Painting a picture of the Modern-Day Amateur Scientist
The estimated reading time for this post is 6 minutes.
“There is no such thing as an amateur artist as different from a professional artist. There is only good art and bad art,” said the French Painter Paul Cézanne, tipping his hat to his amateur colleagues. Such an attitude might appear to be on the rise in the world of science as well. In recent years, participatory models of science communication are starting to become ever more popular. But, as historian Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent points out, the overt implementation of participatory models by research institutes and technology developers does not necessarily mean that we have moved beyond a view of an impressionable public that is essentially innocent of science. In the same vein, the increased presence of amateurs in the world of science does not mean that a distance between amateurs and professionals is not being maintained. I was eager to get a sense of where we, as a society, stand on scientific amateurs. To that end I went to the place where I came across the modern-day scientific amateur in the first place: Three recent articles from reputable Anglophone print-media sources. In this text, I aim to explore the theme of amateur science as it is brought to us by the media.
The articles I decided to put under the proverbial magnifying glass are a 2015 Nature news article by Heidi Ledfort on so-called “biohackers” using the genome-editing tool CRISPR, a 2015 Guardian Weekly article on amateur astronomers from the pen of Robin McKie and a 2016 article on amateur palaeontologists, written by David Mark Simpson and published on The New York Times Online. (I would suggest reading all three, as they are each very interesting, but would particularly recommend the latter: It makes for a fantastic read!) Close examination of the texts and accompanying images exposed some interesting patterns across this — admittedly rather small — sample.
Immature amateur science
First, the journalists who wrote these articles, and perhaps their interviewees as well, have their eyes firmly on the horizon. Heidi Ledfort exposes this tendency in her title: “Biohackers gear up for genome editing.” In what follows there is a lot of emphasis on what might be achieved by biohackers; there are “tremendous creative possibilities,” and “the potential for mischief.” Ledfort assures us that we need not be immediately worried by doom scenarios such as “bioterrorism,” as “such a scenario is still beyond the ability of most amateurs.” The future also features heavily in the article by Robin McKie. It constantly refers to what will happen, as opposed to what is currently happening: Phrases such as “Astronomy is going to change,” “Very soon, that stream of discoveries is going to turn into a flood” and “one set of researchers will have an unexpected source” are good examples.
A second pattern might be related to this focus on the future. There is a remarkable emphasis on the role that children have to play in the sciences. This is especially clear in the article by Robin McKie; it is titled “And the children shall lead them” — also published as “Why mapping the universe will be child’s play” on The Guardian’s website — and there are more than a few references to “schoolchildren.” Dr. Heather Campbell, of Cambridge University, is quoted as saying that “we won’t be able to make sense of those discoveries without a lot of help from amateurs and schoolchildren” and the last section of the article covers an Observatory Network that has allocated “more than 25% of observing time on the network” for use “by British schoolchildren under the guidance of their teachers.” This is remarkable because the occasion for writing this article — the discovery of an eclipsing binary star system with the help of amateur astronomers using data from the Gaia-telescope — does not seem to have involved child-astronomers at all. But if the focus on kids seems a little odd here, it is utterly out of place in the article on amateur palaeontologists. These volunteers are no children; they are mostly retirees in their 60s and 70s. Important to note is that discussions about the involvement of children frequently reference education.
Amateur scientists or sciency amateurs?
I also found it striking how the amateur scientists are portrayed. The authors pay a lot of attention to the idiosyncrasies of amateur scientists; their diction, their looks, their background. To name but a few examples; Heidi Ledfort quotes one of the biohackers as saying “It’s, like, the most amazing tool ever” and she emphasises the naiveté of her main subject, Johan Sosa, by describing him as “an IT consultant from San Jose, California, who took up biohacking as a hobby about three years ago, when he decided that he would like to grow organs — or maybe other body parts — in the lab.” David Mark Simpson does the same: He describes the kinds of hats that the amateur palaeontologists wear, what their vanity plates say (“BONEDGR”), how they speak (“Hey, Fat Boy”) and he relates a story about a volunteer who thought he had found a bit of petrified wood, when instead he had found dinosaur bone. There is no doubt that this makes the articles entertaining to read, but it is remarkable that these idiosyncrasies are not exploited in the case of the professionals in these articles, even though, presumably, they too have interesting features and habits.
Not only are the amateurs idiosyncratic, they are also brought in with a particular reason: There is simply too much work to do for professional scientists without outside help. This is the case in all the articles, with the exception of biohackers. In the case of astronomy, this problem is caused by technological advances: the Gaia telescope produces a “data flood” that cannot be surmounted by the professionals on their own. The palaeontologists have a similar problem; there are not enough palaeontologists employed by the forest service to excavate the huge amounts of bones in this particular region. There is a tension present in the lead palaeontologist’s assessment of the problem: “[H]e does not expect dozens of new colleagues but he would like the Forest Service to hire a third palaeontologist so that the volunteer program can be replicated in other parts of the country.” Although he clearly recognises the value of the volunteers, there is also a feeling that this is a second best solution.
What deserves mention is that these articles, as well as the professionals that are featured in them, convey a great sense of admiration and appreciation for these amateur scientists. One of the amateurs who helped discover the binary star system, for example, is given the opportunity not only to explain his experience of finding these stars, but to explain the value of the discovery, which is rather technical. Further, the amateur palaeontologists are said to be “a highly skilled team.” The central role that amateurs may play in the future of science is touched upon over and over again. Perhaps, then, we are indeed on our way to a truly participatory model of knowledge production.
Still a long way to go for a true amateur science
But I believe my observations outlined here tell a different story, one that should leave us a little less optimistic. There are various ways in which the value of amateur science and the expertise of its practitioners are called into question. The exposition of the naiveté of some of the amateurs, as well as their individual oddities, make their foray into the world of science seem less like the unimpassioned systematic research of a serious scientist and more like a child’s erratic exploration of a new-found passion. Of course, the constant reference to children does little to counteract this feeling. There is also a sense that the professionals have only turned to their amateur colleagues because they had no other option: While data flood is a very real issue caused by technological advances and limited budgets, justifying amateur involvement in scientific practice on the basis of such a deluge is potentially harmful. It leaves open the possibility that the rediscovered connection between the professionals and the amateurs will — or even should — be severed if ever the flood recedes or becomes more manageable.
We must conclude, then, that we have some way to go before we can faithfully adopt Cézanne’s pronouncement to the world of science. As demonstrated in these articles, we still see the amateur scientist as different from the professional scientist. It seems that, for all the energy spent on moving from a so-called diffusionist model of the spread of scientific knowledge to a participatory model, we still cling to the notion that members of the public are impressionable and at core innocent of science. Not even the amateurs in these articles, despite years of experience and serious study of their respective topics, are able to escape that innocence in the eyes of their professional colleagues, the journalists writing about them and the people reading about them. I suspect the problem lies with us, the observer, not with the amateur scientist: For them, there is only good science and bad science.
 Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, “Nanotechnology: A New Regime for the Public in Science?” Scientiae Studia, 10 (2012): 87.
 Robin McKie “And the children shall lead them,” The Guardian Weekly, December 4th, 2015, 34-35.