Gamers and Scientists: Exactly who Failed?

I have been on more limited internet time recently, so I’ve been skimming over a lot of the science blogs that I would normally read. Because of this I’ve missed a lot of good stuff, I’m sure. However, it has also forced me to prioritize my reading away from the the more press release-y sites. This means I haven’t been reading many of the things that the general populations of social media sites have been talking about.

In particularly I have been refusing to click on a link now for a couple days. I’ve seen it posted *all over*, mostly by people who have absolutely no connection to the sciences in their everyday lives. That link is Gamers* Succeed Where Scientists Fail and others of a similar nature.

Even though I hadn’t read the post, I had made a pretty good guess about what I would see. I guessed they were talking about something from the Foldit project, and subsequently guessed that it was a case where the websites were denigrating scientists more for hits than for any accuracy of the headline. Had I had more time I would have at least skimmed through, if just to find out what they were looking at. However, on a limited time budget, I passed it by.

Today I was reading up on some citizen science projects that I want to incorporate into one of my programs and I remembered that link that I’ve been ignoring. After all, I rather like the idea of Foldit, and if I could tie a current media story into my program, then I probably should. (Hey, hit counts matter for online science communicators, number of returning visitors matters for this offline science communicator.)

Once I saw that connection, I read the posts. Guess what? I was right. The posts themselves weren’t bad. Most nicely explained Foldit and how the researchers decided to use a distributed computing force made out of gamers to solve this problem. And most of them limited their aspersions of scientist imcompetence to one or two pointed remarks.

However, I think that all of the articles, even the particularly good ones (io9‘s stands out as a nice summary), missed a great story underlying the whole thing.

The scientists didn’t fail.

The scientists succeeded.

They succeeded because they used SCIENCE.

What is the hallmark of the scientific method? You need a specific and measurable question. You need a good experiment or model to give you a precise answer to that question. And then, most importantly, you need to know when to abandon that original model and adopt a new one.

Dr. Khatib and his colleagues did just that. They had been working on a question, an answerable question. However, they had been unable to find an answer to that question.

So what did they do?

They employed a new method. That new method just happened to use gamers to do the modeling at which computers had failed.

The scientists knew that computer modeling had failed at identifying the answer to their question, so they turned to the thing that is at once both the opposite and the analogue of a computer system. The human mind. In this case, they turned to the Foldit community, a citizen science project that breaks down the tasks required in large scale knowledge processing into manageable chunks that don’t require extensive training and background to complete.

The Foldit community (the “gamers” of the headlines) made short work of the question, producing usable models in a surprisingly small amount of time.

Does this mean that the “gamers” succeeded where the “scientists” failed?

Not in the least! It meant that the gamers AND the scientists succeeded. The gamers succeeded in answering the question that the scientists had posed. This is an impressive feat, and one that is worthy of headlines.

However, the modeling of the enzyme by itself doesn’t do anything on its own. So, there’s an enzyme that has been modeled. Okay. Now what?

The meaning of the enzyme modeling is determined by the (trained and expert) scientist who had originally been researching the subject. The modeling itself is an interesting artifact, but it is the question that led to the modeling that makes it useful.

The thrust of the Foldit efforts was directed by the scientists who had previously been working on this enzyme, and who knew what questions needed to be asked in order to further the research needed. In this case that research could help develop new treatments for retroviruses.

The idea that the the researchers identified where there previous methods had failed and were willing to turn to a new and relatively unproven method in order to find an answer is a much more interesting story to me than the popular framing it as a story of the failure of scientists. How cool is it that not only did they say “hey, our previous approach isn’t working, but these guys over here have something that could work…”, but then were willing to work with people who do not have the same background in biology that they have. Even the idea of admitting that people not completely ensconced in the ivory tower could have valuable insights into a question is an interesting story.

What it isn’t is a story of failure. In admitting their initial failure the scientists succeeded beyond what anyone could have expected.

So why has this story taken hold in the public in the way it has? As I wrote earlier, I saw people on various social media networks sharing and retweeting and +1ing this story who usually don’t touch a science story with a ten foot pole and quietly ignore me when I get on a kick about a specific subject. Could part of this be due to the very thing that rubs me the wrong way – the celebrating of the “failure” of the scientists involved?

It doesn’t seem like it should be. And these are the same people who do tend to get interested in citizen science projects, at least ones involving space (I’m not sure why). They’re not dumb, uneducated, anti-intellectual or any of the other labels thrown around when people are angry.

Could it just be that they’re so used to living in a political and social environment that encourages the denigration of scientists?

This particular story upsets me, not only because I take it personally when people start saying scientists are out of touch or irrelevant. It saddens me because it’s a missed opportunity. This was a great chance to tell a story about *everyone* having a chance to achieve an important scientific result.

News like this gives us a chance to say “Hey, you! Yes, you who failed college biology and get hives when you see chemistry equipment. There’s a place for you! That place is right here at the lab bench beside me.” Instead, most of the reporting about it sent the message of “Why would you want to be here among these silly people who can’t even achieve what gamers can.

The scientists weren’t the real failure here. The reporting was.

*There could be a whole other post on how the title of “gamers” is used as an insult, but I’ll leave that for someone else.