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Beyond the Ivory Tower: Experts in the Masses

Cornell Gothics Tower

This is a reposting from our old website.  I encourage you to take a look at the comments here before writing your own new ones.

Living among a community comprised largely of scientists and fishermen has recently made me wonder where the dividing line between scientist and citizen falls.  A recent discussion at Science Online 2010 also raised the question of what is the role of the Ivory Tower in research?  Should we consider the scientific community more broadly or is there really something to be said for the role of the ‘expert’ as certified by degrees and a corner office at an academic institution?

Perhaps the dividing line of scientist and layperson is more gray than one might imagine.  One might ask how much does it take to cross that line?  At what point in education can you wake up in the morning and identify yourself as a scientist?  Furthermore, what types of education count toward that tally?

For those involved in citizen science projects, the experiential learning is critical in making someone an expert in the field.  Volunteers in such science projects often don’t even consider the scientists experts if all they’ve done is read the peer-reviewed literature and look at the data produced by such programs.  And in some extreme cases such as the North Carolina Sea Turtle Project, the program coordinators have been involved with the project longer than the associated scientists (in this case, from the state).  These coordinators have more time invested in the project, more hands-on experience with the turtles, and are not afraid to say so when decision making time rolls around for sea turtle management plans.

Another prime example of nontraditional expertise is found all over fisheries management – the fishermen.  They are on the water day in and day out, often for generations in the same family.  Therefore, they offer perspective and information about the fishery that is very difficult if not impossible to gather from classic population surveys.  Much of this expertise has been readily recognized now in the theory of shifting baselines and has been canonized in the academic literature.  But how do we regard the fishermen who offered up their knowledge?  Most wouldn’t classify themselves as scientists.  They might agree that they have “traditional ecological knowledge” or “local ecological knowledge”, but that’s a jargon term that often comes with political and historic baggage.

So maybe they’re a third category of people, a hybrid between scientist and layperson.  Or maybe it’s more of a continuum without clear delineations of each person’s role in the production of scientific knowledge.  We can all recognize the collaborative nature of science and it’s high time we recognize and give credit for different kinds of expertise.  That involves reaching outside the tower through blogs, community meetings, school programs, and other connections to ensure that the best information out there is used in the decision making process.

~Bluegrass Blue Crab