Psychology of Science as a New Subdiscipline in Psychology

Feist, G. J. 2011. “Psychology of Science as a New Subdiscipline in Psychology.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 20 (October 5): 330-334. doi:10.1177/0963721411418471.

Gregory Feist, a psychologist from San Jose State University, recently wrote a review of the past decade of findings in the psychology of science. He sets the discipline apart from history, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology of science, defining the psychology of science as “the scientific study of scientific thought and behavior,” both implicit and explicit, in children and adults.

Some interesting results covered in the paper:

  • “People pay more attention to evidence when it concerns plausible theories than when it concerns implausible ones.”
  • “Babies as young as 8 months of age understand probability… children as young as 4 years old can correctly draw causal inferences from bar graphs.” (I’m not sure how much I believe that last one – can grown scientists correctly draw causal inferences from bar graphs?)
  • “children, adolescents, and nonscientist adults use different criteria when evaluating explanations and evidence, they are not very good at separating belief from fact (theory and evidence), and they persistently give their beliefs as evidence for their beliefs.”
  • “one reason for the inability to distinguish theory from evidence is the belief that knowledge is certain and absolute—that is, either right or wrong”
  • “scientists use anomalies and unexpected findings as sources for new theories and experiments and that analogy is very important in generating hypotheses and interpreting results”
  • “the personality traits that make scientific interest more likely are high conscientiousness and low openness, whereas the traits that make scientific creativity more likely are high openness, low conscientiousness, and high confidence.”
  • “scientists are less prone to mental health difficulties than are other creative people,” although “It may be that science tends to weed out those with mental health problems in a way that art, music, and poetry do not.”
It is somewhat surprising that Feist doesn’t mention the old use of “psychology of science,” which largely surrounded Reichenbach’s (1938) context distinctions, as echoed by the Vienna Circle and many others. The context of discovery (rather than the context of justification) deals with the question that, as Salmon (1963) put it, “When a statement has been made, … how did it come to be thought of?” Barry F. Singer (1971) wrote “Toward a Psychology of Science,” where he quoted S.S. Stevens (1936, 1939) on the subject of a scientific psychology of science.
It is exciting that the psychology of science is picking up again as an interesting object of study, although it would have been nice for Feist to cite someone earlier than 1996 when discussing this “new subdiscipline in psychology.”
From Wired Magazine

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