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Can Amateur Scientists Do Theoretical Science?

31 August, 2005
theoretical science – only for professionals?

It's hard enough for amateur scientists to do any kind of science, and be taken seriously.

Theoretical science appears to be 100% the domain of professionals.

Can amateur scientists contribute to the development of scientific theories?

Can we invent new Internet/Web technologies to solve this problem?

What is Science?

Much energy has been expended on defining what science is. At a very abstract level, the process of science includes the following steps:

  1. Make observations
  2. Do experiments
  3. Devise theories
  4. Make predictions based on theories
  5. Go back to steps 1 and 2, making observations and doing experiments that test the predictions based on the theories.

That was a somewhat abstract description, and a more specific description of how a real scientist does real science is as follows:

  1. Go to school and learn about science
  2. Go to university and learn more about science
  3. Pass exams for Bachelor of Science
  4. Do Master of Science
  5. Complete a Ph.D.
  6. Get a post-doctoral research position.
  7. Write grant proposal
  8. Receive grant
  9. Start work on observations, experiments and/or theories.
  10. Write work up in a paper
  11. Submit paper to peer-reviewed scientific journal
  12. Receive response from anonymous referees
  13. Alter paper according to referees' response and resubmit paper to journal
  14. Paper gets published in journal
  15. Other scientists read paper in journal (if they haven't already read the pre-print versions).

There are a lot of specific steps in the second description, and we might wonder if all of them are necessary to perform science. We cannot deny that these steps serve the interests of the scientific enterprise, but we can also observe that they serve the interests of professional scientists, which is not necessarily exactly the same thing as serving the interests of science itself.

In recent times, science has become very professionalised. Many of the steps in the list above serve specifically to maintain high professional standards. For example, step 5 – complete a Ph.D. – is a way of measuring an individual's likelihood of making significant contributions to scientific knowledge. Step 14 – get a scientific paper published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal – is another step that ensures the quality of the work done by scientists.

Amateur science could be defined by the absence of step 8 – receive a grant (or other funding). More typically, amateur science may involve the omission of almost all the steps in the sequence above, which raises the question of whether amateur science is actually real science.

Returning for a moment to the earlier more abstract definition of science, there would seem to be no absolute requirement for any of the steps in the second more specific list to take place in order to take part in science.

Surely anyone can learn about science, without necessarily learning about it at school or university. And just because someone doesn't have a Ph.D., doesn't mean that they are incapable of doing scientific research. There are some jobs that we would prefer are only done by trained professionals, like brain surgery, and flying airliners, but scientific research does not come into this category (unless it involves something particularly dangerous, like radioactive materials, or anthrax).

Experiments and observations can certainly be done without being written up as scientific papers. Similarly, theories can be formulated, and predictions based upon them, without being written up as scientific papers and submitted to peer-reviews scientific journals.

Nevertheless, in practice, amateur science is deemed irrelevant by professional scientists (and consequently by the world at large), unless it meets exactly the same standards as professional science. Thus the amateur scientist can be recognised as a "real scientist", if, and only if, they do work that is good enough to end up in a respectable scientific journal. A detailed defense of this point of view can be found in What is the Role of an Amateur Scientist? by George Hrabovsky, president of MAST.

The Wikipedia Example

But are we assuming too much? The problem with requiring amateurs to jump through the same hoops as professionals, is that it raises the bar too high. So high, that very few amateurs will ever jump through those hoops (or over that bar).

Wikipedia is famous as an example of amateurs producing a professional quality product. In case you didn't know, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia which allows anyone to edit it at any time. This might seem like a recipe for disaster. But the surprising thing is that it works quite well, and in practice Wikipedia is often a best first place to go for anyone wanting to get up to speed on a new topic. Because anyone can edit anything at any time, you can never be quite sure that what you are reading is good information, but like a lot of other things in life, if the odds are good enough, then they are good enough. There is a finite probability of the information being wrong, but the probability is small enough that it can be ignored. Most cases of Wikipedia "vandalism" can be detected by common sense. Malicious alterations to articles about topics of major importance get picked up by enthusiastic contributors that "watch" those articles. A benevolent hierarchical dictatorship (with "Jimbo" Wales at the top), ensures that those with good intentions get priority over those of obvious malice, and this fixes most problems without any necessity to impose heavy restrictions on article editing.

Part of the hidden history of Wikipedia is that there was a predecessor called Nupedia which was intended to be an online encyclopedia written by amateur contributors to high standards, and this predecessor was a disaster. It was a disaster not because the quality was low, but because hardly any articles ever got finished.

So what we have with Wikipedia is something with the following properties:

If amateur science could be this successful, it could potentially redefine the way that science is done, just like Wikipedia has redefined the way you write an encyclopedia.

How to Wikipedian-ize Amateur Science

Wikipedia in one example of how amateur effort can produce a near-professional result. Another example is that of open-source software. However the production of software has not been reduced to the incremental simplicity of editing a Wikipedia article, and there remains a minimum level of commitment that anyone must make if they intend to make a contribution to an open-source project that produces a quality product. Either you have to do it all yourself, and "sell" a component or application with sufficient functionality for it to be worth other people's effort to download, install and learn to use it, or, you have to convince other members of an existing successful project that your contributions are worthwhile.

So Wikipedia remains perhaps the best model for a possible new improved way of doing amateur science. However, there are some significant differences between writing an encyclopedia and doing science, and these differences must inform our efforts to exploit those features of Wikipedia that make it successful:

Both of these differences imply a greater need for "ownership" of scientific work as compared to encyclopedia articles.

At the same time, a framework for amateur science will need to exploit those features of Wikipedia that are critical to its success:

There is an intrinsic conflict between "consolidation" and "ownership", and the success of Wikipedia-like system of amateur science will depend on how well we can resolve that conflict.

Possible Solutions

I was going to carry on and state what I thought was the best solution to this problem. However, this posting is already rather long, and I started to realise that there were several possibilities, and it is not too clear which is the best. Very likely it will be necessary to try different things, and see what works.

Some basic possibilities include:

I hope to describe these possibilities in more detail in later blog entries.
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