Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Lesson in Citizen Science

I came across an article that provides an excellent example of what citizen science can do. The blog was Cosmic Variance and the article was Science for the masses. The article describes a project called GREAT 2010, which is attempting to improve analysis methods that are used to detect dark matter in the universe. These methods work by detecting how light from far away galaxies or stars are pushed and pulled by dark matter near their path. However, there are many factors that make this analysis harder. The atmosphere distorts the images we see, and the galaxies and stars are never quite exact shapes, so you must correlate several images in order to get a clear picture.

What is unique about this project, and what we can apply to citizen science (in particular for Climate Science), is that this project is not only providing a venue for citizen scientists to contribute, this project is encouraging contribution from those outside the field who have relevant skills (namely programming image processing software)! This isn't just asking backyard astronomers for their photos, it is asking skilled (but lay) people to look at a difficult problem and give them their insight. What this project is doing is saying there are people outside the field who have insight and skills that can be applied to these problems. I think science (in general) needs a bit more of this type of project and climate science is no exception.

The other interesting aspect of this project is how it is judging the various methods that will be submitted. They are inventing a "fake" data set that they feed out to the public for this contest. When teams submit their methods with the results they get, these results are compared to the model used to create this data set. What is truly interesting when compared to climate science is how a "fake" data set can speak directly to a standard skeptic talking point. That is, by using a "fake" data set, they don't test the theory that is being built upon (AGW or some aspect of it), but they do test the analysis method used to extract the results.

I'm looking forward to projects like these in climate science and I am optimistic about their ability to help the science.

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