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Beyond the Ivory Tower: Experts in the Masses

January 22, 2010

Cornell Gothics Tower

Can scientists still hide up here?

Living among a community comprised largely of scientists and fishermen has recently made me wonder where the dividing line between scientist and citizen falls.  A recent discussion at Science Online 2010 also raised the question of what is the role of the Ivory Tower in research?  Should we consider the scientific community more broadly or is there really something to be said for the role of the ‘expert’ as certified by degrees and a corner office at an academic institution?

Perhaps the dividing line of scientist and layperson is more gray than one might imagine.  One might ask how much does it take to cross that line?  At what point in education can you wake up in the morning and identify yourself as a scientist?  Furthermore, what types of education count toward that tally?

For those involved in citizen science projects, the experiential learning is critical in making someone an expert in the field.  Volunteers in such science projects often don’t even consider the scientists experts if all they’ve done is read the peer-reviewed literature and look at the data produced by such programs.  And in some extreme cases such as the North Carolina Sea Turtle Project, the program coordinators have been involved with the project longer than the associated scientists (in this case, from the state).  These coordinators have more time invested in the project, more hands-on experience with the turtles, and are not afraid to say so when decision making time rolls around for sea turtle management plans.

Another prime example of nontraditional expertise is found all over fisheries management – the fishermen.  They are on the water day in and day out, often for generations in the same family.  Therefore, they offer perspective and information about the fishery that is very difficult if not impossible to gather from classic population surveys.  Much of this expertise has been readily recognized now in the theory of shifting baselines and has been canonized in the academic literature.  But how do we regard the fishermen who offered up their knowledge?  Most wouldn’t classify themselves as scientists.  They might agree that they have “traditional ecological knowledge” or “local ecological knowledge”, but that’s a jargon term that often comes with political and historic baggage.

So maybe they’re a third category of people, a hybrid between scientist and layperson.  Or maybe it’s more of a continuum without clear delineations of each person’s role in the production of scientific knowledge.  We can all recognize the collaborative nature of science and it’s high time we recognize and give credit for different kinds of expertise.  That involves reaching outside the tower through blogs, community meetings, school programs, and other connections to ensure that the best information out there is used in the decision making process.

~Bluegrass Blue Crab

12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2010 3:45 pm

    Wasn’t the idea behind the whole Enlightenment era to close the gap between experts (at the time, priests, officials, etc and now scientists, government, etc.) and the laypeople? Sort of, at least?

    David Hume, John Locke et al. would be rolling in their graves if they could see the state of modern society.

    I really do think that this dichotomy (experts and laypeople) contributes to why society values ignorance over education and science.

    Great post!

    • bluegrassbluecrab permalink*
      January 22, 2010 4:28 pm

      That’s a great point… my thought process was entirely grounded in today, but perhaps it’s a cyclical debate over the ages. Swing one way, then the other. Is it possible we’re on a swing in the right direction?

      • January 22, 2010 4:51 pm

        I really think so. The conservation and environmentalist movements are forcing researchers who care about the environment to open up their work to the public so that the movement can succeed. In addition, layperson environmentalists (and skeptics) are forced to look up literature so that they can be taken seriously and are able to hold their ground when debating with the opposing viewpoint.

        I do think there’s quite a way to go (for example, marrying environmentalism with economics and the hardcore science behind it so that real and realistic policy can be formed) but it is a step in the right direction.

      • January 23, 2010 1:29 am

        I’ve been thinking, and I’m not sure that it’s exactly cyclical. I can’t think of any other points of history when the “hierarchy” has been collapsing like it has between the elite and the laypeople in the last few centuries.

        Maybe it’s just Maslow, Marx and Engels thought: maybe society is going through a gradual realization that the hierarchy needs to be flattened out. Not that I’m advocating Communism, but if there’s some sort of collective unconscious social evolution going out (basic needs to self-actualization, whatever) it seems to be shaping up like Engels and Marx thought it would.

        I think maybe this idea needs to be explored more. Maybe not. Haha, it’s late.

  2. January 23, 2010 4:04 am

    I thinkwe are all overgrown monkeys and many lay people have a lot to offer. Sometimes “scientists” gt so locked up in their work theycan’t find the doorknob. On the other hand, many lay people are just buffoons getting in the way. My point is we have to look at all viewpoints. Isn’t that the history of good science? When I worked at NCI, I was “jut” the writer with a BA. Without every looking through a microscope or brwing up a petri dish I sussed out AIDS. It was obvious it wasn;t a gay disease, but a viral-related STD. That didn’t take a Ph.D. in biochemistry, but it was obious. Only problem was none of the Ph.D.’s wanted to listen to a BA. Cnsequently it was another ten years until valif research was funded. That cost about 10 million lives, but the Ph.D’s saved their egos.

    Now I’m everywhere in a sea kayak, and I learned to listen to the locals. After all, they grew up in the waters I explore.

    I think we have to open up “science” to all quarters, even if its explaining the basic of PH to a fisherman. When we listen to the locals we might actually hear something. Good scientists already do that.

  3. January 23, 2010 4:06 am

    PS. Even if it isn’t a Big Monkey, I actually like the icon.
    Ling Yai (Thai for “Big Monkey”

  4. January 23, 2010 9:31 am

    Your third category can also be split into two, depending on the direction you come from. You can have the layman with experience and a critical eye who can make an important contribution, but you can also have the scientist who is out of his or her field, bringing their academic training to a new domain. Both are valuable, of course.

    To me, a person who can exhibit critical thinking, who can analyse information and form conclusions or questions based on logic, not just guesswork or emotion, exhibits the essential qualities of a scientist. A professional scientist may or may not be able to do that better than someone who has ‘lived the life’, especially if the professional scientist is somewhat outside their field.

    Given the ever-growing need for multidisciplinary science to solve the complex and interconnected problems we face these days, I think it’s becoming more likely that professional scientists will effectively be laymen in some part of their domain.

  5. January 23, 2010 10:04 am

    I think Mike Specter summed it up pretty well when he said ““Science isn’t a company. Science isn’t a country. Science is a way of doing something.”

    There aren’t gatekeepers in science, anyone can do it (and to some extent everyone does).

  6. Ben permalink
    January 23, 2010 2:02 pm

    I’m not so concerned with who is bringing useful information to the table as to what kind of information they bring. In the fisheries example: scientists and fishermen bring very different information to the debate, both are useful, but it’s important to separate ‘local ecological knowledge’ from scientific data and to understand the usefulness of the two. I might be stereotyping here, but I’d guess that local ecological knowledge is often qualitative, biased (in the sense that random sampling wasn’t used, not that the fishermen are exaggerating), but very detailed and locally specific, whereas a scientist’s data tends to be quantitative, unbiased (random samples and all that good stuff) , and built off of general principles.

    What you are talking about seems to be a blurring of that clean-cut boundary, but what I find more important for us to get right is understanding how all of this fits into a larger picture (despite who gave what information). Which is the job of neither a strict scientist, layperson/volunteer, or any intermediate, but a manager.

    • January 24, 2010 10:39 am

      I’m sure Amy can speak better this issue, but from what I understand, the social sciences have methods for sussing out the ‘fish tales’ from actual accounts of historic trends.

      • bluegrassbluecrab permalink*
        January 24, 2010 4:59 pm

        Yes, we definitely do have methods… the trustworthyness of your informant is first and foremost in your methodology, even if that means targeting your interviews to certain people rather than taking a random sample. Second, more specifically tailored to the shifting baseline data, which is perhaps the most well-known example of social science data collection, we always collect two or more types of data and if they don’t corroborate each other, the data don’t get used. For instance, if a fisher says that he used to catch tuna that were 8 feet long when he first started fishing 50 years ago and now he catches on average 4 feet ones, we ask if they can produce pictures or catch records from both of those stories. If he can’t the local newspapers often provide a great source of such information. And to the surprise of even many social scientists, the stories usually prove true.
        And what’s more is that the fisher likely followed the same trap route for his entire career, so more important than statistically random sampling is the time series data he or she can provide. That’s a gold mine of ecological data that can’t be found just within the scientific community because academics weren’t anticipating anything of the sort when they were starting studies 50 years ago.


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    The Southern Fried Scientist

    Andrew is a graduate student in North Carolina studying deep sea biology. When not in the lab, he spends his time out on the water, usually swearing at his boat while simultaneously sacrificing some important tool to Poseidon in a desperate attempt to make the motor start. That is, assuming he can get his truck running long enough to actually put the boat in the water. He enjoys long walks on the beach, by necessity. Follow him on Twitter @SFriedScientist.


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    Amy is a graduate student in North Carolina studying local ecological knowledge within the blue crab fishery. She spends half her life studying the most charismatic of organisms - humans - and the estuaries on which they depend. While not contemplating grand social theories, she enjoys a good jam session and watching sunsets over the estuary. Follow her on Twitter @bgrassbluecrab.

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