You Amateur

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I spent this past weekend up in New Haven, at the annual meeting for the National Association of Science Writers. It was a great time, and I finally got to meet fellow PLoGgers John Rennie and Misha Angrist. Among other things, Misha and I spent a bit of time talking about the role of amateurs in science.

Drawing from Darwin's Insectivorous Plants.

It seems as though there’s been a real amateur renaissance. Once upon a time–before there were PhD programs–all scientists were amateurs. Think of Darwin, just an interested citizen who happened to roam the British countryside making observations about the plants and animals he found there. (Though it gets almost no attention, some of my favorite of Dawin’s work involves his study of the carnivorous plants of the U.K.) Much of our early knowledge about natural world came from others like Darwin, who needed nothing more than a keen eye and a curious mind.

Of course, as science turned from vocation into profession, many amateurs were squeezed out. In particular, 20th century science came to rely on big, expensive machines and highly technical equipment to which average citizens simply did not have access.

But something interesting has been happening as technology has continued to evolve–amateurs are finding a place in science once again. The ubiquity of hand-held technologies–cameras, phones–paired with advanced but easily available software is allowing non-scientists (or, at least, those without fancy science degrees) to observe, record, and analyze all manner of interesting phenomena. In essence, technology is turning us into an army of citizen scientists, capable of collecting data points about our small corners of the world. It’s an interesting development, and I think we’ll see amateurs make some significant scientific contributions in the years to come.

Coincidentally, several hours after my discussion with Misha, I read Jennifer Senior’s latest feature in New York magazine: “The Benjamin Button Election: Rage, powerlessness, magical thinking—why is how we think about politics increasingly mirroring the mind-set of a small child?” In the story, Senior talks to child psychologists and argues that the behavior of the U.S. electorate is strikingly similar to the tempers and tantrums of toddlers. The whole piece is interesting, but this part, in particular, caught my eye:

[Christine O'Donnell is] exactly what you get when you have a culture that promotes gratuitous self-admiration, encouraging everyone to think of himself as a potential giant. People laughed when she released the “I’m you” ads. (As Kristen Wiig put it on Saturday Night Live: “I’m you, and just like you, I have to constantly deny that I’m a witch.”) But “I’m you” could just as well serve as the tagline for every reality show on TV. In fact, congressional candidate Duffy is an actual alumnus of MTV’s The Real World: Boston (and his wife was on The Real World: San Francisco). The glorification of amateurs is exactly what propelled Joe the Plumber—who wasn’t even a licensed plumber—to celebrity status two years ago, earning him a slew of motivational-speaking gigs, a Nashville-based publicist, and, at one loopy moment, a possible record deal.

What do you think? Do we have a cultural fetish for amateurs? Could technology and culture together be creating a society in which there will be a larger and larger role for amateurs in all sorts of disciplines?

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