Citizen Science: what makes an expert?
For March’s Science in the Pub (PubSci), Gail Austen, a PhD student at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, discussed Citizen Science, asking “what makes an expert?”
Although “Citizen Science” is a new term, the practice goes back a long way. Amateur, novice, non-professional and similar terms sound pejorative, but Gail argued that practitioners can actually be very knowledgeable and the important thing is that everyone is involved. There are lots of different levels, from the wealthy amateurs of the 19th century, like Darwin, to indigenous groups who have intimate knowledge of the biodiversity of their localities. She showed a photo of a member of a hunter-gatherer tribe holding a smartphone – yes, it certainly looked anachronistic but the purpose was deadly serious – they use the phones to monitor poachers’ movements.
Gail argued that right back to the Industrial Revolution, education has concentrated on producing people who met the needs of industry and commerce and that ethos is still alive today, but what we need is fresh perspectives. Gail gave Zooniverse as an example where a volunteer, Hanny van Arkel, pointed out a galactic feature that no-one knew what it was and so opened up a new area for research. Over 100 years ago Beatrix Potter was knowledgeable about algae, to the extent that she had a paper read to the Linnean Society – by her uncle, her being a woman. Websites such as iSpot, Ask a Biologist and iNaturalist, include contributors who are not necessarily professionals but are knowledgeable in their chosen field.
There are benefits and issues for both professional scientists and enthusiasts. Academics have access to publications and tools that the public doesn’t, whereas amateurs are free to pursue their own interests without worrying about grant applications and suchlike. Observation records can be very useful too. The National Biodiversity Network has data going back to the 1600s, which can’t be used commercially but is a massive, free source of information. However, some academics still query the robustness of the data. There are now publications available to guide professionals in how to harness the strengths of citizen science.
Gail herself came through the route of being an accountant volunteering with the Natural History Museum, to chairing a local conservation group (Kent Greater Crested Newts), to doing a PhD in citizen science. Her research uses face recognition studies to examine how good people are at recognition and the types of errors people make. How good are experts compared with novices? How do training methods impact on accurate identification? Do we see what we expect to see? Thoreau said: “it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see” – for example, it’s only religious people who see Jesus on a piece of toast. Gail has found that people who know very little are much more confident of their knowledge than people who have more experience – an example of the Dunning-Kroeger effect. (Author’s aside: This is something that explains an awful lot of what goes on in social media – people who lack the skills or abilities for something are also more likely to lack awareness of their lack of ability.)
This matters for species identification. In Kent there are malaria-carrying mosquitoes and it’s vital to spot the right species. But if we do not know what species exist, and how they interact, we cannot be accurate – but there aren’t nearly enough professionals to cope with the information that’s there, not even what’s being found in museum collections. The process of identifying a new species is not straightforward, either. There are also observation effects – there are lots more reports of rare species than common ones because people know they’re rare.
Whatever information is gathered it will be of interest to someone, somewhere. Non-structured observations can provide new information and there are plenty of data, that could be used to predict changes and inform policy, but it’s all over the place. Gail feels that what we need now is a massive database to bring it all together but there isn’t the money to fund it.
PubSci is held on the first Wednesday of every month, at 7pm, upstairs at the Old Kings Head, King's Head Yard, 45–49 Borough High Street, London SE1 1NA. Arrive early to take advantage of the pub's Happy Hour.