Thursday, January 31, 2013

Citizen Science ~ Butterflies, Ships, and Science (Maybe)

Even after all that has been learned about it in recent years, the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) remains marvelously mystifying.  Weighing just roughly half a gram, some of these creatures make an annual migration of thousands of miles from the eastern U.S. and Canada to the Transvolcanic Range of central Mexico where they overwinter.  Hard to get more amazing than that.  I recently read Sue Halpern’s book, Four Wings and A Prayer:  Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly (2001), a superb piece of provocative and inspiring nature writing telling a story populated with wonderful butterflies, as well as a colorful cast of men and women (some in the human cast are more wonderful than others).

(I photographed this monarch in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum's live butterfly exhibit.)

I was particularly struck in Halpern's account with the role of the amateur, the citizen scientist, interacting directly with the butterfly and with scientists studying it.  In the early 1950s, when the destination and fate of the millions of monarchs seen traveling through the fall skies from the northern reaches of the U.S. and Canada were still a profound mystery, zoology professor Fred Urquhart at the University of Toronto and his wife Norah recruited volunteers in an effort to tag monarch butterflies and track their journey.  Some 3,000 volunteers responded and the Urquhart network generated data until the early 1990s.  I recently saw the IMAX 3D movie Flight of the Butterflies which tells of the search for the monarchs’ overwintering site; it presents the Urquharts as the unblemished heroes of the tale.  As Halpern suggests, this is not the only way to tell the story.  Regardless, the Urquhart network produced a wealth of useful data.  And the effort continues.  For instance, Monarch Watch, a great resource supporting the monarch, has reported the recovery of over 16,000 of its tags between 1992 and 2011.

There currently is a buzz about the exploding universe of what’s labeled “citizen science,” in which myriad volunteers provide support to scientific projects.  Citizen science, per se, has come under academic study, generating various definitions of what it is.  I like the definition of "public participation in scientific research" offered by Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Citizen Science website.  Yes, it's a bit circular because the phrase "citizen science" is in this definition but it captures the essence of what this activity is (or should be) about:
The growing field of public participation in scientific research (PPSR) includes citizen science, volunteer monitoring, and other forms of organized research in which members of the public engage in the process of scientific investigations:  asking questions, collecting data, and/or interpreting results.
Press coverage has been enthusiastic with Hillary Rosner’s piece in Scientific American (Data on Wings, February 2013) just a very recent example.  At this end of this post, I take Rosner to task for certain claims in her article, but first a bit of history and context.

Citizen Science ~ Past

As the butterfly tagging suggests, this is really old news.  Citizen science projects in this country have a more than two hundred year history.  Writer Jeffrey P. Cohn in a piece titled Citizen Science:  Can Volunteers Do Real Research?  (BioScience, March 2008), posits, “The practice goes back at least to the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count, which began in 1900.  About 60,000 to 80,000 volunteers now participate in the that survey.”  But such projects date back still farther.  Rosner cites the meteorology network fashioned by Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian’s first Secretary in the l840s.  Historian Daniel Goldstein writes that “American participation in European-dominated [science] networks dated back at least to the previous century [18th century], and they [Americans] had been building their own correspondence networks for decades.”  (“Yours for Science”:  The Smithsonian Institution’s Correspondents and the Shape of Scientific Community in Nineteenth Century America, Isis, December 1994, note 8.)

I would include among the historical antecedents to today’s rush of citizen science projects the correspondence network that Spencer F. Baird maintained from his position as the Smithsonian Institution’s Assistant Secretary of the Natural History Department (a position to which he was appointed in 1850).  Purists may argue that it wasn’t citizen science at all because there wasn’t a specific scientific research project being supported.  That’s true, but the reaching out by this scientist to the broader public, seeking to engage it in fulfilling (often in very hands-on ways) the scientific mission of this institution seems, to me, to make it at least a pretty close cousin to citizen science.

Upon his arrival in Washington, Baird, an ornithologist and natural history professor at Dickinson College, expanded the institution’s existing correspondence activities into a nationwide web of correspondents that helped to build the Smithsonian’s collections of natural history specimens, and to support science across the country.  Baird was a collector of the first order who shipped his own collections to Washington in two boxcars. (Baird as Assistant Secretary and the Growth of a Dream, Smithsonian Institution Archives.)

(Baird is seen above in 1845 when he was Professor of Natural History at Dickinson College.  It is part of the collection of the Smithsonian Archives and was downloaded from its website.)

The assistance moved both ways in the network, with personal correspondence from Baird, books, help with identifications, among other support, flowing out from Washington.  This was no small undertaking for the assistant secretary.  Most of the over 3,000 letters that Baird personally wrote annually early in his tenure were to correspondents in his network, and the burden only grew over time.

I am particularly interested in Baird’s enterprise because of what it says about the widespread enthusiasm with which mid 19th century America embraced science.  The vast majority of the correspondents were committed at some significant level to doing, and learning about, natural history.  (Goldstein does note that a small subset of correspondents apparently had little interest in natural history.)  Given that the professionalizing of the sciences was still largely in its infancy, it’s probably not surprising that the network reached well beyond those for whom some aspect of natural history might be the basis of their careers.  The breadth of its reach was impressive, embracing a broad group of people from many different walks of life with an interest in natural history.  They were not “a small class of highly educated urban male professionals.  The doctors, professors, and government scientists were complemented by large numbers of farmers, tradesmen, clerical workers, and manual laborers. . . . [M]ost of the respondents [to a survey of correspondents] were probably not among the minute fraction of the American population with college degrees.”  (Goldstein, “Yours for Science,” p. 577.)

I love the image of a farmer exchanging letters with an assistant secretary of the Smithsonian about, say, a collection of insects, perhaps even sending some specimens to Washington.

Citizen Science ~ Present

What the Urquharts did, engaging a cadre of non-scientists to work on a specific scientific endeavor (tagging monarchs), has now become more common, technology-driven, and conducted on a scale not previously seen.

In the name of citizen science, I’ve time traveled.  For a very brief period last year, I was a lieutenant aboard a British naval sloop sailing out of Queenstown, Ireland.  It was February, 1917, and the bloodletting of World War I would continue its awful course for more than a year.  This year, as I try to reengage in this time travel, I’m on board the gunboat U.S.S. Concord in 1891.

(This photo was taken between 1890 and 1901, and was downloaded from the Library of Congress' Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.)

The context, in both instances, has been the Old Weather project which is mining old ships’ logs to amass weather data in an effort to improve the computer models used to analyze weather patterns and future climate.  My responsibility, as is that of every volunteer engaged in the project, has been to read scans of the original ships’ handwritten logs and transcribe the location of the ship and the weather data appearing in the log, including the direction of the weather, its force, the barometric pressure, the temperature (measured in several different ways), the state of the sky (nature of the clouds, extent of cloud coverage), and the kind of precipitation (if any).

The project, which began with the logs of vessels in the British Navy during WWI, and now includes the U.S. Navy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has the support of several governmental agencies, museums, universities, historical societies, and other institutions.  These include the U.S. National Archives, NOAA, the UK’s Met Office (national weather service), National Maritime Museum (UK), and the University of Oxford.

The power of the crowd has been put to work transcribing these logs in part because computers are ill equipped to read the handwritten log entries (frankly, it’s not always easy for this human to read the writing either).  Each log page is transcribed multiple times by different participants in an effort to weed out errors.  As of May 2012, a million log pages had been transcribed.

It’s a worthwhile project, with the resulting data made available not only for climate and weather studies, but also for historical and geographic research, among other uses.  There are some other interesting applications.  Using the logs of British naval vessels during WWI, the The Guardian posted an amazing digital representation of the changing locations of these vessels during each month of the war (at this link).  Okay, it’s not climate science, but it’s a spellbinding reflection of the course of the war.

Old Weather is part of the Zooniverse’s array of projects which began in 2007 with Galaxy Zoo using "crowdsourcing" to classify galaxies.  It has expanded to include a wide range of different computer-based projects enlisting lay people in scientific efforts that range from exploring the Moon’s surface to classifying cyclone data, from identifying animals in millions of pictures taken in the Serengeti to categorizing sounds made by whales.  Zooniverse lays claim to nearly 800,000 volunteers at work on its projects.

Citizen science, citizen scientists.  The growing interest in these activities arises, in part, because they can be greatly facilitated by computer technology linking the efforts of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of individuals at work on data numbering in the millions.  Yet, lest one conclude that all current citizen science projects are technology driven and tether volunteers to their computers, there are many, like butterfly tagging, that draw participants outside where they run the risk of getting their hands dirty.  The Citizen Science Central website offers links to a broad array of projects that run the gamut.

In her Scientific American article, Hillary Rosner writes of the potential effect citizen science projects (of all stripes) have of informing a broad swath of the population about difficult scientific issues, and drawing them into a search for solutions:

Cumulatively, . . ., the spread of citizen science may amount to something much larger, signaling a shift in the way scientists and the public think about the enterprise of science.  A new age of participatory science is taking shape at the exact moment when society may need it most – as we cope with complex problems such as climate change that require both copious data and an engaged citizenry.  (Data on Wings, Scientific American, February, 2013, p. 70)

She asserts, “One of citizen science’s most important contribution may ultimately be to spread scientific literacy by giving laypeople direct contact with the process of science.”

It’s a heady assessment and I think she claims too much, at least for some of these projects.  How connected are their volunteers to the process of science or to the science into which their labor feeds?  I wish she had cast a more critical eye on differences among them and considered which are more likely than others to make real contributions to scientific literacy, and why.

Take my own, very brief work on the Old Weather project.  Ah, the dreaded “sample of one.”  I understand that what I am doing with the ships’ logs fuels analysis of weather and climate patterns over time, but what I have been learning about are the old ships and the glimpses of history that the logs afford me, not the climate science on which the project is focused or the scientific process that's at work with the data being generated.  Is that my fault?  Perhaps, but, in this instance and with this specific volunteer, just doing the data gathering work doesn't guarantee any exposure to the scientific process, any growth in scientific literacy.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for mentioning Old Weather. You will always be welcome as a transcriber or editor. We don't mind if you have the time for only a small contribution. Every transcription is valued. You can find reference pages for all our ships, past, present and future, the results of our historical transcriptions, edited and unedited, and details on how to join the editing team on



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