The Incredible Success of the “Amateur” Scientist Model

In the prologue to the 2nd edition of The Black Swan (2010), Nassim Taleb says:

“In the past, for better or worse, those rare philosophers and thinkers who were not self-standing depended on a patron’s support. Today academics in abstract disciplines depend on one another’s opinion, without external checks, with the severe occasional pathological result of turning their pursuits into insular prowess-showing contests. Whatever the shortcomings of the old system, at least it enforced some standard of evidence.”

This applies to science. Consider Michael Partridge’s introduction (1966) to John Herschel’s A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830), where Partridge says:

“Herschel studies mathematics for the joy of it, not caring that his profession was to be the law! Science might appeal even to a man without such training, and the English scientific amateur of that day and age did not need to be a dilettante; he might be a serious contributor, but as free, as erratic, as eccentric as he pleased, for he had only himself to please.”

Herschel was one of the most accomplished astronomers of his day, but he was an English scientific amateur (i.e., he was not paid to do science, was financially independent, and had other sources of status). Charles Darwin, who was influenced by Herschel’s writing, was also a scientific amateur. Both of them studied, researched, and innovated in their leisure time.

The early 19th century, and in particular in Britain, was one of the greatest times for science in history (per dollar and hour of research it was much more effective than contemporary science), and this is due in significant part to the “amateur” scientists (like Herschel or Darwin) of the time. Why does the amateur scientist model work? Here are three possibilities:

1. There is more flexibility in research and exploration, and in particular a scientist can work on a problem he is more personally motivated about. (See Seth Roberts’ paper linked here for a discussion of some of these sorts of considerations.)

2. It involves less bureaucracy.

3. An amateur scientist can have more and different influences on him.

To expand upon 3., most Professors of Philosophy follow a certain kind of trajectory: 12 years in elementary and high-school, a B.A. in Philosophy, a possible M.A. in Philosophy, then a Ph.D in Philosophy, then teaching and research as a Post-Doc in academic philosophy, then Assistant Professor in Philosophy, and so on, until full Professor or Research Professor in Philosophy. This creates a poverty of personal resources in the profession. This goes for most any academic (including scientific) research.

For a comparison, here is Charles Darwin’s early career path (this is from work by David Leff):

– Did a lot of hiking as a child.

– Spent time with his brother in a make-shift back-yard chemistry lab.

– Practically flunked out of the equivalent of high-school (his father removed him because of poor grades).

– Went to Medical School in Edinburgh. Was bored, and dropped out.

– During this time and outside of medical school, though, Darwin:

– learned how to stuff animals (taxidermy), simultaneously meeting someone from South America,

– read The Natural History of Selborne while hiking northern Wales,

– hung around the Natural History Museum and befriended the curator,

– joined the Plinian Society (a society which debated the merits of various scientific approaches),

– and took long walks with Zoology Professor Robert Grant.

– After dropping out of Medical School, he went to Cambridge University to study to join the clergy.

– He skipped most of his lectures, instead shooting birds in the countryside, wandering the countryside collecting and classifying beetles (entomology), and going to dinner parties where, among other things, he met Professor Reverend John Henslow.

– At the dinner parties the Professor gave informal lessons to the assembled upper class students on matters of science, and invited Darwin to his botany lectures. Darwin then went with Henslow on scientific excursions to the countryside.

– During this time Darwin also went with Professor Adam Sedgwick on a geological tour of North Wales in the summer.

– He read various extra-curricular books that excited his imagination about possible scientific discovery.

Darwin’s time at Cambridge is humourously summarized on his Wikipedia page as “Studies at the University of Cambridge encouraged his passion for natural science” (and this uses the same reference as linked to above), when it was precisely his extra-curricular activities that did this.

Darwin did not spend 12 years in elementary and high-schooling, he did not get a B.Sc. (he rather received a B.A.), nor an M.Sc., nor a Ph.D. (the closest equivalent to the latter was, of course, spending 5 years traveling around the world in a boat).

The standard formal schooling route used by most people who then become scientists is probably sub-obtimal as a means to innovation and discovery.

5 thoughts on “The Incredible Success of the “Amateur” Scientist Model

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