A passing thought about a certain flavor of “citizen science” project.

I think that better public understanding of science (and in particular of the processes by which scientific knowledge is built) is a good thing.

I’m persuaded that one way public understanding of science might be enhanced is through projects that engage members of the public, in various ways, in building the knowledge. Potentially, such “citizen science” initiative could even help develop some public good will for traditional science projects.

But, I think there’s a potential for engagement with the public to go very wrong.

This is especially true in situations in which there’s not a clear line between the citizen-as-participant-in-knowledge-building and the citizen-as-human-subject (who is entitled to certain kinds of protection — e.g., of autonomy, of privacy, from various kinds of harms), and even more so in cases where the citizen scientist-cum-human subject is also a customer of the entity conducting the research.

And, while it may not be the case that heightened ethical oversight (e.g., from an Institutional Review Board) is necessary in cases where the citizen science project is not aimed at publishing results in the scientific literature or bringing a medical product or device to market, it strikes me that scientists engaging with members of the public (citizen scientists-cum-human subjects-cum-customers) might do better to lean on the side of more ethical consideration than less, of more protection of human subjects rather than “caveat emptor”.

Indeed, scientists engaging with members of the public to build the knowledge might be well served to engage with those members of the public in a consideration of the ethics of the research. This could be an opportunity to model how it should be done, not simply what you can get away with under the prevailing regulations. It could also be an opportunity for researchers to listen to the members of the public they’re engaging rather than simply treating them as sources of specimens, funding, and free labor.

Playing fast and loose with ethics in projects that engage citizen scientists-cum-human subjects-cum-customers could have blowback as far as public attitudes toward science and scientists. I suspect such blowback would not be limited to the actual researchers or organizations directly involved, but also to other researchers with citizen science projects (even ethically well-run ones), and probably to scientists and scientific organizations more broadly.

In other words, the scientific community as a whole has an interest in the purveyors of this kind of citizen science getting the ethical engagement with the public right.

* * * * *
These general musings were sparked by more specific questions raised about a specific commercial citizen science project in two posts at The Boundary Layer. Click through and read them.

UPDATE: And Comrade PhysioProf weighs in.

The case study protagonist as unreliable narrator.

Even though it seems like my semester just started, I’m already grading the first batch of case study responses from my “Ethics in Science” students. (Students, if you’re reading this: I’m quite happy with how the class is doing! You’ll get detailed feedback on your response by the end of the week.)

In case you’re not familiar with case studies in the context of an ethics class, they usually consist of a brief description of a situation in which a protagonist is trying to make a decision about what to do. I ask my students to look at this description and identify who has a stake in what the protagonist does (or doesn’t do); what consequences, good or bad, might flow from the various courses of action available to the protagonist; to whom the protagonist has obligations that will be satisfied or ignored by his or her action; and how the relevant obligations and interests pull the protagonist in different directions as he or she tries to make the best decision. On the basis of these details, I ask my students to choose a course of action for the protagonist and explain why it’s an ethical course of action.

But here’s something that makes the analysis difficult for the students: Often it’s hard to pin down the fact of the case with certainty. The scenario is described from the protagonist’s point of view. It seems to the protagonist that there’s favoritism in the lab group, or that it’s obvious why some of the measurement turned out the way they did, or that a colleague is going to react a particular way if a concern is brought to that colleague’s attention. However, my students have been quick to notice in their discussions of the cases, what seems to be true to the protagonist might be false. For any number of reasons, the protagonist may have a skewed perspective on what’s going on in other people’s minds, on what the issues are with the experiment, even on his or her own competence.

The protagonist, in other words, could be an unreliable narrator.

Making a good ethical decision is easier when you can pin down all the relevant facts (including things like what future events would flow from the protagonist’s various courses of action). But, as in real life, the case studies with which we ask our students to grapple have a lot of uncertainty built in. Postponing a decision about what to do until all the facts are in just isn’t a practical option. Sometimes you do the best you can with knowledge you recognize is gappy.

Indeed, one of the big reasons I try to get my students to understand discussion as a valuable part of ethical decision-making is that, left to our own devices, each of us can be just as unreliable a narrator as the protagonist of the case study we’re thinking through. The protagonist suspects favoritism. We suspect jealousy. Maybe the protagonist is wrong, but maybe the protagonist is right and we’re wrong instead. Given the state of our knowledge in the world, we don’t won’t to lean on ethical decision-making strategies that require us to guess correctly about all of the unknowns.

The moral of the story is assuredly not the “there are no wrong answers” crap that humanities professors get from their naïve undergraduates. Instead, it’s that taking account of other people’s perspectives may be useful in helping us gain some critical distance on our own (and on the ways it might turn out to be wrong). Also, it’s that an ethical course of action might require some active fact-finding to test whether one’s perceptions in a situation are reliable before acting rashly on the assumption that they are.

* * * * *
Related posts:

The value of (unrealistic) case studies in ethics education.

Some ethical decisions are not that hard: thoughts on Joe Paterno.

Question for the hivemind: workplace policies and MYOB.

Passion quilt: a meme for teachers.

What did Jonah Lehrer teach us about science?

Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin wishes people would lay off of Jonah Lehrer. It’s bad enough that people made a fuss last July about falsified quotes and plagiarism that caused Lehrer’s publisher to recall his book Imagine and cost him a plum job at The New Yorker. Now people are crying foul that the Knight Foundation paid Lehrer $20,000 to deliver a mea culpa that Lehrer’s critics have not judged especially persuasive on the “lesson learned” front. Ulin thinks people ought to cut Lehrer some slack:

What did we expect from Lehrer? And why did we expect anything at all? Like every one of us, he is a conflicted human, his own worst enemy, but you’d hardly know that from the pile-on provoked by his talk.

Did Jonah Lehrer betray us? I don’t think so.

Ulin apparently feels qualified to speak on behalf of all of us. In light of some of the eloquent posts from people who feel personally betrayed by Lehrer, I’d recommend that Ulin stick to “I-statements” when assessing the emotional fallout from Lehrer’s journalistic misdeeds and more recent public relations blunder.

And, to be fair, earlier in Ulin’s piece, he does speak for himself about Lehrer’s books:

That’s sad, tragic even, for Lehrer was a talented journalist, a science writer with real insights into creativity and how the brain works. I learned things from his books “How We Decide” and “Imagine” (the latter of which has been withdrawn from publication), and Lehrer’s indiscretions haven’t taken that away.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Probably Ulin wouldn’t go to the mat to assert that what he learned from Imagine was what Bob Dylan actually said (since a fabricated Dylan quote was one of the smoking guns that revealed Lehrer’s casual attitudes toward journalistic standards). Probably he’d say he learned something about the science Lehrer was describing in such engaging language.

Except, people who have been reading Lehrer’s books carefully have noted that the scientific story he conveyed so engagingly was not always conveyed so accurately:

Jonah Lehrer was never a very good science writer. He seemed not to fully understand the science he was trying to explain; his explanations were inaccurate, overblown, and often just plain wrong, usually in the direction of giving his readers counterintuitive thrills and challenging their settled beliefs. You can read my review and the various parts of my exchange with him that are linked above for detailed explanations of why I make this claim. Others have made similar points too, for example Isaac Chotiner at the New Republic and Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist at The Millions. But the tenor of many critics last year was “he committed unforgivable journalistic sins and should be punished for them, but he still got the science right.” There was a clear sense that one had nothing to do with the other.

In my opinion, the fabrications and the scientific misunderstanding are actually closely related. The fabrications tended to follow a pattern of perfecting the stories and anecdotes that Lehrer — like almost all successful science writers nowadays — used to illustrate his arguments. Had he used only words Bob Dylan actually said, and only the true facts about Dylan’s 1960s songwriting travails, the story wouldn’t have been as smooth. It’s human nature to be more convinced by concrete stories than by abstract statistics and ideas, so the convincingness of Lehrer’s science writing came from the brilliance of his stories, characters, and quotes. Those are the elements that people process fluently and remember long after the details of experiments and analyses fade.

(Bold emphasis added.)

If this is the case — that Lehrer was an entertaining communicator but not a reliably accurate communicator of the current state of our best scientific knowledge — did Ulin actually learn what he thought he learned from Lehrer’s books? Or, was he misled by glib storytelling into thinking he understood what science might tell us about creativity, imagination, the workings of our own brains?

Maybe Ulin doesn’t expect a book marketed as non-fiction popular science to live up to this standard, but a lot of us do. And, while lowering one’s standards is one way to avoid feeling betrayed, it’s not something I would have expected a professional book critic to advise readers to do.

An ad in the sidebar that kind of bugs me.

Just now, on this blog, I noticed an ad for an “online reputation management service”. There are ads for services like these all over the place (including on the airwaves of the big San Francisco public radio station, although they don’t call them “ads” because public radio isn’t supposed to have ads).

Anyway, I hadn’t really given much thought to these businesses. I figured it was mostly for restaurants or similar kinds of clients trying to “accentuate” their good online reviews (while eliminating the negative ones, or at least pushing them down in the search results). Kind of slimy, but in a way I’ve come to expect from companies trying to attract me as a customer.

But I have come to learn lately that cheating scientists sanctioned by the ORI have been hiring online reputation managers to try to push the cyber-trails of their cheating out of sight. It’s even possible (although not conclusively established by any means) that especially vigorous online reputation managers for hire might be engaging in shenanigans to use false DMCA claims to literally eliminate negative information that the scientific community (and indeed, the larger public) has an interest in being able to access.

So, yeah. Everyone has bills to pay — people who work in online reputation management, people who had to leave science because they got caught cheating, blog networks like Scientopia. Commerce marches on. But that doesn’t mean I have to like all of what happens in the service of paying those bills.

#scio13 aftermath: some thoughts about the impostor syndrome.

I didn’t end up going to the Impostor Syndrome session at ScienceOnline 2013. I told myself this was because it would be more professionally useful to attend Life in the venn – What happens when you’re forced to wear many hats? since I have recently added a hat of my own (Director of my university’s Center for Ethics). But, if I’m honest with myself, it’s because I felt like too much of an impostor to contribute much of anything — even useful tweets — to the impostor syndrome session.

I have felt like an impostor since at least high school, and maybe before that.

I have known, since at least my second year of college, that the impostor syndrome was a real phenomenon. It was even the topic of my term paper in Psych 101. But knowing that the syndrome was a real thing, and that it involved a mismatch between one’s actual accomplishments and how accomplished one felt on the inside, didn’t make me feel like less of a fraud.

It probably goes without saying that I had a flare-up of the impostor syndrome in my first Ph.D. program. I had another flare-up in my second Ph.D. program (although I was maybe a little better at hiding my self-doubt). Going on the academic job market in philosophy made me feel like perhaps the biggest fraud of all … until I went up for tenure.

The frustrating thing about the impostor syndrome is that it makes it utterly impossible to tell whether your successes reflect any merit, or whether they are pure luck.

Whether the potential others see in you is real, and could somehow be converted to something of value (if only you manage not to blow it), or whether your only actual skill is talking a good game.

Whether piping up to share what feel like insights is reasonable, or whether you are just wasting people’s time.

I worry that what it might take to overcome my own impostor syndrome is an actual flight from reality. I know too many smart, accomplished people in my field who have not met with the recognition or success they deserve to believe we’re working within a pure meritocracy — which means it’s unreasonable for me to take my own success as a clear indicator of merit. I also know that past performance is not a guarantee of future returns — which means that even if I have done praiseworthy things in the past, I could blow it at any moment going forward.

And I also worry that maybe I don’t really have impostor syndrome, in which case, the reasonable conclusion, given how I feel a lot of the time, is that I actually am a fraud.

So, yeah, it’s one of those topics that feels very relevant, but is perhaps relevant enough that I’m not really in a good position to benefit from a discussion of it.

How’s that for a paradox?

* * * * *

Tweets from the Impostor Syndrome session have been Storified here.

Passing thoughts about the younger offspring’s interaction with popular music, in two scenes.

Scene 1, in the Free-Ride hoopty en route to a music lesson a few weeks ago:

[On the mix-CD in the CD player, a Todd Rundgren song begins to play.]

Younger offspring: Le Roy!

Dr. Free-Ride: Yup!

Younger offspring: The melody of this song is really catchy.

Dr. Free-Ride: I agree.

Younger offspring: But … what is he actually saying about women? I’m not sure the guy singing the song gets that women are people the same way he and his friend Le Roy are.

Dr. Free-Ride: No, I’m not sure he does either. It was the 1970s, but still.

Younger offspring: Some really catchy songs are problematic.

Dr. Free-Ride: You were bound to notice that sooner or later.

* * * * *

Scene 2, in the Free-Ride kitchen this morning:

Dr. Free-Ride: Hey, want to watch a video for a rap song about evolution?

Younger offspring: Is it about going to a club, drinking a lot, and hitting on people?

Dr. Free-Ride: Um, it’s about sexual selection.

Younger offspring: Are there bad words in it?

Dr. Free-Ride: No, I don’t think so.

Younger offspring: Musical genres have rules. Maybe it was different when you were young, but nowadays rap songs have to be about going to a club, drinking a lot, and hitting on people, or at least they have to have bad words.

Dr. Free-Ride: Hmmm.

#scio13 aftermath: synecdoche.

It seems inevitable that I come back from ScienceOnline conferences with an odd glow of enthusiasm which my colleagues want me to explain to them. What is this weird conference? Why does it attract such an odd array of researchers, educators, communicators, tool-builders, information curators, and science lovers? Are the conference-goers split off into their disciplinary tribes to focus just on the topic and initiative that are squarely in their wheelhouses?

With 10,000 words I’m not sure I could come close to explaining it. But as David Quammen pointed out when he spoke to us in a CONVERGE session, sometimes focusing on a piece of the experience, a part of the whole, can convey something more.

I had the pleasure of sitting right across the aisle from Jason Goldman on our short flight from Raleigh-Durham to Charlotte on Sunday, and he mentioned that he had captured a tiny bit of video that he was showing to folks to explain what ScienceOnline was like to them. He gave me permission to share that video here:

Science Online, Gangnam style

As a bit of background, Carin Bondar had launched a plan to create a music video to capture some sense of what it was like to be at ScienceOnline 2013. (She made one at ScienceOnline 2012 that was a big hit, so people were pretty enthusiastic to help.) This year’s effort sought (among other things) masses of conference attendees delivering something recognizable as “Gangnam Style” choreography. If you don’t know what that is, let me introduce you to pop phenomenon PSY:

PSY “Gagnam Style”

The mission: get an odd array of researchers, educators, communicators, tool-builders, information curators, and science lovers to dance like PSY.

Our sensei: John Rennie, esteemed former editor in chief of Scientific American, adjunct instructor in New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, science writer, editor, and blogger.

John’s resume does not, as far as I can tell, include a stint as a dance instructor on a cruise ship or on land. However, when given the challenge of mastering some key choreography and of teaching it to a bunch of people (most of whom are not experienced dancers) on the spot, he attacked that challenge so earnestly that we were all committed.

We wanted to learn the steps. We believed we could figure them out, not just because we wanted to, but because John found a way to communicate them to us despite the fact that our entusiasm was much bigger that our talent. And by golly, we had an awesome time being part of the simultaneous transfer of skills and enthusiasm.

What happened that evening with a dance routine is not unrelated to what happens during the whole rest of the conference with our knowledge, our tools, our questions, our ideas for communication, for pedagogy, for outreach, for better ways of doing science, for better ways of sharing our world.

That’s not the whole of the ScienceOnline experience, but it’s an essential part of it, and it’s just as infectious as a pop song.

Dispatch from #scio13: Tweet me maybe?

So, last night at ScienceOnline there was an Open Mic Night, masterfully MC’d by Jacquelyn Gill and David Schiffman. There was a lot of talent on display, but also initial issues with the sound at the venue. (Scott Huler and Brian Malow were the committed empiricists who figured the issue out … it turned out something was plugged into the wrong hole. (Insert gratuitous punchline here.)) The evening culminated with a inspiring dance lesson from John Rennie, who is without a doubt the science journalist you want to teach you how to dance.

Anyway, as conveyed on the Twitters, I made the (almost surely ill-advised) decision to get up and sing at Open Mic Night. While I am pleased (and relieved) to report that I didn’t end up in the Shatner zone in the chorus, a sound engineering issue meant that I lost half of my first verse. So, here are the lyrics to my song about social media, set to a possibly recognizable tune. (If you don’t mind, imagine me singing it in tune.)

I threw a post on my wall,
Only been blogging since Fall,
Your “like” pleased me most of all,
And now you’re in my feed

I’d trade my soul for a link,
I’d kill to hear what you think,
I’d even write you with ink
‘Cause now you’re who I read

FriendFeed was slogging,
Tumblrs were reblogging,
G+ hangouts, I’m no quitter,
Mention me on Twitter, baby?

Hey, I just met you,
And this is crazy,
But here’s my handle,
So tweet me, maybe?

It’s hard to match your
Traffic baby,
But here’s my hashtag,
Retweet me, maybe?

Hey, I just met you,
And this is crazy,
But here’s my handle,
So tweet, maybe?

And all the other blogs,
Try to shake me,
But here’s my hashtag,
Retweet me, maybe?

My comment got voted down,
Emoticon was a frown :-(
You took my logic to town,
But still, you’re in my feed

I didn’t give up the ghost,
Redeemed myself the next post,
Got linklove, I shouldn’t boast,
But it’s what I need.

Bora Z retweeted,
Ed Yong said to read it,
SiteMeter ebb and flowing,
Holy crap I’m linked on BoingBoing!

Hey, I just met you,
And this is crazy,
But here’s my handle,
So tweet me, maybe?

It’s hard to match your
Traffic baby,
But here’s my hashtag,
Retweet me, maybe?

Hey, I just met you,
And this is crazy,
But here’s my handle,
So tweet, maybe?

And all the other blogs,
Try to shake me,
But here’s my hashtag,
Retweet me, maybe?

Before this ScienceOnline
My stats were so bad
My stats were so bad
My stats were so, so bad

Before this ScienceOnline
My stats were so bad
And you should know that
My stats were so, so bad

It’s hard to match your
Traffic baby,
But here’s my hashtag,
Retweet me, maybe?

Hey, I just met you,
And this is crazy,
But here’s my handle,
So tweet, maybe?

And all the other blogs,
Try to shake me,
But here’s my hashtag,
Retweet me, maybe?

Before this ScienceOnline
My stats were so bad
My stats were so bad
My stats were so, so bad

Before this ScienceOnline
My stats were so bad
And you should know that

So tweet me, maybe?

Will fresh cranberries play well with pancake batter? Preliminary findings.

As I was trying to get motivated to crawl out of bed and make breakfast for my family, I tweeted:

Of course, I got a variety of opinions in response:

As you might expect, I set some limits on how far I was prepared to go with this:

But, in the interests of science, I committed to sharing what I learned:

So, as promised, here’s the report.

I started with my standard pancake batter.

Beat together:

2 cups buttermilk (or you can use 4 teaspoons of lemon juice and/or vinegar to sour 2 cups of milk, or 2 cups of plain soymilk)
4 eggs
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Sift together:

2 cups flour (I use “white whole wheat” flour)
1.5 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
0.75 teaspoon salt

Stir the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until well incorporated, but don’t over-beat. (It’s OK if the batter is a little lumpy.) Add a bit of milk or water to thin it if it’s thicker than you like to spread the way a pancake batter should on the griddle.

While the griddle is heating up, melt 4 tablespoons of butter (half a stick). Cool it slightly, then pour into the batter and stir to incorporate it.

Now, the usual procedure for pancakes at Casa Free-Ride is that half of the batter is made into plain pancakes and the other half gets blueberries added to the pancakes when they’re on the griddle.

We’ve been using Trader Joe’s frozen organic wild blueberries. They are teeny tiny little things. I pour a bunch into a custard cup, thaw them with tap water, then pour the water off.

The very best tool for getting them from the custard cup to the proto-pancake without too much residual water/juice being slopped along is a bar-spoon.


The little holes at the end of the bar-spoon get the draining done.

I decided to try three distinct approaches to the fresh cranberries.

Option 1: Halved

Obviously, this was the easiest preparation. I just rinsed some cranberries, cut them in half, and then added them to the proto-pancakes on the griddle before they were flipped in the same way I typically add blueberries.


The predictions here were that maybe the cooking time would be insufficient, leaving the cranberries too raw and tart, or that they would make the pancakes too soggy on account of juice coming out of the cranberries as they cooked.


However, it’s worth noting that the raw cranberries are notably not juicy. They’re actually pretty dry. And, on the griddle, the halved cranberries didn’t have any observable effect on the texture of the cooking pancakes.

Option 2: Chopped and sugared

Here, I rinsed some fresh cranberries, chopped them coarsely, and stirred in a bit of granulated sugar. Then I used a wee little spoon to distribute the cranberry fragments to the proto-pancakes on the griddle before they were flipped.


There was some suggestion that chopped and sugared cranberries might lead to better results because the smaller fragments would have a better chance of cooking sufficiently by the time the pancakes were done cooking, and the extra sugar would balance any residual tartness from the cranberries not having all that long to cook.

However, I observed that the pancakes with the chopped and sugared cranberries did become a bit soggier on the griddle. That extra sugar was drawing the juice out of the cranberries!


Raising the flame under the griddle seemed to take care of this problem, though.

Option 3: Sauced

Finally, I rinsed a bunch of fresh cranberries, halved them, and put them in a tea cup. I squeezed in the juice of a small navel orange, added a few tablespoons of granulated sugar, and popped it in the microwave.

I had planned to microwave it for a couple minutes, but it just about boiled over before a full minute of cooking. It looked and tasted like a cranberry sauce.


It was thick. If you want a pourable sauce, probably adding some water or additional orange juice would thin it nicely.

So, how did they taste?


I liked option 1 the best, and not just because it was the easiest. The pancakes had a nice tart kick to them and the same pleasing pancake texture that our plain and blueberry pancakes have.


My better half preferred option 2. The ones cooked on high enough heat had a good pancake texture (although the ones cooked at lower griddle temperature were just a little soggier than optimal). The cranberry flavor was very prominent in these pancakes, but the tartness of the cranberries was toned down by the sweetness of the sugar.


The sprogs were big fans of option 3. For very little labor, it’s a good fruity sauce that plays well with plain pancakes (as well as with pancakes that have blueberries or cranberries cooked into them). For my own tastes, it was just a little too sweet; I might back off on the granulated sugar. The sprigs, on the other hand, might have included just a bit more sugar in the preparation. This is the kind of thing you have to fight out with your fellow breakfast eaters, I guess.


An open letter to our county transit agency.

Dear county transit agency,

I appreciate that you run “school route” busses in our town to help students who live quite a distance away get to the junior high and high school. In these times of woefully inadequate school funding, when school district-run school busses are a misty watercolor memory, lots of kids depend on the school route county busses to get to and from school — including my kid.

I reckon someone at your agency appreciates that the school route busses present an outstanding opportunity to groom future generations to be enthusiastic mass-transit users. Before most of them have drivers licenses, you have a window to convince them that busses are a fast, reliable, and affordable alternative to cars. These kids have been raised as tree-huggers, so they’re receptive to this message. Heck, the car line of the damned in front of the junior high, every morning right before school and every afternoon right after school, is doing yeoman’s work to make that case for you.

Except, here’s the thing: you can only persuade these kids that mass-transit is the way to go if the school route bus actually comes when it’s supposed to before and after school rather than disappearing without a trace and leaving a whole lot of kids standing at the bus stops wondering if they will ever make it to school, or if they will ever make it home.

Honestly, for all of their typing with their thumbs and talking like LOLcats, these kids are smart enough to connect the damn dots.

With extreme irritation on behalf of my stressed out kid standing in the rain waiting for busses that never came on multiple occasions,

Dr. Free-Ride