Hobbyist Science vs. Professional Science vs. Personal Science

In a TED talk, Paula Scher, a graphic designer, told how a hobby of painting maps turned into something like a job.

I was up in my country house, and for some reason, I began painting these very big, very involved, laborious, complicated maps . . . They would take me about six months initially, but then I started getting faster at it. Here’s the United States. Every single city of the United States is on here. . . . One of my favorites was this painting I did of Florida after the 2000 election that has the election results rolling around in the water. . . . Somebody . . . saw the paintings and recommended them to a gallery, and I had a first show about two-and-a-half years ago, and I showed these paintings that I’m showing you now. . . . They sold quickly, and became rather popular. . . . The gallery wanted me to have another show in two years, which meant that I really had to paint these paintings much faster than I had ever done them. . . . I was no longer at play. I was actually in this solemn landscape of fulfilling an expectation for a show, which is not where I started.

A hobby turned into a job. This has happened countless times — I believe all jobs started as hobbies.

One hobby that turned into a job is science. The first scientists were hobbyists — for example, Darwin and Mendel. The success of hobbyist scientists led to the creation of full-time jobs that included doing science — professors of science at universities. When science became a job, something was gained (professionals had more time per day, money, training, institutional support, collegial support, and prestige than hobbyists) and something was lost (professionals had less freedom than hobbyists). Professionals could do many things hobbyists could not, but the reverse was also true: hobbyists could do many things professionals could not. For example, they could work on a question for ten years without publishing anything (Mendel, Darwin) and entertain highly heretical ideas (Darwin). Professionals needed steady output and dared not offend, for fear of losing their job.

to improve my brain function and blood sugar. Just combining the freedom of hobbyists with the resources of professionals, personal science would probably be a big improvement. Adding better motivation suggests that personal science is even more likely to improve our lives by learning what professional scientists haven’t learned. The combination of professional science and personal science will be far more powerful (= more useful) than professional science alone.

I’ve seen this in my own life, over and over, and I predict it will eventually be true for everyone. Learning how to control one’s own health — how to sleep well, for example — is non-trivial knowledge.

5 Replies to “Hobbyist Science vs. Professional Science vs. Personal Science”

  1. I’ve been thinking that publication schedules for news and magazines have a similar ill effect to what you describe for science.

    If you have to keep filling a certain amount of space or time with “information”, you’re going to be either puffing up small amounts of information or missing important stuff, probably both.

    Admittedly, since resources are limited, missing important things is inevitable, but having to puff up relatively minor things wastes resources.

  2. Empowering personal scientists would also probaby be far faster and efficient than haranguing kids to go into science majors (which might result in more cheap lab techs and teaching assistants in ten or fifteen years, but not necessarily more breakthrough discoveries.)

    One thing might help propel personal science is a series of contests, at about 1/100th the scale (or less) of the SpaceX prize.

    Contests might recognize things like the annual best breakthrough in…
    – micro power production
    – fermented food production
    – bee keeping
    – backyard mulching
    – gray water repurposing/usage
    – low-water landscaping
    – inexpensive micro-apartment design
    – inexpensive, supportive senior living design
    – safer/easier/more effective/higher compliance exercise methodologies to preserve muscle mass in seniors


    The prizes would probably not even need to be financial to be effective.

    And I can’t think of a better coordinating point than The Journal of Personal Science (nor a better coordinator than you, Seth.)

  3. I agree. And there are many things — some of them true — that professional journalists can’t say for fear of losing their jobs.

  4. Seth: I certainly agree with what you have written, but one thing that concerns me is whether our short term successes could be deceptive. For example, could the ingestion of significant amounts of say butter cause long term health issues that would only be discovered when it is too late. Or could taking a certain nutritional, have short term benefits and longer term consequences.

    1. The history of pharmaceutical drugs says yes, this is a possibility. Many drugs with short-term benefits have turned out to have long-term costs that weren’t made clear. Likewise, the bias of “evidence-based medicine” (which pays great attention to the benefits of treatments, and almost no attention to their costs) also suggests this is a serious problem with professional medical research. When you study yourself, I think there is less bias and better monitoring. You can detect bad effects sooner.

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