Hi LessWrong, 

I wanted to let you know about a recent article in New Idea in Psychology written by myself and Dr. Dario Krpan (assistant professor of psychology at London School of Economics) that discusses LessWrong and Scott Alexander (Siskind) as examples of amateurs (or communities of amateurs) that make valuable contributions to psychology. In the article, we argue that psychology and behavioral science can benefit from increased participation in knowledge work (hypothesizing, experimentation, observational research, etc.) by amateurs. We highlight several “blind spots” in academic psychology (long-term projects, observational research, speculation, interdisciplinary research, taboo or uncommon subjects, and aimless projects) that amateurs might profitably focus on and discuss how we can support and facilitate amateurs to do research in psychology. One point of clarification is the term “amateur”; this is not meant as derogatory in anyway (and indeed our title makes light of the denigrating phrase “amateur hour”), but is used to refer to anyone that is not a professional psychology researcher. Scott, although he is practicing psychiatrist, would still qualify as an amateur in our definition because he does not belong to an institution that pays him to do psychology research. I would also mention that this paper might the first in which an author lists his substack as his institution (Secretum Secretorum). 

Here is the official link to the paper: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0732118X21000714

Here is the author copy which will be open access for the next 40 days or so:

Below is the paragraph in which we discuss LessWrong.

Lastly, an example of a “quantified-self” amateur who has made valuable contributions in PBS is Alexey Guzey (2020), an independent researcher noted for conducting a self-experiment on the link between sleep and cognitive functioning. Guzey (2019) is also known for performing a rigorous fact-checking of the book Why We Sleep (Walker, 2017), which suggests that amateurs can also improve PBS by conducting thorough reviews of popular science books. Both reviews of popular science books and self-experimentation by amateurs can also be commonly found on LessWrong.com, a hub of the rationalist community; for example, one can find posts that detail self-experiments on the effect of chocolate on sleep, metacognitive training (e.g., using heuristics, noticing emotions), the relationship between work output and hours of work, or romantic techniques.2 Amateur self-experimentation has a long history in PBS, beginning perhaps with Herman Ebbinghaus’ ground-breaking work on memory that led to the discovery of the forgetting curve. Though he would eventually gain recognition as an academic psychologist, at the time of his experiments Ebbinghaus was an amateur—he did not have a university position and wanted to advance psychological knowledge by researching himself (Boneau, 1998; Slamecka, 1985; Woodworth, 1909).

In another section, we mention a specific post as an example of a long-term observational research project. 

For example, the “slow scholarship” movement highlights how scholars face a general intensification in the pace of work and an increasing pressure to publish (Harland, 2016; Hartman & Darab, 2012). Research indicates that the average number of publications at time of hiring for science faculty positions has been steadily rising in recent years (Pennycook & Thompson, 2018; Reinero, 2019; Van Dijk, Manor, & Carey, 2014); trends like this may influence researchers, especially early career researchers, away from projects that require dedication over a long period of time. This suggests that long-term research projects are generally a neglected area in academia (i.e., a blind spot), and amateurs could do valuable work by focusing their efforts on research that may take a significant amount of time to yield results (Table 1) (Medin et al., 2017). This may involve spending decades to build rich and multilayered psychological theories, investigating psychological phenomena in greater detail, or conducting long-term observation. One example of an amateur conducting a long-term project in PBS is the post "Seven Years of Spaced Repetition Software in the Classroom” by user tanagrabeast (2015) on LessWrong.com, who investigated how spaced repetition of study material influenced high-school students’ academic performance.

I also wanted to let LessWrong know about a new scientific journal founded by myself and Dr. Krpan that grew out of discussion for this paper. Seeds of Science (theseedsofscience.org) publishes short scientific articles that are more speculative or non-traditional in some way. Peer review is community-based voting and commenting by our diverse network of “gardeners” from across science (the journal is 100% free and participation by gardeners is entirely at will). Our primary criterion is simple: does your article contain original ideas that have the potential to advance science? The goal is to be as open-minded as possible about what qualifies as a useful scientific contribution while also allowing for a diversity of writing styles and formats so that authors can express their ideas clearly and in an engaging manner. The openness of our format and the limited submission requirements (no cumbersome formatting rules) are designed to make the writing and reading of our papers a much easier and more enjoyable process than is typical for most scientific journals. You can read more about our criteria on the “How to Publish” page. 

In some ways what we are trying to do is not too different from LessWrong – we want to create a community of intelligent like-minded individuals dedicated to writing and reviewing articles. The main differences between LessWrong and Seeds of Science are the general focus (we are more narrowly focused on science), the review structure (our review process is more formalized, we are not a forum), and the fact that we publish papers with DOIs and scholarly formatting. In particular, we hope to provide a platform for undergraduates, graduates, and amateurs to publish some of their more unusual ideas in a less restrictive format. It’s definitely an experiment in scientific publishing, but hopefully we can carve out a unique niche somewhere between rigorous academic journal and blog/forum.

We have published 2 articles so far and have also written two examples articles, one of which – Randomness in Science – I recently posted here. I’m happy to answer any questions about the journal (or the paper) and of course it goes without saying that we would love to have any of you join us as authors or gardeners. Again, it is free to join as a gardener and participation is entirely at will – we send you articles through email (think substack) and you can vote/comment or ignore without notification. Another unique feature of SoS is that we publish particularly interesting or helpful comments after the main text of the article. 

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Here are other terms that might be used in place of (or combined with?) "Amateur" that have different shades of meaning...

"Self-funded" - Connecting to a relatively long tradition going back long before Vannevar Bush set up what I personally think of as "Vannevarian Science" during a period proximate to WW2 (with the NSF and so on). There were grants before then, from what I can tell, but many fewer, and a lot of science from before that point was performed by what seem, through a modern lens, to perhaps be just "semi-retired geeks with a hobby in experimental natural philosophy".

"Unsubsidized" - Very similar to "self-funded" but focusing more on the sense in which modern "funding" is almost always (in these post-modern times) still mostly money from a government, using tax dollars, which maybe comes with strings attached (from the perspective of the thinkers) that (from the perspective of tax payers) are in some sense morally proper if the state is operating with the consent of the governed and on behalf of the interests of those who pay taxes. Thus (properly?) the state actor is probably aiming to benefit tax payers by (properly?) controlling the thinkers who are on the tax payroll. (Subsidized thinkers often don't like to think of themselves as "controlled and/or on someone's payroll", so sometimes focus on saying "we" instead of "I" and emphasize peer review or similar non-incentive-compatible processes? Maybe? That was a clever hack when Vannevar et al tried it, but it is not clear how it could work on very long time scales in the presence of political regime turnover.)

"Patron-Funded" - This isn't self-funded, but it does cut out the coercive machinery of the state. With patreon and youtube there seems to be a minor renaissance of "polypatronized" thinkers, while in the past (before Vannevarian funding models arose) my impression is that singularly rich people, verging on princely (oligarchic?) power, would fund a genius or two so that their filthy lucre (<3) could buy them timelessly important contributions to the advancement of human knowledge... or something? I don't think I'd know who Cosimo the Elder was if not for his patronage, for example.

"Feral" - If the thinking and data collection and writing are performed by someone who was, for a while, part of ancient and subsidized institutions of research and learning, you expect their thinking to follow many of the normal channels of those with similar formative processes. Then later some separating event might occur such as: being thrown back, or being permanently evoked (perhaps to do work on a black project), or otherwise going extramuros (as by personal choice, and/or after conflicts, to escape inquisitorial interference in their work). There is expected to be a spicy story here!

"Outsider" - As with outsider art, a thinker who "isn't even feral", so much as completely formed by themselves, from their own effort, without the oversight or pedagogy of pre-existing disciplinary boundaries or planned formative curricula. Ramanujan might count as "the best sort" of a person like this, and often many of the high quality ones seem to have a life arc where they end up being offered resources by institutions which might otherwise seem lesser (the institutions would seem lesser) for the absence of such bright lights. This life arc is maybe "common for the ones you hear about" but rare in general?

"Autodidact" - Smart enough outsider thinkers are likely to run across this term and might self-identify this way, but so might some feral intellectuals, or just any random smart person who reads and thinks and stuff. I tend to like them, and one way to find them is to notice when people say a rare word, with semantic accuracy, but using an idiosyncratic pronunciation. Such people have often never talked about many topics they've studied, having only read the words in text, and then they back-construct plausible pronunciations from the letters, and this is a recognizable hallmark when they are talking. Some people use the label "autodidact" pejoratively, perhaps from believing that knowledge can or should be organized in a standard way, and thinking that it is critical to how specialization and expert communication should work. The criticism is not totally unfounded. If Kuhn is right, there actually can't be "science science" if everyone remains an autodidact and if no specialist jargon (based on presumptive classics (with recursive selection and amplification (into sociologically reified information cascades))) doesn't sociologically occur to establish "a coherent field" with practitioners of the fields who mostly mutually recognize each other, and so on.

"Crackpot" - An autodidact of explicitly low quality, often (though not always) with weird metaphysics and, if their oeuvre is publicly visible, sometimes studied by psychoceramacists (who themselves are almost certainly unsubsidized). Some people identify this way as part of a complicated counter-signaling strategy (partly at themselves, perhaps based on half-baked virtue epistemic reasoning?) and the famous one that jumps to mind for me is RAW himself.

For reference (and as a sorted of potted methods section) this sort of typology is something I've played with for some time, mostly by the accumulation of many examples, pursuant to a general hobby-level interest in cliology of science.

(This sketch of a lexicon isn't coherent (or MECE) or a proper taxonomy, much less an ontology, and I don't want to commit to exactly this here and now... but "amateur" doesn't seem to me to carve reality at the joints, especially if it normally denotes "not paid and also unskillful" while it sort of connotes "without Vannevarian subsidy, but rather among the hoi polloi". I would go with "unsubsidized" in fast/dirty contexts and "non-Vannevarian" if I had time to justify the term.)

Cliology of science is interesting because cliology in general is plausibly impossible, and if cliology in general is impossible (as is likely) then an important candidate reason for this would be because "maybe science can't be predicted in advance", and so... if science itself (or parts of it) somehow can be predicted in advance... then predicting merely the subset of history that includes science would help in building the full(er) scale vision of a total cliological model... which is semi-plausibly the most important science that might hypothetically exist. Cliology of science is thus a useful place to work if one wants to de-risk the larger project, I think? <3

Also (with apologies for so obvious a plug, but the issue is right next door to the actual topic) if a benificient reader is interested in upgrading me from "Self-funded Metacontrarian" to "Patron-funded Polymath" feel free to PM me <3

An example of an amateur within PBS characterized by low expertise distance and high expertise level (i.e., independent scientist) is Scott [lastname] —a psychiatrist who is not affiliated with any academic institution and makes research contributions through his blog Astral Codex Ten1 (formerly writing under the pseudonym Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex).


Scott is still writing under his pseudonym. Did you check if he's cool with you publishing his last name?

He discloses his last name on ACX at https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/still-alive; I don't think using it in a paper like this meaningfully reduces his anonymity relative to that.

And he disclosed his name because the New York Times published it - https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/13/technology/slate-star-codex-rationalists.html

I've also discussed the paper with him and he didn't seem to have an issue with it. 

Thanks for clarifying!

The page you linked links to https://lorienpsych.com/ which does use his real name.

My bad! Thought I was linking to the AAC about page, must have copied the wrong link. But in any case looks like he has no problem having that sort of direct connection.

See his ACX initial post.

He's not saying you gave the wrong link. He's saying that the page you linked to has a link on it to the Lorien Psych page (which uses Scott's real name).

I'm not sure if it's intentional, but the link where you first introduce Seeds of Science (theseedsofscience.org) recursively points back here. The how to publish link later in the paragraph goes to the expected location.

Not intentional - thanks! 

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