Can bottom-up citizen science challenge the authority of Big Science ?

Excerpted from Dan McQuillan:

“There are interesting weaknesses at the core of scientific hegemony. While most scientists choose to present their practice publicly as an infallible machine for the production of truths, the opinions behind the curtain are far more mixed, and for good reason. Even hard science is not immune to distortion by group-think and social pathologies – witness Lee Smolin’s account of the ascendance of string theory. And while reproducability is the bedrock of scientific authority, asserting that the same experiments always get the same results irrespective of who is doing the experiment, a 2012 study of landmark results in cancer science was able to reproduce only 11 per cent of the original findings. But the unresolved fractures go further back. As Isabelle Stengers would have it, at least back to the confrontation more than a hundred years ago between Max Planck and Ernst Mach. While Mach wanted formulations that tied physical laws to the human practices that produced them, Planck argued successfully for ‘the physicists faith’ in truths that are unbounded by time, space or social-material specifics. Even many years after my PhD in experimental particle physics I can remember the shared certainty that, whatever about art and culture, it was we who were probing the real truths of the universe. Although contemporary understandings of science are based on Planck’s version, citizen science practices have the potential to re-open these questions in a productive manner.

So what practices is it that could produce a more punk science from the community choirs of citizen science? There are projects like the Extreme Citizen Science research group (ExCiteS) who see citizen science as “a situated, bottom-up practice” that “takes into account local needs, practices and culture”. Or the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science which involves communities all the way from framing the research questions, to prototyping tools, to collating and interpreting the measurements. Public Lab’s mission is to “put scientific inquiry at the heart of civic life” and ExCiteS strives for “new devices and knowledge creation processes that can transform the world”. All these projects re-appropriate networked technologies, whether to enable environmental monitoring by indigenous communities in the Congo or by developing do-it-yourself spectrometry kits to detect crude oil pollution. The Kosovo Science for Change project, where I am a researcher, has adopted the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire as the starting point for our empirical investigations. Critical pedagogy is learning as the co-operative activity of understanding how our lived experience is constructed by power, and how to make a difference in the world.

There’s a chance, at least, that these currents could coalesce in to what Deleuze and Guattari referred to a smooth or nomadic science; one which does not have the ambition to totalise knowledge. Nomadic science is a form of empirical investigation that has no need to be hooked up to a grand narrative. The concept of nomadic science is a natural fit for bottom-up citizen science because it can valorise truths that are non-dual and that go beyond objectivity to include the experiential. As there is no a priori exclusion of provisional knowledges, it naturally inclines towards the local, the situated and the culturally reflective. The apparent unreliability of citizen science in terms of participants and tools, which is solely a source of anxiety at the moment, could become heuristic for nomadic science when re-cast through the forgotten alternatives like Mach’s formulation; that truths are never separated from the specifics of the context and process that produced them. In this sense, if in no other, a nomadic citizen science has the potential to carry through on the hopes that Roszak had for the counterculture; the renewal of a visionary imagination along with a more human sense of community.”

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