Citizen Science by Jamie Zvirzdin

Introduction to Citizen Science:
Find intellectual security

Imagine you are sitting in science class. On the paper in front of you, there is a homework problem that you don’t understand.

You raise your hand for clarity, but the teacher responds, “Oh, that problem is easy! Just use your intuition. The teacher then spouts a bunch of specialized words – science jargon – that you just learned.

“Thank you,” you say aloud, but your confused thoughts are joined by the cold shiver of shame: you’re more confused than ever, but out of fear, pride, or both, you pretend to understand. Sink deeper into your chair, you mentally check out the rest of the lecture, maybe even the rest of the semester. If this was an “easy” problem, maybe science isn’t for you. Your curiosity for science, once a roaring fire, sizzles and nearly dies.

Scenarios like this happen to many of us, from elementary school through college. The subtle shame of science is an educational tic that provokes a storm of self-criticism and intellectual insecurity. Add to that bad science, plagiarism, misinformation, bad actors and new viruses, and we sink into a muck of national confusion, fear, pride, anger and mistrust: in 2022, the Pew Research Center reported that the percentage of American adults who have “high trust in scientists” fell from 39% to 29%, and China and Russia now run international student competitions in math and science, as “Forbes” reported in late 2021. Although NPR reported in October 2022 that college enrollment rates are finally falling less rapidly, they are still falling — and have been since 2012.

Students who stay in college and science sometimes feel the urge to cheat, another form of intellectual insecurity. In November 2022, Harvard reported catching and expelling a record number of students for cheating, and 85% of those instances of academic dishonesty occurred in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses. ). Beyond the classroom, adults of all educational levels and political affiliations fall prey to pseudoscientific thinking, conspiracy theories, harmful biases, and logical fallacies. Collectively, these science-related issues affect our happiness, health, wealth, and progress as a nation, especially as we begin to shame our young children as well.

I experienced subtle and not-so-subtle upbringing by shaming myself, many times. Such academic chest beats were sometimes involuntary, accidental, even misinterpreted; other times it was overtly ruthless, mean-spirited, or discriminatory—perhaps a sign that these teachers themselves felt unsafe as leaders. For example, when my AP computer teacher saw that I was the only young woman in his class, he said, “I hope you don’t transfer like all the other girls.” When my mom started chemo, you can bet AP Computer Science was the first class I dropped out to relieve academic pressure.

As an undergraduate student, although I loved physics, I lacked the confidence and cultural support to pursue it. I decided to do what came most easily to me, editing and writing, and worked my way up the communications ladder. I learned grammar, punctuation rules, linguistics, Latin. With my newborn son asleep in his crib, I edited American science textbooks and learned what kinds of words grab an audience’s attention and what kinds of sentence patterns keep them away. I have helped European researchers to write journal articles for their fellow citizens across the European Union. They called it “citizen science,” and I loved it. I got a master’s degree in writing. I started teaching science writing at Johns Hopkins, and to the best of my ability—no teacher is perfect—I make my materials and teaching style rigorous but also inclusive, accessible, and empathetic.

When I decided to go back and get a master’s degree in physics, you can imagine my renewed frustration when: 1) the professor skipped steps during classroom instruction, calling the problem easy; 2) the manual was full of words like ‘clearly’ and ‘obviously’, but the concept, as written, was neither clear nor obvious; and, 3) problem sets and course materials were sometimes poorly described, riddled with jargon, and bloated with long sentence patterns, the same patterns that drive people away. My classmates, many of whom had been in physics most of their lives, expressed similar feelings of confusion and frustration.

But this time, I didn’t slump in my chair. I did not drop out of the course. Instead, I asked follow-up questions. I met the teacher outside of class, formed a study group, found better teaching materials, and rewrote difficult materials in my own words. I managed my emotions and took charge of my own learning.

In short, I found a measure of intellectual security. If your own scientific fire has been extinguished by past negative experiences, I would be honored to help you rekindle it. The purpose of this new monthly column is to examine and strengthen the scientific knowledge of our citizens, which will increase our collective power and confidence to make smart choices for ourselves, our families and our communities. In this age of anti-science, where American citizens are tired of feeling stupid, rejected and helpless, we will help prevent the baby scientist from being thrown out with the bathwater.

But good science takes time, humility, courage, honesty and patience. It is susceptible to human bias, error and abuse, especially when the scientific method is circumvented or rigged. So we’re going to clean up this baby scientist, inspect him for injuries and parasites, and send him scampering on his way, encouraging him and making sure he doesn’t stray too far.

And it will take a village, all of us, to raise it.

It’s citizen science, and I invite you to read it every month. If you feel so inclined, share the digital version of this article from www.AllOtsego.com with your friends and family. We’ll cover “knowledge about knowledge”, as well as everything from what stove you should buy to how to interpret the movement of planets and stars. Thanks for reading.

Jamie Zvirzdin studies cosmic rays with the Telescope Array Project, teaches science writing at Johns Hopkins University, and is the author of “Subatomic Writing.”



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