I’ll start this at the beginning. Recently Friend of LWON, Chris Arnade, posted a picture of himself — which itself was not unusual because Chris is, among other things, a photographer and posts pictures of himself right along with pictures of other people. But the picture was unusual. Chris is a very serious guy and always looks it. This recent picture, though, was something else.
Here are the pictures. The one on the left is the serious Chris, taken by another adult, the way I’m used to seeing him. But the picture on the right, the recent one? “Chris!” I said. “Look how delighted you look!”
“The picture was taken by an 8-year old,” he said.
I had an epiphany. I’d take a bunch of pictures of people, an 8-year old would take pictures of the same people. The ones I took would look sternly grownup. The ones the 8-year old took would look like they’d seen full-on blooming lilacs for the first time.
We were careful about protocol. We wouldn’t say, “Smile,” and we wouldn’t explain why we wanted the pictures, we’d just say, “It’s a scientific experiment and if we told you, we’d spoil it.” And the kids would have to be careful to shoot the people straight-on, so they wouldn’t be looking down.
So. To see whether this data supports the epiphany, I would like to ask you, dear reader, to vote on which of these pictures was taken by a grownup and which by a kid. (Please, keep reading after the ads, please? When you get free survey software, you get ads.)
Yeah, me neither. I got 66% and I knew the answers. One problem is the number of uncontrolled variables. Maybe we should have taken the pictures on different days so people would respond to each of us more freshly; or maybe we should have controlled who shot first; or maybe we should have used the same official or non-official-looking camera; or maybe, as Nora’s father said, I was so beloved that people smiled at me the way they did at Nora; and I’m pretty sure Cameron is beloved too, in which case we’d have to also find an adult photographer who was unbeloved.
The other problem is statistics, which I don’t and never will understand except to say, if you flip a coin ten times, you could easily get heads two-thirds of the time; but flip it 100 times, and you’ll get heads half. Cameron and I and our kid-photographers got only eleven flips. People who understand these things say, “small number statistics,” and tell you to go find another place to play. So here’s my point: the only reason citizen science accomplishes wonders (those are serious scientific papers, people) is because the citizen scientists number in the zillions and the objects they’re sciencing number the same; and all those uncontrolled variables wash out.
This therefore leaves the epiphany in the hands of you, dear reader. I need a zillion-minus-eleven more face-pairs; and a zillion-minus-four more photographers. Who’s with me here? Anybody? We could even quantify the width of smiles and the crinkling of eyes. Nora’s father said if we get this right, we could have the database for computer-identification of faces and affect national security. Anybody at all? No?
Or, of course, the epiphany could just be wrong. Nora took one of these pictures, I took the other, the cat didn’t care, he just hated both of us.
I could in no way have posted these results, such as they are, without considerable time and effort by Nora, by Cameron, by Cameron’s 7-year old, by Nora’s father, and by LWONian Rose Eveleth who figured out how to embed that survey. I thank them all with all my heart. My epiphany wishes that for their sakes, it had worked out better. Two things did work though: Nora’s father taught her to use his fancy camera and she loves it; and Cameron’s 7-year old learned how to use her camera phone and has therefore quit bugging her about it.
The Zooniverse, linked to above, has a new citizen science project in which people look at images of the Equadorian earthquake to help coordinate rescue work on the ground. Here you go: you’d be doing good.
Chris Arnade’s photos used with his kind permission though I bet he didn’t ask the actual photographers. The test photos of the face-pairs are used with the kind permission of the owners of the faces.