Jacob at Salamander Candy has written the post that I have been meaning to write. With so much freely available sequence data in GenBank and loads of free software with which to analyze it, we should encourage the general public to start looking for ‘interesting things’ (building phylogenies, comparing rates of evolution along lineages, testing for natural selection, etc). There are tons of armchair astronomers, so why not develop a community of armchair molecular genetics data miners? Here’s a taste of Jacob’s essay:
The more non-professionals we have doing science, the better, because not only does more science get accomplished, but laypersons don’t feel so distanced from the world of academic researchers with all the letters after their names and their government grants. It’s clear that public understanding of science, especially evolutionary biology, is much poorer than it ought to be. Even mistrust and fear of scientists is disturbingly widespread. So next time, instead of World of Warcraft, consider exploring the NCBI site. Show your fundamentalist relatives a phylogeny you’ve reconstructed with neutral sequence data, and ask them to explain why it matches a morphology-based tree. High school teachers should think about giving that bright student an independent project looking for the signature of positive selection on genes, instead of the rote science assignment the rest of the class is working on.