May 02, 2012

Beating the professionals

By Jack Hitt
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Conceding that the term “amateur” means different things to different people, in his book Bunch of Amateurs Jack Hitt nonetheless singles out particular examples of that breed—those characterized by curiosity, open-mindedness and self-confidence—and shows how they have functioned in such disparate fields of study as ornithology, astronomy, genetics, robotics, archaeology and history. “Amateurs are more likely to see what is actually there,” he asserts, “because there’s no money, no power, no prestige (at least not immediately) attached to anything else. Amateurs mainly just want to know.”

To set the stage for his amateur vs. professional faceoff, Hitt devotes a chapter to America’s most exemplary novice, Benjamin Franklin, and his prissy, think-inside-the-box nemesis, John Adams. (Never one to shy away from reductionism, Hitt calls Adams “the Yosemite Sam of the founding fathers.”) Both men were in Paris in 1778 to drum up French support for America in the war against Britain. Franklin, who tended to wing it when it came to diplomatic relations, was a living affront to all the traditional formulations Adams held dear. But he was also an infinitely more effective emissary.

Hitt demonstrates these competing approaches in a series of profiles. His method is to “hang out” with especially provocative amateurs, describe their personalities and assess their processes for discovering truth or utility. There’s Meredith Patterson, for example, who cobbles together a home laboratory and homemade ingredients to study DNA; John Dobson, a “ninety-two-year-old hippie” whose obsession is teaching other amateur astronomers how to grind large telescope lenses in order to better view the universe; and the ever-enthusiastic David Barron, who contends—and not without reason—that certain stone structures in southeastern Connecticut were built 1,500 years ago by Irish monks.

Fascinating though Hitt’s profiles are, they merely serve as entry points to his more extensive discussions of the subjects they’re obsessed with. He goes into great detail about the search for a living specimen of the ivory-billed woodpecker and how the professional ornithologists were just as prone to embrace flimsy evidence as amateurs often are. The same holds true in his discussion of the discovery of the remains of the “Kennewick man” in 1996 and the subsequent effort to establish that he was Caucasian, an exercise in wish-fulfillment to which even credentialed professionals were not immune.

Hitt doesn’t really develop a cohesive thesis here on the nature and value of amateurism, nor does he argue persuasively that it is a distinctly American phenomenon, as he suggests at the outset. But he does illustrate with striking specificity that the road to knowing is cluttered with hazards, the chief of which are our own desires and preconceptions.

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