Citizen Science; Fight or Flight?

Uploaded by Evette Clayton on behalf of author, Steven Correia

We all know that people are stubborn, five minutes in any internet forum could tell you that, so is it really all that necessary to try and change their minds? That is what The Bird Network (TBN) of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (CLO) tried to do.

Citizen science is a term used for projects or ongoing programmes of scientific work in which individual volunteers or networks of volunteers, many of whom may have no specific scientific training, perform or manage research-related tasks such as observation, measurement, or computation. Among the more complex of the CLO’s citizen science projects, The Bird Network set out to change
the attitude of its participants towards environmental science basing their work on the framework of the ‘Elaboration Likelihood Model’. This theory argues that thoughtful attention to a stimuli will activate a central or main route to persuasion, this is particularly useful for citizen science as all of the participants are volunteers and will therefore be more interested in and attentive to the subject. This lead to the hypothesis that;

• Participation in the TBN will lead to positive effects on attitudes towards science and the environment in adult participants.

Although this would be supported by previous research if performed on children or young adults, the impact of direct participation on the attitudes of adults has rarely been explored.

Unfortunately, this particular citizen science project has found effectively no changes in the attitudes of participants towards science and the environment. TBN mostly attributed this lack in change of attitude to the complexity of people’s attitudes and our current methods in measuring them. Four arguments could be extrapolated to support this assumption;

1. The large number of undecided responses on both the pre- and post-tests indicate the respondents’ attitudes are complex.
2. Participants’ attitudes towards science have actually stayed moderate at the post-test stage. This has been shown to be associated with ‘belief complexity’
3. The project could have stabilised a deteriorating attitude and this was not within the scope of the TBN’s measurement of attitudes.
4. The scale may not have been sensitive enough to accurately measure a change in attitude.

So the results of this citizen science project say one of two things, either our current methods for measuring attitudes is very insufficient or adults really don’t change their mind too easily. This then asks the question should we struggle to improve the quality of measuring attitudes in citizen science projects or should we walk away from this project confirming what we already thought at
the beginning?

Fight or Flight?


Brossard, D, Lewenstein, B and Bonney, R. 2005. Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a citizen science project’, International Journal of Science Education, 27: 9, 1099 – 1121.


3 comments so far

  1. clayte01 on

    Wonderfully thought-provoking post, Steven, and that really is a difficult question that you pose. Should we discard citizen science, or look for a new way to measure its efficacy?

    Well, I’d like to think that even if it doesn’t manage to improve attitudes, it is still a way to get more of the public involved in science. Although, having said that, why bother getting them involved, if the volunteers get nothing out of it?

    As the paper says, by allowing individuals to have involvement in science, and giving scientists the resources to collect large data sets “substantial benefits are therefore provided to all citizen- science participants, both professional and non-professional (Bonney, 2001; Bonney, & Krasny, 2004)”. The point being that, well, at least science benefits.

    Having said that, I find it hard to believe that these results are entirely relevant. They say themselves that “We were aware that normative instruments designed for national random-samples might not be fully appropriate for evaluating a specific project with a highly self-selected audience.” As well as pointing out that “the pre-test treatment group should have been selected randomly from the study population… anonymity concerns prevented us from tracking changes in knowledge and attitudes specifically for each individual… [and] it is important to point out that our concern was to assess the TBN project and to test the possibility of using standardized scales; because our study population was so specific, we knew that our results might not be generalizable.”

    Personally, I don’t feel that these results are generalizable. I am aware that sometimes empirical evidence does not represent the true results, yet the number of testimonials from people involved in other Citizen Science activities, to me, suggests that it is not something that should be discarded.

    I think it is likely I am not the only person who believes this, since this study was performed in the nineties and published six years ago, yet Citizen Science continues to gain popularity.

    The way I see it, considering the authors looked at only one example of Citizen Science, with much potential for error, if the individual “Citizen Scientists” themselves have a good time, and report a greater appreciation for the environment (and hopefully science), and the researchers are assisted in data collection that benefits science, why should this programme be discarded, even if it doesn’t satisfy all of what the authors of this paper were looking for?

  2. Ryan Wilson on

    To me, these results are pretty underwhelming. If you are pro-active enough to go and volunteer for a citizen science program, then you most likely already have a pretty significant awareness and understanding in the area that you are volunteering in.

    Steven, I would argue that these adults who are already committing their time to contribute to the advancement of science are not necessarily the ones whose attitudes towards science we need to be trying to change. I agree with the conclusion that more sensitive methods need to be designed to measure changes in attitudes towards science in these people, but I would also argue that who really cares how much their attitudes have changed anyway? If they are conscientious enough to be volunteering for a citizen science program then we clearly don’t need to worry too much about their lack of understanding or whether or not they have a positive attitude towards science.

    Now, if for some reason some of the participants initially had a pretty negative attitude towards science, then sure why not measure their attitude before and afterwards to see if their participation in a volunteer program has shifted something in their psyche. This could tell us whether getting people to volunteer who know little about the subject matter or who view science in a negative light is an effective method of changing attitudes towards science. But somehow I think that getting these people involved in citizen science would be a hard sell…

    In my opinion, it would be much more beneficial to measure something like: how much more likely participants in citizen science are to be politically pro-active with regards to key scientific issues. If one become personally involved with a scientific program, I feel like one would be much more inclined to speak out about it to others and demand action on the issue.

    Now a study like this, I would be really interested in seeing the results..

  3. James Campbell on

    Good post, I am not surprised at the findings that you put forward at all, particularly the statement about an internet forum! I believe that once an adult has formulated an opinion on a subjected and spent a lot of time thinking about it and justifying it to themself, then it would take a particularly convincing argument to try and convince them to change their mind. Internet forums contain one example of this with seemingly endless amounts of comments that begin as a suggestion, then when frustration increases over anothers view point the progression tends to be toward personal insults.

    Another example, though not really relating to science as much, could be evangelical christians. How often do you feel compelled to suddenly agree with a group of Jehovas witnesses that have presented themselves on your doorstep? Sure they put forward a strong argument, but as soon as they have left, you spend the next minute or so reasoning why their point of view is absurd, then the argument is completely forgotten until the next group present themselves.

    In reality the only person whose attitude could possibly be adjusted could be someone who has not really thought about where they stand on a subject, or have not been convinced either way.

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