The Skeptical Inquirer
The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific
Mind. Gregory J. Feist. xx + 316 pp. Yale University Press,
As the title implies, Gregory Feist's new book covers two broad
topics. The first and longest part is an extended argument that a
large body of recent work implicitly falls under the rubric
"psychology of science." Feist reviews studies from
neuroscience, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology,
personality psychology and social psychology to support his
assertion. The second part of the book presents a novel theory of
the origins of science as the outgrowth of evolutionary processes.
Feist's central claim in the first section centers on a disciplinary
puzzle. Why, given the institutionalization of the history of
science, the philosophy of science and the sociology of science, has
there been no comparable development of the psychology of science?
There are no departments, journals or Ph.D. programs dedicated to
the subject, but Feist thinks there should be. Toward that end, he
draws on a huge literature to show that such a subdiscipline already
exists on an implicit level. In a brief historical review, he argues
that this largely invisible field has already passed through two
distinct periods: The first was "isolation" (up to 1980),
during which single authors made isolated contributions, followed by
"identification" (over the remainder of the 1980s),
characterized by several small but seminal conferences, most notably
one at Memphis State University in 1986. Like its sibling
subdisciplines, the psychology of science is now poised to enter a
period of "institutionalization."
Six chapters (more than 100 pages) are next devoted to a review of
literature that supports Feist's position. Even a casual browse will
uncover many fascinating findings. Did you know, for example, that,
in spite of an overall lack of religiousness, most scientists come
from Protestant or Jewish families, but few have Catholic
backgrounds? Or that parents accompanying children in a science
museum are three times more likely to provide explanations to boys
than to girls? Or that the ability to distinguish between theory and
evidence (a necessary component for scientific thinking!) shows a
clear developmental trend from childhood, but that some adults never
In spite of the many hundreds of studies that are covered, I easily
thought of still others that could have been included—a
tribute to the validity of Feist's thesis that the psychology of
science is a rich and growing domain, even though it is currently
"dormant, latent, and implicit." Feist's own work on the
personality dimensions of scientists is reflected in the overall
emphasis given to the issues of who becomes a scientist and how
scientific talent can be identified, nurtured and retained.
Some readers may be bothered by the book's
"psychology-centric" viewpoint and may assume that Feist
thinks other fields (the history of science, say) have nothing to
contribute. I suspect that Feist believes nothing of the sort,
although his review of psychological research has a depth and scope
lacking in his coverage of other fields.
The second part of the book, on the evolutionary origins of
scientific thinking, builds on recent work in evolutionary
psychology, cognitive anthropology and evolutionary biology,
applying concepts from all of these areas to sketch a theory of how
the modern scientific mind could have evolved. Drawing from such
writers as Mervin Donald and Steven Mithen, Feist proposes four
stages, beginning with "preverbal science," originating
perhaps two million years ago, in which predictive folk science
operated. The evolution of language (which took place perhaps 50,000
years ago) triggered a second phase, "verbal science," in
which storytelling, myth and cosmological explanations appeared,
followed by the emergence of externalized representations (about
30,000 years ago—think cave paintings). These depictions
signaled the beginning of a phase of applied science in which units
of measurement, rudimentary mathematical operations, archaic forms
of astronomy and the like were developed, culminating in the
engineering achievements of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The final
stage, that of "pure science," then emerged with the
ancient Greeks (around 2,600 years ago), opening the door to science
as we think of it today.
Is all this really science? Feist's evolutionary model inspires
contemplation on this issue because he is clearly defining science
very broadly, especially in the second part of the book. Science as
an abstract body of thought and method is different from the
cognitive, social and cultural processes that constitute scientific
thinking, and the question of who counts as a scientist adds still
more complexity to these distinctions. After all, it's not hard to
figure out that acorns produce oaks. Is making this observation the
same as doing science? If so, how do we distinguish botanists from gardeners?
For Feist, "science" includes much thinking that
others would count as prescientific or nonscientific, which brings
up the general question of how best to carve up the domain of
knowledge-seeking processes. To my mind, the available categories
are richer than just science and bunk. For example, the folk
classifications of plants and animals used widely today are
increasingly removed from scientific classifications but
nevertheless function well for some purposes.
Feist is clearly grappling with the issue of what constitutes
science and being a scientist. In particular, he ends his book with
the chapter "Science, Pseudoscience, and Antiscience."
Here he distinguishes these categories using the criterion of
"the scientific attitude," defined as "open
skepticism." Science requires a predisposition toward
skepticism (such that authority does not suffice to establish the
truth of a claim), but this attitude must be held in check, as Feist
points out by quoting Carl Sagan: "If you are only skeptical,
then no new ideas make it through to you." Thus, adherents of
pseudosciences (such as astrology) are insufficiently skeptical, and
those who harbor antiscience feelings (like some postmodernists) are
insufficiently open. This criterion seems like an appropriate one,
but the issue of what counts as science is nonetheless still
confusing, given the far more inclusive categorization Feist uses in
his evolutionary model.
This short review only touches on the many merits of this rich and
diverse book. At times its scope is so grand that the reader is left
yearning for greater detail, but this is scant cause for
complaint—Feist provides an extensive bibliography for anyone
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