Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Posers in DIY Science and Hacker Movements

A problem I have been failing to overlook lately is the number of posers in DIY Science.

A lot of times I relate DIY science to the computer hacker movement in the 90s because I feel there are many similarities. However, one of the big difference I see is that the DIY community is a lot more accepting of posers and people that detract from the community. I can't tell if it is because people don't know better or that DIY Science attracts much more timid personalities than hacking did and so very few people call others out on their bullshit.

With hackers there was a hierarchy mostly based on skill and knowledge. To move up this hierarchy one needed to face the gauntlet of criticisms and challenges to your skill and knowledge. This was done through code output, chat and submissions to 'zines. Honestly, it sounds a lot like graduate school. I will admit that this is a harsh type of culture, to be constantly challenged but it creates a culture based alot on honesty, logic and truth. 

When I first became involved with other DIY Science people, the lack of knowledge stunned me. I thought I could help by pointing out why people's ideas would not work and what knowledge gaps they needed to fill. This is what happened in the computer hacker movement and also graduate school. It seems to be a model that works well. It just requires people to be over their own egos. This received much backlash in the community, much more than I expected and I still haven't quite figured out why? I began to stop myself from calling out every person when they posted something wrong or had a really bad idea. I figured that they probably are not having that much of an effect on the community as a whole. I think this is untrue though and it just makes it more acceptable for other people to propagate bad ideas and information. I just can't be the asshole who stops them. Also, I do understand that sometimes people make mistakes. I mean I know I have had some bad ideas in my life and I still do. However, it is becoming harder and harder for me to keep quiet because there are so many people in DIY that are placed in positions of responsibility or influence and have no knowledge or skill to offer. Even sometimes in fact offering wrong information, misinformation and pseudo-science. This lack of self policing in the DIY community, I imagine, has contributed alot to its growing pains . As far as I know no significant work has yet to come out of DIY Science. As the arrogant person I am, I would cite some of my own work like The Chromochord, but this is still niche. That fact that there is no significant work is a problem. 

Personally I think the main problems are education and access to resources. Despite bitching at posers I actually try to contribute by teaching classes at Biocurious and providing inexpensive Science supplies at The ODIN but it seems I don't have enough time to contribute to make a significant in a dent in these issues. 

I don't know how the hacker movement harnessed such a small subculture of auto-didacts who taught themselves by reading RFCs and manuals and learned programming from books. Replication of this feat in my lifetime would be impressive.

So, how does one help DIY Science? Despite all the clamor over online courses I don't believe that they work well. From personal experience, taking the courses and attempting to learn on my own, I have never gained as much as from a real world class. In fact not even close. I feel this is because it is hard to dedicate the time and energy to an online class that one normally would to a real world class. This doesn't mean that there are not people that benefit from these classes but it doesn't bode well when an educated auto-didact doesn't prosper from online classes (though I know I am a little weird). This is besides the fact that most Science experimentation requires a hands-on component. Science is really like a sport there are things people can teach you but it also requires actual doing to become successful. To me this is why [graduate] school is so important for Science! It's like trying to teach someone creativity, you can't, it is something that people develop through experience. 

So finally, how do we rid DIY Science of the posers like the computer hackers did? Maybe it  worked out because hacking started with mostly educated people who had access to computers and thus the hierarchy was born in from the beginning. Maybe for DIY Science, first, there needs to be a shift in balance where people with actual knowledge and skills are established as the majority. At the moment it seems the number of posers far outweigh everyone else and this is a huugggeee problem because the movement will not be able to grow well without knowledgeable teachers. In the end, despite what happened in the computer hacker movement, you are not the starring performer in Good Will Hunting. To change DIY Science is going to take a lot of grinding.