A few weeks ago I attended the one-day SkeptiCal Conference (partially organized by my friend Lauren). One of the day’s many interesting speakers was Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and author of The Scientist in the Crib and The Philosophical Baby.
Dr. Gopnik researches how babies and young children learn about the world. While the bulk of her SkeptiCal presentation was similar to her TED talk, at the end she discussed recent experiments showing how children use two types of learning – individual experimentation and social learning (that is learning from others). She also described these experiments in a recent interview:
A couple of recent studies show that preschoolers do something very different if they’re exploring a toy to figure out how it works than if they think somebody’s actually giving them the answer. In a nice experiment that was done at MIT, they gave children a toy to play with that could do lots of different things. You’d punch something and it squeaked, you’d push another button and something else happened, and so on. In one condition the experimenter came in and said, “Oh look, I’ve never seen this toy, let’s see what it can do,” and then bumped into it and it squeaked. In the other condition the experimenter said, “I’ll show you how this toy works.” In the first condition, the children then spontaneously explored everything else the toy could do. Whereas when the experimenter said, “I’m going to show you how this works,” the children just did exactly what the experimenter did, over and over and over again. The findings suggest that children and, presumably, adults, learn quite differently when they’re learning in this spontaneous exploratory way than when they’re learning from a teacher. Now, there are good things about having a teacher who just narrows the range of options you can consider, but there’s also the danger that you’ll wind up just essentially imitating the teacher.
Since I am interested in how the trade-offs between individual and social learning influenced the evolution of humans, I found this experiment interesting for its own sake.
However, this blog post is about last part of her talk in which she used this experiment to illustrate how children learn like “little scientists,” open-mindedly conducting experiments to discover things about the world. That is, unless this exploration is constrained by others – at which point they cease to thinking like rational scientists and open the door to irrational pseudoscientific beliefs (which is the opposite of what most SkeptiCal participants would want).
What I found most interesting about this part of her talk is not that she gives so much credit to babies, but that she gives so much credit to scientists.* Her conception of a scientist as the independent open-minded experimentalist as opposed to a socially-constrained learner seems, to me, old-fashioned and at odds with the view Thomas Kuhn made popular with his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In the book, Kuhn argued that scientists largely accept the received views of their field and only when it becomes overwhelmingly apparent that accepted views have problems do these views change (something he called a “paradigm-shift”). As summarized in Kuhn’s NYT obituary:
Professor Kuhn argued in the book that the typical scientist was not an objective, free thinker and skeptic. Rather, he was a somewhat conservative individual who accepted what he was taught and applied his knowledge to solving the problems that came before him.
To me, this sounds a lot like Dr. Gopnik’s depiction of a baby…
* – Though, honestly, I think that both scientists and babies are best served by a mixture of individual and social learning.