Homo naledi, Mr. Paleodemocracy and crowdsourcing

The distinction between “lay” people and scientists that is so common in citizen science is of course a rough approximation (albeit a useful one in certain contexts). Not only the general public is massively diverse in terms of cognitive skills, scientific expertise, and knowledge, but also the other side of disequation is all but an undifferentiated lump of qualified “scientists”. Indeed within-group hierarchies in the scientific community are a key factor in the process of knowledge production and the establishment of scientific credibility. So much that when such hierarchies get contested, the troublemakers attract the very same criticisms that are usually waged against citizen science.

This is at least what we can learn from the story of the discovery of Homo naledi, which hit the headlines worldwide in the last days. Colleagues of Lee Berger, the principal investigator responsible for the discovery, sticked up their nose when he published an open call for “tiny and small, specialised cavers and spelunkers with excellent archaeological, palaeontological and excavation skills”. And the more so when, in addition, he recruited “early career scientists” to analyse the Hominin fragments that the “tiny and small” recruits uncovered in a remote cave in South Africa. Berger apparently earned the nickname “Mr Paleodemocracy” among colleagues for such moves. (Gibbons, 2015).

The crowdsourcing experiment recently resulted in a paper documenting a previously unknown Hominin, Homo naledi, that presents a puzzling mix of ancient and more modern characteristics, opening up many intriguing questions regarding its position in the complex phylogenetic tree of Homo, and even the geographical scope of the early radiation of Homo species. However, the aggressive advertisement of his campaigns made Berger the target of criticism, with colleagues arguing that his work “had more hype than substance” (Chris Stringer, 2015). There are great also great coverages of the controversies surrounding Berger – ranging from his enthusiasm for bold claims to his less than stellar scientific pedigree and his above-average exposure in social media and the press (Bascomb, 2015).

Dismissing earlier criticisms in the wake of Berger´s outstanding discoveries is however disingenuous. The rules of scientific communities pertaining division of labor, acceptable boldness, hierarchy of universities, sources of credibility, etc. have evolved on the basis of a variety, often conflicting, interests. Among these interests, the search for scientific truths figures prominently and may explain some oddities of scientific organizations that – while in any particular instance they may hinder progress – in the long term make the search for knowledge more efficient. We should in a cautious middle between functionalist conservatism (=all extant rules of the scientific community increase research efficiency) and enthusiasm for the novelty and for disruptive methods. Scientific controversies are instructive (and enjoyable) for both what they are about and what they reveal about the inner mechanisms of scientific research.

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