Semper Fidelis - Semper Discentes

Citizen Science–Are We Kidding Ourselves?

In Uncategorized on April 2, 2013 at 2:30 pm

I’ve been reading quite a few articles lately about “citizen science“–basically the concept of “non-degreed” laymen out and performing “scientific” research of a rather basic nature.

Much has been said, both pro and con, about the philosophy:  Is this really science?  Are these individuals really scientists in any meaningful sense of the word?

I am NOT a scientist.  Although I was a zoology major, family and work obligations prevented me from an undergraduate degree in science.  Even with sixty or so undergraduate hours in biology (plus about 120 in all sorts of other stuff), I walked away with a “general studies” diploma.  That being said, I am vitally interested in all sorts of “science-related” topics–odonate distribution, water quality monitoring, herps and bugs.

My home state of Missouri encourages citizen participation in outdoor/science/nature activities, through a wide variety of state-supported programs:  Master Naturalists, Stream Team, Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring, Forestkeepers, and I’ve taken part in all of them.

The Stream Team/Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring program, for example, consists of over four thousand volunteer teams across the state.  Some teams may concentrate simply on keeping their adopted streams clean and free of litter.  Others choose to take classes which teach the identification of aquatic macroinvertebrates (insect larva), the presence or absence of which are indicators of stream health.  Those volunteers may choose to take more “advanced” training, which teaches how to take chemical samplings to determing pH, phosphate levels, dissolved oxygen, nitrates, water and air temperature, conductivity, stream flow, and turbidity.  The Stream Team program then supplies the volunteers with ALL the biological and chemical testing equipment needed to conduct sampling on the volunteer’s chosen stream.

I believe that this army of volunteers is providing an invaluable service to the streams of Missouri.  But this begs the question–is it REALLY science?  As I appreciate it, scientific research involves much analysis of data, and a comprehensive education is vital to the interpretation of the data.  HOWEVER, much of the research involves dirty, time-consuming, repetitive drudge work–actually going out on a stream in 40 degree weather, dragging a net through riffles to capture and identify tiny bugs, lugging chemical monitoring equipment down miles of Ozark streams to take samples, recording the data, and submitting it to qualified professionals, who will (hopefully) find useful means of coordinating, compiling and USING the information.

In addition to the stream monitoring activities, I have a fairly recently-developed interest in odonates–dragonflies and damselflies.  I’m still honing my identification skills, and am building up a rather nice reference library.  All data that I collect on the distribution of species in my area is transmitted to a very comprehensive website, Odonata Central (www.odonatacentral.org), which is administered by one of the nation’s leading odonatologists at the University of Texas.  All data is checked by professionals, and distribution maps are instantly created, showing how these fascinating bugs are distributed throughout the country.

My wife has memorably announced to me, “You fancy yourself a scientist, don’t you?  Spending time and money chasing bugs, sampling water, and poking around in the ground looking for beetles.”  After a good bit of reflection, I’ve realized that I DO NOT consider myself a scientist, in any size, shape or form.  I’m just glad to be out and doing something I love, perhaps freeing the REAL scientists from some of the repetitive drudgery, and hopefully making some small contribution to the Totality of Knowledge.  Any projects which help to foster a love of science, whether substantive scientific information results, should be not only tolerated, but applauded.

A recent NPR interview brought out the fact that, until quite recently, the concept of a “professional scientist” was really unthinkable.  Those (usually wealthy) guys who were out chasing beetles and staring at the stars were “natural philosophers”, or “naturalists”. 

Charles Darwin, the epitome of a “naturalist”

Usually self-educated (at least to some extent), they followed their passions, and made great contributions in their chosen (and often highly-specialized) fields.

Perhaps we should not flatter ourselves that we are scientists, even “citizen scientists”.  There is no lack of honor, however, in claiming the title of Naturalist. 

Always curious. 

Always learning.

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