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The serious amateur and the cult of ignorance

29 April 2008 18 Comments

The opening of the six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in Bach’s handAmongst the other things that I do I am a fairly serious amateur musician. I sing regularly and irregularly in choirs, have occassionally done some solo vocal work, conduct a bit, and in the past written fairly substantial pieces of music for orchestra and choir. When I started university I made a choice between doing music or doing science. Like a lot of other scientists I suspect I chose to go down the science route because it is much easier to be an amateur musician than and amateur scientists. I don’t regret the decisions I made then but like anyone I do think back to what might have been.

One of the criticisms of open practice in science and Open Notebook Science in particular is that we open up ourselves to harassment by ‘nutjobs’, ‘ignorant plebs’, and assorted other people who don’t appreciate a) how clever we are or b) how busy we are. There are two sides to this argument with merits on both. It is possible to get bogged down continually dealing with people who genuinely wish to explain to you how universal crystal harmonics explain the periodicity of the elements, or how their understanding of the interstitial spiritual lamina demonstrates the inadvisability of human cloning. There is no getting over the fact that there are nutters out there. On the other hand we do little to encourage the amateur scientist beyond allowing them occasional access to our hallowed existence through TV, NewScientist, and Wired. I wondered whether an exploration of the parallels between amateur music and amateur science might be interesting. I should note that I am using the term professional in rather a loose way here, not to mean whether someone that gets paid to do something, but someone who can devote the majority of their time to a specific pursuit, be that music, science, or anything else.

Sometimes it seems like we live in an age where to be a repected commentator on a particular subject requires you to have as little expertise as possible. To have any knowledge of the subject area means you must have a vested interest and therefore can’t be trusted. ‘Common sense’ and anecdotal evidence are the order of the day. As a result professional scientists retreat into their ivory towers and leave interaction with the public to the selected few science communicators who regularly appear on radio, television, and on the web. These same communicators are then usually castigated for having ‘sold out’ for public glory and celebrity.

There is a not dissimilar sense amongst professional (classical) musicians that the citadel is under siege. Subsidies are down and grants are being cut back (mostly to pay for the Olympics in the UK). What is worse, the standard of musical education has seen a consistent drop year on year to the extent that many high school students have no exposure to music of any kind at al. Is this starting to sound familiar? Classical musicians who ‘cross over’ or try to engage with a wider audience are viewed with suspicion, and not a little envy in some cases.

There are a lot of amateur musicians. The vast majority are not very good. They can’t be. They don’t have the opportunity to work full time on the technical aspects of music making. Innate talent, if there is such a thing, varies wildly across the amateur spectrum. Some people are good; very good but almost never will you come across a true amateur, someone who spends a couple of hours a week on music, who can hold their own amongst professionals. Many think they could; some of them are more misguided than others but virtually none of them are right.

I am not infrequently moved to tears by musical performances. But often this is not due to some sort of emotional response to the music but through sheer frustration. The ability to actually be in a serious, professional, performance of the type I am most interested in is well and truly beyond me. I am a pretty good singer, but there is no way I can sing a Bach aria. No way I could do it without years of additional training and practice. I’ve got more or less as far as I can, technically, without being able to devote the majority of my time to it. And that is where I am stuck. As a serious amateur I recognise the limitations of my technique, my craft if you like. Professional musicians often, but not always, hold amateurs with a degree of contempt. But special disdain is reserved for those who don’t realise that the gulf is there.

I wonder, whether as professional scientists we have a tendency to lump all of the ‘amateurs’ into the one ‘don’t know anything’ box. There is no doubt that many, probably the majority do not understand the scientific method, preferring rather to bamboozle the doctor in the family with the incontrovertible case that Aunty May smoked and lived to the age of 90 so there can’t be any harm in it. There is no doubt that embedding a good understanding of the scientific (better not call it that, what about empirical) method in schooling would help (as would making schoolkids learn an instrument, any instrument) but there is a lack of respect in our culture for the skill, the technique, that comes with practising something so as to become good at it. Where we don’t do ourselves any favours is in failing to engage with the skilled amateurs, and those that do realise that they maybe don’t have the experience or skills, but nonetheless would love to be involved. SETI@home tapped into this brilliantly. Involving people in real science projects could help a lot. Open science and large scale projects could have a big role to play here.

And as for our treatment of those who are professionals in a non-traditional environment


  • Hi cameron, nice post. In astronomy, they have many interesting cases where “amateur” scientists often make serious contributions to astronomy. (Read all about it.). This is quite accepted by the mainstream in astronomy, I wonder why it is not more common in other disciplines. Maybe this will change?

  • Hi cameron, nice post. In astronomy, they have many interesting cases where “amateur” scientists often make serious contributions to astronomy. (Read all about it.). This is quite accepted by the mainstream in astronomy, I wonder why it is not more common in other disciplines. Maybe this will change?

  • An interesting post that makes a good analogy. Science and music are both valuable, and are done for their own sake, not for commercial gain. Therefore they require subsidy from the government. Now if they would only cancel the Olympics, they could plug the STFC funding shortfall and fund the arts properly, with spare change to build a few new hospitals…

    Off topic: do you have any thoughts about why so many scientists are also keen amateur musicians?

  • An interesting post that makes a good analogy. Science and music are both valuable, and are done for their own sake, not for commercial gain. Therefore they require subsidy from the government. Now if they would only cancel the Olympics, they could plug the STFC funding shortfall and fund the arts properly, with spare change to build a few new hospitals…

    Off topic: do you have any thoughts about why so many scientists are also keen amateur musicians?

  • Anna

    Reading Deepak’s post, I am further convinced that a new super-university/uber research-institute structure is needed. Somewhere where one can gain access to appropriate facilities, and get back to doing real science, but have the appropriate ‘university’ recognition – ie facility to apply for research grants from the research councils and possibly give credit for work carried out in a recognised fashion. Somewhere unrestricted by borders (which then opens up for free collaboration and exchange). University2.0 anyone?

    Jonathan: I would suggest the facility for pattern recognition.

  • Anna

    Reading Deepak’s post, I am further convinced that a new super-university/uber research-institute structure is needed. Somewhere where one can gain access to appropriate facilities, and get back to doing real science, but have the appropriate ‘university’ recognition – ie facility to apply for research grants from the research councils and possibly give credit for work carried out in a recognised fashion. Somewhere unrestricted by borders (which then opens up for free collaboration and exchange). University2.0 anyone?

    Jonathan: I would suggest the facility for pattern recognition.

  • @Duncan Good point, not sure why the barrier is lower there. I guess because there is a lot of sky to look at? The astronomy community do this really well actually, leveraging the amateur community to do the low res, wide field stuff, while the high precision, high resolution stuff is done on the big telescopes.

    @Anna: I have often thought that University departments ought to be able to choose which university they belong to. Thus there would be a market for uni central administrations that would help to drive efficiency and service.

    But you’re right, this would be even better to do on a per person basis. Some sort of buy in would be required, but that gives access to facilities, technical support, and licenses etc. All we need is a few billion dollars to make this happen really…

  • @Duncan Good point, not sure why the barrier is lower there. I guess because there is a lot of sky to look at? The astronomy community do this really well actually, leveraging the amateur community to do the low res, wide field stuff, while the high precision, high resolution stuff is done on the big telescopes.

    @Anna: I have often thought that University departments ought to be able to choose which university they belong to. Thus there would be a market for uni central administrations that would help to drive efficiency and service.

    But you’re right, this would be even better to do on a per person basis. Some sort of buy in would be required, but that gives access to facilities, technical support, and licenses etc. All we need is a few billion dollars to make this happen really…

  • Great post.

    “I wondered whether an exploration of the parallels between amateur music and amateur science might be interesting.”

    Other then the usual suspects like MySpace and YouTube, there are a number of websites out there for unsigned amateur musicians.

    All of my uploads are CC-NC-BY http://www.macjams.com/artist/steck

    There is a mixed bag quality wise of of Artists there but there are some really talented ones. One of the really interesting possibilities is Open Collaborations which must parallel Open Science.

    I’m extremely impressed at the ease in which this can be done.

    Obviously writing/recording a song is a separate entity from carrying out science but when it comes to creating and sharing data, there are similarities.

  • Great post.

    “I wondered whether an exploration of the parallels between amateur music and amateur science might be interesting.”

    Other then the usual suspects like MySpace and YouTube, there are a number of websites out there for unsigned amateur musicians.

    All of my uploads are CC-NC-BY http://www.macjams.com/artist/steck

    There is a mixed bag quality wise of of Artists there but there are some really talented ones. One of the really interesting possibilities is Open Collaborations which must parallel Open Science.

    I’m extremely impressed at the ease in which this can be done.

    Obviously writing/recording a song is a separate entity from carrying out science but when it comes to creating and sharing data, there are similarities.

  • Anna

    A few billion dollars you say? How about “The war against ignorance …”

  • Anna

    A few billion dollars you say? How about “The war against ignorance …”

  • One of the huge advantages of meeting people via social software is that you usually know about their ideas before you know of their titles. This is the reverse of the way it happens in meatspace. There are several people with whom I have collaborated without fully knowing exactly “who or what” they are in terms of training and position.

    Well I assume they are people – maybe some have passed the Turing test :)

  • One of the huge advantages of meeting people via social software is that you usually know about their ideas before you know of their titles. This is the reverse of the way it happens in meatspace. There are several people with whom I have collaborated without fully knowing exactly “who or what” they are in terms of training and position.

    Well I assume they are people – maybe some have passed the Turing test :)

  • Clearly what we need is automated Turing test for high throughput discovery of intelligent systems:)

  • Clearly what we need is automated Turing test for high throughput discovery of intelligent systems:)

  • Jeremy

    The Citizen Science movement is a good example of attempts to use the interest of the public in undertaking real research, typically where wide scale observations are needed over a long time.

  • Jeremy

    The Citizen Science movement is a good example of attempts to use the interest of the public in undertaking real research, typically where wide scale observations are needed over a long time.