The borderlands of amateurism

The notion of the amateur was once a term of endearment for many endeavours, however with the professionalisation of many disciplines such as physics, mathematics and so forth; the amateur is now indistinguishable from the quack. The quack is described in Michael Shermer’s ‘The Borderlands of Science’ and has certain criterial features such as their perceived ‘rejection’ from the intellectual mainstream and a bohemian complex.

Many people appeal to the fact that many of the worlds greatest figures were ‘amateurs’ in their field. This however, is anachronistic a reading at times. Socrates, or Plato did not have any philosophy credentials in the sense of a doctorate, because there were no such academic standards. It is anachronistic to impute our modern standards to them; likewise, it is also ignorant to thing that mutatis mutandis, today’s standards of excellence do not apply.

I’d like to consider some other cases: the foundational figures of social sciences had very little social science credentials. By modern standards this can easily be shown by the lack of rigour in early social research. Of course, some time has passed to give us the wisdom of epistemic rigour in social sciences. It is also the case that we may have more to learn in terms of methodologies in the social sciences (consider the case of feminist insights on methodology). So, we find that figures such as Comte, Durkheim or Marx. These figures had intellectual backgrounds in the sciences that were pre-existing in their time, so they were necessarily ‘amateur’.

Another factor in an anachronistic misreading of the amateur is to consider the techno-socio-economic conditions. In the age before the university institution, or a separation of church and civil society; Islam and Christianity had a serious impact on mainstream (European) intellectual culture. Thus figures such as William of Ockham or Aquinas worked within the locus of the church and the fruit of the Islamic translation movement.

Not only was scholarship and the construction of theories important, but also the preservation and dissemination of texts. This involved the skill of translation and copying. In modern day academia, we have the system of journals; most of which can be accessed by the internet. Almost all papers these days are also digitally encoded so we have little utility for the copyist. If anything, it is easier for the amateur to ‘thrive’ in an environment of greater open access to learning materials. It is for this reason that I support the open access movement for journals and public domain texts and things such as the gutenberg project, wikipedia, librivox and the open university.

Perhaps there is a sense in which some barriers are established to the amateur. Some sciences, for instance, have become so complex that the tools for experimental analysis have become too expensive or developmentally young to become publically accessible. But there are computational programmes and other avenues for the amateur to work. With the onset of more computational methods in experimental studies, we can contribute our computer time towards processing very powerful computer tasks such as protein mapping; identification of galaxy types or interpreting complex images.

In the computer sciences there is room for amateurism. A ‘professional’ in the computer world used to be someone who had a PhD in logic; then it became someone with a doctorate in mathematics; then maybe you could say it was a computer scientist. However, there is a social division between people who work as programmers without formal qualifications such as mathematics or computer science degrees (I have a friend who is a fairly proficient programmer and is an ex-vet student who just became obsessed with linux); and those who write papers about certain code and assess the situation in a professionalised way. The scope for amateurism is quite like the borderlands of science insofar as new innovations that eventually become the mainstream are formed in that border.

Michael

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