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An interview with Gregory Feist

Greg Ross

A child is more likely to develop an interest in science if she is the firstborn in a Protestant or Jewish family. When she becomes an expert, she'll be more likely than a novice to discard hypotheses, to use intuition and analogy and to mistrust common sense. And she'll be more likely to make a creative achievement in science if her personality is open, flexible, driven, ambitious, introverted, arrogant and self-confident.

We know all of these facts today about the psychology of scientists, but until recently there's been no organized effort to knit the threads into an organized area of study. Gregory Feist hopes to change that.

Feist, a lecturer in psychology at the University of California, Davis, lays out his vision in a new book, The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind (Yale University Press, 2006). In it, he gathers preliminary research into the psychology of successful practitioners and begins to consider how this mode of thinking may have arisen in our species to begin with. "Psychological principles are at work with all scientific thought and behavior," he writes. "Simply put, there is a psychology behind science."

American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross interviewed Feist by e-mail in September 2006.Gregory FeistClick to Enlarge Image

The history, philosophy and sociology of science are well-established disciplines. Why hasn't psychology joined them?

That question lies at the heart of my book. To understand why this was so was a major impetus behind writing the book. I wanted to understand why psychology has not joined the ranks of the more established studies of sciences and to make an argument for why it should. The question of why, however, is a hard one to answer. The question of how is a bit easier, and let me answer it this way: Every field, on its path to maturity, goes through at least three stages. First is isolation, when a few founding figures or "lone wolves" are writing about an important new finding or perspective. These seminal figures are persuasive enough in their findings or arguments to attract a circle of followers, and then the field moves to its second stage, identification. The third stage of maturity happens when there is enough social momentum for graduate programs, societies, journals and regular conferences to form. This stage is called institutionalization. Philosophy of science and history of science have been institutionalized for roughly 100 years, and sociology of science for perhaps 40 years. Psychology of science, I would argue, is somewhere between isolation and identification. So that is the how.

The why is a harder one to answer, and one that I could fall back on psychological, historical and sociological forces to answer. For the sake of space, I focus only on philosophy of science. Historically, during much of the 20th century many philosophers of science, under the influence of Karl Popper's powerful and insightful ideas, believed that the nature of science should only be analyzed by logical, not psychological, criteria. Who did science, what personalities they had, how they thought—these were irrelevant to whether the science was any good or not or even whether it was science or not. And this view is right. Scientific findings exist beyond their creators and should be evaluated on their own scientific merit. Popper, however, dismissed the psychological perspective as "psychologism" and argued that "subjective, non-logical factors" have no place in determining whether something is science or not. Many other philosophers of science before the 1970s agreed with him.

But I argue (borrowing from Popper himself), that there are two things here: process and product. The product and outcome of science—empirical findings and scientific theories—stand on their own. I simply argue that psychology has something important and interesting to say about the process of how and why these particular individuals came up with these particular findings and how their thinking styles, personalities and family influences had something to do with this. I should also point out that over that last 25 to 30 years, as Popper's influence has waned, there are many philosophers of science much more sympathetic to the psychological perspective as a valuable contributor to understanding the nature of science, recognizing that science as it is actually practiced is as important as science as it should be practiced.

What questions could a psychology of science take up?

I teach introduction to psychology, and as I tell my students in that class, psychology is simply the scientific study of thought and behavior. That is very broad and very general, but it is the essence of psychology. So the psychology of science is very simply the scientific study of scientific thought and behavior. So any topic, method or theory covered by psychology can be applied to the psychology of science. For instance, what is the nature of scientific reasoning? What elements of thought are behind scientific reasoning and scientific insight? How are these similar to and how are they different from everyday reasoning? Can anyone learn these cognitive strategies?

My favorite topic focuses on scientific creativity, talent and eminence: Why are some people able to solve apparently intractable problems with elegant, original and useful solutions? What led a person or team to make that breakthrough discovery? Why are some individuals consistently able to come up with creative solutions to scientific problems?

There are many, many other possible questions. Just to give a flavor: What makes a child go from simply being curious about the physical, biological or social world to wanting to answer these questions for a living? That is, how does scientific interest become a scientific career? Are there particular personality profiles that make a person more likely to pursue and excel in science, and are these profiles different in the physical, biological and social sciences? How do groups change and influence the scientific process, problem finding and problem solving? One question that I did not deal with much in the book but I have started to think there might be something to is the question of mental health/illness and scientific interest and ability. Are scientists as a whole any less likely than the normal population to suffer from major thought disorders, schizophrenia and mood disorders, depression and bipolar? What about anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder? After all, does not the scientific method almost require compulsive attention to detail and order? Disorganized and undisciplined people rarely make good scientists. One final example would be gender and science. Psychologists can add their own unique contribution to the gender and science question by exploring the psychological aspects of gender (identity, self-concept, confidence, etc.) and whether and how it influences interest and talent for science.

How do you define science?

In writing the book, my views on these broadened and become more complex. Obviously, the simplest and most pragmatic answer to that question is to define it as science is as science does, or to define science professionally. Science is what scientists do while working on scientific problems. Obviously, psychologists of science are interested mainly in practicing professional scientists. But science is clearly not limited to professional scientists. In fact, I quickly realized that I needed to think about science very differently: It is not just the final, explicit systematic thought and behavior of professional scientists. We all make observations of and develop implicit theories of the physical, biological and social worlds; children do this, and as I came to realize in reading about evolution of the human mind, our early human ancestors did it, at least in rudimentary ways. No one would argue that early hominids were doing "science," but if you want to look at the origins of the scientific mind, as I do in the second part of the book, you see cognitive processes that laid the foundation for later human cognitive processes involved in science. But a few distinctions need to be sharpened to make this argument.

The first distinction is between "implicit" and "explicit" science. Implicit thought is nonconscious and for the most part nonverbal. It consists of assumptions we make about the world, and these assumptions are not well thought through or even recognized by the individual. So I argue that implicit or folk theory is a valid topic of investigation for psychology of science, and therefore we can study scientific thinking in children, adolescents, nonscientists and scientists. The second distinction is a bit more involved, but simply put, I propose there are five major components to science, and over the course of human evolution and human history these developed in this order: observation, categorization (taxonomy), pattern recognition (covariation), hypothesis testing (prediction) and cause-and-effect thinking (causation). The ancient Greeks, for instance, were good at logic and observation but did not practice science as we know it, because they did not test their hypotheses.

The bottom line is that I think that science can be defined in various ways, ranging from the more inclusive to the more exclusive definitions. In the more inclusive definition, I believe the psychological processes of theory and concept formation seen in children, adolescents, adults and even our premodern human ancestors are valid topics for psychologists of science. This provides a glimpse into the precursors of rudimentary scientific thought and behavior seen in professional scientists. They are first principles that get built upon and sometimes get rejected by more formal scientific thought and behavior. They are prescientific forms of thought and behavior and allow a wider net to be cast over who can be caught by the psychology of science: our premodern human ancestors, children, adults and finally scientists. Scientists will always be the preferred target group, but we can learn a lot about scientific thought and behavior from those who are not scientists.

As you've worked to establish this new discipline, how has it been received by scientists? By psychologists?

As is true for any new discipline trying to establish itself, the reception has been mixed, although I think it is becoming more positive. To be sure, there are still some historians who believe that hypothesis testing has no place in historical analysis of scientific thought and behavior, and therefore they are opposed to the kind of work that Frank Sulloway does on birth order and acceptance of revolutionary scientific theory. Moreover, there is a group of sociologists of science who are somewhat hostile to the emphasis psychology places on the individual. In fact, I belong to the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), which is mostly composed of sociologists of science, and the psychological point of view is but a weak minority view in that society. In fact, this is one of the main reasons that I and a small group of psychologists from around the world are on the verge of starting our own society.

The reaction by psychologists has been interesting. Some welcome it with open arms and are as excited as I am to identify explicitly with the field. Since the publication of my book, I have gotten a number of e-mails from psychologists saying they are very excited that I wrote it and they want to be more actively involved in the field. Many others, especially developmental psychologists who study the development of scientific reasoning, are excited by the idea but don't yet identify themselves explicitly as "psychologists of science." But I think having a peer-reviewed journal and a society will start to change that.

What are the next steps? What would you like to see?

As I argued in my book and have alluded to already in this interview, we not only need to move to the "institutionalization" phase, but we are on the verge of doing so. Later this month, I am giving an address at an international conference on the psychology of science in Zacatecas, Mexico, at which Sofia Liberman, Michael Gorman and I will be presenting the draft of a mission statement for founding an international society in the psychology of science. Moreover, I have been in contact with a couple of publishers who seem interested in starting a peer-reviewed journal on the topic. This is what is missing and is what the field needs. Ever since graduate school, I have dreamed of starting a society and a journal (and regular conferences), and it is very exciting to see that these things are about to happen.

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