Wednesday, May 11, 2016

When Citizen Science Results Look too Good to be True

This week there has been much excitement about a fifteen year-old Canadian high school student from discovering a lost Mayan city.  The media (rightfully) like to highlight stories of young people making discoveries beyond their years.  And there is always a mystique about the Mayans and lost cities.  So when the news first broke outlets such as CNN, FoxNews, IFLScience, and others raced to tout the findings.  Unfortunately they may have rushed too quickly.
 
As a non-professional using astronomy techniques to identify Mayan constellations, overlaying them against a map of previously discovered cities, hypothesizing of a missing city, and then attempting to confirm through satellite imagery, this is absolutely citizen science.  So when this news first began to break I got very excited and wanted to link to it as well.  It's always fun to share the accomplishments of my fellow citizen scientists.
 
But was it too good to be true?
 
Apparently so.  While the jury is still out, significant doubt has started creeping in about whether this truly is an archeological anomaly, whether the Mayan's organized their cities around constellations, and even whether we fully understand what those constellation's are.  So many news organizations may end up with egg on their face.
 
This is very unfortunate.  For starters I feel bad for the kid...he's doing good work and should be applauded regardless of the eventual findings, but I fear the backlash (if he turns out wrong) could be harsh for someone so young.  I also feel bad for the news organizations, who wanted to show young people the potential they posses.  But mainly I feel bad for the citizen science field.  We work so hard to gain respect amongst both professionals and the public, and just as we have a great story to tell, it all falls apart.
 
In the end, its a great reminder that we must not only provide the same respect to citizen science as we do "professional" science, but we must also provide the same healthy skepticism as well.  We need to verify facts, solicit independent opinions, and provide time for careful analysis.  No different than any other profession.  It may be difficult sometimes and may delay announcement of some exciting discoveries, but it keeps us healthy in the long run.
 
To quote this Washington Post article:
 
Citizen science is great, and it’s even more exciting when a teen does it. When folks don’t have the academic background to understand the standard school of thought on a subject — or understand why it has become the general consensus — they’re more likely to come up with novel and cool ideas. And maybe there’s some nugget of something in Gadoury’s research that will go somewhere. But that doesn’t mean we’re doing him — or the researchers who have devoted their lives to studying this stuff — any favors by letting this story run wild.
Put another way, we need to treat citizen science stories the same way we treat all other scientific studies, as HBO's John Oliver so cleverly demonstrated this week:
 
 
 

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