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Conversations: A defense of amateur science


Friend Forrest Mims, recently targeted as one of Discover Magazine’s50 best brains in science, fielded a complaint from a mutual acquaintance about the fact that I routinely call myself a “hack.” (The complainer probably hoped Forrest would ask me to stop because it sounded like a self-putdown.)

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.

That’s impressive, and it was presaged by an essay he wrote nearly a decade ago for Science:

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.

Hmmm. Speaking of creating it yourself at home, Forrest has a daughter who was the lead author on a journal paper before she had reached the age of majority (in many jurisdictions) …

He adds,

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.)

So, if you want a career in science, but don’t want to punch a clock for The Man, consider these folks your friends.

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.

In fact, one big problem in science today is the sheer number of third rate minds holding down Jobs at Indoctrinate U, and the many other fine institutions dedicated to the suppression of learning. It is from the ranks of these people, I suspect, that most Darwinist trolls are drawn.

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.

Darwin would want a materialist theory, to be sure – but it wouldn’t be natural selection acting on random mutations (= poof! in slo-mo). He’d still need Huxley, of course – nowadays, everyone in this line of work needs a troll removal specialist.
After more years of secondary research on connectionist AI, I finally scrapped the academic and most commercial approaches and began to think for myself. A popular statement by many when being honored for achievement is having reached their goals by standing on the shoulders of giants. In frontier pursuits, standing on the shoulders of giants can limit you to the limited perspective of the past. What we know tends to direct our perception because of the influence of expectation on focus. My advice to all aspiring amateurs is to survey the literature, not to study it to the point of indoctrination, be skeptical and hone your exception detector to a fine edge, and exercise your imagination to guide your pursuits. Dalton
...formal training in an older technology or discipline is not necessarily an asset - it can even be a hindrance... My computer programming colleague Ed and I often joke about a comment I once made, which has been reformulated into an ancient Chinese proverb we recently invented: "An appropriate amount of ignorance can be useful." GilDodgen
Gil, I doubt that the age of the amateur scientist will ever be over, because most formal training in any field, including the sciences, is training to Go Where Others Have Gone Before. When brand new inventions or ways of doing things are developing, formal training in an older technology or discipline is not necessarily an asset - it can even be a hindrance, if it prevents one from seeing what is apparent to the gifted amateur. O'Leary
Computer science and computer programming are wide-open fields for amateur scientists, who regularly make significant contributions. (Note the emergence of the Linux operating system.) The computing power of inexpensive desktop machines rivals that of multimillion-dollar supercomputers of only a few years ago, and compilers and other software development tools are readily and inexpensively available. I hate to blow my own horn (okay, I don’t hate to), but I have no formal training in computer science or software engineering. I’ve never taken a single class in either subject, but was able, along with another amateur, to contribute significantly to the field of games-playing artificial intelligence. We independently computed the eight-piece win-loss-draw endgame database for the game of checkers and corrected the results of a team of Ph.D. scientists. We also invented and computed the only perfect-play database for this game, and our research was published in the most prestigious international journal (and a hardcover book) for games-playing AI. The era of the amateur scientist is far from over, especially in the field of computer science. GilDodgen

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