Exploration into the evolution of bestowing knowledge with authority

The following text is based upon my introduction to a seminar at the University of Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science, 23rd January 2015. The pre-seminar reading comprised 2 articles on citizen science, Pollution Patrol, Nature 8 January  2015, p136, and Out of the Lab and into the Streets, New Scientist 29th June 2013, p 48. It is a first step towards conceptually bringing together observations on changes in the way we generate knowledge, and exploring the challenges in how we bestow information with authority, building on ideas around the search for truth in science, trust and expertise.


“You will have had the opportunity to read the two articles that Hasok circulated giving you some of the background around citizen science and citizen sensing as a movement. These movements are the weather vanes pertinent to science of a broader cultural trend towards collectivism, openness, democratisation of knowledge, bridging of disciplinary boarders – in simple terms a pervading idea that the age of the rather “Hollywood” concept of an individual’s significance is gone, replaced by the idea that individuals within society effect change.

“This shift has a significant impact not just on our perceptions within society at large, but also how we understand science and scientists, and formulate our discussions around them. What I’d like us to particularly discuss during this seminar is the consequences of these movements for philosophy of science, particularly in terms of changes in how knowledge is produced and bestowed with authority.

“I’d like to begin by mentioning something about crossing disciplinary boundaries, the broadest stroke in this movement. There is an argument – somewhat contentious in highly polarised disciplines – that crossing disciplinary boundaries – particularly between the arts or humanities and science – leads to the creation of new types of knowledge. Georgina Born and Andrew Barry argue this eloquently in their 2010 Art-Science paper looking at the relation of art-science to knowledge production, exploring projects that bring together the two disciplines as a kind of public experiment. Beatriz da Costa’s PigeonBlog was a great example of this, as are Giles Lane’s public experiments of mapping narratives, from his Mapping Perception project where he examined the limits of human perception, to more recent work examining indigenous public authoring around histories of locations in New Guinea. Here, art – and the inclusion of a public – brings a new perspective to scientific enquiry, redefines the data that is deemed necessary, blurs the lines around what is considered legitimate in data collection, and who can legitimately collect it. It also re-injects scientific practice into the real world, acknowledging that the sought-after ideals of reductionism and objectivity are hard to achieve. It’s in some ways an embrace of complexity.

“It’s no surprise perhaps that Lane now works with ExCITES – the extreme citizen science group at UCL. This group first came to my attention when I heard about researcher Jerome Flynn’s work with indigenous tribes in Congo on mapping sacred sites – an activity that also creates valuable data for conservation and monitoring of illegal logging. And indeed, much of citizen science and citizen sensing is focussed on environmental monitoring – from the Cambridge ladybird monitoring programme in the early 2000s, which aimed to crowdsource identification of the invasive Harlequin ladybird species, to the air quality monitoring I discuss in my Nature article, to the iBats programme sensing species using audio signatures, and many more.

“In some cases, these types of citizen-based endeavours put the focus on the value of experiential knowledge – for instance research into authority, notably by the Authority Research Network, has led to arguments that self-organised groups of mental health patients can effectively manage their illnesses without intervention from healthcare workers. In another case, a collaboration between Inuits and scientists led to the founding of the Nunavik Research Center in Montreal, which incorporates local and traditional scientific knowledge to investigate the impact and mitigation of climate change in the Canadian Nunavik region.

“At this juncture, it’s important to mention raise another fairly recent change – the open source and open access movements. Open source software, open hardware and open access publishing all free up knowledge so that anyone can access it. With increasing amounts of documentation online, along with a mushrooming in the number of hackspaces and DIYbio labs, people without access to a university or lab now have the ability to discover research and experiment on their own.

“Those working in citizen science are now learning how best to verify the large amount of information coming from people without a traditional scientific background. ExCITES  focusses on generating projects run by citizens that produce valid outputs – for instance by studying how citizens interact within a project on participatory sensing. Here we have interesting distinctions between the different points at which there is intervention by traditional scientists. There are projects that start on a community level and require intervention for analysis – for instance the LA Bucket Brigade, who are measuring atmospheric pollution for campaigning purposes and pay for sample analysis in a private chemistry lab – there are projects begun in a university but designed in collaboration with a community, and completely top-down initiatives where the public are data-gatherers, there are projects to help citizens follow protocols for data gathering, open source projects to help analyze the data gathered, and revolutions in publishing platforms that allow for dissemination and discussion of results – and projects within universities and outside doing meta-analysis on all of these.

“This revolution in knowledge production, analysis and dissemination challenges us to redefine how we gauge and qualify non-traditional research outputs. How do we judge whether outputs like exhibitions, artworks or knowledge transfer – which are traditionally judged with a degree of subjectivism – are worthwhile? Citizen science outputs are already being judged not just in terms of the data collected and its utilitarian value to research, but also in terms of engagement and participation. What truth are we aiming to uncover with these projects and are we redefining our search for truth from – the ideal of an objective truth tp the truth of the messy complexity of our existence?

“Research for the European Commission by interdisciplinary R&D companies iMinds and artshare is attempting to pin down the answers to these questions, focussing on the way that interaction with the arts benefits the ICT sector. Traditionally, success in cross-disciplinary work has been gauged in terms of commercialisation of the results. However, the iMinds/artshare research is instead looking not only at solid outputs but at qualitative measures of success, such as information exchange, wider impact on society and the increasing role of art in open source practices – all with a focus on looking at the long term impacts. Their study, which looks at projects from the middle of the last century until now, aims to develop a new qualitative metric by which elements in today’s information landscape may be judged. As artist Olafur Eliasson said at the last meeting where the study was discussed – this may lead to a measure of success for research that is a hybrid of quantitative and qualitative evaluation, and may fundamentally change how we value, and judge the value of, knowledge in the future.

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