I defended myself, pointing out that “Among journalists I know, it is not necessarily a term of abuse. It means “one who lives by writing.” That’s why I called my neuroscience, spirituality, and popular culture blog, The Mindful Hack.
Enough of this. Forrest went on to say something I want to share, namely that he is proud of being an “amateur” scientist, meaning that he has many science publications but no science degree. Indeed, he notes,
Discover Magazine has named 10 amateur scientists to its list of “50 Best Brains in Science,” including my colleagues Ely Silk, Bill Hilton Jr. and me from the Society for Amateur Scientists.
An editorial in a leading science journal once proclaimed an end to amateur science: “Modern science can no longer be done by gifted amateurs with a magnifying glass, copper wires, and jars filled with alcohol” (1). I grinned as I read these words. For then as now there’s a 10× magnifier in my pocket, spools of copper wire on my work bench, and a nearby jar of methanol for cleaning the ultraviolet filters in my homemade solar ultraviolet and ozone spectroradiometers. Yes, modern science uses considerably more sophisticated methods and instruments than in the past. And so do we amateurs. When we cannot afford the newest scientific instrument, we wait to buy it on the surplus market or we build our own. Sometimes the capabilities of our homemade instruments rival or even exceed those of their professional counterparts.
The term amateur can have a pejorative ring. But in science it retains the meaning of its French root amour, love, for amateurs do science because it’s what they love to do. Without remuneration or reward, enthusiastic amateurs survey birds, tag butterflies, measure sunlight, and study transient solar eclipse phenomena. Others count sunspots, discover comets, monitor variable stars, and invent instruments.
The Society for Amateur Scientists counts a number of well published Ph.D.s among its members, all of whom have done great work outside their degree fields. In fact, SAS was founded by Shawn Carlson, a noted skeptic with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. (I have edited the SAS’s webzine, The Citizen Scientist for 5 years.)
Not everyone does. When I told Forrest I was going to write about amateur scientists, he wrote back to say,
A few Ph.D.s, as you may have noticed, are infected with an arrogance syndrome for which amateur science is a wonderful antidote. Some of these Ph.D.s have spent a career never going beyond their Ph.D. work. Serious amateurs are always going beyond their academic preparation, which is often nil.
Fortunately, most Ph.D.s are very supportive of amateur scientists, which is why SCIENCE invited the essay I wrote. In my career doing science only rarely have I been asked my degree (B.A. in government with minors in history and English). All that has mattered is my peer-reviewed publications and the instruments I’ve designed.
As I have noted elsewhere, Darwin – an amateur scientist of some note – would have had more sense than to be a Darwinist had he lived today. Who knows, he might have written Edge of Evolution. He would certainly be a distinguished member of the Altenberg 17, seeking a workable theory of evolution.