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On the (De)Merits of Citizen Science

Written By: Anton Ulyanov - Jul• 18•13

Earlier today, we took part in one of the largest crowdsourcing experiments in the world. Working through the Galaxy Zoo website, we put on our lab coats to classify galaxies, stars, and the occasional green screen with red lines on it. Doing this work, it really made me feel good. It made me feel like I was contributing to something truly special. It also made me horrified.

I don’t know about you, but the last time I saw someone on the news for making an important discovery, they had years of training and at least a PhD. While it is undoubtedly an honorable effort, I have to question the reliability of Galaxy Zoo’s data. Yes, they check each photo against the opinion of hundreds, maybe even thousands of people, but one needs to keep in mind who those people are. In our case, it was a class of twenty teenagers going willy-nilly with the buttons, classifying a galaxy in five seconds. It’s not that I don’t trust my peers – I just don’t trust myself. I can barely even trust myself not to fall asleep on the bus so I don’t miss my stop, so I definitely wouldn’t leave it up to me to classify the galaxies in a project that scientists could later use to make the most important discoveries to date.

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One Comment

  1. Ms. Barge says:

    Actually, there are discoveries made by amateurs. Last year a high school students, just like you, discovered a new pulsar through one of these programs and a young woman (not a scientist) in Europe (Sweden, I think) discovered a new object in one of these galaxy zoo projects.

    Galaxy Zoo does have many, many people looking at each galaxy, so there is control that way. This blog describes what has been done with citizen science from scientists’ point of view.

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