Praise for amateur ecologists

The real meaning of the word amateur has nothing to do with qualifications or where your income comes from, writes Dick Warner

The tone was dismissive and the woman being dismissed was a very fine botanist and the official botanical recorder for her county. “Of course, she’s only an amateur naturalist,” said one of the company. However, she made her living as a teacher and her botanical work was unpaid. The man who made the comment worked as an ecologist.

I was indignant. Part of the reason for my indignation was certainly because I’m an amateur naturalist myself. I have no scientific qualifications, my degrees are in languages and literature, and my career has been in the media. And I get fed up with the prejudice that professional scientists with degrees in botany, zoology or ecology show towards the work of amateur naturalists. It’s an invidious kind of intellectual snobbery. So I waded in to the conversation. “Charles Darwin is the greatest naturalist who ever lived”, I declared.

“He went to Edinburgh University to study medicine and dropped out. He then went to Cambridge to take an Arts degree to prepare him for a life in Holy Orders. He was an amateur naturalist. And take Robert Lloyd Praeger, the greatest naturalist this country has ever produced and arguably one of our greatest scientists. His Wikipedia entry says: “he was an engineer by qualification, a librarian by profession and a naturalist by inclination”. Another amateur.”

We use the distinction between amateur and professional in a couple of different ways. In sport, professional athletes are usually those who get paid and don’t hold down any other job. The same applies in the sciences but there is the further implication that the professional scientist has a degree, or several degrees, in the subject that he or she works at.

However, the real meaning of the word amateur has nothing to do with qualifications or where your income comes from, it means someone who loves what they do, from the Latin ‘amare’, to love. It’s really not surprising that naturalists who are motivated by love for their subject achieve more than those motivated by their pay cheque.

Our knowledge of the flora and fauna of this country has benefited enormously from ‘citizen scientists’. BirdWatch Ireland employs a number of professional ornithologists but it has also built up a superb database of bird distribution by mounting surveys using the observations of the public.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has done something similar for frogs and newts and there are many other examples. A new ‘citizen science research project’ has just been set up to map the distribution of ladybird species. I have my own little project. I want to discover why pied wagtails spend so much time hopping around on the tarmac of carparks and schoolyards.


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