You Amateur

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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7 Responses to You Amateur

  1. Speaking from my vantage Emily, it certainly seems so in the case of art + illustration. It’s virtually impossible to make a full-time living wage from illustration, and the field is filed with “professionals” who must work at other jobs to live.

    Sites like Boing Boing do a great job showing how DIY should be encouraged, but it’s a double edged sword. No matter how well trained, there’s always someone willing to do the work for nothing. Will this work its way into science more than it has? I could see that.

  2. alice says:

    The sense of an appeal to the amateur has run thruogh science for years – think about all the appeals to childlike innocence, as made by Newton and Einstein and repeated by generations of followers since.

    I argued in my thesis that a sense of amateur outsider innocence was a “counter-norm” running concurrently within much of science (alongside “norm” of professionalism).

  3. mangrist says:

    It’s a fascinating question that I find myself thinking about all the time.

    This will sound elitist in the extreme, and I suppose it is, but I think the fascination with amateurs in political life is largely just narcissism: “We are dumbasses and we want dumbasses in office because we find it comforting.” I think Obama is hated as much for his intelligence as he is for his race.

    But amateurism in science is something else. It might include an element of fetishism but it has the power to transcend that because ultimately science is interested in only one thing: the data. If they cannot be falsified, then it doesn’t matter if they came from an Austrian monk or a hacker in her basement. Amateurism in science is growing organically: people have access to scientific tools, they are curious, and their curiosity is not being satisfied by traditional modes of science education. That’s my working hypothesis anyway…

  4. Matthew says:

    Interesting. I think, in general, that this culture disparages amateurs. We are supposed to specialize to compete in the neo-Spencerian jungle of our economic system. Generalists aren’t supposed to stand a chance, and the non-accredited are so much fluff in the gears of academic career building (in the minds of the academic drones anyway).

    Christine O’Donnell, meanwhile, certainly isn’t an amateur; she’s a hardcore fundamentalist, a long-time front line soldier for theocracy, convinced of her own specialness because of deluded belief — magical thinking, if you will. Belief has trumped reality in her case, and so many others. She believed she knew (or didn’t know), therefore she knew. (For many, the Cognito is dead.) What she also manifests is our culture’s stupefying narcissism.

    Speaking of narcissism, reality shows, meanwhile, seem to me to be another phenomenon, that of the myth of celebrity, which is about consumption and passive spectatorship. The myth is that everyone can strike it rich in our increasingly class-riven society: this desperation fosters amazing displays of bad behavior, but then millions are eager to see these displays of nihilism and abasement. In a society where winning is everything, no matter how you do it, it’s little wonder that politics is now another form of entertainment.

  5. Emily Anthes says:

    Thanks for all the great comments! I certainly agree that there are different factors underlying amateurs in science and in politics, but that–combined with things like the rise of reality TV–are, I think, giving amateurs of all stripes a bigger and bigger role in public life.

  6. James Graham says:

    May an amateur whose (radical) ideas have received some notice (i.e., citations) from research scientists leave a link?

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