The testimony of many has little more value than that of few, since the number of people who reason well in complicated matters is much smaller than that of those who reason badly. If reasoning were like hauling I should agree that several reasoners would be worth more than one, just as several horses can haul more sacks of grain than one can. But reasoning is like racing and not like hauling, and a single Barbary steed can outrun a hundred dray horses.
Thus Galileo Galilei, in his book the Assayer. Ironically, Galileo’s central thesis in the book, that comets are sub-lunar objects, was completely wrong. Yes, even Galileo made mistakes. Sometimes Barbary steeds stumble. And quite often science is a lot more like hauling than racing.
Figuratively, citizen cyberscience today is primarily about harnessing the power of dray horses. Not just a hundred, but – thanks to the Internet – sometimes a hundred thousand, to tackle a problem that involves a lot of intellectual hauling. I’m thinking here of that particular strain of citizen cyberscience, volunteer thinking, represented by projects like Stardust@Home, GalaxyZoo or FoldIt, where it is human brainpower that is being aggregated, and not just processor power.
But citizen cyberscience could be a lot more than this. because the whole premise that there are only steeds and drays, professional scientists and ordinary citizens, and a factor of a hundred or more between them in intellectual capacity, is fundamentally flawed.
We live in a world where a staggering amount of people have studied science at a very high level – many right through to a Ph.D., without becoming professional scientists. And we live in a world where, due to specialization, professional scientists can only filter a fraction of the information that might be relevant to their research. In other words, a world where many drays can gallop fast, and most steeds are blinkered.
We can add to that the many steeds that have been put out to pasture – retired scientists with time on their hands and years of experience, who have much to contribute. And then there are those passionate amateurs who spend all their free time practicing the science they love, the growing ranks of autodidact drays.
The whole point of this rather laboured equine analogy is just this: the difference between professional scientists and amateurs is blurring. This is happening for myriad reasons. Thanks to the Internet, but also to radical changes in education opportunities and life expectancies in the developed and much of the developing world.
What will this mean for citizen cyberscience? The most insightful analogy for understanding the implications of this gradual blurring between professional and amateur scientist is not horses, I would argue, but journalists.
As I note in an article in the September issue of CERN Courier, the world of journalism has been turned upside-down in recent years by social media technologies which allow a much wider range of people to take part in gathering, filtering and distributing news. Though some professional journalists at first resisted this trend, most now appreciate the likes of Facebook, Twitter and myriad blogs in expanding the sources of news and opinion and accelerating dissemination: the audience has become part of the show.
Could the Internet one day wreak the same sort of social change on the world of science, breaking down the distinction between amateur and professional? In my view, it is not a question of whether, but of when.
I’m going to venture a guess. By 2020, we will see a significant amount of real, breakthrough science being carried out by online communities – similar to the open source communities that develop complex software packages. By far the largest fraction of the work will be done by amateurs. Not only that, the amateurs will have the biggest say in exactly what questions are tackled by the community. They will actively help to define the research agenda.
Professional scientists will still play a role, as professional journalists do today, of going into the field – or rather into the lab – in search of new data. This is something that cannot easily be distributed, especially for research that involves expensive experimental equipment. Scientists will still play a role in vetting results, as professional journalists and their editors do today, when dealing with information that has been crowdsourced. Scientists will still play a role in shaping the research agenda, much as the benign dictators in open source projects do. But they will have to compromise with the aspirations of the rest of the community in order to get results.
In other words, herds of steeds, dray horses and many a hybrid in between will work together, combining speed and stamina, to power much scientific progress.
That this will happen, I am in little doubt. How it will impact the scientific establishment, however, is another question entirely. Judging by the major upheavals that the world of print journalism is going through, I expect the impact to be enormous. And yes, it may not all be nice. A lot of scientists – especially expensive ones in industrialized countries – may find themselves out of work, in the same way that the livelihoods of many journalists have become more precarious in the Web 2.0 era.
Here is Galileo again, this time from the opening dedication to his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems:
Though the difference between man and the other animals is enormous, yet one might say reasonably that it is little less than the difference among men themselves. What is the ratio of one to a thousand? Yet it is proverbial that one man is worth a thousand where a thousand are of less value than a single one. Such differences depend upon diverse mental abilities, and I reduce them to the difference between being or not being a philosopher; for philosophy, as the proper nutriment of those who can feed upon it, does in fact distinguish that single man from the common herd in a greater or less degree of merit according as his diet varies.
Substitute philosopher with scientist – for there were no scientists in Galileo’s time – and replace common herd with general public , and you have the elitist view of science that has dominated from the 17th century, when Galileo wrote these words, through to our time.
I am not saying Galileo’s elitist view is wrong – it accurately describes the past. Nor am I suggesting that in future, individual geniuses will become superfluous. Certain scientific problems will no doubt remain easier for a gifted individual or a small team of professionals to tackle, in much the same way as there will probably always be a niche for problems that supercomputers can better tackle than networks of ordinary computers. Horses for courses.
But in the next ten years, I contend, those niches are going to shrink. And in many cases human genius – embodied in the individual brains of exceptional people like Galileo – will be supplanted by the genius of interconnected humans. In science as in journalism, the audience will become part of the show.