• trw_ricedotedu

    Thank you for this interesting post, and especially for calling attention Cézanne’s prescient reflection on the definition of the amateur. There is nothing new going on here, however, as the topic of the amateur in science has been under study by historians of science for at least half a century. Unfortunately, that research usually focused on the emergence of a specific profession, and marginalized the role of the amateur in the process of maturation of a scientific discipline. More attention in the three articles you cite to the question posed by Cézanne might have led the authors to a more nuanced understanding of the distinction between the amateur scientist, and what I identify as the recreational observer of science.
    The subject I am most familiar with is amateur astronomy. In the three articles you cite, McKee and Guest come closest to making Cézanne’s distinction, though it remains obscured by, as you point out, the idea that amateur involvement in astronomical science is just emerging. Mr. Augustino’s study of an eclipsing binary star is a clear example of “good science.” It resulted in an important discovery, as reported. However, it is just an example of the kind of work that has been going on by amateur astronomers for over a century. It is the modern tools that are available to amateur astronomers that made Augustino’s discovery possible. However, his work replicates work that has been going on routinely by members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, the British Astronomical Association, and other similar organizations for over a century, and by the Center for Backyard Astrophysics for several decades.
    Heidi Ledford’s dismissal of Johan Sosa’s biohacking as largely unscientific and unlikely to lead to any discovery overlooks the fact that amateur’s (and he clearly fits my definition of an amateur as opposed to a recreational observer) have led the way into important new areas of science. A clear example of that exists in astronomy in that amateurs led the way from practical astronomy into astrophysics. Sola’s work clearly could stumble into some new area of CRISPR technology that opens new doors for the geneticists.
    Your comment on the tendency of journalists to focus on the idiosyncratic behavior of some amateur scientists strikes a vein of appropriate criticism. In my view. That tendency reflects, more than anything else, a lack of appreciation for the science involved and the journalist’s need to say something interesting, to add a human-interest element to the story.
    Thanks again for your interesting blog posting.
    Tom Williams