Respecting the expertise of amateurs


Amateurs aren’t experts, but they often have a lot of expertise that we overlook.

The ornithological community has been particularly successful at tapping into the community of bird enthusiasts. If I come upon birders, they’re usually blocking the trail or the road, or shushing me. But these birders have been integral to the creation of long-term databases that have been a treasure trove for biogeographers, ecologists, and anybody else who needs to know where and when birds have been seen.

Bird researchers know the value of amateur contributions, but from where I sit, it looks like most scientists overlook, dismiss, ignore, or scorn the involvement of amateur enthusiasts. Citizen Science is often aimed at the general public who are not enthusiasts for a particular group or concept — but how should we engage with those who are specifically excited and more informed about our specialities?

I’d like to tell you about some my limited experience with “amateurs.”

In a few weeks, I’ll have the pleasure of returning to the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS) in the Chiricahua mountains of southeastern Arizona, to be a part of the Ants of the Southwest course. This course is designed with graduate students in mind, to show them how to do stuff with ants from an integrative perspective, including identification, behavior, ecology, field techniques, sampling, evolution, and husbandry. It will be tremendous fun in a gorgeous location.

In this course, we’ve been able to accommodate a few people who are not professional biologists, but are nonetheless ant enthusiasts. They’ve read a lot, build collections, maintain colonies, and communicate among other enthusiasts. There are long-standing chatrooms and facebook groups where these folks ask and answer questions for one another.

Let me tell you, it’s been a downright pleasure and a treasure to have these people on the course. First of all, they’re more excited about ants than I am, and as a professional myrmecologist, I’m plenty excited about ants. They might not be familiar with the way that scientists have collectively decided to pronounce certain latin names. (How would you say “Pheidole” or “Liometopum” if you haven’t heard a scientist use those names?) These “amateurs” may or may not be familiar with certain behavioral, genetic, evolutionary, or physiological concepts that we might consider foundational.

But these folks often know things that we don’t know. They approach our organisms without the biases that we’ve been taught. They have made behavioral observations that we have overlooked, and ask important questions that lack an answer that may not have yet occurred to anybody before. I’ve gotten as much, and possibly more, from working with these “amateur ant enthusiasts” than I think I’ve been able to offer them as one of the instructors.

One of these amateurs was a total beast in the field. They were able to find the animals that everybody else found, plus a few others that the rest of us had overlooked. If there was something to be found, they they were the one to find them. Another amateur was highly proficient at maintaining and growing lab colonies. They showed us techniques to keep ant colonies happy and growing that other researchers were not using, which they have developed or picked up from working with other enthusiasts. And they could they could teach the other members of the course beyond what the instructors could. They might not be familiar with phylogenetic reconstruction, or up to date on the latest name changes, or familiar with the calculation of a species accumulation curve, but they’ve known things that nobody else in the room knows about ants, from watching and thinking and asking questions and tinkering on their own.

There are at most a few professional myrmecologists who substantially engage with the community of amateur ant enthusiasts. (Just to be clear, I am not in this number.) These people are taking their education and outreach seriously and I think this is a valuable use of time. Though it might feel rather boring or slow to take the time to explain ideas that seem basic, this is an important form of education and outreach. Odds are that hobby ant enthusiasts are talking ants up with kids and friends far more than professional ant people do (I tend to avoid shop talk at social gatherings, though sometimes it happens). If professionals can’t respect — and take the time to to interact with — our professional enthusiasts, then what does that say about the importance and relevance of our fields?

It’s easy to say, “Well, it’s a lot easier with birds, but how can we who work on X make constructive use of our amateur enthusiasts?” And that’s a totally valid question. For most folks, it’s easier to identify a bird to species in the field than it is to identify an ant to species in the field. A pair of binoculars is more accessible than a decent microscope nowadays, mostly because of demand. In North America, as far as I know, it seems that New England is the only place where non-specialists can identify ants to species rather easily.

I honestly don’t know what the status of relations are between herpetologists and herp enthusiasts, or between geologists and amateur rockhounds, or between paleontologists and amateur fossil hunters. But I’d guess they could improve? For those of us who are doing benchwork on things that might be as accessible, it might be that there might not be a corresponding group of hobbyists. (Does anybody do microbial physiology on the side?)

While we don’t have to create a huge public science effort around our skilled enthusiasts (though that would be nice), we could start by engaging with these folks with some sincerity, listening to them, and taking the time to explain the relevance of what we do. To let them know that we value their contributions and the lines of communication are open. I think most people — including myself — can’t just make ourselves broadly available on a regular basis for these kinds of interactions, but we can make a point to communicate to promote mutual respect.

8 thoughts on “Respecting the expertise of amateurs

  1. Re: the relationship between professional and amateur paleontologists, I’m told by paleontologist colleagues and commenters that it’s complicated. For starters, there are various sub-species of “amateurs”. See, e.g., the end of this comment:

    Astronomy is another field with a critical mass of skilled amateurs. Which is interesting in part because it runs slightly counter to your passing remark about binoculars being cheaper and more accessible than microcoscopes. Decent telescopes are pretty expensive. Then again, there are microscope hobbyists, though I think (?) they’re fewer in number than amateur astronomers and more focused on instrumentation and visualization. Taking striking pictures, for instance, as opposed to using a microscope to study some particular bit of nature.

    Fisheries is another. Interesting example to consider in this context because it’s a field in which “pros” (here meaning, academic and government scientists) and “amateurs” (here meaning “fishermen”) have sometimes clashed, for instance regarding estimates of stock sizes and sustainable harvest levels.

    I think you’re right that whether or not a critical mass of amateurs exists in a field seems to line up pretty well with whether one can experience the subject matter of the field visually, and without the aid of any equipment more expensive or exotic than binoculars or a telescope. As you say, there aren’t amateur nuclear physicists or amateur microbial physiologists.

  2. One way to connect with people like this is to blog about your science in non-technical language. I’ve had a couple of people contact me in this way with interesting ideas to share.

  3. Plants. There are some serious amateurs with substantial expertise when it comes to plants – my mother is one, as is at least one of her friends. She comes from a horticultural background but has also developed a deep knowledge of the plants that grow wild in the Hudson valley. I don’t think it’s ever occurred to her to try to connect with people doing botanical research.

  4. I guess Jessie beat me to it, but amateur botanists (and horticulturists/gardeners). In California, the interface is reasonably good (everyone uses and contributes to CalFlora) and I rely on these to find plant populations constantly. There are also great botanical societies around that contribute specimens to herbaria and are generally good sources of lots of information (native plant gardeners, as well).

    And you say “its easier to identify a bird in the field…” but that knowledge comes from amateurs. Many (most?) field guide authors – who are relied on for our knowledge of various groups, are amateurs. Of course, Sibley, Kaufmann, and RTP for birds, but also Ed Lam’s – an artist – damselfly guide is one of the greatest field guides I’ve ever used (Blair Nikula’s et al’s odonates of MA is quite good, too). Charley Eisemann ( has a phenomenal guide to signs of insects and is working on a guide to North American leaf miners (!).

    Fungi are another one with a dedicated amateur following, though I believe David Arora, who wrote the definitive guide, is a professional of sorts. But there are active mycological societies that collect specimens and often have academic connections.

    And then you can’t forget the relationship between amateur and professional lepidopterists, which can be quite good, quite bad, and everywhere in between! Dave Wagner who writes most of the caterpillar guides, is a professional, but having gone on collecting trips with him, he brings along many dedicated amateurs and picks even more amateurs’ brains for information beforehand.

  5. Our amateur entomologists are invaluable in the UK as government funding for entomology is so poor, the problem is to make sure that we still retain some ‘professional’ academic entomologists to interface with the skilled amateurs

Leave a Reply