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The Downside of Citizen Science

This morning the New York Times reports on a story of citizen science gone terribly wrong:

A California businessman chartered a fishing boat in July, loaded it with 100 tons of iron dust and cruised through Pacific waters off western Canada, spewing his cargo into the sea in an ecological experiment that has outraged scientists and government officials.

You don’t have to be a scientist to conduct an experiment.  I encourage everyone to play with the physical and chemical properties surrounding them. But this is off the wall.  Leave the ecology experiments to the trained scientist. 

I don’t want to perpetuate the misconception that a scientist is a know it all.  I get it all the time, You have a Ph.D. so you know the answer to this…  Receiving a doctorate in philosophy does not mean that you hung around long enough to be filled-in on everything there is to know about everything.  On the contrary, the longer you study, the more specialized your study.  Scientists do not know everything, but a lot does go into becoming a scientist. 

Scientific training teaches you how to: evaluate a problem, establish its many variables, and design an experiment to gain knowledge on a given variable, independent of the others.  Scientists are trained to think critically of their own work. They evaluate the scope of a problem in detail before any experiments begin.  They habitually consider how studying one aspect of the problem will influence its many other facets.  They continually check-in with the original scope of an experiment to make sure the right questions are being asked, and they are not getting off task, throughout a project. 

The process is tedious and, conceivably, easily misunderstood.  An outside observer might say, Just try something alreadyYou have your theories, try something and see if it works.  But that is not how a conscientious scientists operates.  A conscientious scientist wants to understand the context of any answers they get from an experiment.  Without that, no valuable conclusion can be made from the experiment.  

Especially when it comes to ecology.  There is so much complexity in our ecosystem, any experiment involving it needs to be considered from multiple perspectives, most likely through computer modeling, before being carried to fruition by experts in the field.     

I love citizen science.  Involving interested individuals in data collection and analysis is a brilliant means of scientific outreach.  But experimental design is best left to trained scientists.    

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