Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Amateur ~ What's in a Label?

I call myself an amateur paleontologist.  What does that adjective amateur mean when applied to a field or a subject area?  Turns out, it can signify some of what I intend when I use it, but, unfortunately, will often connote a great deal more, much of it dismissive of someone bearing the label.

Love, perhaps even obsession.  That’s the etymological core of the word amateur.  The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (2002) identifies the word as coming from the late 18th century and describes its roots:
This is an adopted French word from Italian amatore, from Latin amator ‘lover’; the base verb is amare ‘to love’.  (p. 19)
The early 20th century astronomer George Ellery Hale captured this essence when defining an amateur as “one who works because he cannot help it.”  (As quoted in Timothy Ferris’ Seeing in the Dark:  How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth From Interplanetary Peril, 2002, p. xvi.)

But that’s certainly not everything that’s wrapped up in the word.  Consult any substantial dictionary (in this case, I considered the definitions in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, 2009) and find the myriad other meanings, particularly if amateur is contrasted with professional.  To wit:

  • An amateur does what he or she does without pay.  This isn’t a paid occupation.
  • An amateur does this as a “pastime,” likely undertaken part time.
  • An amateur has no competence or expertise (a common and rather negative view featured in dictionaries) or lacks mastery (an only slightly less pejorative characterization) in a field of endeavor.
  • An amateur has not navigated the long, academic period of preparation followed by professionals.  The connotation here is that the amateur lacks certification or credentials in the field, those entry tickets to the field sported by professionals.

Stepping back from this array of different senses of the word and thinking about the professionals and amateurs I know, I conclude that some of what flows from these dictionary meanings is neither necessary nor sufficient to define the amateur.  I would argue that, in essence, the amateur is one who pursues a field without the formal, academic training/credential required of professionals and without pay.  And, with even these two conditions, there are exceptions.

I reject, for the most part, the notion that the lack of mastery or competence invariably distinguishes the amateur from the professional.  At least, it shouldn't be the starting point in categorizing the two.  I’ve known amateur paleontologists with a masterful command of much of the knowledge base and skills that professional paleontologists are equipped with.  Indeed, I think that most amateurs in natural history fields aspire to professional standards; that’s one of the driving forces behind the time and energy they devote to the avocation.  And I assume there are incompetent professional paleontologists, any field has such outliers.

Still, there is often a real difference in what professionals know and can do, and the abilities of most amateurs.  Timothy Ferris in Seeing in the Dark describes a NASA project that brought amateur and professional astronomers together on amateur-inspired and amateur-led projects involving the Hubble telescope.  It was a failure and soon discontinued.  In an explanation for the program’s demise, Ferris quotes accomplished amateur astronomer Bill Aquino, “[A]mateur and professionals are different.  We amateurs have day jobs.  We're willing to learn, but we need some help.  Professionals have to be willing to work with and educate amateurs, and amateurs have to be able to rise to the challenges that the professionals set – to be willing to learn how to work at a professional level."  (p. 55)

Nevertheless, Ferris’ book is a paean to the contributions of amateurs (“backyard stargazers”) to the field of astronomy.  So, yes, there are fields in which amateurs have the requisite understanding and skills to make a real, a professional-level contribution.  My own sense is this is particularly true of those fields in which fieldwork, often requiring relatively minimal equipment, plays a role – such as astronomy, paleontology, and botany.  The entry barriers of technical knowledge and requisite equipment mean that, for instance, amateur particle physicists are probably pretty rare.

Yet, there are amateurs doing some freaky physics or delving into such things as genetic engineering.  For instance, Thiago Olson, as a high school student, built a nuclear reactor.  For a description of these tinkering or “homebrew” involvement in the sciences, see Jack Hitt, Bunch of Amateurs:  A Search for the American Character, 2012.  As I noted in an earlier post, Hitt’s focus is on those amateurs who are rebels, who are driven, eccentric, and kooky. These amateurs are either assailing academic barriers or working in entirely new fields.  In essence, the professional establishment is to be assaulted or ignored.  Such amateurs are out there, but, I would argue, they don’t reflect the vast majority of amateurs whose personalities and goals are more mundane and more mainstream.

What about the enthusiasm for a field that is also, I would argue, embodied in the amateur label?  Walt Whitman certainly felt that academic training and pedantic deconstruction by a professional destroyed a subject, robbing it of its essential connections to the rest of us.
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns
before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add,
divide, and measure them,
When sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured
with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
     (from Leaves of Grass, Deathbed Edition, The Modern Library, 1993)
But I know professional paleontologists who excitedly describe, say, the ornamentation on fossils, such as ostracodes, with an infectious zeal.  Knowing the science hasn’t destroyed their ability to marvel at the sheer beauty of the object.

I ultimately come back to protracted academic training/credentials and pay as the key distinguishing characteristics separating the amateur from the professional, in most cases.  That little qualifier is important because academic training and credentials are not necessary in all cases for crossing the amateur-professional divide.  Take paleontologist Jack Horner, for example.  Horner, recently retired from Montana State University and the Museum of the Rockies, is a renowned and widely published dinosaur expert.  He’s also a college dropout.  So, despite the professionalizing of the scientific fields, it can be done.

Are there other terms that might be used to better capture (without the dismissive baggage) what I try to convey when I call myself an amateur?  The Florida Museum of Natural History, with some National Science Foundation support, has launched an effort to formally link the fossils clubs with professionals; the project sports the acronym FOSSIL for Fostering Opportunities for Synergistic STEM with Informal Learners.  (The mind reels – an acronym inside a tortured acronym.  STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.)  The folks in charge of FOSSIL use the term hobbyist to describe the groups being linked to the pros.  Is that a useful term?  I don’t think it clarifies matters, and, frankly, it fails, in my mind, to capture the ambition of many amateurs to achieve some sort of professional status.  It seems to relegate us to permanent second class citizenship.

Embedded in the FOSSIL acronym is another option.  Are we mostly informal learners?  Sure, that describes the avenue we often follow to develop our understanding and skills – outside of formal academic settings.  As a result, would that make me an informal paleontologist?  That I’ll have to consider, though its counterpart is a formal paleontologist which certainly isn’t likely to catch on.

Consider another approach to defining the amateur specifically in paleontology.  The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has a small exhibit titled Dinosaurs in Our Backyard which features some of the dinosaur and related fossils from the Cretaceous found in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.  In the signage for the exhibit, the authorities of the Natural History Museum utilize yet a still different terminology to distinguish amateurs from professionals.  Under the heading, Amateur Collectors  Make Important Contributions, the following text appears:
Some of the most important dinosaur discoveries were made by amateur fossil collectors, not professional paleontologists . . . .
Is that what we are, merely fossil collectors, and amateurs, at that?  Yes, we are collectors, but so are many professional paleontologists who probably wouldn’t want to be labelled professional fossil collectors because they are more than that, and, so are many of us.  Collecting is often the gateway to a deeper immersion in the science that makes sense of the fossils.  Come to think of it, I don’t know of anyone who merely collects fossils.  We all want to know more about what we find.  The very effort of trying to identify what is found inevitably leads to cracking open a book, reaching out to someone who knows more, turning to the professionals.  The more I think about the Museum’s choice of words, the more disappointed I am.

As an aside, I would note the irony of some group at the Smithsonian being so dismissive of amateurs as to label us just collectors.  Professional paleontologists, themselves, have been rudely dismissed by other scientists, specifically physicists, in a similar fashion.  When, in 1980, the nuclear physicist Luis Alvarez, with his son, the geologist Walter Alvarez, posited that the end Cretaceous extinction event was caused by an asteroid impact, the consternation in the paleontological community was palpable.  As nuclear chemist Frank Asaro, who worked with the Alvarezes, put it, “[W]e were amateurs in this field. . . . And now we here we were telling paleontologists that we had solved a problem that had eluded them for over a century.  It’s not terribly surprising that they didn’t embrace it immediately.”  (As quoted in Bill Bryson’s *A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003, p. 198.)  And, as if the paleontologists’ angst weren’t deep and hurtful enough, Luis Alvarez asserted, of paleontologists, “They’re really not very good scientists.  They’re more like stamp collectors.”  (Bryson, p. 198.)  Ouch.

Of course, at least some physicists are apparently nothing if not amazingly arrogant, and look down their noses at all other kinds of scientists.  In fact, Luis Alvarez was merely recycling a modified version of the comment by the great late 19th and early 20th century physicist Ernest Rutherford, who said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”  (Bryson, p. 137.)

That said, I don’t want to associate myself in any way with a view that paleontologists or other scientists in the fields of natural history are, in general, dismissive of amateurs.  In my experience, they aren’t.  The contributions of amateurs are sought, supported, and respected.  Approach a professional paleontologist with a question about a fossil, an extinct taxon, evolution, or the like, and, more often than not the enthusiasm with which support is offered is striking.

Finally, among the other alternative ways amateurs are labelled in these fields is an interesting one that I recently found in a New Yorker piece about the discovery of the site of a Spanish colony established in Florida in 1559.  It’s a significant colony, the oldest European settlement established in the U.S. that lasted for multiple years, though, in this case, just two.  (Marguerite Holloway, Uncovering The Luna Colony, A Lost Remnant of Spanish Florida, The New Yorker, April 9, 2016.)  The site was found by Tom Garner, described in the article as a “lay archaeologist.”

Lay archaeologist.  Lay has a nice ring to it and I’ve never encountered the term applied to any other actors in other scientific fields.  For instance, no lay paleontologists.  Perhaps I’m drawn to its religious connotations.  Though they are distinguished from the clergy, that is, the trained, called leaders of a faith community, the laity, or lay members, are very much members of the faith.  I'd like to think that we who call ourselves amateur paleontologists are considered members of that faith.

But, sadly, when the term is used outside of the religious context, it is taken to describe someone “lacking extensive knowledge of a particular subject.”  (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.)  And that returns us to the issue of whether what amateurs, lay followers, of a field know actually distinguishes them (all of them?  most of them?) from the professionals.  As I’ve argued, sometimes it does not.  In Tom Garner’s case, it certainly doesn’t.  He’s been trained by professional archaeologists; he simply doesn’t earn his living doing archaeology.

Where does that leave me?  Stuck, I think, with the amateur label, despite all of its contradictory and, at times, objectionable meanings.
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