Personal Science vs. Amateur Science

I have written about the amazing success of the ‘amateur science’ model here. An amateur scientist is simply someone researching but not being paid money to do so (they have a separate income source). The basic idea is that, when a researcher is freed from certain constraints tied to remuneration (constraints: scope of research tied to what will lead to more money, bureaucracy, having a background that is more or less required for the typical career track), he can become more effective in certain ways.

Seth Roberts – Professor Emeritus of Psychology at U.C. Berkeley – has a post on what he calls ‘personal science’ – which he defines as “science done to help the person doing it.”

Almost all the reasons Roberts gives for thinking that personal science will grow apply to amateur science:

  1. Lower cost.
  2. Greater income. People can afford more stuff.
  3. More leisure time.
  4. More is known. The more you know, the more effective your research will be. The more you know the better your choice of treatment, experimental design, and measurement and the better your data analysis.
  5. More access to what is known.
  6. Professional scientists unable to solve problems. They are crippled by career considerations, poor training, the need to get another grant, desire to show off (projects are too large and too expensive), and a Veblenian dislike of being useful. As a result, problems that professionals can’t solve are solved by amateurs.

So what is the difference between personal science and amateur science? In some cases, there is no difference – amateur science can be done to help the person doing it. However, amateur science is a more general category – for example, someone might be an amateur scientist simply because he enjoys the learning or exploration or hypothesizing, or for peer status. However, personal science can also be done by someone being paid money to do science.

So, if one were to imagine a Venn diagram, personal science’s circle would overlap with both the ‘paid science’ and ‘amateur science’ circles. My guess, however, is that the overlap will be significantly larger in the amateur science circle.

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