Data Science is Junk Science. I’d rather be a Citizen Scientist

October 28, 2015 — Leave a comment

Preface: The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a Citizen Scientist a member of the general public who undertakes scientific work in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and/or scientific institutions. The OED currently has no definition for either Data Science (it is also not recognized as a legitimate science by any scientific body in the world) or Data Scientist aka Unicorn.


The notion of Data Science was born from the recent idea that “if you have enough data, you don’t need much (if any) science” to divine the truth and foretell the future” (as opposed to the long established rigors of Statistical or Actuarial Science which most times requires painstaking efforts and substantial time to produce their version of  “the truth”). Practitioners’ of this so-called science are the self-proclaimed Data Scientists, purported to be the “sexiest job” one can have today. The Data Scientist is a catchall role, which defies a common definition[1], but claims that;  “We can do anything you want with any data that you have” (akin to “Torturing the Data to obtain some version of the Truth”). Much of the hype of Data Science has been coupled with the virtues of Big Data (and all that entails). Now that we are starting to see Big Data wane and without much of a solid foundation built to date, it has become clear to me (and many others no doubt) that Data Science is on the cusp of being relegated to the “Junk Science[2]” rubbish bin in fairly short order. I for one will not mourn the death of Data Science, or the abatement of hype surrounding it (much less Big Data).

Rather than embracing this untested (and perhaps doomed) form of science and aimlessly searching for Unicorns aka Data Scientists, to pay vast sums to, many Organizations are now embracing the idea of “making everyone Data & Analytics Literate”.  This leads me to what my column is really meant to focus on; The Rise of the Citizen Scientist.

The Citizen Scientist is not a new idea whatsoever having seen action in the Space & Earth Sciences world for decades now (NASA SETI) and has really come into its own as we enter “The Age of Open Data”. Given the exponential growth of Open Data initiatives across the world (the UK remains the leader, but has growing competition from all geographies) the need for Citizen Scientists is now paramount.  As Governments open up of vast repositories of new data of every type, the opportunity for these same Governments (and Commercial interests) to leverage the passion, skills & collective know-how of Citizen Scientists to help garner deeper insights into the Scientific & Civic challenges of the day is substantial. They then can take this knowledge and the collective energy of the Citizen Scientist community to develop common solution sets and applications to meet the needs of all their Constituencies without expending much in terms of financial resources or suffering substantial development time lags. This can be a windfall of benefits for every level (National to Local) or type of Government (or Industry sector) found around the world.

The use of Citizen Scientists to tackle so-called “Grand Challenge” problems has been a driving force behind many Governments’ commitments to and investments in Open Data to date. There are so many challenges in governing today that it would be foolish to not employ these very capable resources to help tackle them. The benefits manifested from this approach are substantial and well proven. Many are well articulated in the Open Data Success Stories to date. Additionally, one only need to attend a local “hack fest” to see how engaged Citizen Scientists are of all age, gender & race and to feel the sense of community that these events foster as everyone focuses on the challenge(s) at hand and works diligently to surmount them using very creative approaches. To get a flavor as to some of the larger challenges being addressed by Citizen Scientists & Governments you can visit the (US) Citizen Science Alliance site ( or the (UK) (

As Open Data becomes pervasive in use and mature in respect to the breadth & richness of the data sets being curated, the benefits returned to both Government and its Constituents will be manifold. The catalyst to realizing these benefits (and attendant ROI) will be the role of the Citizen Scientist. Citizen Scientists are not going to be Statisticians, Actuaries or so-called Data Scientists, but ordinary people with a passion for science and learning and a desire to contribute to solving the many Grand Challenges facing society at large. I believe that their efforts will do more to turn the tide on societal and environmental challenges than all other undertakings combined.

[1] Neither Data Science nor Data Scientist merits an entry in the current OED.

[2] Junk Science is commonly regarded as; “untested or unproven theories presented as scientific fact”. In Actuarial terminology it constitutes “Unsound Results”.

*This posting in an edited version originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Information Age (UK)

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