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The evolution of selves by open citizen science

This post summarizes my current focus in area of open science. Whether concepts presented here could make their way into practice, that’s still to be seen. So, consider this a work in progress. I’m happy to be proven wrong, change my opinion or get myself sold into other ideas.

On (open) science

Science (like almost everything else in the world) needs a major transformation, as it no longer serves its purpose in the most efficient manner. For that reason I was attracted to open science several years ago – openness is the mode of the future in science. However the adoption rate for open science turned out to be rather low. One thing is that scientists from some point of their careers are like CEOs – they believe they have the ability to make good decisions, and not amount of facts/data/reports/suggestions is going to make them change their mind (Thomas Kuhn had described that phenomenon more precisely, but I find this analogy a bit better suited for modern times). But there’s also another layer – organization of science is a cultural artifact, and we are all culturally conditioned to accept certain approaches to research. “It’s always been that way” is the reason why we don’t have a “fooling around” grant, to explore different areas without being bound by providing results, for scientists with proven track record. It’s the reason why principal investigator of a grant cannot be a team (such as Polymath Project; after all some teams of great-but-not-geniuses can outperform the ones led by a genius). It’s the reason we massively subscribe to beauty contests such as Nobel Prize (or any other ranking system). Cultural conditioning goes even further – we are conditioned to accept or reject certain scientific questions (for example, fishing expeditions such as metagenomics studies would have hard time to gain acceptance in this part of the world before they became hot in the West, as Central and Eastern European researchers usually start with the hypothesis, not data; on the other hand proposals for really complex studies are often turned down in the West). So, in practice only results of research (assertions) are trans-cultural (concept borrowed from Gregory Lent) – the rest is a cultural artifact.

On the OAI7 conference there was an open science breakout session. Among other things, we divided ourselves into groups and each group had to come up with a single action that was supposed to move openness in science forward. Not surprisingly, 3 out of 4 groups proposed some kind of incentive. Carrots are one way of changing this cultural construct. Another way is adjusting a stick in a form of a mandate or change the processes (such as publishing) in a such way that they require certain amount of openness. Interestingly, we don’t need to take care of sustaining cultural change – once certain mode is adopted, scientists will develop sustaining arguments and procedures by themselves.

Tranformation, growth, evolution

We (scientists in general) do not talk about “personal growth” or anything remotely similar. It’s personal, it’s about growth (and assumes something about us is not OK) and by all means it’s something stupid related to banging one’s own chest and believing everything is possible. However, when you ask people if they think that all the problems we have in science could be solved in a short time provided scientist would grow up, you get definite “yes” almost each time. You can look at this in a slightly different way. On the very same open science session at OAI7 I mentioned above, we were asked to provide one keyword/phrase that describes open science. We got a collection of 30-40 keyword and rarely anything repeated. Surprisingly (or not), about one third of them were actually describing science, as it is “supposed” to be, but apparently is not. Open science as a moral transformation movement? Growing up? Come on. This is not the thing reasonable people talk about, right?

While I’m not going to start a new religion, I want you to re-frame the concept of “growth” into something more scientific. The basis for such framework might be the work of the father of so called positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He is most known for the book “Flow” about a state of full immersing in the task and conditions required to achieve it. In the next book, “The Evolving Self” he started to look at patterns of “flow” across the history and showed several examples how “flow” was the basis for substantial shifts in the communities across centuries. He also traced how our “self” evolved over millenia. His main point is that large transformations that happened in the past required a complex self and a laser focus of psychic energy, and to deal with several issues of the present, we need more of the same. He argues that the best idea would be to form a creative minority, called “evolutionary cell” that by its special design (more on that in a minute) will allow its members to transcendent their “selves”.

While it may sound a bit abstract (not surprisingly – the issue is quite complex and it’s hard to simplify), let’s look at an example, El Sistema program in Venezuela. It differs quite substantially from most of other music schools systems all over the world. There’s unprecedented amount of working in groups. Kids play together or form orchestras from very early stages. Because they work together, “flow” is achievable much easier than when playing alone. Because music is relatively neutral topic, participants face no resistance from their own communities which helps them to grow out of social conditioning of their communities (studies notice improvements in school attendance and declines in juvenile delinquency among El Sistema participants). And almost by the way, these kids at the end of the day form one of the best 5 youth orchestras in the world.

Fellowship for the future

I think that carefully designed open citizen science projects are our fellowship for the future, as Csikszentmihalyi calls these future oriented creative minorities. And here’s what I understand by careful design:

  • It’s a group effort (there are plenty of venues for individual performance elsewhere – here only the “orchestra” matters).
  • It has a clear goal, that is ideologically neutral (a participant avoids heated discussion about the project in his/her local community) and attacks it from many different perspectives (systems thinking). Scientific questions fit perfectly, as long they are not in the area of climate change, sociology or GMO.
  • The goal has to be large, difficult and open (in a sense that the group invents new solution to the problem). While it’s the easiest to grab people’s attention for short amount of time, there must be an element of long journey in the process.
  • The project should be hands-on – there has to be real contact with the issue (it can be even abstracted in the lab but not virtual- cyber-science doesn’t work here).
  • Difficulty of the tasks follows the skills of participants – you cannot do the same thing for 8 months and expect enthusiasm or “flow” (unless you are given some space to introduce changes).
  • The group has a natural leader (scientists/teacher) but nevertheless is built on the basis of meritocracy (you don’t want participants to compete for alpha position, but you don’t want to entirely obey either).
  • There must be a close and relatively frequent contact with the leader, therefore groups have to be small and local.
  • It should teach logical and creative thinking, but at the same time integrity, accountability interconnectedness and systems thinking. In other words, let’s do interesting science, let’s report it well, and let’s make sure we understand different sides of the problem.

In essence, the project allows participants to have their own “hero’s journey” (the basic pattern of narratives from all over the world, also called monomyth; coined by Joseph Campbell). The journey allows the hero to destroy the old self and build the new one. While it sounds dramatic (some call it “tragic” mode of self-development), it’s actually not. It all happens almost transparently, because this process is not the main purpose of the journey – the main purpose is to kill the dragon or to solve the scientific issue.

It’s not a religion in disguise – it’s an idea to transform science and society, to increase wisdom level just a little bit.

What next?

This approach definitely needs more work. I’m not yet sure how to avoid common mistakes, such as pseudoteaching or shallowness. I’m not yet sure if within so short time (between 1 and 3 years per cycle) I would manage to convey the basics of scientific and systems thinking (it took me a while to get it). The project will present big challenge to participants on many different levels. It’s also relatively easy to attack the project and hard to defend it – especially easy critique is little results vs large investment (the project requires by design relatively low ratio of scientists to participants – and not all of the participants will be willing to lead next iterations; obviously project has no appeal short term).

However, such idealistic stance (framed in different words) is going to repeatedly come back into science. Have a look at the couple of links below (most are quite recent) – the framework is appearing again and again. But it’s not going to be easy to defend it or implement it. Depending on the angle, it’s going to be seen as dangerous ideology bordering on cybercommunism, nice societal idea disconnected from the reality or something that produces completely unwanted results. But systems thinking (kind of pre-requisite for becoming responsible adult) is the skill of the future, and we need to teach it, in whatever form.

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