Citizen science as socio-technical system

David Watson and Luciano Floridi have just published on Synthese an article that, to my knowledge, is the first in-depth philosophical discussion of the epistemological significance of citizen science. In the article, they build on the data log of Zooniverse to back their three theoretical claims about crowdsourced science, namely that CS is uniquely suitable to achieve the epistemic goals of reliability, scalability, connectivity, defined as:

  1. Reliability. The designers of citizen science websites employ numerous quality control measures to ensure that user contributions are accurate and precise.

  2. Scalability. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers from around the world regularly participate in citizen science projects, analysing unprecedented volumes of data for a wide variety of scientific studies.

  3. Connectivity. Information and communication networks unlock the distributed knowledge of large epistemic communities by establishing numerous channels that allow users to confer with one another and direct information toward one or several central nodes.

(Watson and Floridi 2016, pg 1239)

Watson and Floridi´s argument illustrates how the technical infrastructure of a CS project orchestrate the contribution of social actors (experts, lay participants) to achieve these three goals of CS. Normative methodologists have always been interested in both instruments (e.g. measurement- or observation- instruments) and the social structuring of science (e.g division of labor, rewards and incentives). The peculiar socio-technical approach proposed by Watson and Floridi is however – they argue – novel, as it explicitly highlights the interaction between the latter (i.e. algorithms) and the former (i.e. social patterning). They believe that CS is interesting not so much as such, but as an entry point to a socio-technical perspective that could potentially be enlightening for methodologists more generally. After all, they point out, “collaboration and computation are ubiquitous across the natural sciences, and have been for decades” and “we can be confident that many of our next great discoveries will be made thanks to some complex partnership of minds and machines” (ibidem pg. 57).

Watson and Floridi conclusion endorses the thesis that the ubiquity of “partnership of minds and machines” is more than a quantitative progress in technological capabilities. It is rather a disruption that makes us re-think some deep features of our conceptual frameworks, including the ontology we employ when we attribute (epistemic) virtues, goals, agency, knowledge. The socio-technical disruption brought about by connectivity is rapidly becoming a key issue both in popular culture (from Werner Herzog´s recent Lo and Behold to… yesterday´s German crimi Tatort) and policy making (esp. labour relationships within the “gig economy” and the future of work). We have previously claimed in this blog, and from a perspective that differs from Watson and Floridi, that CS is a privileged standpoint to watch these developments. Let´s keep on watching!

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