Ahead of the curve

Advancing the frontiers of knowledge is at the core of the academy, but the crossing of established disciplinary boundaries is often resisted. How does a band of pioneers stake its claim to novel territory, counter sceptics, win converts and establish itself? Zoë Corbyn looks at the psychology of science's fight for acceptance

October 7, 2010

It is a dreamily beautiful day in early August, and the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, devoid of students for the summer break, could hardly be a more pleasant place. But in an empty hall of residence is a group of about 50 academics who are not here for the weather. They have travelled from across the country and from abroad - Mexico, the UK, Sweden - to participate in the only regular conference dedicated to their subject: the psychology of science. They arrange themselves for a group photo, and the camera preserves for posterity the smiling faces of the delegates to the third conference of the International Society for the Psychology of Science and Technology (ISPST).

The discipline is the newest kid on the block in the world of "science studies". The history, philosophy and sociology of science are all well established. But now the fledgling field of the psychology of science is vying for a piece of the action. It seeks to put science on the couch and apply the methods and theories of psychology to scientific thought and behaviour (see box below).

Already the field is attracting interest from funding bodies - perhaps unsurprising given its potential applications in identifying and fostering creative scientists and improving science and science education. The National Science Foundation, one of the largest funders of basic research in the US, is not only sponsoring a training workshop the day after the conference (with the renowned British sociologist Harry Collins of Cardiff University being brought in to broaden delegates' minds), but it is also specifically encouraging this new breed to apply for funding from its flagship science, technology and society programme.

"We are happy to talk ideas over with people," delegates are told by Michael Gorman, a psychologist of science from the University of Virginia who is on secondment to the NSF as the programme's director. "There is no guarantee that it is going to get funded, but at least it will get looked at," he promises.

There have been other positive developments in the area. Practitioners were so keen to share their research that a separate symposium was held at Purdue University in Indiana in June, and a so-called handbook for the discipline - the first comprehensive guide to the field - is due to be published in autumn 2011.

For all its rapid growth, however, the field remains small. The ISPST may have doubled in size since it was first formed in 2006, but it still totals only about 100 or so practitioners. In comparison, the 35-year-old international Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) - which represents sociologists of science - has a membership of more than 1,200.

Spearheading the new movement is Gregory Feist, associate professor of psychology at San José State University in California and author of the book The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind (2006). It was he who, along with Gorman and a clutch of others, started the ISPST, of which he is the founding and current president. He has made it his life's work, he says, to establish the psychology of science as a strong, independent discipline.

The subject has a long history - it can be traced as far back as the late 1800s to eugenicist Sir Francis Galton, who tabulated family characteristics of scientists - and the term "psychology of science" was coined in the 1930s. As a formal discipline, however, it is quite new, Feist says.

"We are just being born," emphasises Sofia Liberman, a researcher in the psychology faculty at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who has also been instrumental in setting up the society.

Before the ISPST, scholars in the field were disconnected - they barely knew each other and rarely met. Now they firmly class themselves as "psychologists of science". "We have created an identity for the people in psychology who study scientists," Liberman says. "There wasn't a unified group that had this social identity before."

Ryan Tweney - emeritus professor of psychology at Ohio's Bowling Green State University and a world expert on the cognitive processes of Michael Faraday - is a veteran in the field. He explains how those with an interest previously had to make their research homes in other areas of psychology. "It has always been strange to me that there was no psychology of science when there is a philosophy, sociology and history (of science)."

Gorman offers his own take on why the field has been a late-blooming one. Although the sociology of science took off in the 1970s, psychologists were still so preoccupied with ensuring that their work gained recognition as a science that they failed to see science itself as worthy of study. "It was a case of 'why do you want to study that? We want to be that'," he says.

Feist breaks down the establishment of a discipline into stages. In the first stage, isolation, a few scholars beaver away on their own. Then - months, years, even decades later - comes identification. The "lone wolves" realise that there are kindred spirits out there and coalesce around leaders to identify with a movement. The final stage is institutionalisation as the infrastructure for the discipline - societies, conferences, journals, centres of study and degree programmes - is formed.

Feist puts the psychology of science at the beginning of institutionalisation. "We are clearly not fully institutionalised - we don't have degree programmes or centres. But we do have an official society, conferences (the ISPST's is every two years), a journal, the NSF is starting to be interested, and we are trying to get training grants and centres."

Carving out an identity and gaining mainstream acceptance as a discipline is not a smooth process. Those involved often feel as though they take one step back for every two steps forward.

Membership is not growing as fast as Feist would like. "Even a lot of psychologists who I think should be core members of our society are not," he says. "They may be studying scientific thought at some level...but they are resisting identifying with the psychology of science, and to me that is frustrating."

As in any new discipline, quality is variable, and there is the tricky question of what exactly is to be done about the society's journal, the Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, of which Feist is founding editor-in-chief. Disappointingly for the society, the commercial publisher Springer pulled the plug on the project at the start of 2010 after only two years because it was losing money. The plan is to continue it as a web-based open-access title, but there is much to be decided.

The field also has to counter resistance from other science-studies subjects. Practitioners face a big battle to convince practitioners in these other subjects of the value of the psychology of science. The interloper seems to provoke particular disdain among sociologists, notes Feist, recalling how he attended some 4S meetings in the early 1980s expecting the new perspective to be welcomed with open arms but instead finding hostility. "That is why we had to start our own society - our perspective wasn't being appreciated in these other studies of science," he says.

There are two different cultures, states Tweney. Part of the problem lies in differences of method. To understand scientists, the psychology of science focuses on the individual - looking at, say, personality traits - rather than the political and social context in which knowledge is produced, as sociology does.

Sociologists worry that laboratory psychology - where psychologists bring scientists into their own labs to study them - is too artificial. The only way to gain a true understanding of scientific thinking is to study scientists in their own environments, they claim.

Attending the ISPST conference is Ullica Segerstrale, professor of sociology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. "We have to protect the field from psychologists," she whispers, only half in jest. "Science psychologists almost feel forced to set up an experiment, but when dealing with real people you have to work with them on their terms - see how they function in their environment." She is supportive of the outward-looking approach being tried at the conference, and expects the session with Collins to give psychologists of science more "cross-training" in the other science-studies disciplines. She hopes the outcome will be that psychologists begin to recognise the "constraints" of their methods and become more "open-minded".

Theoretical approaches are not the only source of tension between the groups. Scientists are likely to be more comfortable being studied by psychologists than by sociologists, argues Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, who is at the conference to deliver a keynote address on the history of the psychology of science.

The methods used by psychologists are likely to be familiar to scientists, explains Fuller - they do experiments under controlled conditions and work quantitatively, unlike most sociology, which tends to be qualitative. Also, among psychologists, critical perspectives on science are much less in evidence, in contrast to sociology, which questions the basis of scientific knowledge (the "science wars" stemmed from scientists' dissatisfaction with the postmodern sociological take on their subject).

Feist spells out the difference plainly. The approach of the psychology of science, he says, "is 'let's try to understand scientists more from their perspective' - a science perspective - and it does not have the 'anti-science' sentiment that some sociology has".

But perhaps even more crucial in creating a strong affinity between scientists and the psychologists who would study them, Fuller believes, is the fact that psychology aims to solve science's problems - such as how to get more young people to study the discipline. "There is a sense that psychologists are going to help science, that they are going to promote and facilitate it in various ways," he says.

As this suggests, the field has potential policy applications. The psychology of science is not just an academic enterprise, notes Kevin Dunbar, professor in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough who runs the Laboratory for Complex Thinking and Reasoning: Genes, Brains, Cognition.

But perhaps the biggest barrier to progress facing the discipline is an internal one - how does it move forward itself? As the ISPST's founders have conceived it, the psychology of science spans a diverse spectrum of research. At its "narrow" end, it covers how professional scientists think; but it also opens out to encompass how children learn science and even how infants and toddlers understand the world and form concepts. Uniquely, it embraces all the subdisciplines of psychology: developmental, cognitive, personality and social. "Psychology as a field is moving towards fractionation...(but) this is one of the few areas where you get all these different psychologists together," says Feist, who is proud of the coalition the ISPST has achieved.

Yet others think it is a mistake to set the bounds so wide that the field covers any human inference. "The central thing is how do scientists think, and it is their thinking that should really be the focus," Tweney contends. He believes that only when there is a clear sense of what it is like to think "like a scientist" will the goal of improving science education be realised.

For Fuller, having all the different branches of psychology together in the same tent holds the promise of a "really rich and multidimensional view of science". But so far, the fledgling subject has failed to cash in.

He believes that to advance it needs its own paradigm to define and set out interesting, new problems so that scholars in the field can pursue them. All it has really done to date, however, is reproduce the internal divisions within the larger discipline of psychology, he thinks.

"It needs to integrate the different approaches within psychology to get a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. If you don't unify in some way, it is not clear that you are going to get a discipline out of this." Fuller also questions whether the subject is mature enough for a handbook, even though he is writing the history chapter for it.

For a young field, there is no shortage of challenges. Feist says he would like to think it will one day move towards theoretical unification. But while it remains an ambition for the future, it is not a deal breaker. Right now, the focus is on building up numbers and making everyone who has some interest in the psychology of science feel welcome. "It is not easy being a new discipline," he says.


Forget psychologists - there is no shortage of sociologists whose perspectives are in need of broadening.

Sociologists tend to separate into methodological camps with the passion of a teenager carving out a new personality. As a lifelong qualitative sociologist, I, along with some of the Cardiff group, recently started doing some work on the empirical analysis of expertise that was suspiciously experimental (the Imitation Game) and the reaction has been like a Bateman cartoon. The methodological rule ought to be "anything goes that works" and sociologists desperately need to learn it.

Partly because of the reaction from my own discipline, I was delighted when Mike Gorman, the National Science Foundation psychology of science programme director, prompted a meeting between the psychologists of science and a few of us, from Europe and North and South America, interested in the newer, sociological/philosophical approach to the nature of expertise. Included were the groups from the Rochester Institute of Technology and Northern Illinois University, who did the hard work of applying for the support.

Unfortunately sociologists and psychologists, being fed, as it were, from the same hand, get on like cats and dogs. I have always thought that part of the problem is that the psychologists tend to think they are doing something similar to sociologists, but more scientifically, whereas the sociologists are mostly doing something different.

At sociology's (ever-shrinking) core is the idea that the basic stuff of which the universe is made is social, with individuals being just the intersection of social groups. It is hard to see the social as fundamental because individuals are all around us, whereas social stuff is harder to define and track than subatomic particles.

Consequently my central PowerPoint slide was an illustration of a three-dimensional space intended to show the difference between the disciplines. I said that psychologists (and many philosophers) worked with the depth dimension, or z-axis, which is personal accomplishment. The "stage theory" is a typical product; it is an analysis of the stages that a person passes through as they become more and more expert in some skill, such as chess playing.

In contrast, philosophically inclined sociologists and sociologically inclined philosophers work with the x and y axes - the front face. The horizontal axis has to do with the social: one cannot acquire expertise without spending time among the social group in which the "tacit knowledge" pertaining to the expertise is found. So the x-axis is "exposure to tacit knowledge". The y, or vertical axis, runs from ubiquitous expertises at the bottom to esoteric expertises at the top.

I hoped that once we understood these differences we may be able to find a place for cooperation without becoming too mired.

The workshop had its ups and downs. Midway, many of those coming from sociology/philosophy were tearing their hair out with frustration but, in the end, things turned out well. There was discussion of experimental design, the putting together of ideas about new research projects on managers' expertise, and on new methods of education turning on the idea of "interactional expertise", which is based in linguistic discourse.

As far as I was concerned, the highlight was when the psychologists and philosophers who were still there on the final day combined with the sociologists to refine the three-dimensional model in ways we could not have managed on our own. Waiting for the aircraft at San Francisco airport, a couple of us used a laptop to work out the shapes and lines representing different domains of expertise that could fit into the three-dimensional space; when you find yourself working on ideas in the airport something good is going on. The Expertise Space Diagram has now given rise to a draft paper and has been independently used in a productive new way by Gorman himself. One could not ask for much more.

But there is more: before the meeting, neither the philosophers nor the psychologists were happy with the idea of "ubiquitous expertise", believing that all experts must, by that fact, be rare people such as chess grandmasters. Given the diagram, however, it is hard not to notice that the "same expertise", such as speaking English, is ubiquitous in the UK but esoteric in, say, China, or that shooting a bow and arrow is ubiquitous in the Amazon jungle but esoteric in Europe; the vertical axis has to be there if one wants to get one's arms around the whole expertise topic and the three-dimensional idea seems to be beginning to work for more than one discipline.

My understanding has certainly moved on. I now want to work with the whole space, not just the front face and think all the axes can represent individuals or groups. Long term, we will have to see who actually works with it, but we may have found a joint object that can sit at the boundaries of the disciplines.

I suspect that all really good interdisciplinarity works, not by swapping discrete bits of knowledge or techniques, but by coming up with something that was never going to be entirely present in any one group's thinking.


Underlying the notion of a psychology of science is the idea that those who become scientists and excel at the job share psychological features such as motivation, personality, intellectual capacity and developmental history.

The sorts of things researchers are looking at include how scientists use diagrams and pictures to aid their work, how scientists bond and the personality characteristics of creative people.

Many use an "experimental approach", which involves bringing scientist subjects into a psychologist's own laboratory to study how they reason, solve problems, develop hypotheses and evaluate evidence.

Proponents argue that this offers not only a distinct perspective for understanding scientists, but may also provide science with insights beyond the descriptions provided by sociology and history. The subject aims to throw light on issues such as how scientists themselves may be helped to deliver better science and how science education could be improved; it asks questions such as: Which personality types make the best scientists? How can the creativity of scientific teams be maximised? How best can science be taught to thinkers of the future?

Research by Gregory Feist, the president of the International Society for the Psychology of Science and Technology, uses questionnaires to explore the personality characteristics of creative people. Based on the results, he believes that natural scientists do have different personality profiles from social scientists. Natural scientists are less extroverted than social scientists, and they are also higher on the autism spectrum.

Even among natural scientists, there are differences between creative and less creative researchers (with creativity measured by citation data). Creative scientists are more anxious than their less creative counterparts, but also - contrary to the stereotype - more open and display less psychoticism (social isolation, aloofness, hostility, and unusual thoughts and behaviour).

Feist says: "Psychology does have something to tell us about the kind of person who is attracted to different areas of science and also who is most likely to make creative contributions."

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