That Moment When You Realize How Little You Actually Know

By July 15th, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Comment


I like to call it an antipiphany* – that striking realization of the magnitude of what can be known, which reduces what you actually understand to a paltry amount.

I’ve seen it again and again with graduate students: they enroll feeling like smarty-pants, and within a year they are humbled by an antipiphany. Eventually settling into the comfort of not-knowing-it-all, they are motivated for discoveries, open to an epiphany.

Now a study by Aaron Price and Hee-Sun Lee found that participants in a citizen-science project, Citizen Sky, evaluated their own knowledge about science as lower after 6 months in the project compared to when they started the project.

What was the nature of participants’ apparent antipiphany? Through interviews, Price and Lee confirmed that participants developed a greater appreciation for how much they did not know and for how much they could potentially learn.

This appreciation was in conjunction with an increase in positive attitudes towards science. During those same 6 months, participants tended to seek out more science news and even other citizen-science projects. Realizing how little they knew simply drove them to want to know more.

A common message from citizen science projects is an empowering emphasis on the expertise that participants bring to the table. But does that emphasis encourage learning? Price and Lee’s study highlights for me a tightrope to be walked in citizen science: along with the empowering ‘anyone-can-be-an-expert’ message, participants need experiences that lead to an antipiphany, to understand and feel motivated by how much more there is to learn.


Citizen Sky Project

How did Citizen Sky, a project with over 6,000 registrants, walk the tightrope? Price and Lee took an in-depth look at project design. They outlined five design principles for citizen science projects.

“Design Principle 1: Use a context where volunteers’ contribution is necessary and meaningful for their scientific inquiry.”

In other words, citizen science should involve authentic research only, preferably testing hypotheses that could not otherwise be tested without help from the public. In Citizen Sky, participants were monitoring and trying to understand the 5th brightest star (epsilon) in the constellation Auriga. It is too bright for the highly sensitive detectors on most professional telescopes, and that’s why amateur astronomers were needed. Epsilon Aurigae isn’t really one star, but two or more: one supergiant and one (or two) almost dead stars, buried in a cloud of dust. The supergiant and the stars in the dust cloud revolve around each other, and one of these predictable eclipses, between 2009 and 2011, was the focus of the Citizen Sky project.

“Design Principle 2: Provide Internet resources to help volunteers interact with peers and scientists.”

In Citizen Sky, participants could interact by supplying data (brightness estimates of epsilon Aurigae), using web tools to explore everyone’s data, participating in online forums, participating in monthly live chats, and forming collaborative teams focused around mini-research projects.

“Design Principle 3: Actively involve scientists in a role of teaching and communication.”

In Citizen Sky, participants had access to professional researchers through an interactive blog, live chat sessions, and regular feedback, advice, and general support via the project website.

“Design Principle 4: Support participants for analyzing and presenting their own data.”

Authenticity in collecting and analyzing data is a key part of this principle. In Citizen Sky, participants could view graphs of their data superimposed over the data from everyone else. With the help of tutorials, they could explore what it might mean.

“Design Principle 5: Encourage participants to become an active member of a research community.”

Education researchers have long known the value of group work. Citizen Sky had dedicated space where participants could opt to form teams to work on a research project. The project even provided private areas for team members to chat and share documents. Participants formed 23 teams. Each had the intended goal of submitting a paper to a peer-reviewed astronomical journal.

Most citizen-science projects contain one or two of these design features, but Citizen Sky met ALL of these design principles.

Since Citizen Sky offered a veritable tapas menu of a little bit of everything, Price and Lee were able to tease apart which design elements fostered positive changes in participants’ attitudes about science. The answer they found is…

(drum roll, please)

…social activities!

If people spent time in the chat sessions with peers and scientists, then they learned more (including learning how much they did not know). Like the adage, you get out what you put in, participants who put energy towards the project gain the most from the project.

Price and Lee suggest that a sense of ownership in the scientific process and its products as well as a sense of community are two essential features of citizen science. People should not feel like anonymous data collectors or data processors. They must know each other. They must be real, just as the research must be real. Involvement only in the act of collecting data for science may not be enough to cause positive changes in attitudes toward science. Participants need to do more. And they need to do it together.

Just when I thought that I understood citizen science, Price and Lee’s results gave me the antipiphany of realizing how much more there is to understand. If we can design our citizen-science projects to bring scientific thinking into everyday conversations, then more people may realize there is so much more to learn. In this way, citizen science can take us one step closer in preparing our society to address complex issues and solve big problems. Just like the humbled graduate students, after antipiphanies in the online world of citizen science, perhaps we’ll all gain a collective e-piphany.


*Anyone know if there is already a word for this realization?

This post originally appeared on PLOS CitizenSci .


Price, C. A. and Lee, H.-S. (2013), Changes in participants’ scientific attitudes and epistemological beliefs during an astronomical citizen science project. J. Res. Sci. Teach.. doi: 10.1002/tea.21090

Caren Cooper is a scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where she carries out research on birds almost exclusively with data collected by willing and able hobbyists. Caren has contributed guest blogposts about the history of citizen science for Scientific American. Twitter: @CoopSciScoop