ResearchBlogging.orgNeil deGrasse Tyson if famous for telling us that children are natural scientists, and cautioning us to be careful not to ruin that thing about them. He makes a good case. No one ever thought, I think, that he meant that children were born resistant to the sorts of biases that scientists actively eschew, or with a developed sense of probability theory that all scientists need to evaluate their work and the work of others, and those other tools that scientists get trained in for several years before they can really call themselves scientists. He mean, rather … how shall I put this. Oh hell, you can see what he says here:

(You should see Huxley with a screwdriver!)

Now, there is controversy, and it is my job as your blogger to tell you about it. It starts with the video above and others like it, and is expanded on by a paper by Claire Cook, Noah Goodman and Laura Schulz in the journal Cognition called “Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers’ exploratory play” (PDF) which hast this abstract:

Probabilistic models of expected information gain require integrating prior knowledge about causal hypotheses with knowledge about possible actions that might generate data relevant to those hypotheses. Here we looked at whether preschoolers (mean: 54 months) recognize ‘‘action possibilities’’ (affordances) in the environment that allow them to isolate variables when there is information to be gained. By manipulating the physical properties of the stimuli, we were able to affect the degree to which candidate variables could be isolated; by manipulating the base rate of candidate causes, we were able to affect the potential for information gain. Children’s exploratory play was sensitive to both manipulations: given unambiguous evidence children played indiscriminately and rarely tried to isolate candidate causes; given ambiguous evidence, children both selected (Experiment 1) and designed (Experiment 2) informative interventions.

To make that just a tad more clear, here is a bit more from the same paper:

These results suggest that preschoolers distinguish, not only ambiguous and unambiguous evidence but also potentially informative and uninformative interventions. In cases where there was information to be gained, preschoolers spontaneously selected (Experiment 1) and designed (Experiment 2) actions to effectively isolate the relevant variables. Critically, the target experiments were not otherwise part of children’s exploratory repertoire; children almost never performed them given unambiguous evidence.

So, scientists seem to have found evidence that children have certain key behavioral characteristics that one would normally see in a growed-up scientist.

Also, we have the blog post “More Than Child’s Play: Ability to Think Scientifically Declines as Kids Grow Up” by Sharon Begley.

Since the 1990s studies have shown that children think scientifically—making predictions, carrying out mini experiments, reaching conclusions and revising their initial hypotheses in light of new evidence.

She discusses the above cited paper, and concludes:

… If even the youngest kids have an intuitive grasp of the scientific method, why does that understanding seem to vanish within a few years? Studies suggest that K–12 students struggle to set up a controlled study and cannot figure out what kind of evidence would support or refute a hypothesis. One reason for our failure to capitalize on this scientific intuition we display as toddlers may be that we are pretty good, as children and adults, at reasoning out puzzles that have something to do with real life but flounder when the puzzle is abstract, Goodman suggests—and it is abstract puzzles that educators tend to use when testing the ability to think scientifically. In addition, as we learn more about the world, our knowledge and beliefs trump our powers of scientific reasoning. …

Now, we have the dissenting view, from Matthew Francis at Galileo’s Pendulum, in his post “Children Are Not “Natural” Scientists“:

A pernicious myth, repeated with good intentions in many places and by many people, is that children are natural scientists. They are born with something that gets beaten or worn out of them by bad teachers, bad schools, bad educational practices, and then must relearn what it means to be a scientist later in life. Like many myths, there’s a mixture of truth and falsehood, but ultimately the myth is damaging and leads us into bad habits of thought.

One gets the impression that Matthew does not like the idea. He states:

“Thinking like a researcher” is not the same thing as a natural curiosity and mental plasticity — scientific research is very much a learned skill, in my experience, but I admit to being entirely ignorant of child development…

The answer, of course, may be more nuanced than simply “yes” or “no” to the scientific kung fu of children, and for nuanced answers we look to people like Marie-Claire Shanahan, who always has interesting and valuable things to say. Marie-Claire argued some time before this recent questioning of the issue arose that Students don’t lose their ability to think scientifically:

…school children and teenagers continue to understand the basics of experimentation very well. There are several resources for teaching the concept of fair testing in science. They usually begin with intuitive ideas related to general fairness, like using the analogy of a race where everyone must start at the same place and take the same route. Even the idea of a fair test experiment, though, gives a very simplified introduction to scientific investigations. What is much more difficult is, for example, the idea of a variable. And here’s where I disagree not just with Sharon Begley but with the authors of the paper. By trying to isolate which blocks will make the toy work, the children are not isolating variables. There is only one variable – the blocks – and the children have found an innovative way to try to test one block at a time.

… Even simple variables like length are more challenging than they seem. It is one thing to measure the length of a particular piece of string, quite another to conceive of length as a general property that can be measured or manipulated in any object. This especially true because it is also somewhat arbitrary, requiring the person doing the experiment to choose an operational definition (e.g., by defining length as the measurement of the longest side). There is no concrete thing called length. It is an abstract word that describes a type of measurement. Understanding that is much harder than trying to find a way to measure it in specific objects, which is analogous to what the children are doing in trying to find a way to test each block individually.

Personally, I don’t think there is a lot of disagreement here. Neil deGrasse Tyson is right: Children ruin things in their never ending quest to find out what they are. The cited experimental research demonstrates that children have certain aspects of the scientific method built in. Marie-Claire is correct in parsing out the fact that true adult scientists have created a discipline in which things that are hard to automatically address are seen to with methology and theory, things that people would not automatically think of on their own.

I’m reminded of some of my recent reading in the literature of Witch Hunting in the late Middle Ages and early Enlightenment in Europe. The argument went like this: There are typical characteristics of Witches that let you identify them. Thus, there is a list of interrogations one uses to spot the Witch. Part of the methodology is to torture the suspected Witch until she or he confesses. It seems like every time a Witch is found, the interrogation produces the same result, confirming the method. Everyone involved seemed to believe this; there is even evidence of individuals “realizing” that they must be a Witch because they confessed under torture to the accusations of the inquisitor. That’s how adults seem to think when left on their own. But at the same time thousands of Witches were being “found” and usually executed, other adults were busy inventing hydropower and figuring out that the Earth is round and that there are planets, and that various elements existed with specific properties, and so on and so forth.

Are children born pre-scientists? Probably. Do we ruin them? Maybe, maybe not. More research is needed.

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Cook, C., Goodman, N., & Schulz, L. (2011). Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers’ exploratory play Cognition, 120 (3), 341-349 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.03.003

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