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Why is Citizen Science Important?

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Examining a butterfly caught as part of a citizen science project | Photo: NPS

Another story in our series on citizen science in California, as part of Redefine's celebration of Citizen Science Day on April 16.

At the end of the Middle Ages, young physicians were taught anatomy as if everything to be known about the human body was already known. Any new insights that a clever student had were to be brushed away immediately. "During dissections, a professor would stand and read from an anatomy book from antiquity (by Galen) and the students were meant to find in the body being dissected those features that were mentioned in the ancient text," wrote North Carolina State University ecologist Rob Dunn and his colleagues last month in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education. The idea was that nature was capable of deception, but the knowledge hidden away in ancient textbooks was gospel. Luckily, the renaissance eventually came along, and a philosophical shift occurred. Scientists began to generate new scientific knowledge.

We now know that science is largely an exercise in confronting one's own ignorance. Each of us has some understanding about how the world works, whether that's an innate, intuitive, folk biology or cosmology, or a more refined version built up through years of education. Either way, it's virtually certain that those models are far from representative of the true nature of the universe. That's why we have scientific research. It's also why graduate students in the natural and social sciences are required to conduct original research under the guidance of a set of advisors.

A virtual dissection that spares the life of the cat or pig may reflect some sort of progress, but the pedagogical model itself remains ancient.

There's just one problem: that's not typically how the rest of science education, from kindergarten through the twelfth grade and occasionally even into college, operates. "In too many instances, a teacher or professor stands in front of students and asks them to look to the world to see what is already known. The world is dissected to see what others discovered years before," Dunn explains. Take a middle or high school biology class. "A cat, for example, or a fetal pig, is set out on a table and the students gather around to dissect the animal and, in doing so, see what the book says should be there, inside. If something in the cat deviates from what is in the book because of, say, a congenital deformity, the student with the deviant cat is asked to look at a neighbors cat." The parallels to the Middle Ages are hard to miss, despite several hundreds years of scientific progress and technological innovation. A virtual dissection that spares the life of the cat or pig may reflect some sort of progress, but the pedagogical model itself remains ancient.

If the majority of science education is stuck in the dark ages, then citizen science offers a way out, because it directly engages students (and, often, their parents) in the process of scientific discovery. It underscores, rather than obfuscates, the fact that so much of the natural world remains to be discovered. In recent years, scientists from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County have discovered 42 insect species never before known to science, hiding in plain site in urban backyards. Indeed, the majority of insect species on our planet are as yet completely unknown.

Researchers from the Natural History Museum have also documented, thanks to citizen science, several silent invasions of Southern California, by lizards, frogs, spiders, snails, and squirrels hailing from distant lands. While these discoveries would have been impossible without an army of citizen science research assistants, citizen science programs such as these transcend the generation of new scientific knowledge and become scientific education efforts unto themselves.

Citizen science expert Caitlin Kenney poses with a frog in the Mount Rainier National Park backcountry. | Photo: NPS

Scientific literacy in the United States is embarrassingly low. It's not that folks don't understand that the Earth travels around the Sun, or that they're upset about Pluto's so-called demotion to minor planet. These are all facts, and they can easily be taught and understood. More complex and arguably more important to teach and understand is that science is a process for understanding the world rather than a compendium of accumulated knowledge, and that our understanding changes over time as we uncover new knowledge.

In 2012, Colorado State University ecologist Alycia W. Crall wondered whether a citizen science-based invasive species monitoring program could improve scientific literacy. When she and her colleagues compared surveys administered to adult participants both before and after the program, they found little change in fact-based scientific literacy, but a slight increase in "the percentage of participants that could answer what it means to study something scientifically." In other words, they came away with a more sophisticated understanding of the scientific method. And that's just from a one-day citizen science event focusing on monitoring plants, not the more intensive kinds of enterprises such as those involves in counting sea turtles in the San Gabriel River or matching photos of bottlenose dolphin dorsal fins.

It's impossible to understate the importance of teaching the scientific process. Citizens are routinely asked to make decisions both in the doctor's office and in the voting booth that necessarily rely on understanding the scientific method, such as whether to vaccinate children, how best to mitigate climate change, how to avoid depleting the world's fish stocks, and so on.

This is perhaps why the Citizen Science Association, together with the White House, established the first ever Citizen Science Day, which is this weekend. To celebrate, Los Angeles County, home to ten million people, has challenged the nine counties that border the San Francisco Bay, home to 7.1 million people, to a citizen science competition. It's called the "City Nature Challenge," and the goal is to collect as many observations of wild plants and wild animals as possible over the course of a week, either by uploading smartphone photos to iNaturalist (for LA or SF) or by sharing them on social media with the hashtag #NatureinLA or emailing them to (a special perk for LA-area citizen scientists). The area with the most observations submitted will win serious bragging rights.

"This is a really great way for us to show how spectacular the biodiversity is here in California," says Lila Higgins, citizen science manager at the Natural History Museum, who conceived of the challenge together with Alison Young from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It's also a great way to draw more folks into participating in citizen science. "My mother has never sent in a citizen science observation," says Higgins, but the competition has encouraged her to become involved. The singer Moby has even gotten into it, posting his nature observations on Instagram, as has Mayor Eric Garcetti. He posted a European garden snail on iNaturalist, a critter he spotted in the gardens just outside of city hall.

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