The serious amateur and the cult of ignorance
Amongst 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…