steeds and drays, brilliant professional scientists and ordinary citizens, and a factor of a hundred or more between them in intellectual capacity, is fundamentally flawed.

Fast drays and blinkered steeds

We live in a world where a staggering amount of people have studied science at a very high level, many even obtain a PhD, without becoming professional scientists.

And we live in a world where, due to specialization, professional scientists can only filter a fraction of the information that might be relevant to their research. In other words, a world where many drays can gallop fast, and most steeds are blinkered.

The famous American hat-throwing celebration of graduation.

The famous American hat-throwing celebration of graduation. Today, there are many people who are highly educated in science, some may even hold a PhD, without being a scientist or actively engaged in research. Nevertheless, they are specialists who could contribute to their field. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

We can add to that the many steeds that have been put out to pasture – retired scientists with time on their hands and years of experience, who still have much to contribute. And then there are those passionate amateurs who spend all their free time practicing the science they love, the growing ranks of autodidact drays.

The long tail of talent

The whole point of this rather labored equine analogy is just this: the difference between professional scientists and amateurs is blurring.

This is happening for myriad reasons. Thanks to the Internet, but also to radical changes in education opportunities and life expectancies in the developed and much of the developing world.  The net result is that there is not a binary world of geniuses and ordinary mortals, but rather – to use an Internet analogy – a long tail of talent.

This long tail ranges from the many volunteers who can do things such as catalogue galaxy images, the task set by the project GalaxyZoo, to the very few who might be able to spontaneously team up and develop completely new strategies for folding proteins, as scientists behind the computer game FoldIt documented, to their own surprise. (See “Citizen cyberscience: the new age of the amateur” in the CERN Courier for more examples).

The audience joins the show

What will this mean for citizen cyberscience? The most insightful analogy for understanding the implications of this gradual blurring between professional and amateur scientist is not horses, I would argue, but journalists.

The world of journalism has been turned upside-down in recent years by social media technologies which allow a much wider range of people to take part in gathering, filtering and distributing news. Though some professional journalists at first resisted this trend, most now appreciate the likes of Facebook, Twitter and myriad blogs in expanding the sources of news and opinion and accelerating dissemination: the audience has become part of the show.

Could the Internet one day wreak the same sort of social change on the world of science, breaking down the distinction between amateur and professional? In my view, it is not a question of whether, but of when.

A prediction for the future of science

I’m going to venture a guess. By 2020, we will see a significant amount of real, breakthrough science being carried out by online communities – similar to the open source communities that develop complex software packages.

By far the largest fraction of the work will be done by amateurs. Not only that, the amateurs will have the biggest say in exactly what questions are tackled by the community. They will actively help to define the research agenda.

Professional scientists will still play a role, as professional journalists do today, of going into the field – or rather into the lab – in search of new data. This is something that cannot easily be distributed, especially for research that involves expensive experimental equipment.

Scientists will still play a role in vetting results, as journalists and their editors do today, when dealing with information that has been crowdsourced. Scientists will still play a role in shaping the research agenda, much as the benign dictators in open source projects do. But they will have to compromise with the aspirations of the rest of the community in order to get results.

In science as in journalism

That this will happen, I am in little doubt. Even the Royal Society, a pillar of the traditional scientific establishment, has been promoting a major policy discussion on the role of science as a public enterprise, which touches on the issue of citizen participation in science.

How this will impact the scientific establishment in the long run, however, is another question entirely. Judging by the major upheavals that the world of print journalism is going through, I expect the impact to be enormous. And yes, it may not all be nice. A lot of scientists – especially expensive ones in industrialized countries – may find themselves out of work, in the same way that the livelihoods of many journalists have become more precarious in the Web 2.0 era.

I am not saying Galileo’s elitist view is wrong – it accurately describes the past. Nor am I suggesting that in future, individual geniuses will become superfluous. Many scientific problems will no doubt remain easier for a gifted individual or a small team of professionals to tackle, in much the same way as there will probably always be problems that supercomputers can better tackle than networks of ordinary computers. Horses for courses.

But in the next 10 years, I contend, the scope for citizen contributions to real science is going to expand radically. And in many cases human genius – embodied in the individual brains of exceptional people such as Galileo – will be supplanted by the genius of interconnected humans. In science as in journalism, the audience will become part of the show.