CITIZEN SCIENTIST: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction.
[G]eology, biology, and human history may be investigated by us as separate chapters but, in fact, they make up one book. And the time has come for us to learn to "read" that book. (p. 6)
Mary Ellen Hannibal is a prolific environmental journalist. Her previous works include Evidence of Evolution, commemorating the 150th anniversary of On The Origin of Species; and The Spine of the Continent, describing the most ambitious conservation effort yet attempted. She is an appropriate author for this rich and lengthy volume about the legitimacy of citizen science research. She takes it much further than mere legitimacy, however. This book amplifies her claim that data produced and reported on a variety of subjects (migratory birds, bees, redwoods, and tide pool creatures are a few specifically described) by interested members of the general public is crucial for the preservation of endangered species and ecosystems. Essentially, scientists simply cannot do it all. They need to enlist all the help they can get, and passionate volunteers make worthy contributors.
Hannibal has a particular gift for connecting the scientific community to the public. This is evident in this book, and indeed, it could almost be considered the theme of it, because this connection is the core of citizen science. Perhaps a clarification of the term "citizen science" is needed here. Citizen science is simply scientific work that is done by interested citizens rather than by professional scientists. Citizen Science describes a number of projects that are underway and functioning because of the efforts of countless nonscientists who document the honey bees they observe, or count the migrating hawks that pass over a particular point each fall, or note the dates that local plants first bloom in the spring. They typically record their data electronically and submit it to scientists who use it in various ways, such as establishing population baselines so that changes can be documented, or the reverse--comparing reported numbers with baselines established in past decades.
The book includes several citizen-science-related scenarios in eleven, sometimes lengthy, chapters. The author lives in Northern California, and many of the ecosystems and associated projects and people she details occur there. These include California's original habitats and how they have been altered in the last two hundred or so years, citizen science and Silicon Valley technology, the redwood forest, Pacific tide pools, the founding of the California Academy of Sciences (by citizen scientists, not professionals!), and Mt. Tamalpais ecosystems.
My favorite account was the story in chapter 9 of a champion citizen scientist, Ed Ricketts, and his friends Joseph Campbell and John Steinbeck. Hannibal's picture of Monterey, California, in the 1930s and the development of the classic natural history books Between Pacific Tides and The Log from the Sea of Cortez are fascinating. The intriguing and enduring relationships among these brilliant characters are also explored. Campbell is the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) and the originator of the phrase "follow your bliss"; Steinbeck received a Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and authored many other outstanding books. Ricketts's holistic approach to science in general and ecology in particular comes together in The Log from the Sea of Cortez (co-created with Steinbeck), which can be rightfully considered a manifesto of citizen science if not even a bible. Darwin is to evolution what Ricketts is to the integration of science with its sister humanities. Hannibal carries this sense of integration throughout her book, quite intentionally. "I'm trying to do in this book what they [Ricketts and Steinbeck] were trying to do--put it all together, the personal, the historical, the scientific" (p. 7). This is an appropriate approach to a defense of citizen science, which combines the layperson's love of nature with the desire to do something to make a difference, and it results in valuable contributions to professional scientific efforts.
Hannibal weaves these various components together smoothly and in an appealing way. She points out that crucial themes from The Grapes of Wrath continue to resonate today, from the perspective of land use and climate change to the consequences of human dissociation from the land, which leads to destruction of that land and then to the destruction of humanity itself. As the subtitle indicates, extinction is a recurring theme of her book. Disappearing species drive the urgency behind her calls for cooperation between nonscientists and scientists. She details the way citizen science efforts bridge academic and applied sciences and the growing validation by academic scientists of the value of data acquired by nonprofessionals. It is becoming more and more widely recognized that "citizen science monitoring... is probably the only tool that can really scale to aggregate big enough numbers of local observations to create a picture of global consequence" (p. 59).
A significant point Hannibal makes in support of citizen science is that it is a way to cultivate a scientifically oriented society--something that is desperately needed. Understanding the ability of species to change in response to climate conditions requires interdisciplinary scientists and huge networks of citizen scientists (p. 287). One of many scientists Hannibal interviewed, Julia Parrish, works with between 750 and 800 volunteers monitoring beaches from Northern California to Alaska. She comments,
Scientists alone can't begin to document what's normal, let alone how fast things are changing. We need a willing army to make that happen. In short, we need citizens--the locals who watch, and know, and love their backyards, their environments. (p. 80)
The book includes some chapters that become overly long and seem to veer away from the chapter's theme. Some readers may find the recurring personal account of the author's experiencing the death of her father tiresome--but its link to the disappearance of species and the fragile nature of life is both relevant and sad. Any reader who is interested in the natural history of California would find Citizen Science intriguing. As well, academics who question the value of data acquired by nonprofessional scientists would be wise to read the perspectives of scientists that Hannibal presents in order to understand the significance of citizen scientists' contributions. This book would also be of great benefit to anyone who wants to know more about the burgeoning approach to "doing science" that citizen science has become.
Moreover, from a Christian reader's perspective, the biblical mandate for stewardship of God's invaluable creation supports the entire concept of citizen participation in the scientific effort splendidly. We who claim relationship with the Creator can joyfully support scrutiny of the creation; it yields not only data but opportunity to marvel.
Reviewed by Karen E. McReynolds, Associate Professor of Science, Hope International University, Fullerton, CA 92831.
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|Title Annotation:||SCIENCE AND RELIGION|
|Author:||McReynolds, Karen E.|
|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2019|
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