Some Thoughts on “Citizen Science” and KIC-8462852

Citizen science is also known as crowd science, crowd-sourced science, civic science, volunteer monitoring or networked science. It is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists. Citizen science is sometimes described as “public participation in scientific research”, participatory monitoring or participatory action research.

In his Republic, Book Book VIII, Plato describes the five evolutionary tiers of government from best to worst with Aristocracy as the first and Democracy coming in at four out of five with Tyranny being the fifth and last. In the book, starting with Aristocracy, Socrates discusses the evolution of a regime as it passes through four progressively unjust forms of government: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. He argues that a society will decay and pass through each form of government in succession, eventually becoming a tyranny, the most unjust regime of all. What we have today in Citizen Science is a hybrid form of democracy in the sense that a consensus is reached – by the Citizen Scientists – when a result is found or published. This, with a modicum of oversight, ostensibly in place to validate the results of the Citizen Scientists. Although everyone may have an opinion and, while they are certainly entitled to their opinion, not all opinions are informed nor are they all correct regardless of how many hold that opinion -and this is the crux of the problem, the analogy and link to democracy within this context.

The motivations of Citizen Science are noble ones, for sure: huge volumes of data need to be vetted, crunched and analyzed and, with the precipitous drop in graduating, qualified professional scientists with degrees above the baccalaureate level and young adults graduating secondary school who are prepared for college, the hope is that a more active/interactive participation in science would engender more interest and competence in these fields while helping to mitigate the load on faculty, professional scientists, academics and over-subscribed facilities (telescope time at any major observatory has to applied for at least six months to a year in advance with no guarantee that the observation/ project will be approved). Although a worthy endeavor, there are limitations to just how much the citizen scientists can contribute to the discussion regarding the true nature of what is being observed, the specifics of which I will not elaborate on here except to say that there is a world of difference between a Ph.D astronomer and an amateur astronomer participating in the project.

The peculiarities of the star’s light curve were discovered by citizen scientists as part of the Planet Hunters project with the subsequent publication of the now famous September 2015 paper Where’s the Flux. The thinking behind the Planet Hunters project stems from humans being more adept at visual pattern recognition than computers. The website displays an image of data collected by say, the NASA Kepler Space Telescope and asks users (“Citizen Scientists”) to look at the data and see how the brightness of a star changes over time. Highlighting the contribution of the amateur planet hunters is this excerpt from the paper:

Complementary to this analysis, the Zooniverse citizen science network provided the means to crowd source the review of light curves with the Planet Hunters project. In this framework, Planet Hunter volunteers view 30 day segments of light curves in the ‘Classify’ web interface. A volunteer’s main task is to identify signals of transiting planets by harnessing the human eye’s unique ability for pattern recognition.

Accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society for 26 January, 2016, the lead author was Tabetha Boyajian, a newly-minted Ph.D from Georgia State University (2009), on faculty at Louisiana State University and at the tail end of her Post Doctoral work at Yale (2012-2016) when the paper was published; currently, she is the manager of the Planet Hunters project.

The paper makes mention of “crowd sourcing” the analysis, hence my opening remarks about Plato, democracy and the limitations of such an enterprise. Even the term “crowd source” is striking in its negative connotations. Consensus regarding the underlying nature of the star’s light curve borders on an exercise in futility without the proper academic training and rigor and could almost be considered an oxymoron in such a context.

And then there were two; EPIC-204278916 makes two ‘Dyson Sphere’ candidates, that is. Physicist Freeman Dyson is the originator of this idea, that an advanced civilization would construct an energy generating sphere around their home star. The object, a full or partial sphere, consisting of some photovoltaic material, was put in place to satisfy their voracious appetite and need for energy. The thinking was that a partial Dyson sphere was being constructed or is in use, partially eclipsing the star, thus causing the atypical light curve. The proliferation of this idea and, that it was seriously considered as a possible cause for the enigmatic light curves of KIC-8462852 -and now EPIC-204278916, was first floated by “citizen scientists” as a result of some “consensus” among them. Some basic calculations (by professional scientists) and other problems inhernent in this idea and described in this piece would have prevented this piece of red meat from being fed to any number of tabloid class, ostensibly scientific/ astronomical publications that are more interested in selling as many copies of their slick, colorful magazine and boosting their subscription base than in real astronomy and science or promoting real inquiry about real stories.

Without the proper supervision and oversight, its not too hard to imagine how “Crowd Sourced Science” can lead to bad ideas quite literally spreading at the speed of light in today’s Internet age. Anyone with a YouTube account, a personal computer and an internet connection can become an “expert” overnight. How many unknowing or unwitting individuals fall prey to these “experts”? I would suggest that such phenomenae as “The Flat Earth” movement (something I’ve spent quite a lot of digital ink on), conspiracy theorists who claim that we never went to the moon, anti-vaxers, climate deniers and all other garden variety fringe groups and believers are an outgrowth of “Crowd Sourced Science” gone awry.

Yes, Citizen Science is a good idea and should be encouraged but with the understanding that it has its limitations.

In a related story, NASA has just released a Citizen Science Opportunity through their “GLOBE Observer” application. Their intention is to solicit participation in the collection of data and observations of clouds, a critical part of the global climate system. Additional types of observations are planned, including land cover and the identification of mosquito larvae. The observations encourage the public to be more keenly observant of their outdoor environment and make their own field investigations.

Now available for Apple and Android phones, the app is an initiative of the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program, a science and education effort that for over two decades has enabled schools and students in over 110 countries to investigate their local environment and put their observations in a global context.

Related Stories

And EPIC-204278916 Makes Two – ‘Dyson Sphere’ Stars
Solved (Probably): The Peculiar Case Of Star KIC-8462852
Science Fiction or Science Fact, The Peculiar case of KIC-8462852

All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike-and yet it is the most precious thing we have

An index of all articles in this blog can be found here.


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