Optimistic and Pessimistic Views about Amateur Theoretical Science
Can amateur theoretical scientists make a meaningful contribution to science?
The Pessimistic View
You can read about the pessimistic view of amateur theoretical scientists in articles such as:
- The Crackpot Index
- What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists
- Other Theories of Physics
The underlying theme of these articles is that there are many, many enthusiastic amateur "scientists" who have discovered interesting "scientific theories", but, apparently, the number of such amateurs who have produced anything of value is approximately zero.
(These three articles are about physics, and it is possible that the situation is different for other scientific fields, but I suspect not.)
The Optimistic View
Is there reason to be optimistic?
Can amateur theoretical scientists do real science?
Or are all the optimistic amateurs hopelessly naive and/or deluded about their abilities?
Pick the Right Problem
One way for an amateur scientist to have some hope of doing real science and to "beat the professionals at their own game" is to choose a problem where the existing scientific understanding is still very limited.
Even now, in the 21st century, there exist basic problems of science which have not been solved, and where it is not clear if scientists are even close to finding a solution.
Some of these problems relate to the human mind – we really, really don't know how the human brain does all the things that it does, even though we know quite a lot about the low-level biology.
Specific examples include:
- What is consciousness?
- What is music?
- What is humour?
If the current scientific understanding of a problem is very limited, then no one really knows what knowledge is required as a prerequisite to solve the problem. Which in turn means that no one can a apriori rule out the possibility that an informed amateur could make a significant contribution to the quest for a solution.
The Simplicity of Some Scientific Discoveries
Another reason for possible optimism is that some of the great theoretical scientific breakthoughs of the past are based on ideas that can be described relatively simply.
If the idea behind an important theoretical discovery is simple enough, then perhaps a high level of professional qualification would not necessarily have been needed to think of that idea.
The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection
This is how Charles Darwin described his original conception of the theory of evolution by natural selection:
In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species.
This is arguably the most important scientific discovery ever made in biology, and it fits into a couple of sentences.
The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics
Another more recent example is the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, first proposed by the physicist Hugh Everett in 1957.
The traditional interpretation of observation in quantum mechanics is the Born Interpretation.
In this interpretation:
- The system under observation is described by a wavefunction, the evolution of which is specified by a differential equation.
- The observer is described classically (ie not as a quantum system).
- The observation of the system by the observer results in a collapse of the wave function of the system being observed.
The Many Worlds interpretation is radically simpler, because it considers the system under observation and the observer as a single combined system, and it describes the combined system by its wavefunction, the evolution of which is specified by the same differential equation as in item 1.
And that's it.
Items 2 and 3 simply don't appear in the Many Worlds interpretation, because the observer and the process of observation have both been absorbed into item 1.
The interesting thing about this theory is that we know it could have been discovered by a non-PhD, because Everett published the theory as his PhD thesis (ie he didn't yet have a PhD when he thought of it).
The Many Worlds interpretation simplifies the more complex Born Interpretation, because it just leaves out the problematic notion of wave-function "collapse".
Most text-books on quantum mechanics describe the Born Interpretation somewhere in the first chapter or two.
So, in principle, even someone with a very basic understanding of quantum mechanics could perhaps have figured out the Many-Worlds alternative.
The Problem of Academic Publishing
Perhaps the question of whether amateur scientists can do theoretical science can be resolved by appealing to some objective measure of scientific achievement: the theories of amateurs could be judged by the same criteria applied to the theories of professionals, and that would decide the matter.
George Hrabovsky summarizes the traditional view on the importance of scientific publishing in What is the Role of an Amateur Scientist?
He tells us:
The only way to reliably get your material out there is to publish in the format that has existed for the last two hundred years or so. You write a paper describing what you have found. If you don't like it, tough! That's the way the world works and you won't stop it!
In other words, a scientific discovery has only been made if it has been published in a proper academic scientific journal.
However, academic publishing is very much oriented towards serving the needs of academic researchers.
With academic publishing, any significant contribution to a field must be published as a paper, and that paper must be perfect in all respects before it can be published at all.
This creates a lot of "hoops" that most amateur scientists will not bother jumping through. After all, they're not getting paid for it.
If amateur scientists don't want to jump through all the hoops that professional scientists jump through, does that mean they are not scientists?
Informal Alternatives for Amateurs
One thing that the Internet has taught us is that amateurs don't have to do things the way that professionals have traditionally done them.
If I want to make a television program, or a movie, I can create it by whatever means, according to whatever level of production values I can achieve (or be bothered achieving). I can post it as a video on YouTube, where it can, potentially, be viewed by millions of viewers. I don't have to jump through all the quality hoops that I would have to jump through if I wanted my creation to be shown on broadcast television, or in a commercial cinema.
If I want to make a song, well the same applies. I can create it however I like. I can post it on YouTube, or Soundcloud. I don't have to get approval from some executive at a chain of national broadcast radio stations, or from a record company.
Similarly, it would make sense for amateur theoretical scientists to use the internet to publish their scientific theories.
And of course many do, publishing their ideas on their own websites.
However, simply publishing content on a website is not quite enough.
There still needs to be some kind of peer review. There needs to be a way for other interested people with a sufficient level of relevant knowledge and understanding to read about the theories, and to put in the effort to critique those theories.
So, as an Amateur Theoretical Scientist, What Should I Do?
At this point, for the sake of discussion, I am going to assume that you, dear reader, are an amateur theoretical scientist. You have one or more scientific theories that you have developed, about something. You want people to know about your theories. You want your theories to be reviewed by other people who have some ability or qualification to review them.
You want a way of doing all this that suits your status and situation as an amateur.
So, how do you get your own scientific theories, which you have published on your own website, in front of the right people who can understand and review them?
The first thing to consider is that the internet audience for science is mostly divided into two distinct groups of people, which is:
- Professional scientists
- The general public
The professional scientists want to get their new science from papers that have been published properly in proper journals. Even when they do read new science that hasn't been formally published yet, it's going to be from other professional scientists.
So professional scientists don't want to spend time reading your amateur theory.
And the general public mostly just want to read about new science that has already been evaluated and "approved" by professional scientists.
The general public could read your amateur science theories, but in most cases, if there is any level of technical difficulty involved, they won't be able to judge whether your theories are a valuable contribution or whether they are just inane rubbish.
So we have two groups of people interested in reading about science, and neither group is interested in reading your scientific theories.
In both cases, the lack of interest from the audience has to do with how much effort has to be put into reading something that is unlikely to be of any value anyway.
So, if you wish to persist in publishing your amateur scientific theory through informal and self-published channels, the first thing you need to do is to do everything you can to make your theories easy to read and easy to understand.
Twitter, as an Amateur Theoretical Science Publishing Medium
The second thing you need to do is to find a place to "submit" your amateur scientific theory.
I am going to suggest that, right now, the best place to submit it to is Twitter, or, more specifically, a Twitter hashtag. (Actually hashtags will only work if all potentially interested parties know which hashtag or hashtags to use, which is partly why I am writing this article in the first place.)
Almost certainly your full theory will not fit into a single tweet.
Also, you don't want Twitter, or any other commercial social media site, to be the only place where you publish your theory.
It is important to publish your theories in a form that is under your control, and where they are not going to be deleted because the platform host decided to delete them.
So you should still publish your own theories on your own website, under your own domain name.
But, you should use Twitter as a mechanism to "submit" your theories to the world.
Firstly, you can tweet out a link to the web page for your theory.
But secondly, and possibly more importantly, you should publish the important ideas of your theory, as individual tweets.
To give a silly example, I attempted to fit the main idea of Special Relativity into a single tweet.
Twitter used to be only 140 characters per tweet, but these days you are allowed to have up to 280 characters, and you can fit quite a lot into 280 characters.
The advantages of using Twitter to publish theoretical ideas are:
- The tweet format forces you to think about how to describe and explain your most important ideas in a succinct and easily digestible form.
- Individual tweets can be "liked", and re-tweeted.
- People can reply to individual tweets in their own twitter feed.
- You can use hashtags, for example, a good one would be #AmateurTheoreticalScience. Some more specific hashtags that I have used are #WhatIsMusic and #MusicScience.
- Actually, you should use hashtags, because if you don't, your theory tweets will not find their target audience (assuming optimistically that such an audience exists at all), and they will just be lost in the void.
Peer Review on Twitter
Using Twitter to publish scientific theories allows for relatively obligation-free interactions between publishers and reviewers.
Anyone can "publish", and anyone can review what has been published by someone else, and anyone who has published and been reviewed can choose to respond to issues and questions raise by reviewers.
For example, amateur scientists with similar interests can search for shared hashtags. Each person can choose which tweets they want to evaluate or reply to. And each "publisher" can decide which "reviewers" they want to respond to, and which ones they might prefer to ignore.
This is much different from formal academic publishing, where a journal either accepts your submission, or they don't, and then, if the journal has accepted the submission, each reviewer either accepts the submission for reviewing, or they don't, and then, if the reviewers have accepted the task of reviewing a submission, the author can attempt to deal with issues raised by the reviewers, and then, if the reviewers deem the paper to be acceptable for publication, the journal will actually publish your paper.
With more informal publishing, ideas and theories can be published, immediately and publicly, even though they are "work-in-progress", and the required level of quality can eventually be achieved by incremental processes that continue to occur long after the original dates of publication.
An informal publishing process, as I have described here, coordinated via a social media platform such as Twitter, might be just what amateur theoretical science needs to actually come into its own.
Conclusion, and Final Instructions
So, in summary, to maximise your chances of succeeding as an amateur theoretical scientist:
- Pick subjects where even professional scientists still seem to be stuck in the "dont' have a clue" phase.
- Post any theories that you develop as articles on a website where you own the domain name.
- Tweet links to your theory articles, using relevant hashtags.
- Especially use the hashtag #AmateurTheoreticalScience.
- Also tweet summaries of the important ideas behind your theories.
And if, as an amateur theoretical scientist, you are interested in informally reviewing the works of other amateur theoretical scientists, search for that same #AmateurTheoreticalScience hashtag, and join in the informal review process.