Dan McQuillan on “Citizen Science”

Dan McQuillan has published a rather argumentative piece about “citizen science”, which he imagines may become “a new form of counterculture”, which “explicitly questioning the hegemony of orthodox science.”  I’m cool with counterculture, started there, never really left.  But what is he really talking about?

First of all, McQuillan concedes that he is (mis)appropriating the current use of the term “citizen science”, a la Zooniverse, which invites the general public to contribute to conventional scientific enterprises. It would be better to use a better term for his concept, such as “public science”, or even “punk science” (his own words). Or “counter science” or “ecneics” (not his words).

Second, McQuillan expends considerable effort to savage the straw man of orthodox “scientific hegemony” and the supposed majority of scientists who “choose to present their practice publicly as an infallible machine for the production of truths,” Every scientist I have ever met says that human knowledge is uncertain, and science is all about sifting through fallible human understanding.  Media people (such as McQuillan) describe science as an infallible machine, but don’t blame scientists for those bozos.

It turns out that McQuillan is really interested in science that is founded on “lived experience” and to put power in the hands of everyone. While he complains about “the ambition to totalise knowledge” (which is the essential goal of scienc, by definition) he is really concerned about elites imposing political agendas on the poor and weak, and using science as a justification for this abuse.  I certainly understand the latter point, though it is capitalism and politics that are in the driver’s seat, not scientists.

His solution isn’t really “citizen science”, it is more DIY science. I’m all for putting tools in the hands of the workers, including spectroscopy and other science-y tools. But this must also include the solid intellectual tools developed by scientists: skepticism, probabilistic reasoning, and open review. And it must not be driven by feel good folk theory or based on anyone’s political interests—we know that doesn’t work.

In conventional “citizen science”, the ordinary citizens offer enthusiastic and skillful work; and the “elite” offers specialized skill in reasoning, and access to global error checking through publication and review processes. Without the latter, data collection has little chance to be useful except maybe as political propaganda.

There is no question that in this great Age of Makers, many technologies that are used by conventional science are rapidly migrating into the DIY world. It will soon be possible for almost anyone to amass datasets of physical, chemical and biological measurements, in digital forms that can be analyzed and shared over the Internet.

But that was never the hard part of science. The hard part of science is to accurately interpret these (error prone) data, drawing warranted inferences, and working around the many sources of human error we are all prone to. Suggesting that science should “go beyond objectivity to include the experiential” misses the point entirely.

The important contribution of science is that it attempts to interpret our experience though an understanding of human limitations and biases, and form a point of view beyond our own insignificant individual experience.

There is no reason McQuillan should have to want to do conventional science, but you really shouldn’t try to just appropriate the term “science” for something that isn’t really trying to do the same thing at all.

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