Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Rank Amateur

In 1937 an amateur American astronomer named Grote Reber completed construction of a 9 meter radio telescope in his back garden. By 1940 he had verified that there were radio signals coming from the heavens and by 1943 he had completed a radio frequency map of the sky. Reber, with his enormous hand-built dish, kick started radio astronomy and eventually sold his invention to the US government.

One of the biggest advances in the understanding of genetic inheritance was made by Gregor Mendel. Mendel was a Augustinian priest. In 1866 his paper on plant hybridization (Mendel had spent years observing and experimenting with pea plants) showed the existence of dominant and recessive genes. Mendel's discoveries went largely unnoticed until rediscovered two professional scienstists.

Amateurs like Reber and Mendel have made enormous contributions to science ever since science was called natural philosophy. So it's dismaying to see a professor from Oxford University write in The Guardian: "The most effective people at finding errors in scientific reasearch are scientists: it was professional glaciologists, after all, who exposed the error in the IPCC 2007 case study of Himalayan glaciers." To exclude the amateur is to deny a large part of the history of science.

Another amateur who made a big impact on science is Albert Einstein. Although Einstein had received a scientific education (after having been refused entry to the prestigious ETH Zurich) he was unable to find a research post and did all his pioneering work while working for the Swiss Patent Office.

I'm no Reber, Mendel or Einstein, but don't rule us amateurs out. In December 2009 the Met Office released thousands of records of temperature readings from around the globe stretching from the present day to 1850. These records form a vital part of the evidence that the globe is warming and the climate changing.

I thought it would be a fun hobby project to use those records to reproduce the worrying charts that show the increase in global temperatures. Since I'm a professional computer programmer I wrote software to process the Met Office data. You can see the result in this YouTube video.

Because I was working with unfamiliar data I put special functions into my program to ensure that I wasn't making any mistakes. To my surprise these functions began reporting that there was something wrong with temperature data in Australia and New Zealand. I whipped out a pocket calculator and checked that my program wasn't mistaken and then reported the problems to the Met Office. They quickly acknowledged that I was right.

Last month the Met Office released an update to CRUTEM3 and HADCRUT3, the critical data sets used to track global warming. The new version contains corrections for all the errors I reported.

Making a distinction between professional and amateur in science is artificial: what matters is the 'what' of science not the 'who'. And amateurs have by their very nature something that professionals don't need to have: passion. Without the comfort of a tenured position, a subsidized bed in an ivory tower, or a well funded laboratory, the only thing keeping amateurs going is a love for their subject.

PS In the comments a professional scientist wrote to object to my final paragraph. I urge you to read his comment since it makes good points. In my defense I didn't mean to say that professional scientists lack passion, just that that's all the amateurs have got. His point is that professionals need to have passion because the funding environment for science is so bad that they're certainly not in it for the money or security!

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Blogger Al. said...

I agree with the sentiments of your post. Especially perhaps in my field, astronomy, amateurs have a long history of making significant an ongoing contributions.

However, I'd strenously object to your closing statement, " ...and amateurs have by their very nature something that professionals don't need to have: passion. Without the comfort of a tenured position, a subsidized bed in an ivory tower, or a well funded laboratory, the only thing keeping amateurs going is a love for their subject."

Tenure doesn't exist outside the US anymore, and is rare there. There are few well funded laboratories. Scientists in academia following research track careers are poorly paid compared to what we could be earning in the "real" world.

Especially in these hard times our jobs are no more secure, sometimes much less so, than non-academic jobs. Invariably we spend years, some times decades, institution hopping before managing to secure a "permanent" position. The uncertainty and stress of this means than many excellent scientists are lost to their profession.

In all but a few cases the only thing keep us professionals going is love for our subject. I applaud your achievement in finding errors in the Met Office's climate data. But please don't assume us proffesionals are all sitting on our laurels in cushy tenured positons. That's far from the case.

10:07 AM  
Blogger John Graham-Cumming said...


Fair enough. I probably was pushing it a bit with that final statement. I'll edit it.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Nico said...

Here's another example, James Ellis, who came up with the idea of public key cryptography:

12:47 PM  
Blogger Jose Simoes said...

Let's me further extend you ideas.

Often the "professional" scientist can NOT afford to check adequately the data and code.

Doing that will take too much time, decrease dramatically the number of published papers and will put him or her out of the job.

Also paying for decent coders will break the budged of most projects, with terminal results too.

Only amateurs can take the risk.

Jose Simoes

1:05 PM  
Blogger rdenaux said...

I agree with Jose Simoes regarding the pressure to publish to stay in academia. As in any human endeavor, you sometimes have to cut corners. However, the peer review process is there to make sure that those cut corners do not affect the quality of the research results. These findings suggest that scientists (in this and possibly other areas of research) need to be more careful when analyzing data, but also when reviewing papers.

On the positive side, this shows that data that is available to anyone can also be improved by anyone who cares to analyse it. Let's hope all scientific data is made available so scientists and non scientists can play around with it!

8:29 PM  
Blogger Sameer said...

I find it very funny that you think Einstein was an amateur just because he couldn't get a job in an academic/research institution.

12:01 AM  
Blogger halfacanuck said...


You're generally correct, of course. But I believe JGC's original statement stands in regard to climate science, as it is funded rather extravagantly by governments, NGOs and corporations the world over. There seems to be a fine line between "enough funding to get the job done" and "so much funding that objectivity begins to suffer".

Conspiracy theories around Big Oil aside, the amateurs in the climate science debate are largely unfunded and yet IMO are playing a vital role. I'm excited about the increased attention being received by Open Notebook Science:

Everyone (even Big Oil!) should be allowed to fund science. But equally, everyone should be allowed to check the results.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

I agree with the gist of your post - that amateurs have been important in the progress of science. Indeed I hope that modern technology and the availability of data will enable amateurs to take a much larger role in science.

But to say that Mendel was an amateur is not entirely correct. Professor Eric Lander tells the story of Mendel in one of his lectures, available from MIT open courseware:

The story is much more fascinating than that of 'lone monk discovers genetics'. Mendel was funded by the Pomological and Enological Society of Brno, whose president happened to be head of the Augustinian monastery in Brno. Mendel was specifically recruited to look at the problems of inheritance. An earlier president of the society had said: "Some day the world may be as indebted as it is to Isaac Newton for physics. They may be as indebted to the City of Brno for its contributions to inheritance." - how right he was, although the City of Brno gets little of the credit these days.

Read the transcript to the lecture - I found it fascinating and hope you will too.

7:47 AM  
Blogger John Graham-Cumming said...

@Martin Fascinating, thank you.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Al. said...

@halfacanuck says: "Everyone should be allowed to fund science. But equally, everyone should be allowed to check the results."

I don't think you'll find any professional scientists that would object to that. That's what the scientific process is all about, everyone gets to check the results.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Jose Simoes said...

"everyone gets to check the results"

To problem with checking the results is that the raw data is seldom available those days. (however it is available more and more those days - thanks to the people that believe in conspiracies).

Let alone the code. The code is important because most of the more CRITICAL results are often crafted by unique machines that are very hard (and expensive) to duplicate. The only thing that can be done is to check the code itself (it is almost impossible to get funds to duplicate a machine to check the results...).

Why it is not avialable? Several reasons (no need of a conspiracy here). It takes time and other resources, the code is usually very bad written and buggy. Complete lack of "Version Control". All in all is a bad investment for a researcher.

Jose Simoes

12:52 PM  
Blogger Jean-Claude Bradley said...

What a great example of citizen science! We need to keep making the point of how important it is for raw data to be made public.

1:55 PM  
Blogger גדי איידלהייט said...

I can't agree more.
The distinguish between amateur and professional is not the level of knowledge but whether or not you make your pay from it.
I am an amateur I am running a blog about astronomy Hebrew and English) and a discussion groups, and I show the wonders of the universe to many people from my community.


8:28 AM  

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