The Citizen Scientist

Written by Scottish Sceptic

The House of Commons Energy and Climate Committee have now published the submissions of the review of the IPCC and what an impressive collection it is. It is great to see so many citizens putting in their own time and effort to produce these superb submissions.

citizen scienceIn one of the numerous pages that didn’t make it to my submission I introduced the idea of the “citizen scientist” which is the scientific equivalent of the “expert patient”. Reading the submissions, I regret not including it.

The Expert Patient is the phenomenon in medicine, that more and more, doctors are coming across patients, that not only know more about their own illness than the doctor, but even know more about the latest medical research. Initially – and for obvious reasons – many doctors were quite hostile to this phenomena: it fundamentally changes the balance of power and therefore the relationship between doctor and patient.

However, after some initial resistance, it has now been accepted in medicine, as a de facto outcome of the internet, that many patients will be experts in their own condition. This phenomenon is one which doctors have not only learnt to live with, to the extent there are now numerous papers, but some are now encouraging patients to become their own experts.

In a very similar way that the latest medical information can be easily found on the internet and there are communities interested enough to analyse and discuss medical information, there are also numerous other “hobbies” where people have a keen interest. Through the medium of the internet, these people & communities can gain a level of expertise that surpasses the “official sources”.

From train-spotters, to bird-spotters, from environmentalists to climatology, there are now groups of citizen-experts, very much akin to the expert-patient phenomena in medicine. Their interest and the ready availability of information through the internet has enabled them to become experts in their own right. But more importantly, they can do this outside the normal power-relationship between academic and student. As such there is no requirement to effectively “bow” to the supposed superiority of academia which legitimises their authority.

We citizens are no longer students of academia but researchers and even professors in our own right.

This is extremely threatening to academia. It is understandable that when a close-knit group is threatened in this way, that they react viciously. We have seen some very reprehensible attacks from those like Gleick and Lewandowski very much in the vein of the union activist attempting to protect their closed shop; but perhaps a closer analogy is the way the Catholic church reacted to printing (~1500) by introducing the Roman Inquisition (1588) which was responsible for prosecuting heretics like Galileo (1633).

So, just as the expert patient created a tension caused by the change in power in the relationship between patient and doctor, and printing created tension in religion by challenging the power of “orthodox” religion, so the citizen-scientist has created tension in the relationship between science and society. Citizen-scientists have met a wall of official reluctance & even outright hostility from the “orthodox” science establishment.

The class system in science

In areas like bird-spotting, the amateur has always had a place. So, this tension has not developed in the same way. But when it comes to more academic “science”, there has been fairly much a closed shop mentality ever since the founding of the Royal Society in 1660. Unfortunately, much of this stems from the British class system. In the industrial age, a lot of new money was created from manufacturing. This led to a great deal of ill-feeling between the old “gentlemen” scientists and the new monied, working-class “uncouth” industrialists & engineers.

This class attitude is epitomised by the way that in 1761, when John Harrison, a watchmaker, won a prize for a method of determining longitude, the Royal Society refused to give him the £20,000 prize. This is incredible, because John Harrison effectively created the modern world as we know it. Without his timepiece the British would not have mapped the world and had the navigational edge to “turn the map pink” as much of the world came under British control thus spreading British culture, engineering and science to the world. He did not get the recognition he deserved. Not because he did not deserve it but because academia was not prepared to recognise expertise outside its cloistered walls. Not much has changed. The Royal Society still looks down its noses at anyone outside.

But the analogy between Galileo and the catholic church and modern academia is closer than we think. Originally many Universities were set up as religious institutions in order to support the arguments to enforce orthodoxy in the catholic church. We find this religious origin in words such as dean (from Late Latin decanus “head of a group of 10 monks in a monastery”), rector and doctor (“Church father,” from Medieval Latin doctor “religious teacher, adviser, scholar,”). We also see this in the dual meaning of “Professor” as also one who professes a religion, and “lecturer” which is also a junior member of the clergy in the Church of England.

So, supporting the orthodoxy and “repressing heretics” from outside has always been part of the culture of academia. In light of this history, it should not be surprising that science, particularly British Science, and particularly those “upper-class” echelons like the Royal Society, have a culture of being hostile to anything that is “not invented here”.

The anti-industry culture of academia morphs into anti CO2

Unfortunately, from its dominant position, people like those in the Royal Society have engendered a culture in British science that the “industrialist” is uncouth. This has been highly damaging to Britain. I think it is one of the main reason the British pursued the disastrous de-industrialisation policy of the Thatcher era, when something like a quarter of British manufacturing went abroad. An era where “service jobs” supporting economic growth through spending (i.e. borrow to bust) became established as the economic doctrine in place of creating wealth through manufacturing. And we all know where this “borrow to boom” anti-manufacturing culture landed us – in the banking crisis of 2008 just before Climategate.

Although this anti-industry culture in British politics since the Thatcher government was partly a reaction to bad union relations, partly an accident of fate as North Sea oil tipped the balance against UK manufacturing, it was  undoubtedly encouraged by an anti-industry culture in academia.

However, it then morphed into something arguably even more damaging. Because industry was a large-scale user of energy, this anti-industry culture in academia found a new way to express itself in the anti-CO2 global-warming culture which is now so dominant in academia. In effect what academics are encouraging by supporting views that CO2 is a “pollutant” is a view prevalent in left-wing academic circles that private industry is a “pollutant”. So being against CO2 is a proxy for being “anti-industry”: it provides a thin veneer of respectability to what is really a battle between two major power blocks: “public” (low energy use) and “private” (high energy use).

So, it is particularly paradoxical that it was the Thatcher era of “Privatisation”, which saw the real death knell to the private sector in the UK when for example, the House of Commons “science and engineering” committee turned into the “science and [scientific] technology” committee. Engineering and by inference, industry, was written out of British life at the very highest levels and it was replaced by a culture of anti-industrial scientific elitism spread into government by the growing number of scientific advisers.

Even the Starship enterprise had a chief engineer, but not the UK government!

Unfortunately, as academia became more and more embedded in government, the anti-industry culture expressed through CO2 & global warming became self sustaining. The culture of scientific elitism was self-perpetuating. The academic institutions advised government on science and engineering. They ran the grant awarding bodies. They decided who would get grants. They ran the journals by which they (as a corporate body of academic-scientists) controlled access to the journals which defined the subject. But most importantly, they as a corporate body of academia, controlled who would, and would not get on in the subject. They controlled whose theories would, and would not, be considered “legitimate” and they worked as a corporate group to maintain and extend their control.

The academic closed shop

In effect, we have what in industry is called a “closed shop”. The “union” of academics have a “union-members only” policy. If you aren’t a member of the union, you do not get employment in the form of grants. It is an unspoken rule that union members do not work with non-union or “scab labour” and so, as we have seen numerous times, journal editors that break this rule and let in papers from “non-union” authors are viciously attacked, to such an extent editors end up resigning. And those academics, like Salby and too many others to mention, who do not toe the line are ostracised.

In this way science (like most of academia) has enjoyed a closed shop on “knowledge” for much of the past several hundred years. And perhaps even worse, academia was responsible for writing its own history. The effect is that we now see history through an academic white-wash. The science-practitioner: the industrialist, the people like John Harrison, have largely been written out of history. Now if we read history it appears that all knowledge is created and maintained in academia. This is very wrong. The reality is that much of the knowledge of science has always been in the hands of scientific-practitioners like engineers who operate outside academia.

But what could anyone do about it? Nothing! You can’t go to court to fight academia – because who will be the “experts”? academics! Politicians couldn’t take on the academic “union”, because what was the ultimate source of power in our society: knowledge! And who “owned” this knowledge: academia! And it would have stayed that way – at least until the economy of the UK had so collapsed that we could no longer afford any universities – except for one thing.

The Internet Revolution

In a similar way that the development of the printing press around 1500 caused a revolution in religion as this new medium made available fundamental knowledge about the textual basis in the bible, so the internet is creating a revolution in science.

Now, there are areas of science, which formerly were in the tight grip of academia, where the barriers to entry are low enough that “citizen-scientists” empowered by the internet are doing to science what the protestants empowered by printing did to the catholic church. Just as people in the 1500s, could finally read the raw texts that had been used to justify the position of the catholic church, so now citizen-scientists can process the raw data on the climate which the scientific establishment has used to justify its anti-industry, anti-private sector views on CO2 and global warming.

Now most of the information is readily available on the internet, almost anyone with a PC can create a climate model. Rapidly sites like WattsUpWithThat are creating a method for citizen-scientists to get “into print”, which enables them to totally bypass the closed shop of the holy catholic church of science through its control of the academic journals.

In other words, there is no way on earth that people like the Royal Society or Met Office will ever stop the citizen scientists taking an interest and not only criticising what they do, but in many cases (like the expert patient) gaining knowledge that surpasses the “official” sources, particularly in practical experience or in bringing to the subject knowledge learned outside academia.

Medicine has had to accept this fundamental change in power between the citizen and official “expert”. Unfortunately, from these submissions, it is clear the Royal Society, IPCC, Met Office, etc. are still living in the dark ages and only very reluctantly being dragged kicking and screaming into the internet age.

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Comments (9)

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    Damned predictive text! Ad hominem attack,

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    Great article,

    With regard to WUWT, I have only commented twice. The second comment was snipped by the moderator, because I said I thought A Watts had made a mistake in his light bulb experiment. I suppose that could be construed as an ad nominee attack.

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    [quote name=”Jim Steele”]
    One of the worst sites for banning honest skepticism is the RealClimate website run by Michael Mann and a host of staunch CO2-warming advocates. I had several very respectful and well documented posts deleted because it contradicted their propaganda.[/quote]
    I had the same experience at the RealClimate website. It is, in reality, a propaganda website that is covertly being run by NASA. Specifically, it is run by Gavin Schmidt, a NASA employee that claims he does it in his spare time. But by the amount of work that goes into it and the pervasiveness of Schmidt on the website itself pretty much leaves one with the impression that this must be his full time job.

    I’ve wondered if it was possible to sue NASA and/or Schmidt due to the fact that they are, essentially, running a propaganda website using tax dollars for what is plainly a site dedicated to advancing their political agenda.

    If this is not illegal it should be.

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    Greg House


    [quote name=”Jim Steele”]One of the worst sites for banning honest skepticism is the RealClimate website run by Michael Mann and a host of staunch CO2-warming advocates. I had several very respectful and well documented posts deleted because it contradicted their propaganda.[/quote]

    The same goes for Mr.Watts’ site.

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    Greg House


    [quote name=”Jim Steele”]WUWT does delete comments and band commenters but only for repeated ad hominem attacks,[/quote]

    This is not true.

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    Jim Steele


    [i]@Greg House WUWT does delete comments and band commenters but only for repeated ad hominem attacks, Anthony encourages guest posters that indeed offer trivial points but nonetheless it has been a vital website for keeping the debate alive. One of the worst sites for banning honest skepticism is the RealClimate website run by Michael Mann and a host of staunch CO2-warming advocates. I had several very respectful and well documented posts deleted because it contradicted their propaganda. If you go to other sites like Joe Romm’s ClimateProgress, Huffington Post or Slate’s BAd Astronomy they allow all manner of vile ad hominems to be used, and it is that type of personal denigration that truly detracts from promoting respectful debate and good science[/i]

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    Basically academia and professionals have no one to blame but themselves. After repeatedly lying and denigrating detractors rather than providing unadulterated evidence for their claims, the experts chose to call the laity stupid. I am not a climate scientist but have over twenty years of engineering experience. It is amazing to think that people with PhDs actually would accept a scientific hypothesis that violates fundamental science this is simply astonishing. If we cannot trust the scientific establishment we must acquire knowledge ourselves lest we be abused and subjugated.

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    Greg House


    [quote]Rapidly sites like WattsUpWithThat are creating a method for citizen-scientists to get “into print”, which enables them to totally bypass the closed shop of the holy catholic church of science through its control of the academic journals.[/quote]

    This is a bad example.

    WattsUpWithThat is in fact a warmists site where some criticism is allowed to keep the appearance of a “skeptical” blog, but when it gets dangerous for them, they quietly delete comments and ban contributors. They also put significant effort in keeping the readers busy with secondary and unimportant points.

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    Jan-Ove Pedersen


    Sad but true, thanks for the article.

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