Are Children Scientists?

Allison Gopnik , who is a psychologist and philosopher, is known for arguing for the controversial thesis that children are scientists. You may not take her position seriously, since her claim could be metaphorical. However, when Gopnik says that Children are scientists she means it literally. Gopnik argues that scientists and children are using the same cognitive processes that are required to do science; both scientists and children are using the same cognitive processes when it comes to developing a theory, making predictions,  testing them, providing an explanation, and revising a theory. Gopnik appeals to the evidence such as the development of folk-psychology and folk-biology among children. According to Gopnik, children develop theories (i.e. folk-psychology and folk-biology), make predictions, provide explanations, and revise theories. For example, Children possess a theory of folk-psychology that enables them to use concepts of mental states to predict people’s behaviors and explain them. Children may predict that John goes into the fridge to find an ice cream and then explain his behavior by appealing to his beliefs that the ice cream is in the fridge and he desires it. Moreover, children eventually learn that there are false beliefs and upon that discovery they revise their theory of folk-psychology.

Gopnik addresses several objections. It is important to keep in mind that Gopnik is committed to the view that theories like those of folk-psychology and folk-biology are entirely acquired; she rejects the idea that these theories are innate. Philosophers and cognitive scientists argue that if that were the case, then it would be a matter of sheer coincidence on a global scale that virtually every children acquire the same kind of mental state concepts in spite of being in different environments. Gopnik points out that as long as there is an initial condition that determines the outcome, then her theory remains plausible.

Another objection is that science is a social enterprise that requires a group of scientists to cooperate through institutional practices from peer review to laboratory experimentation. So, being a scientist means participating that enterprise. However, children do not seem to partake in that kind of enterprise. Gopnik points out that while children are not literally part of the academic institutions, they are born into an environment with parents and other children. So, children are part of some social environment that enables them to develop a theory.

Philosophers and scientists naturally point out that children do not reflect like scientists. Scientists reflect on an observable phenomenon and then consciously develop a theory. However, children do not seem to consciously develop a theory; even if children do develop some kind of theory, they are not aware of what they are doing. Gopnik responds that scientists do not know what are the underlying cognitive processes of scientific reasoning, so they aren’t really in a better position than children in that respect.

So far, I think Gopnik does well in defending her position. However, there is one potential problem with Gopnik’s theory: If children are scientists, then they should be able to falsify any theory. Falsification amounts to abandoning a theory in favor of an alternative theory. However, we normally do not observe children abandoning a theory in favor of another theory later in their early adulthood. Let me elaborate: later in life, in adolescence, people are able to learn that folk-biology is wrong. For example, contrary to their theory of folk-biology, the theory of evolution undermines our folk notion of biological essentialism. In other words, members of any species are not individuated or defined in terms of their essence, but rather in terms of their evolutionary history. A member of any species is understood in terms of its evolutionary relation to its ancestors. Nonetheless, even after learning evolution in high school biology, people will continue to (unconsciously) think as essentialists. People will continue to attribute essences to themselves, their friends, domestic animals, and wild animals without necessarily being aware of doing so. Likewise in folk physics, people will unconsciously think that an object will continue to fall straight down even after a person dropping it moves along.

Gopnik could argue that through rigorous training people can eventually replace their theory with an alternative theory from modern science. She does appeal to an example in which children who are trained to learn the concept of false beliefs acquire it faster than those who are not trained. However, this argument is implausible. There is an experiment, conducted by Deborah Kelemen, which shows that professional scientists are unable to escape their implicit teleological biases. Professional scientists such as physicists, geologists, chemists, and such are trained to favor mechanical explanations over teleological ones. However, in an experimental condition, where professional scientists are pressured by limited time to answer scientific questions, they tend to give answers that are laden with teleology. The experimental result indicates that there is an underlying implicit preference for a teleological explanation over a mechanical explanation. Moreover, I think that the result suggests that our teleological theory has never been replaced by our modern scientific theories. When a theory is falsified, scientists replace it with another theory. However, if children are unable to replace their theory in the long run, then they aren’t very close to being scientists.

However, Gopnik could find a way to circumvent my objection. She could point out that physicists never really abandoned classical mechanics, after discovering Quantum mechanics. Physicists (and astronomers) continue to use classical mechanics when it is much more feasible to use it for calculation than if they were to use Quantum mechanics. If astronomers or physicists want to predict and calculate a future trajectory of large objects (i.e. asteroid, rocket, comet, etc), then classical mechanics is a feasible and relevant tool. Despite the fact that classical mechanics (as originally intended) was falsified, it was never replaced because it remains useful. Likewise, teleology remains useful in dealing with our ordinary lives, especially when we are constantly surrounded by designed artifacts. Falsification does not necessarily amount to abandonment of a theory, since many aspects of a theory remains useful for scientists. So, even though someone may find out that teleology is largely false, he or she may continue to use it for practical use.

I think this is a very plausible response, but I want to see if it works. It appears that there is an analogy between scientists and children insofar as both will continue to use falsified theories. Scientists continue to use classical mechanics even though it is falsified. Likewise, even after children grow up to learn that teleology is false they still use it. However, I think there is an important disanalogy between them. In general, scientists are able to abandon a theory if it is both falsified and rendered obsolete. Consider the example from the history of Chemistry: the theory of classical elements was the theory that the basic elements were fire, earth, air, and water. This theory was prominent in many cultures, especially in the ancient Greek culture, for centuries. However, by the time Antoine Lavoisier discovered the elements that constitute water, the theory of classical elements was both falsified and rendered obsolete. We no longer find modern Chemists using the theory of classical elements to understand the nature of matter. There aren’t any chemists using that theory to make any useful predictions or calculations in the way physicists are using classical mechanics. However, children are unable to do this with both folk-biology and folk-psychology.

In the end, the objection from falsification probably isn’t a deadly blow to Gopnik’s conclusion. Gopnik can still maintain that for the most part the cognitive process of scientific reasoning exists in both children and scientists. She doesn’t have to insist that scientific reasoning between children and scientist is the same in every aspect. She can concede that there are a few major differences, but continue to argue that the similarity remains significant.

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