Monday, October 19, 2015

Aliens, Asteroids, and Citizen Science - A Messy Love Story

Citizen Scientists love aliens.  Science Fiction and E.T. have been driving forces that helped first open up our field, and they continue to add to the mystique of citizen science.  But is this always a good thing?

Last week there was much excitement as the discovery of a potential "Alien Superstructure" were breathlessly reported in the news media.  Details varied, but some strange readings were seen from the Kepler planet hunting satellite and, after much consideration, the investigators reviewing it conjectured that it could be due to the relics of an ancient extra-terrestrial civilization.  And now the team is looking for additional telescope time and other resources to investigate it further.  After telling the news media, of course.  If you have not already heard the story check out various versions at The Atlantic and NBCNews.

Of special interest is the fact that the data was initially noticed by citizen scientists using the Planet Hunter program through the Zooniverse. This is great.  A major news story highlights the role made by citizen scientists showing they can make real discoveries of great import.  It also highlights projects available on the Zooniverse the public may wish to join.  And it may truly have an alien origin (one never knows).  But that’s definitely not guaranteed.

There is the fear of what happens if this turns out to be less “exciting” and is “only” a collection of exocomets or other natural phenomenon.  Will that make people think it was the citizen scientists jumping to conclusions, harming our reputation?  Will it decrease excitement for the natural cause that (in and of itself) should still be quite interesting?  Obviously it would not be the end of the world for citizen science, but it would be disappointing.

Thinking about this made me realize how closely tied to the citizen science and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) worlds are to each other.

In many ways the “modern” era of citizen science began with the SETI@Home distributed computing project, which brought myself and many others into the citizen science world.  And one of the key factors for success in citizen science projects has been the Excitement factor.  Although not restricted to SETI projects it certainly does apply.  All of which can be seen in the success of PlanetHunters and related space projects looking for signs of ET or sending messages to him. 
But does this do justice to all of the non-SETI citizen science projects out there?  The same thing goes for the hunt for asteroids; there are many good reasons to search for these artifacts from the solar system's creation, including understanding how our planet was initially formed.  But when discovered by citizen scientists the main story is about whether the asteroid will hit Earth.   Yes, that is a concern.  But is it really the only newsworthy concern?

Every day volunteers collect important environmental data and power important studies in medicine and ecology.  Do these get the same press coverage and support?  Sadly I don’t think they always do. 

Yet I love it.  Sure. these scientific fields may receive an inordinate amount of coverage and steal recognition from many other worthy projects.  But citizen scientists are drawn not just to the academic thrill of discovery, but the more visceral thrills of things that light up their souls.  We are here for the fun and for the adventure.  We were raised on Star Trek and Carl Sagan.  So we are drawn to aliens and asteroids like moths to a flame.  That is not too ignore the many people trying to improve their world through environmental or medical science projects, but it recognizes the different roles each plays.  They touch different parts of people's psyches and attract new talent for those different reasons.  Making us a more diverse, and more powerful, force in the scientific world.

These are just my initial thoughts…it seems citizen science is connected much more closely to the SETI field than other fields that typically receive more attention from scientists and funders.  And is that close a connection good for the citizen science field?  Are there risks to much of our press coming from the search for ET?  I don’t have all the answers, or even some of them.  It’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

But what are your thoughts?  Let me know in the comments below.


  1. Thanks for your blogs about the Science of Citizen Science and how it relates to the larger fields of professional science, the public, and the media. It's a complex ecosystem and Citizen Science is just feeling its way. I'm in the natural history world and while it may not have the "other world" attraction of other worldly beings like SETI, some people take whales and dolphins close to that mystical place. The media sometimes reinforces such themes. It's an easy headline. So I have no answers but please keep up the message. One area I think is needed is a place to publish. Citizen Science may not have the rigor (or funding) to pass muster for peer reviewed journals, but there is much to offer and if a respected place for "take it for what it's worth" journal is available, I think it would be an asset.


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