How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of Discovery
By Caren Cooper
Overlook. 294 pp. $28.95
Reviewed by Deborah Blum
This book is an engaging overview of the citizen-science movement, written with the energy and enthusiasm of a crusader for the cause. Caren Cooper, assistant director of the biodiversity research laboratory at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, believes science should become less insular: "Scientific practice is an authoritarian system with which to produce trustworthy knowledge, but it doesn't have to be authoritarian."
Intelligent amateurs have been improving science for centuries. Cooper cites 17th-century Amsterdam cloth merchant Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, still famed for his dazzling improvements to microscopes of the time. Thomas Jefferson organized a network of volunteers to track climate patterns in his new country. And in past decades, citizen scientists have worked with professional researchers on projects ranging from studying monarch butterfly habitat and California wetlands to monitoring East Coast sea turtles, counting ladybugs, and searching the skies for the shimmer of distant stars.
Citizen astronomy, she points out, has been so pioneering that it blurs the lines between amateur and professional; some distant planets and comets were first sighted by dedicated citizens with good telescopes. Amateur astronomers "are unique among citizen scientists," she writes, "in that they carry out independent research just like professionals do."
Citizen contributions should be recognized by the research community, she argues. She cites numerous examples in environmental research, from Inuit work on ice depth in a time of climate change to the online iWitness Pollution Map, which allowed residents of Louisiana to upload information on the impacts of the 2010 BP oil spill. That project continues to track oil spills today.
As the subtitle suggests, Cooper sees revolutionary potential in connecting professional researchers with their citizen counterparts. She sees the connection as essential to our preservation: "Observing and sharing our observations will become what it means to be a responsible human being residing on planet Earth."
Blum, author most recently of "The Poisoner's Handbook," is director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.