A mental map of Archimedes' heirs

The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind
December 1, 2006

Books about the psychology of science are rare compared with those that deal with the philosophy of science, which contribute so little to how science works and are ignored almost entirely by scientists.

Gregory Feist acknowledges that the psychology of science is at an early stage and presents a summary of what is known so far. He sees science as a hallmark intellectual achievement and has an excellent chapter on the failures of pseudo-science and the influence of postmodernism.

Feist argues that all people are capable of implicit science - that is, they are able to construct theories and test hypotheses and have causal beliefs - but what he calls explicit science is different and is practised by just a few. For Feist, explicit scientists create scientific theories by building models, often using analogy, thought experiments and visual imagery. An example of an analogy comes from Charles Darwin, who saw the similarity between the branching of a tree and what he observed in evolution.

Explicit scientists then test theories against the evidence from observations and experiments. Evidence is crucial both to falsify and to confirm theories. But Feist provides little insight into the nature of the imaginative thinking of great scientists, with the exception of Darwin. It is a very difficult area. He does provide evidence that good scientists are more willing to discard hypotheses and are cognitively complex. But how special is mathematical thinking?

Feist reports on the studies that may help identify at an early age who will be a good scientist and what determines whether someone chooses to become a scientist. Personality and gender play key roles. He makes clear that children have causal beliefs but little scientific understanding, even though they have many of the necessary mental abilities. While he recognises that science usually does not fit with common sense, he does not give this enough emphasis. Think of the movement of the Sun, or that force does not cause motion but acceleration. Quantum physics is beyond common sense.

Feist does not give sufficient attention to the importance of the scientific community and how it is necessary in doing research to know what is already known, and how important it is to frame the scientific question so that it has a chance of being answered. As Nobel laureate Peter Medawar put it, science is the art of the soluble. It is a feature of science that it is culture free and all scientists contribute to a common body of knowledge, so it is co-operative. But that is why it is so competitive, quite unlike the arts, as a discovery can be made only once.

It is Feist's view that scientific thinking evolved through preverbal, verbal, applied and pure stages. The applied refers to technological advances in countries such as Egypt. He accepts that scientific thinking was discovered by the Greeks alone.

But he underestimates Archimedes, who was the first physicist with an understanding of how bodies float, and the discovery of both specific gravity and the centre of gravity. He does not consider that it may have been the critical tradition that the Greeks had in politics and the law that facilitated scientific thinking. Authority was challenged and the views of individuals about the nature of the world became dominant.

It would be interesting to know how different the psychology of law is from that of science.

Lewis Wolpert is emeritus professor of biology as applied to medicine, University College London.

The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind

Author - Gregory J. Feist
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 336
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 300 11074 X

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