≡ Menu

On Science and Public Scrutiny

Hanny’s Voorwerp, that odd object discovered by Dutch school teacher Hanny van Arkel via the Galaxy Zoo project, has provoked press reaction all over the world. And Chris Lintott, a key player in the Galaxy Zoo’s ongoing survey of galaxies, notes the uneasiness he feels in discussing theories about the object before the paper that attempts to explain it has even gone through peer review. The speed with which the Internet allows science to be discussed can be disconcerting, as Lintott makes clear in the latest edition of the Space Carnival, conducted this week by David Chandler at his Next Generation site.

Now the Galaxy Zoo is doing good science in an obviously public fashion. Anyone can sign up to participate in the classification of the images of one million galaxies drawn from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and that makes participating computer users scientific collaborators. Seeing this, the Galaxy Zoo blogs about its work out of a sense of obligation to its contributors, but invariably encounters mainstream media coverage that can be misleading. Big media like ‘eureka’ moments, huge discoveries, but as Lintott notes:

“The reality of doing science day to day involves talking and arguing and thinking, and it’s in those arguments that the scientific method lurks. If you can’t defend your idea with data, whether talking to a journal’s referee, to your colleagues in the office down the corridor or even to yourself, then it doesn’t survive.”

Anyone involved in research faces the dilemma that as science becomes more open, it can be quickly misconstrued. But I agree with Lintott that having data and papers available on the Net is a huge plus. The benefit is that the more day to day science becomes visible, the more the public learns how scientists argue, using data sets, competing studies, and alternative explanations to resolve disagreements and get at the underlying facts. That moves the focus away from those ‘eureka’ moments and shifts it to the process of defending new ideas with data.

Yes, the recent perchlorate controversy invoked Net speculation that forced NASA into a premature news conference, one that seems to have left at least a few reporters disappointed. But it also sent the signal that good science can occur in more public venues, even if the excitement of the ‘big announcement’ must give way to the realization that some things take time, and the study of incoming Phoenix data remains a work in progress. Putting the scientific method into the public arena may not always make for the biggest headlines, but the results can only benefit our understanding of how the process of discovery works.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • webjones August 17, 2008, 13:53

    Well stated and I can see where a better public understanding of the rigors of real scientific process can help dispel the attractiveness of movements such as “Intelligent Design”, the proponents of which try to clothe it in some semblance of science. It should also kindle more interest in science, hopefully in the up-and-coming generation.

  • Adam Crowl August 18, 2008, 5:35

    It’s not the first time people have confused science and dogma. Aquinas hybridised Aristotelian physics and Christian dogma, and modern day arbiters of Truth have decided on an a priori basis that “life comes from life” or that the physical world is all there is. But science isn’t dogma. I know we’re taught its findings as if they were cast iron truths, but science as a truth-seeking process means its truths are provisional, open to reverification and even potential falsification. How that can be taught is a puzzle for every teacher and every populariser.

    Trickiest of all is teaching people that there can be more than one theory to explain phenomena, and potentially they’re all valid scientifically because falsifying data isn’t yet at hand. And even when falsified a theory can still be scientific, and valid within its bounds of applicability (eg. Newtonian theory when gravity isn’t intense.) Very tricky.

  • Administrator August 18, 2008, 14:02

    Very tricky indeed, Adam. I think your statement that

    “…science isn’t dogma. I know we’re taught its findings as if they were cast iron truths, but science as a truth-seeking process means its truths are provisional, open to re-verification and even potential falsification.

    should be hanging on a plaque on my wall. Exactly so, but that ‘cast iron truth’ notion really comes from media popularizers and those who jump to quick conclusions in hopes of a good story, as I know you agree. Well said.

  • James M. Essig August 23, 2008, 18:13

    Hi Folks;

    Its good to be back from vacation at Ocean City New Jersey.

    The possibility of discovering more novel objects such as that ghostly green cloud that looks like Slimer the Ghost in the popular movie series “Ghost Busters” (Grins and Giggles) I think is about to grow very quickly with all of the new instrumentation planned for space as well as on land.

    We realize that there are as many as several hundred billion galaxies within the observable universe and perhaps a large number of types of yet to be discovered phenomenon or objects commensurate with the number of galaxies. Cosmologists, astrophysicists and astronomers I hope will have a field day with any future announcements of such phenomenon over the next decade plus. I know I will.

    I wonder whether or not the discovery of any higher dimensional space such as that proposed to exist in string theory, the theory of branes, and the like will eventually lead to techniques to detect objects in higher dimensional space or parallel dimensional space which do not extent into the ordinary 3 -D space or 4-D Einsteinian space-time as we know it.

    I am really psyched about the upcoming operations of the LHC. I do not know how the major discoveries that hopefully will be made there could be any more public given all the hype about the LHC in the physics community and even in the public news venues. This should be really cool stuff.

    I am definitely looking forward to any future reports regarding any further findings from the Phoenix.



  • ljk September 17, 2009, 9:47

    Galaxy Zoo: Exploring the Motivations of Citizen Science Volunteers

    Authors: M. Jordan Raddick (Johns Hopkins University), Georgia Bracey, Pamela L. Gay (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville), Chris J. Lintott (Oxford University), Phil Murray (Fingerprint Digital Media), Kevin Schawinski (Einstein Fellow, Yale University), Alexander S. Szalay (Johns Hopkins University), Jan Vandenberg (Johns Hopkins University)

    (Submitted on 16 Sep 2009)

    Abstract: The Galaxy Zoo citizen science website invites anyone with an Internet connection to participate in research by classifying galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. As of April 2009, more than 200,000 volunteers had made more than 100 million galaxy classifications.

    In this paper, we present results of a pilot study into the motivations and demographics of Galaxy Zoo volunteers, and define a technique to determine motivations from free responses that can be used in larger multiple-choice surveys with similar populations. Our categories form the basis for a future survey, with the goal of determining the prevalence of each motivation.

    Comments: 15 pages, 3 figures

    Subjects: Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM); Galaxy Astrophysics (astro-ph.GA)

    Cite as: arXiv:0909.2925v1 [astro-ph.IM]

    Submission history

    From: Jordan Raddick [view email]

    [v1] Wed, 16 Sep 2009 05:47:55 GMT (532kb,X)