Alison Gopnik as a child

Shamelessly, Gopnik starts her seminal article on The Scientist as Child (Gopnik, 1996) by claiming that “recently, cognitive and developmental psychologists have invoked the analogy of science itself” (p. 485). Recently! That analogy is at the core of the Piagetian enterprise. Indeed, Piaget founded the field of cognitive development some 80 years ago by appealing to that very analogy, i.e., by claiming that the fields of epistemology (or philosophy of science) and developmental psychology can illuminate each other because there are functional similarities between the processes of knowledge acquisition in children and in scientists. The insight that the scientific investigation of children’s cognitive development sheds light on the history of science and vice versa is 100% Piagetian. Yet Gopnik discusses it as if it were a new idea.

Gopnik knows that Piaget already said this. In other writings she’s honest enough to admit she knows about Piaget’s systematic comparison between children and scientists, although she also claims that she means it in a different way; i.e., she affirms that the relationships she establishes between the fields of child psychology and epistemology are not the same as in Piaget’s. Yet in this particular paper (Gopnik, 1996) and in many other places (most notably, her lectures to undergraduates, of which I will speak some day) she pretends that it’s she and her theory-theory colleagues who have coined this famous analogy. In this particular article, Piaget’s name is not even mentioned.

There are many other ideas that are originally Piagetian and for which the Swiss researcher gets no credit at all. For example: that theory change is a process that goes through different stages: disregard or denial of uncomfortable evidence, compromise solutions, generalized crisis and substitution by a new theory. And, of course, the basic contention that children have theories in a sense comparable to scientists. She also claims: “Theory change proceeds more uniformly and quickly in children than in scientists, and so is considerably easier to observe, and we can even experimentally determine what kinds of evidence lead to change. In children, we may actually be able to see “the logic of discovery” in action” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 509). This is Piaget talking! Yet she presents these ideas as if they were completely her own.

This is not my main criticism of Gopnik’s work, of course. The central problem, in my opinion, is the way she understands science (as result of a mere ability to investigate and “find truths” rather than as a normative practice). I’ll talk about it in a different post.

Gopnik, A. (1996). The scientist as child. Philosophy of Science, 63, 485–514. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/188064

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