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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Conversations: A defense of amateur science

Friend Forrest Mims, recently targeted as one of Discover Magazine's "50 best brains in science, fielded a complaint from a mutual acquaintance about the fact that I routinely call myself a "hack." (The complainer probably hoped Forrest would ask me to stop because it sounded like a self-putdown.)

I defended myself, pointing out that "Among journalists I know, it is not necessarily a term of abuse. It means "one who lives by writing." That’s why I called my neuroscience, spirituality, and popular culture blog, The Mindful Hack.

Enough of this. Forrest went on to say something I want to share, namely that he is proud of being an "amateur" scientist, meaning that he has many science publications but no science degree. Indeed, he notes,

Discover Magazine has named 10 amateur scientists to its list of "50 Best Brains in Science," including my colleagues Ely Silk, Bill Hilton Jr. and me from the Society for Amateur Scientists.
That's impressive, and it was presaged by an essay he wrote nearly a decade ago for Science:

An editorial in a leading science journal once proclaimed an end to amateur science: "Modern science can no longer be done by gifted amateurs with a magnifying glass, copper wires, and jars filled with alcohol" (1). I grinned as I read these words. For then as now there's a 10× magnifier in my pocket, spools of copper wire on my work bench, and a nearby jar of methanol for cleaning the ultraviolet filters in my homemade solar ultraviolet and ozone spectroradiometers. Yes, modern science uses considerably more sophisticated methods and instruments than in the past. And so do we amateurs. When we cannot afford the newest scientific instrument, we wait to buy it on the surplus market or we build our own. Sometimes the capabilities of our homemade instruments rival or even exceed those of their professional counterparts.
The term amateur can have a pejorative ring. But in science it retains the meaning of its French root amour, love, for amateurs do science because it's what they love to do. Without remuneration or reward, enthusiastic amateurs survey birds, tag butterflies, measure sunlight, and study transient solar eclipse phenomena. Others count sunspots, discover comets, monitor variable stars, and invent instruments.
Hmmm. Speaking of creating it yourself at home, Forrest has a daughter who was the lead author on a journal paper before she had reached the age of majority (in many jurisdictions) ...

He adds,

The Society for Amateur Scientists counts a number of well published Ph.D.s among its members, all of whom have done great work outside their degree fields. In fact, SAS was founded by Shawn Carlson, a noted skeptic with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. (I have edited the SAS's webzine, The Citizen Scientist for 5 years.)
So, if you want a career in science, but don't want to punch a clock for The Man, consider these folks your friends.

Not everyone does. When I told Forrest I was going to write about amateur scientists, he wrote back to say,

A few Ph.D.s, as you may have noticed, are infected with an arrogance syndrome for which amateur science is a wonderful antidote. Some of these Ph.D.s have spent a career never going beyond their Ph.D. work. Serious amateurs are always going beyond their academic preparation, which is often nil.

Fortunately, most Ph.D.s are very supportive of amateur scientists, which is why SCIENCE invited the essay I wrote. In my career doing science only rarely have I been asked my degree (B.A. in government with minors in history and English). All that has mattered is my peer-reviewed publications and the instruments I've designed.
In fact, one big problem in science today is the sheer number of third rate minds holding down Jobs at Indoctrinate U, and the many other fine institutions dedicated to the suppression of learning. It is from the ranks of these people, I suspect, that most Darwinist trolls are drawn.

As I have noted elsewhere, Darwin - an amateur scientist of some note - would have had more sense than to be a Darwinist had he lived today. Who knows, he might have written Edge of Evolution. He would certainly be a distinguished member of the Altenberg 17, seeking a workable theory of evolution.

Darwin would want a materialist theory, to be sure - but it wouldn't be natural selection acting on random mutations (= poof! in slo-mo). He'd still need Huxley, of course - nowadays, everyone in this line of work needs a troll removal specialist.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

Robert Frost: The first ID poet?

I'm told that Robert Frost published a poem called "Accidentally on Purpose" at the end of his life (1962)

Accidentally on Purpose
Robert Frost

Till Darwin came to earth upon a year
To show the evolution how to steer,
They mean to tell us, though, the omnibus
Had no real purpose till it got to us.

Never believe it. At the very worst
It must have had the purpose from the first
To produce purpose as the fitter bred:
We were just purpose coming to a head.

Here's the whole thing.

Had Frost lived, would he have been the first ID poet?

(Note: The image is from Wikimedia Commons.)

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

Ideas have consequences: Jesse Kilgore

Here's a podcast with the father of 22-year-old Jesse Kilgore, who killed himself after reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Too bad young Jesse did not give himself a chance to read Alister McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion. My thoughts and prayers are with all who knew him. No doubt there was more going on than we know. It's a very sober reminder that, in a world where many believe that young people care only about text messaging aimless gossip, some take the critical questions deadly seriously.

In a very different chain of events a lttile over a year ago, a young Finnish social Darwinist killed himself and eight others , in an event reminiscent of Eric Harris at Columbine.

Significantly, when I reported on the Finnish school shooting, I received a storm of complaints from Darwinists who wanted me to know that their belief system was in no way implicated. I responded,

This tragedy has provoked an enormous outburst of protest from Darwinists on account of my noting that the shooter's motive was social Darwinism. On the rare occasions when a shooter's motive has been anti-abortion advocacy (Rudolph) or fundamentalist madness (Yates), I have NEVER been excoriated by an anti-abortionist or fundamentalist for openly discussing that fact. Indeed, these types of cases were openly discussed among Christian journalists at a number of gatherings in which I participated over the last decade, with conspicuously little defensiveness. We had long accepted that some forms of anti-abortion advocacy and fundamentalism are toxic.

So this storm of comments has been a real eye-opener for me (and I probably rejected more than I accepted, so readers never saw all the somniferous posturing as I did). The storm suggests that - despite claims - Darwinists have never dealt with the legacy of social Darwinism in an emotionally healthy enough way to just put it all behind them. Now that may be because the actual worldview of Darwinism necessitates social Darwinism. Or it may be because no one has said, "let's just do it." Or someone has said that, but the troops didn't get it. It's not really my problem though.

I shut off comments to the post.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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