Opinion Opinion L.A.

The USGS wants you as a 'citizen scientist'

Where would science be without its brilliant amateurs?

Not even close to where it is now.

The likes of Gregor Mendel, Michael Faraday, Joseph Priestley -- even Benjamin Franklin -- and more put discipline to enthusiasm and taught us about natural selection, electromagnetism, chemistry and electricity.

For centuries, the professional scientist -- the trained “natural philosopher” -- barely existed. Leonardo da Vinci had to paint pictures to keep the pot boiling so he could dream and imagine science and engineering far into the future.

Science is professionalized now, thankfully. There are chairs at universities, and grants, and research and development, and peer review. Smart people can get paid to think.

But so much remains for the enthusiastic and disciplined amateur to contribute (and I am not speaking about the crackpots who send emails to newspaper editors assuring them that they can challenge Einstein or “prove” the moon landing was phony), and the U.S. Geological Survey is hoping to recruit them.

Feel an earthquake? Go here. (The USGS earthquake undertaking began 15 years ago and has collected nearly 3 million data responses.)

Notice that flowers are blooming out of season? Share it.

See any volcanic ash in your Alaska neighborhood? Spread the word.

The USGS is recruiting what it calls “citizen scientists” to share their observations of natural phenomena; the USGS will put it all into usable form, like interactive online earthquake mapping.

This kind of crowd-sourcing gives science a breadth of raw data it couldn’t begin to afford. Birdwatchers have been observing birds and compiling “life lists” for decades; the SETI@home project enlists computer owners to program their idling devices into a massive data-sweep operation to scan the universe for evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Here’s my favorite passage from the USGS news release: “Through your contribution, not only will your observations build a much larger and more complete database, but you will also become a virtual member of the USGS scientific team!”

It’s so genuine and eager and breathless -- all it’s missing are the 1950s kiddies' words “keen” and “swell,” which this really is. That, and a decoder ring. This is about science for the pleasure and the curiosity of it. It will engage kids in science and in their own senses. It will get them outdoors, and teach them the discipline of learning how to observe dispassionately,

Here’s the part I can’t yet figure out. Someone is going to find fault with this. I’m not sure who, and I’m not sure why, but anytime any government agency suggests anything, someone on the fringes will automatically and vehemently object.

Maybe it’ll be some climate change denier, railing that this is really about indoctrinating our children to “believe” in global warming.

Whoever he is, he’s off track from the get-go. Because science is not about “believing” anything. It’s about learning and questioning and knowing. “Homo sapiens” -- “wise man.” That’s us. Well, most of us. I hope.

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Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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