Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Keep out -- or can the public participate in science?

One of the recurring themes at the Hamburg workshop last week was the relation between scientists and the lay public, or to use a term coined by Jerry Ravetz and Silvio Funotwicz, the extended peer community. Some eminent participants at the workshop (Roger Pielke, Hans von Storch, Jerry Ravetz) all have degrees in mathematics and seemed agreed that this is not the kind of science which lends itself to public participation. I certainly held this view without having a maths degree.

Here is a report about such public participation from the Guardian. I reprint some passages that merit our attention:
Mathematicians are not known as a social bunch, but a new "WikiMaths" project is allowing anyone to join in their cutting-edge research. A study into the effectiveness of the world's first virtual mathematics project will be released this week.
It all started in 2009, when Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers wrote about the possibility of an open online group allowing unprecedented numbers of people to work on the same problem, hopefully solving conundrums much more quickly. He suggested the "Hales–Jewett theorem" as a good first target.

Contributions poured in – a staggering 1,228 significant comments across 14 blog posts with 39 people providing meaningful contributions. Within six weeks the answer had been found. It was published under the collective pseudonym "DHJ Polymath".
But was the process truly collaborative? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, think so. Much of the work was done by professional mathematicians, but a number of smaller, vital contributions came from those without serious credentials.
The 39 contributors to the Hales–Jewett theorem solution ranged from the world's top mathematicians to secondary school maths teachers. Several seminal ideas came from inexperienced mathematicians. Which all means that the exercise could redefine who is considered a mathematician – and offer new insight into unsolved problems.

Several interesting questions follow from this. One is whether this remains an episode or whether the spreading of web2.0 will lead to many more such episodes so that the institution of science changes. If the most abstract and arcane branch of knowledge benefits from vital contributions from people without serious credentials the less technical sciences would benefit even more.


richardtol said...

Like any other subject, mathematics can be self taught.

Unlike most other subjects, the truth is properly defined in mathematics and charlatans have no place to hide.

I would think that mathematics is therefore an excellent subject for extended peer review and collaboration.

The toughness of the subject keeps out the trolls.

I observed the same thing on Wikipedia: The discussion on highly technical subjects is informed and polite.

Martin Heimann said...

What about medicine? Lying in the OP would you trust a wikipedia-type judgement on your illness or the surgeon in front of you with the knife, whom you know and has a proven record? I know, both can fail, but at least the surgeon you can sue (if you survive)...

richardtol said...

You should read Steve Schneider's A Patient from Hell about the virtues of lay participation in medicine.

Anonymous said...

Richard (glad you speak German),

you say:

"truth is properly defined in mathematics".

Mathematics - as we use it - is based on predefinitions/conventions and the rules or outcomes are not uncommonly explained in combination with some kind of "poetry". This is not the problem of mathematics of course but especially the verbal descriptions can be a source of trouble. Think of the ambiguous verb 'to calculate' (cf. my explanation here (or see also the ambiguous word 'evidence').)

My observations in Wikipedia differs from yours. I pointed in Wikipedia to this confusion about 'calculation' (cf. here ("calculate"/"would be"/"believe")) - in vain. Over at Curry's site for example Pekka Pirilä and others articulate in plainer verbiage than the german languaged Wikipedia what this can mean (cf. Hansen et al's famous estimation of an "imbalance of 0.9 W/m^2" (cf. f.ex. here)).

Also J. Christy believes that we could use a Wiki to improve the IPCC „Wiki Wanted“ – but I've got some doubts (cf. here). As we see in Wikipedia, articles, especially those which were written by "experts" or those which were written by old "cliques", or articles which has been "awarded" ("lesenswert", "exzellent", "nobel...") are hard to improve in the present of the "usually suspects".

(My latest experience of a quite frustrating debate in Wikipedia: here.)

In another discussion - with regard to another topic - in Wikipedia nearly nobody seems to be "informed and polite" and I'd to do a lot of persuading. I saw closed eyes in front of the evidence provided by me (cf. here).

Groupthink and "Korpsgeist" (C. Stegbauer) in social media seems to be as strong as in the IPCC/climate_science (f.ex. also M. Hulme wants more participation of the public (cf. here)). I think we need improved government(s), scientists and - important for the society/societies: - improved media which avoid opportunism (although in mathematics opportunism doesn't matter much). After that we can hope to see a broader improvement in the society/societies. Of course, we, all together, have to manage this. As L. Bern put it (with respect to large industrial rearrangements in medicine and enviromentalism (climate change)): "The management of fat and climate change shows a dangerous opportunism" (Newsmill (2011-04-27): "Hanteringen av fett- och klimatfrågan visar en farlig opportunism").


@ReinerGrundmann said...

your comment is the supposed killer argument against any kind of lay involvement. It seems so obvious as to ridicule the opponent.

Just think for a moment of all the online fora and self help groups which empower patients. As a result many patients are better experts regarding their own illness than their GP. That there are specialised people who have the skills to perform surgery is not in question.

dp said...

I've never been a mother and as a man I'm ill equipped for the job, but I understand the process rather well. I don't need arrogant scientists telling me, one of their funders, what I am or am not qualified to participate in.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

There is such a thing as too much democracy, see this excellent special report in The Economist:


richardtol said...

The examples you raise are all from climate research.

Wikipedia's treatment of mathematical subjects is exemplary, and the discussion polite and informed.

Anonymous said...

Richard (@your comment Nr. 8),

see again my example in my comment above ("In another discussion - with regard to another topic - in Wikipedia nearly nobody seems to be "informed and polite" and I'd to do a lot of persuading. I saw closed eyes in front of the evidence provided by me.").


Stan said...


California is a great example of a legislature so captured by special interests that it ceased to function. Citizens had no choice but go to referenda because the legislature was a failure.

The problem isn't too much democracy. The problem is too little responsible representative democracy. The Economist has confused cause and effect. Or as Michael Crichton once said, it's the "wet streets cause rain" effect.

Georg said...

In an episode of Dr.House our hero is isolated from his team, so he is using three random persons to deliver him ideas what the reasons for an as allways very strange and dangerous illness are. So who solved the case? The busdriver or Dr.House?
And if you have to choose between the two?
I doubt very very much the contribution of lay persons to progress in Science. And if they made an important contribution then they are no laymen any longer and it's just a question of how the education system better works. For some it may be self-eductation. At least for Ramanuyan it worked very well. But I wouldnt build a society and the science for the future on such cases.
For climate science any such efforts to bring laymen on board is just a little trick to make sceptics feel better.

richardtol said...

That example is about music theory, and the discussion seems to be about the readability of the entry and the notability of the subject.

Jerry Ravetz said...

Opponents of extending science have always used the example of the surgeon. I would put it this way: on what basis do you trust the surgeon? His quality is validated by a professional society, which itself is validated by a government bureaucracy, which itself is validated by a representative body. None of these processes is perfect. But incompetence protected by corruption is very common where democratic control is not effective as the ultimate sanction. So the public is not competent to perform an operation or even to test the surgeon, but they are essential at the tail end of the recursive process of quality assurance.

Martin Heimann said...


why should I trust a surgeon? Certainly not because of his status in the professional and bureaucratical hierarchy. I trust him because (1) he has a proven record of successful operations, and (2) I have met him personally and he has convinced me about the reasons for the particular surgery. Clearly the internet with experience reports etc. informs me to talk to the surgeon. But in the end I trust the expert and not an anonymous blogger who claims to have the perfect recipe for my disease. You may think differently - good luck!

Extending science may sound attractive, however, where do you draw the line? In Germany we have the 100years calendar ("Hundertjähriger Kalender") which claims that the day-to-day weather repeats exactly after 100 years. Would you take a prediction of this on the same footing as your weather service forecast for the next day?

Werner Krauss said...

There is something wrong about the question. We cannot confront the surgeon and the patient; the farmer with his folk wisdom and the meteorologist; or Dr. House and the gardener as if it were competing forms of knowledge on a free knowledge market. It is not like that. Instead of the relativist approach – which always turns the layman into a loser – we have to apply a relational approach. The question is how laypeople and experts are related, and how these relationships change when new forms of knowledge production come into play.

Take the example of a surgeon and the patient. They are related through many links, such as the insurance company, laws, administrations, the pharma industry, places, ideologies, hearsay, different forms of medical practice, and, of course the disease. Now the internet comes into play as another source of information that links the surgeon and the patient. The whole patient – doctor network has to be rearranged accordingly. It is not about competing knowledge claims, but about shifts in a complex relationship.

The question is not about who is right or wrong. The question is how to arrange this network in a way that the disease and the pain will disappear. The relativist approach is about establishing hierarchies in the power – knowledge regimes; it always ends with the scientist, the doctor, the expert as being superior to the ‘people’, ‘laymen’, to the subjects of administration. It is about keeping up the “science speaks truth to power” model. Bringing democracy into play does not mean relativism of knowledge claims on a free knowledge market (which is just another naturalization of the neoliberal market model); instead, the democratization of knowledge means finding the best solutions for real problems, be it diseases, climate change or whatever. Thus, we have to find out which role for example the internet plays in these networks that connect problem, expert and “laypeople” and how the power relations change accordingly. This is a completely different and, I guess, more democratic approach to problem solution.

Of course, democracy is messy. Even the expert has to sign up in the speaker’s list and has to wait until it’s his or her turn to speak. It slows things down, but it is closer to the problem at stake. We cannot exclude “laypeople” when we want to change health, climate or other problems.

Georg said...

Is this what the posting is about? Above the title says "public participate in science". Now you say we are talking about "public participate in finding solutions to problems described and analysed by science". Two different things.

Here is what Einstein said to his frien Marcel Grossmann frustrated by discussions he witnessed during his morning walk to the institute:

"Gegenwärtig debattiert jeder Kutscher und jeder Kellner, ob die Relativitätstheorie richtig sei. Die Überzeugung wird hierbei bestimmt durch die Zugehörigkeit zu einer politischen Partei,"

So what role should the layman have in the right or wrong of general relativity?

Anonymous said...

My comment (May 12, 2011 1:27 AM) is captured in the spam filter.


richardtol said...

@Martin, Jerry, Werner
I think Martin's comment has the key to a resolution.

Why does Martin trust the surgeon? Because the surgeon repeatedly and successfully performed the same procedure. There is a frequentist measure of skill, and we can all agree on who is a good surgeon.

For long-term predictions or radical policy reform, there is no frequentist measure of skill. Trust is based on tangential evidence, and we will disagree on whose advice is best.

Werner Krauss said...

no comment

Werner Krauss said...

@ Georg 16

Did Einstein already fully realize that nowadays the Kutscher is in charge and the scientist a servant?
"Kutscher und Kellner" on the one hand and the Weißkittel / Einstein on the other. Not a perfect model for science in democracy, I guess. It is not without irony, that nowadays there are so many scientists discussing politics in a way just like the "Kutscher and Kellner" once discussed science.

My previous comment was an attempt to get out of this trap of mutual accusations through a change of perspective. From "who is right, who is wrong" to "how are science and the public connected, and how does for example wiki-knowledge production change this relationship".

@ Richard 18
If the world were only a "if- then we ..." case, then we wouldn't disagree at all. But I am afraid things are more complex than this.

@ReinerGrundmann said...


Einstein may have felt it inaapropriate for lay persons to make claims about relativity theory but he does not say this. What he says is that lay persons judge the theory in relation to their political views. In so doing, they only hear what they want to hear.

This is an important insight, especially in the climate debate.
Knowledge which apparently contradicts one's own climate policy position gets screened out, will be silenced or attacked.

Einstein was not a narrow minded scientist (and not stupid either...)

Werner Krauss said...

Obviously all of yesterday's comments disappeared due to some blogger-server breakdown or whatever. What a pity!

Anonymous said...

Richard (@comment Nr. 12),

yes, in parts. But that above-mentioned discussion (cf. comment Nr. 9) is not only about music but f.ex. also about the practice of "hard science" or applied mathematics, respectively about the -- unfortunately rampant -- fairy tale of an alleged purposoly application of the so-called Golden Mean in architecture in mediaeval times (That tale is still suggested in that Wikipedia article. *sigh* (see "sich zum Narren machen" (to make a fool of oneself))). I mentioned in that Wikipedia discussion f.ex. repeatedly a book called "Maßästhetik" by Jürgen Fredel (who also wrote some papers about political economy) that deals largely about "Maßforschung" (i.e. "measure research") and that elucidates copious how -- and criticizes strongly that -- we can possibly "prove" almost everything with numbers/proportions/gridlines.

(Especially Roger and Richard will possibly know, but:)

As a mixture of amusement and regret -- although the following example does not fit exactly to this topic -- let us think about one of J. G. Herder's role models, Jonathan Swift, who wrote anonymously a satirical essay in 1729, called "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick". In this essay about -- among other things -- "human capital", Swift adopts the "technique of a political arithmetician" (cf. George Wittkowsky, "Swift’s Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet", Journal of the History of Ideas (University of Pennsylvania Press) 4 (1): 75–104 (or here) (cf. also "politische Rechenmeister" here or here) "to show the utter ridiculousness of trying to prove any proposal with dispassionate statistics" (Wikipedia, "A Modest Proposal"; cf. also here).

For clarification: Although I've got some doubts (see my first comment above (#4)) I support actions to include the public into the science processes; participation is a major goal. But we can observe a "Wagenburgmentalität", what J. Curry also describes as a "continued circling of the wagons" (cf. here). A good start for including the public is Open Access (cf. here) and an "extended peer community".


Anonymous said...


you raise with "quality assurance" an interesting issue.

I followed f.ex the case of "GuttenPlag Wiki"; it belonges to the on-line social media and was a main driver for the resignation of the former Minister of Defence of Germany, K.T.v.u.z. Guttenberg (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Karl-Theodor_zu_Guttenberg&oldid=429052763#Effect_of_Guttenplag).

I have got some questions for all of you:

What about Quality Management System (QMS) in general and, more important, in climate research or the IPCC in particular? Is QMS in research desirable at all?

(german languaged link: http://de.guttenplag.wikia.com/index.php?title=Diskussion:Diskussionen/@comment-Meriten4Lau-20110308084852/@comment-

Note to the system operators: My comment (May 14, 2011 8:59 PM) is caught in the spam filter.


Pekka Pirilä said...

Great progress in science is often the result of breaking conventional rules. Controlling quality is often essential, but it must not prevent scientists from presenting results, which have been obtained breaking rules of quality control, when their potential value is great enough.

Science doesn't have either any formal rules to restrict, who is allowed to participate. Many scientific problems cannot be even explained to anybody outside a small group of highly trained specialists, but for some other problems, laymen can bring valuable contributions. Mathematics appears to contain perfect examples of both extremes.

In climate science real scientific contributions by laymen may be less likely, as most issues are complex requiring knowledge on a wide variety of issues. The postnormal nature of the link between science and decision-making requires, however, that the significance of the results of climate science can be judged by outsiders. Participation at the edge of the science proper is one way of gaining such understanding.

The policy decisions cannot be properly made by the scientists, but they must help both the public and the decision-makers in gaining necessary understanding on both the most likely results and the uncertainties. It's the task of the wider society to relate issues of climate to other priorities.

Scientists attempt to take over the decision-making believing that they know best, what should be done, and simplifying the message to support those acts can finally only backfire. Result is the same also, if the climate science community joins forces with a narrow part of the political spectrum with an agenda closest to their wishes.