Blog Post

How to Handle Citizen Theoreticians

Opinion by Chris Santos-Lang

Some citizen scientists help collect data; some design experiments; some participate in ethics review of research plans; and some propose new theories for scientific testing. I am hereby endorsing Kevin Maney’s term “citizen theoreticians” for this fourth kind of citizen scientist, and will discuss four examples here.

This fourth kind of citizen scientist raises the ethical issue of inconvenient truth. As Marc Edwards told us in the opening keynote of CSA 2017, the truth about the Flint water supply was “inconvenient” in the sense that professional scientists faced political pressure to avoid investigating it. One reason why citizen science opens new possibilities is that citizen theoreticians do not face all the same pressures as professionals. On the one hand, science may be unable to converge on inconvenient truths without citizen theoreticians; on the other hand, citizen theoreticians may violate taboos which exist for good reason.

The first example I give of a citizen theoretician is James Damore who was recently fired from Google for posing theories about gender differences and their implications for (corporate) policy. This example is timely because Damore’s efforts currently receive some harsh criticism, much as LeeAnne Walter’s efforts in Flint were criticized until Marc confirmed her findings. Instead of “How dare LeeAnne imply that Flint city engineers are incompetent!” the outrage is “How dare James imply that female engineers are incompetent!” Hindsight is 20-20, so examples like this which are not yet behind us are important in understanding blindness.

To be fair, Damore claims that his theory is more subtle and supportive of his female co-workers than general public criticism implies, but it would be possible for some other citizen theoretician to actually propose the theory that sexual discrimination is necessary to optimize the average success of engineering departments. How should we handle such theoreticians? Should citizen scientists be punished for proposing theories that turn out to be false? Even if Damore’s more subtle theory is true, it would be an inconvenient truth, given the current state of politics: Much as Marc told us most professional scientists avoided the politics of the mismanaged Flint water supply, most professional scientists are wary of identity politics, and that leaves theories like Damore’s poorly tested (if at all).

Damore shares the following characteristics with all three other examples cited here :

  1. The citizen theoretician reads a lot more science than the average citizen. This tells us both that open access to research results is enabling for citizen theoreticians and that most citizens would never be citizen theoreticians.
  2. The citizen theoretician takes responsibility for a theory when the evidence he/she has encountered seems (to them) to support a theory that no one else is successfully advancing.
  3. The citizen theoretician does not advance theories as effectively as a professional scientist would, so any truths he/she advances must be inconvenient ones.
  4. Although the citizen theoretician may attempt to share the theory in scientific conferences or peer-reviewed journals, it ultimately ends up on a website for general public consumption.
  5. The citizen theoretician wants professional scientists to test the theory.
  6. The citizen theoretician is criticised for drawing inappropriate conclusions, even though he/she actually wants further testing.
  7. The theory which should be evaluated on the basis of evidence is instead evaluated on the basis of the credentials of the theoretician.
  8. The citizen theoretician ends up working on the puzzles of why the theory is unfairly judged and ways to present the theory more persuasively.

Full disclosure: I am my second example of a citizen theoretician, and I was attracted to the Citizen Science Association because I hope the citizen science movement will help humanity better-handle inconvenient truths. The inconvenient theory for which I take responsibility is that of the corporantia: the theory that we function best as interdependent parts of a larger mind, much as cells function best as parts of a body. This theory is at odds with individual-level moral education, justice systems, and employment and with the supremacy of either liberals or conservatives.

Unlike the other examples cited in this article, I attempted to conduct the appropriate tests and publish results myself (at least the survey research). This was an eye-opening experience—ten separate peer-review processes were invoked in my particular case, many could not find reviewers willing to review the evidence, and others found reviewers who dismissed the evidence on the grounds that the theory was not worth testing in the first place. You have to see the reviews yourself to believe it (via the link above).

My third example is Mike Breeden who has advanced the theory that humans will face worse and worse health challenges unless we engage in artificial selection (e.g. fertilize ten human eggs then discard the nine with the worst genes). Mike has been advancing this theory for 40 years. He respects taboos around eugenics and abortion, but is afraid artificial selection is the only way to avert social disaster. The first two examples likewise predict some kind of increasing social stress if social engineering continues to advance without accounting for the supposed inconvenient truth.

Let me emphasize that Mike has been owning his theory for over half a lifetime. The long version of this theory is that reducing natural selection increases counter-productive heterogeneity such as people with dependence on medicine (so, if we can’t figure out how to make artificial selection work, then we’re ultimately doomed), and I am not aware of any evidence in the last forty years that conclusively disproved that theory. Most theoreticians are wrong, and Mike might be one of them, but, given that it can take so long to test a theory, it would be inhumane to keep citizen theoreticians in purgatory in the meanwhile. Mike’s story challenges us to appreciate citizen theoreticians on the basis of their character, rather than wait until we know which ones happen to be right.

My fourth example, Ed Harris, is very positive because his theory is a model for the disease scleroderma, and he was recently granted a position in the professional scientific community with potential to see his theory put through clinical trials. Ed developed his theory because he was diagnosed with scleroderma, and he believes his work as a citizen theoretician saved his own life (as well as others).

Ed’s example is both positive and alarming. What made Ed’s theory sufficiently inconvenient to require the support of a citizen theoretician was simply that the science became sufficiently specialized that experts were expected to hold all truth, such that any new truth would raise doubts about expertise. This suggests that increasing specialization in the profession of science can make any truth inconvenient so far as it differs from mainstream theory. At that point, science would need citizen theoreticians to rescue it from dogmatism.

So then, how should we handle citizen theoreticians? To prevent blocking of cures, we can enable the Ed Harrises of the world by providing open access journals, open data repositories, open notebooks, post-publication peer-review, and registries where citizen theoreticians can connect with experimentalist to test their theories.

On the other hand, we dare not rush into eugenics (and the like) until our systems of ethics are sufficiently mature. Specifically, we need advancements in applied ethics. Professionals obviously work on that, but it’s a big job, and citizens can help just like we help advance science. Not every citizen need contribute in this way, but I’d like a world in which each person has at least one good friend who “does” science and at least one good friend who “does” research ethics.

So thank you for voting in elections, but please don’t let your good citizenship end there. Collect data for at least one project other than your own or test the replicability of a project other than your own, but also serve on a research ethics committee (e.g. IRB, IACUC or IBC) for at least one research proposal other than your own. The Citizen Science Association has an entire working group devoted to ethics.

If you know of other citizen theoreticians, or have other comments about this article, please join the discussion below:

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