Mass Participation in Scientific Research – Antidote to Cultural Decadence ?

In my book on the “Physical Economy of National Development” I propose that governments and other relevant public and private institutions should adopt a policy for engaging all or a large percentage of the population directly in scientific research. Most people would participate as volunteers or “hobby scientists” taking part in important large-scale scientific projects in areas such as astronomy (including planetary research) biology, medicine and the Earth sciences. If organized in a suitable way, this policy can have enormous beneficial effects in cultural, social and economic terms.

Perhaps most important benefit, in the longer term, is to reorient society away from accumulation of material wealth per se, toward the expansion of human knowledge, as a goal in-itself. Ironically, such a reorientation does not at all mean that the economy will converge on a state “zero growth”, as many in the environmentalist movement demand. On the contrary! The pursuit of knowledge requires more and more human exploration of the Universe, more and more human beings to participate in this process, and an economy which can sustain a rapid increase in the scale of scientific activity in every direction. Conversely, the acceleration of scientific and technological progress, which could be realized on the basis of a much larger participation of the population in scientific activity, would provide the basis for a new era of real physical-economic development. The expansion of scientific activity -- including space exploration, for example – will become the main driver for investment, demand and employment.

At first glance this idea might seem to be just a utopian dream. But strong evidence for its feasibility can be seen in the remarkable successes of recent “Citizen Science” initiatives in the United States and a number of other countries, as well as the growth of popular interest in projects such as the colonization of Mars. In the context of Citizen Science millions of people have contributed, via internet, to the analysis and evaluation of scientific data in a variety of fields. In astronomy, for example, “citizen scientists” are helping to analyze images taken by the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, interplanetary probes as well as ground-base astronomical instruments. The tasks include for example searching for pulsar stars, planetary discs and extra-solar planetary systems; classifying galaxies, star clusters and other objects; and identifying specific structures on the surface of the Moon and Mars etc. The second main area of Citizen Science today is biology and medicine, where activities include characterizing cancerous and precancerous cells in micrographs of tissue samples, identifying the species and forms of behavior of animals, insects and microorganisms from video films.

From the side of the scientific community, recruiting large numbers of volunteers to assist in scientific work is becoming more and more a necessity, because the amount of data generated by present-day scientific instruments is so enormous, that it cannot be adequately processed and evaluated by the professional scientists themselves, even with the help of modern computers. Despite all the progress in artificial intelligence, the visual abilities and judgment of human beings can still not be replicated by computers, even on the level of discovering certain sorts of patterns. Another reason why millions of volunteers are needed, is that the limited number of profession scientists is much too small to constantly monitor various processes in Nature over long periods; as a result, many important events are missed. This is particularly true in astronomy and the Earth sciences.

The most common form of Citizen Science is organized using special interactive websites. Volunteers register themselves, choose the project they wish to participate in and then are given a short introduction to the relevant scientific area, the goal of the research project and how they can contribute to it. After an initial tutorial, participants are presented with real data, typically in the form of interactive images and videos, and then answer questions in an interactive questionnaire. The answers are processed, stored in data banks, and utilized by professional scientists for research. According to the results, new Citizen Science projects can be launched.

The number of projects is constantly increasing, and the Citizen Science websites are becoming more and more sophisticated, but so far the tasks carried out are extremely simple and engage the cognitive abilities of the participants only to a very limited extent, typically remaining at the level of identifying and classifying various sorts of objects in video images. My proposal is much more ambitious in terms of the intellectual level and intended scale of participation.

As far as the number of participants is concerned, the potential is virtually unlimited. This is most obvious in the case of astronomy: An estimated more than 12 billion galaxies are presently within the range of observation of the Hubble Space Telescope alone. I wrote in my book: “Thus, there are more than enough galaxies for each living human being on Earth to ‘adopt’ one of them for study. (They could also be dedicated to a child at birth, or as a birthday present!) The same applies to the approximately 100 billion stars within our own galaxy, the Milky Way…” I go on to note, that ”with the establishment of a large network of astronomical instruments utilizing the most advanced technologies and detector systems, it will become possible not only to investigate each of these objects in detail, but also to carry out observations and measurements on millions of objects in parallel… In this way millions of people on Earth can individually study their choice of objects via data links to space observatories.”

Going beyond the very simple-minded tasks of today’s internet-based Citizen Science programs poses a more difficult challenge in many respects. But wonderful models are provided by the long history of amateur science and the activity of millions of amateur (or “hobby”) scientists in the world today, many of whom have attained a high level of scientific knowledge and technical expertise, and are “networked” with professional scientists in a variety of projects. Countless amateur science clubs exist, in which resources are pooled to purchase sophisticated equipment, and information is shared and discussed in meetings and seminars. Thanks to technological developments such as CCD detectors and CCD cameras, amateur astronomers today can carry out observations with their own instruments, which would have been difficult or impossible for professional astronomers even 20 years ago. The passionate enthusiasm of amateur astronomers is legendary. A recent example, from the technical side, is a truck driver from Utah USA, Mike Clements, who in 2013 constructed the world’s largest amateur telescope, more than 10 meters tall and with a 180 cm mirror. Another case is the discovery and imaging of anomalous structures in Mars atmosphere -- so-called “plumes” – by Wayne Jaeschke, who works as a patent lawyer during the day and spends most evenings making astronomical observations with his own telescope. (Jaeschke has co-authored a scientific paper on this subject together with professional astronomers.)

Another area with a long tradition of impassioned amateurs is the study of living nature, including botany, zoology, entomology, ornithology, as well as microbiology. In recent years, the rapid advances of biotechnology and related instrumentation has made it possible for amateurs to build sophisticated home laboratories able to carry out experiments in molecular biology, biophysics and other fundamental areas of biology. The prices of sophisticated equipment such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) thermocycler have dropped to a level where they are affordable to many amateur biologists.

The growing sophistication of equipment available to amateur scientists in all fields, and the growing possibilities of networking with professional scientists, creates a situation in which amateurs require – and desire! – more and more advanced scientific knowledge and technical skill. This is very important phenomenon, because here the motivation to study is not to earn money or make a career, but rather a passionate interest in scientific activity per se. At the same time, the demand for scientific equipment intended for use by amateurs can become an increasingly significant economic factor -- potentially even more important that many traditional categories of consumer goods, if the percentage of amateur scientists in the population grows sufficiently.

In my opinion there is no doubt, that with appropriate policies and actions by governments and relevant institutions, the number of amateur scientists and people involved in various improved forms of interactive citizen science could be very rapidly expanded up to a level of 50% or more of the adult population over the next 10 years.It would probably be enough for just one major nation to initiate the process, and it would spread rapidly. In future articles I intend to make specific suggestions for how this goal might be achieved. But in the remainder of the present article I want to briefly call attention to its political implications.

A key motivation for promoting mass participation in scientific research today is to address the problem I identified in an earlier commentary entitled “Stupidity is the Enemy”. In practically all societies up to now, most of the population has existed in a condition of cultural backwardness, while serious intellectual activity has been limited to a relatively tiny minority. Today this problem has taken on monstrous dimensions due to the pervasive influence of electronic media, the entertainment and sports “industry” and other forms of commercial mass culture. The problem embraces every section and every social class of the population. Symptomatic is the growing addiction of youth and even young children to video games, action films, drug-like states induced by rap and heavy metal music, and other types of intense sensual stimulus provided through digital technologies. Another symptom is the fascination with aggression, brutality and violence and the growing hegemony of an “anti-aesthetic” of the ugly, the grotesque and the perverse, in contrast to the classical orientation to natural harmony and beauty.

There is much debate about how much danger these tendencies pose to today’s society and even to the future of civilization. The key problem, from my standpoint, arises from the inseparable relationship between emotionality and thinking. To think rationally, to distinguish between reality and phantasy, to search for the truth, to distinguish between good and evil and to seek to do good – all of these things require an investment of emotional energy, and require that people attach positive emotion to these tasks. But in today’s dominant cultural environment, people’s emotional energies are channeled in the completely opposite direction. The history of the Roman empire teaches us about the political consequences, when popular culture is dominated by “panem et circenses“ (“bread and circuses”). In this condition the masses of the population become complicit in their own oppression and exploitation. Michael D’Antonio’s recent biography of Donald Trump (“Never Enough”, 2015) provides valuable insights into the effects of today’s version of “panem et circenses”. Among other things the book highlights the profound transformation of U.S. society which occurred from the 1960s on under the impact of the mass media and entertainment industry. The phenomenon of Donald Trump cannot be understood without looking at the increasingly close interconnection between the media and entertainment industry, politics, real estate and finance in the post-1960 period. This occurred on the background of “post-industrial” economic policies which drastically reduced the proportion of the U.S. workforce involved in physical production and related technical activity. The deindustrialization process greatly weakened the population’s orientation to reality and causality, while more and more emotion became attached to mindless consumerism and the phantasy-world of movies and television.

How could mass participation in scientific research change this situation? Mainly by helping to reorient the emotional life of the population toward the real Universe, toward their own intellectual development, and restoring a sense of personal value and dignity by giving people the chance to contribute something substantial to the knowledge and future of humanity; generating a shared experience of the joy of scientific discovery which could rapidly spread to embrace a large part of the population, across national borders; reawakening natural curiosity; evoking a sense of the inexhaustible richness and beauty of Nature, far beyond any “virtual reality” that human beings could ever produce or imagine.

The passionate enthusiasm of amateurs scientists, and the enthusiastic response of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people to the first internet-based Citizen Science projects -- which greatly astonished the scientists who launched them --, give us a first glimpse of the cultural transformation that could be unleashed by the policy I have proposed.

The biggest obstacle to accomplishing the desired cultural transformation, in my opinion, is not the attitude of the population, but rather the problematic situation within science itself. Put very briefly: since the early decades of the 20th century (or in some respects even earlier) European science began to lose its orientation toward classical philosophy, and became more and more pragmatic and technical in character. The German philosopher Edmund Husserl characterized this process as “Sinnentlehrung” – an “emptying-out of meaning”. Connected with this is a serious weakening of the revolutionary spirit of science, the tendency to make exaggerated claims about the extent of present-day knowledge, and the emergence of a “scientific establishment” which tends to suppress the work of creative thinkers who challenge the so-called “scientific consensus” (See my article, “The First Detection of Gravitational Waves: A Triumph of Science and Technology – But What Does It Mean?”). Among other things this situation has led to false and misleading forms of popularization of science. The result is to make it much more difficult to transmit the true spirit of science to the general population.

Nevertheless I am optimistic. In my forthcoming book on the “Physical Economy of National Development” I emphasize the classical work of Alexander von Humboldt, “Cosmos – Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe” as a key reference-point for the approach needed to recruit masses of the population to scientific work. I wrote: “‘Cosmos’ was enormously popular in his time and one of the most influential books ever written on science. It was directed both to scientists as well as to a broad educated audience. A literary masterpiece embodying much of the spirit of Renaissance humanism, Alexander von Humboldt’s ‘Cosmos’ conveys a conception of science, Nature and Man diametrically opposed to the alienated thinking prevailing in popular culture and among most scientists today… The book is unique in that it combines a great part of the detailed scientific knowledge at his time in the fields of astronomy, geography, geology, zoology and botany, together with a historical account of the development of human conceptions of Nature. This development is portrayed both in terms of the striving for objective knowledge as well as the subjective/aesthetic dimension expressed in poetry, literature and the relationship of culture and history to the natural environment. ‘Cosmos’ is written with the boundless enthusiasm of a great scientific thinker and world explorer striving to awaken the thirst for knowledge and the enjoyment of Nature in the minds of the readers.”