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Accessibility is the cornerstone of science and open enquiry

Over the last few years, I’ve watched and worked with my wife as she has managed her chronic disease using the web as one of her tools. Recently I had a mental flash — a connection between her success with open enquiry of field-specific experts, how access to the originators of new science is a key ingredient of the scientific method, and the making of free/libre and open source software.

On more than one occasion, she has found herself in direct contact with “the world’s expert in X.” The practice began twenty years ago when she was diagnosed with Chron’s disease; she lived in Los Angeles, CA, and her parents took her to see “the top doctors.” My wife has carried this philosophy into her other interactions, even where the top expert is Elaine Gottschall, a concerned mother turned scientist and advocate, or another like-minded individual who has scoured the web for all the research.

The web gives access to scientists and case studies in a two-way flow. Not only do scientists find each other and share science more easily, people who can benefit from the science or aid the enquiry are also easier to access. Those individuals are also connecting, sharing information, and connecting through each other back into the scientists. In this recent case, my wife’s enquiries and proving her mettle in various online forums and via direct email has had some interesting results. She is now in contact with other like minded people in similar situations seeking new treatments and cures. She has emailed and talked with the leading world’s expert on a radical-old treatment at the University of Nottingham, UK. One result of her active enquiry has put her in contact with a University of California scientist who is interested in using her as a case study for this treatment. Because she has been learning so much in the process of her enquiries, such that people are always asking what science degree or field she (the art major) trained in, she has an opportunity to both benefit from the treatment and contribute to the study and progress of it.

For scientific enquiry to work, both the science and the scientists must be available. One of the steps in the process of proving a theory is exposing all the aspects of the experiments so that others can duplicate the findings. In this way, findings build upon each other without removing the recognition from the individuals who discovered or worked on key bits. It is in this spirit at MIT where free software thrived before Richard Stallman had dubbed it such.

Just as in other science where you open the findings and how you got there, in FLOSS we provide a compilable application and the source code that gets you there.

In academia or private organizations, when you lock down ideas and people, it produces stagnation and you have to eat the young (new members) to get fresh blood (ideas.) This happens in the proprietary, closed source software world.

Open projects, such as FLOSS, get maximum value from having the top people hanging out in the commons, open to answering questions. Perhaps the process is a bit Socratic and shares kinship with the original Athenian democracy — it provides an open forum to ask questions, discuss, and prove one’s mettle. With the top people, biggest contributors, and biggest idea generators all in the mix with the general population, nothing stops moving long enough to get very stagnate.

In many ways, FLOSS communities are not creating a new methodology as much as practicing a tried and true way of finding, building, and improving on knowledge.