2 May 2013

Trust and citizen science

As communicators of science, we often talk about "trust" in scientists. Would the average member of "the public" trust a scientist to tell the truth - any more they would, say, a journalist, or a politician? The Ipsos MORI Trust Poll gives us an answer to this question. 83% would trust a scientist to tell the truth. Wow, trust in scientists is second only to doctors and teachers! Journalists (21%) and politicians (18%), meanwhile, languish at the bottom of the list.

(For the record, I think the idea of trusting someone to tell you the truth is a weird concept. The truth about what? Their expenses? Where all the bourbon biscuits went?)

Anyway, I've been doing some research on citizen science for a report I'm writing and have noticed a lot of references to trust cropping up. While the average member of the public supposedly places a lot of "trust" in scientists (I wonder if those who actually know any scientists score lower or higher...), it doesn't seem to work the other way. Scientists don't have much faith in members of the public. Or at least... even if they would trust them to own up to eating all the biscuits, they wouldn't trust them to do anything resembling scientific research.

Citizen science projects - like the Great Chicken Coop Stakeout or the South African Bird Atlas Project - use volunteers, sometimes on a mass scale, to carry out scientific surveys and monitoring. From what I've read, some scientists are skeptical about the quality of data emerging from these type of projects. This mistrust extends to policymakers, who are reluctant to use the data on the presumption that it is somehow faulty or unreliable.

Here's a post by John Gollan, a research fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney in which he explains that far from being of poor quality, data collected by citizen scientists is of similar quality to data collected by scientists and on occasion better.

The comments section provides food for thought. From Les McNamara:
"It is odd that a society can train volunteers to reliably perform first aid, fight fires and provide care to needy and vulnerable people, but that same society can't trust volunteers to count birds. Scientific snobbery?"

Clearly all scientists do not hold the same view - Les is a researcher himself. But why mistrust data collected by volunteers, who after all are just PEOPLE. Like scientists, remember? We are all PEOPLE with the same foibles. In general, volunteers taking part in citizen science projects are not being asked to follow complex scientific protocols, so why should they be expected to make mistakes? If a project is well-designed in the first place (most are designed by scientists themselves) and the volunteers are properly briefed, the risk of bias should be the same as for any ol' science project. Here's Gollan:

"It should not be a case of blaming the citizens. The scientist behind such programs should have checks in place – citizen science project or otherwise!"