Friday, March 8, 2013

The Half Life of Facts and Openings for Citizen Science

Every Christmas I buy myself a single special gift amongst the many other gifts to family and friends. After so much time browsing interesting presents the urge to pick up something personal get's too great. This year I chose a book with the intriguing title "The Half Life of Facts". But I'm so excited after reading it I wanted to share it with you too.

The book quickly teaches us that even the concept of a "Fact" is quite complex.  Although a seemingly simple concept it was not really described until the Middle Ages by the Italian Friar Luca Pacioli.  As my tax accountant mother-in-law is proud to tell people, he invented the double-entry bookkeeping system and revolutionized the business world.  To the author Samuel Arbesman, he revolutionized the world of science to as it created the concept of information that is identified, recorded, and compared against other known values.  In other words, he created the first facts.

But facts don't live forever.  As science progresses our understanding of the world continues to change.  We measure things more accurately and refine our facts.  New measurements also show old theories to be inadequate and force us to develop new ones.  But it's not a linear curve.  As time goes on facts decay...we don't know which will be shown wrong but we always know some will.  In a sense facts have a half-life.  So those four square meals a day with equal servings of meat as much as grains, fruits and vegetables, become a food pyramid where meats are eaten sparingly on top of a large base of vegetables with only a moderate amount of grains. 

There is also a flip side to this, as old facts decay new ones are created and technology increases exponentially.  Under the famed "Moore's Law" we know that the computing power will double every 18 months.  You can find this in many other places too, such as a story the book tells about the history of vehicle speeds and how in the early 20th century scientists noticed that in just a short time the fastest vehicle would be capable of moving faster than the Earth's escape velocity (the speed required to enter orbit).  Years later, nearly on schedule, the first satellites were launched and humanity landed on the moon. 

The best aspect of all this beyond the increasing benefits of technology?  The great opportunities for citizen science.  All theories and measurements and facts are wrong to some degree or another, it just takes a keen-eyed observer or creative analyst to make the next advance.  In fact being outside the establishment can have benefits, as we may not be stuck to older ideas or concepts that are no longer useful.  Citizen scientists are free to question and do it in large numbers, and those opportunities will only increase.

"Half Life of Facts" fortunately recognizes that very phenomenon.   Arbesman enjoys discussing various citizen science initiatives such as Galaxy Zoo and FoldIt, and speaks highly of crowdsourcing initiatives like Innocentive.  In fact his own father has successfully competed in Innocentive projects and used his dermatology training to find a new insight into ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).  Although he built upon  professional medical background he had no special training in neurology or biochemistry.  But he was able to parlay his knowledge and experience from one field to another, and won a prize for identifying new biomarkers for the disease.

One of the keys to all this was what Arbesman calls "Hidden Research".  These are studies performed years before and forgotten about, or performed in different areas of science where practitioners in other fields are not aware of it.  So they lose the value of this research just because other investigators don't have access.  But so often the insights from one field are key to moving forward another.  And that's just one more place where a citizen scientist experienced in one area can advance science in another.

As the book continues we see more and more ways the world of science not only needs citizen science, but also embraces it.  After all, science doesn't just create new facts, it also needs to get them accepted.  Even ideas that would seem intuitively obvious once identified may take a while before they are formally accepted.  The book discusses how ten years after Darwin first published On The Origin of Species and had spoken at length to English scientific organizations about it, there was still much doubt and disbelief in his new theory.  Partly this is a natural scientific skepticism.  But there are also human biases that prevent us from rapidly changing what we believe if we've already been led to believe something else.  This still plays out as people still debate whether Pluto is a planet...a point most astronomers now accept and is taught to school children across the country.  Fortunately it is those children who help new ideas gain traction and credibility.  They've only heard the most accurate explanations and won't logically accept older theories that no longer agree with the facts.  So once again we have a great opportunity for citizen science. 

For years many in the professional sciences were skeptical and even the successes of recent years have not convinced many.  But the next generation is learning that everyday people can make huge differences in scientific research.  And as we've seen, once an idea starts taking hold and new facts are discovered, they develop and increase exponentially.  So here's hoping citizen science follows the same path.

As a final note, reading this book sparked some new insights into something I like to call the "Suggestion Box Problem". What is this problem and what are my new insights? Check back next week to find out. :)

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