Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Research with a Humble Confidence - A Key to Citizen Science Ethics

Two short weeks ago the nation was shocked by the Boston Marathon bombing, and immediately we  wanted to help.  Many of us looked to give blood.  Others sent donations to help the surviving families.  And some wanted to ensure justice.

We saw this happen as people began combing through public footage to find clues the authorities may have missed.  They set up Internet chat rooms and decided (on their own) to  tap the public's collective wisdom and resources to find the perpetrators.  In other words, they crowd-sourced the investigation.  Users of the Reddit site quickly focused on one particular individual and began labeling him a potential suspect.  Sadly, it appears they targeted an innocent man as we now know the Tsarnaev brothers were the guilty parties.  But even worse is the fact that the notoriety quickly got to him to the point he was found dead last week.  You can read much more about this episode on CNN (here), the Washington Post (here) or any other news web site.

At this point we still don't know what happened and his death may have been completely unrelated to the investigation.  But it should make us all pause.  There is huge promise and peril with opening research to the vast public.  They can do great good or great harm.  The key is do it all with a humble confidence.

One of my main goals with OpenScientist is boosting the confidence of the citizen science movement and encouraging everyday people that their contributions are meaningful.  For too long society and academia have (inadvertently) sent this message and it remains one of citizen science's biggest obstacles to success.  So I try to remember that every time I write a new blog post and I purposefully include different references to it.  Sometimes it is showing all the famous scientists who began as citizen scientists.  Sometimes it is showing the great discoveries made by average people.  And other times it is showing that "Getting Started is easy" to help people start on their journey.

But the flip side to this confidence is humility.

We should not forget that while citizen science can match that of "professional" researchers, that doesn't mean to disparage the great work done in that realm too.  Tenured professors may be the in an ivory tower, but they have also been studying their issues for years.  They know the facts inside and out and have spent much of their life trying to develop new and innovative theories to move their fields forward.  Their opinions should not be taken lightly.  Citizen science should always augment their work and even question their work, but it must be done humbly and collaboratively.  The beauty of science is that the facts speak for themselves.  So we need to be part of the debate, not dominate it.

Crowdsourcing is a great part of that.  This technique works fantastically well in the sciences as multiple eyes and minds can do higher quality work than a computer can, and at a faster pace.  At that level having people scan video archives makes a lot of sense (and is similar to what many citizen science projects already do).  Even taking that nest step of fresh analysis and hypothesis development is within the citizen science tradition.  Though we are still figuring out how to identify good ideas from bad, there is still a lot of progress that can be made.  But this has only been done with classifying galaxies or identifying plants...nobody is hurt if mistakes are made. 

Handling error tolerance is an important design concept for crowdsourcing projects.  This is where the Reddit users fell down.  Once you start accusing a person of a horrific bombing it is tough to pull that back.  Even if the public forgets, that person still carries it with them.  So before we utilize a tool that can provide incorrect data, we need to have systems which correct that data or keep it in the proper context. 

They also forgot the massive expertise brought in by the FBI and the Boston Police.  Sure the investigators needed help...they often asked people to come forward with tips and for people with pictures/videos in that area to send them in.  But they had crack professionals with years of experience to dissect, analyze, and properly follow up on all the leads.

In other words, we need to have confidence that users will find important data, but humble enough not to accuse people of mass murder without overwhelming evidence.  And that we need to work with the authorities, not separate from them.

We see the need for humble confidence in the politics as well.  The 24-hour news cycle and proliferation of government information have many great benefits.  They keep everyone knowledgeable of world events, provide data to help them in their daily lives, and enable them to be fully active citizens in their democracy.  With citizen science being dubbed by some the "Democratization of Science" the parallels are many.  But like citizen science there are many downsides.

All of this information can also exacerbate our country's partisan divides and make our arguments even louder.  Everyone has their own viewpoint and now their own data to confirm it.  So people get louder and more self-righteous in their tone.  After all, they have evidence to prove their point or disparage the other side.  Why look for more?

Again, we need people to participate vigorously but with a humble confidence.

Policy is hard.  Understanding what laws to enact to create a desired outcome is exceptionally difficult. It requires knowledge of sociology, economics, science, and human nature.  And that's just for the easy ones.  Add science-intensive topics such as global warming or public health, and the ability to know the "right answer" becomes mind-bogglingly hard.

So all I ask is that we call keep moving forward and do the amazing work we are capable of.  Just remember that we are here as part of the discussion...we aren't the only discussion.  We need to listen to other viewpoints and be cautious in making outrageous claims until the weight of the evidence forces us to. In the end the truth wins out.  We just need to give it time.


  1. Hi -- wanted to let you know about a new citizen science project that we're trying to get the word out about. Would have emailed but didn't se contact info. The goal of the project is to get more precise definitions for words. There are actually some good theories of word meaning out there, but they've been hard to implement because there are so many words in a given language -- too many for even a large team of scientists to tackle by themselves. Hence, citizen science. The project is at gameswithwords.org/VerbCorner/. We've got some recent posts about it at our blog at gameswithwords.fieldofscience.com.

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