Tag Archives: developmental psychology

Kanngiesser & Hood on children’s understanding of ownership rights for newly made objects

Text #14

Kanngiesser, P., & Hood, B. M. (2014). Young children’s understanding of ownership rights for newly made objects. Cognitive Development, 29(1), 30–40.

This is a great paper. To begin with, Kanngiesser & Hood make a beautiful, succinct summary of the state of the art in the field of ownership development. I feel tempted to paste it here:

“Infants begin to show an understanding of ownership relationships between 1.5 and 2 years of age when they first use possessive pronouns like “mine” and “yours” (Hay, 2006; Tomasello, 1998) and identify owners of familiar objects such as their mother’s toothbrush (Fasig, 2000). From two years of age children infer ownership of unfamiliar objects based on first possession, attributing ownership to the person who possessed an object first (Friedman & Neary, 2008). At 2.5 years of age they are able to learn ownership relationships between out of view objects and their owners (Blake & Harris, 2011). These abilities become more refined at three years of age, when children use object history to infer ownership (Friedman, Van de Vondervoort, Defeyter, & Neary, 2013; Gelman, Manczak, & Noles, 2012) and apply ownership rules such as ascribing ownership to a person who grants/denies permission to use an object (Neary, Friedman, & Burnstein, 2009) or who invested effort in making a new object (Kanngiesser, Gjersoe, & Hood, 2010). Yet, not until four years of age do children prioritize verbal ownership statements over physical possession of objects (Blake, Ganea, & Harris, 2012). Taken together, these findings suggest that children’s understanding of ownership relationships manifests at two years of age and becomes more sophisticated during the preschool years.”

The previous paragraph deals with “ownership conditions,” i.e. how children determine who owns what. Then they use a separate paragraph to describe the state of the art concerning “ownership implications,” i.e. children’s understanding of ownership rights.

“Relating owners to their property, however, is only one ability necessary for developing a concept of ownership. Few studies have directly investigated at what age children start to appreciate the normative implications of ownership, i.e., that it is associated with certain rights that are respected and reinforced by a community. By age two children frequently defend their possessions (or possessions they were told were theirs) against take-over attempts by others (Eisenberg-Berg, Haake, & Bartlett, 1981; Hay & Ross, 1982) and begin to show respect for others’ ownership of objects (Ross, 1996), providing some evidence for an early understanding of an owner’s exclusive access to his or her property. In contrast, studies presenting children with third party ownership stories have shown that it is not until age 4–5 that children appreciate different ownership rights (Kim & Kalish, 2009) or differentiate between legitimate (gift giving) and illegitimate (stealing) transfers of ownership (Blake & Harris, 2009). Yet, more recently, Rossano and colleagues (2011) demonstrated that 2- and 3-year olds protested against property rights violations when their own property was at stake, but that only 3-year-olds also interfered when a third party’s ownership rights were violated. This suggests that by age 3 children are already aware of the normative structure of some rights for personal property, i.e., that property rights do not apply only to one’s own possessions but to others’ possessions, too.”

The paper then describes two experiments. In Experiment 1, they have a puppet taking away an object the child has just created out of raw materials provided by the researcher–or, alternatively,  that a third person (an experimenter) has just made, and monitor children’s protests. After registering children’s spontaneous protests (or lack thereof) they explicitly asked children who the object’s owner was. Experiment 2 is similar to experiment one except that the objects at stake are raw materials and not newly made objects.

Conclusions:

“ We found that 2- and 3-year-olds protested when their own objects were at stake, making spontaneous references to ownership when protesting (e.g., “Mine.”). Thus, young children do not only appreciate their ownership rights with respect to personal property items (Rossano et al., 2011), but also with respect to newly made objects. Children’s ownership claims regarding their objects were specific to the investment of effort (Kanngiesser et al., 2010), as children who had only played with unchanged materials displayed very little ownership protest. Overall, our results support the view that by three years of age, children not only can connect owners to property (Blake & Harris, 2011; Fasig, 2000; Friedman & Neary, 2008), but also show appreciation of at least some ownership rights (Rossano et al., 2011). In contrast to other studies, young children in our study intervened little against the puppet’s attempts to keep a third party’s objects.”

Kanngiesser & Hood also conclude that “most 3-year-olds in our study recognized a third party’s ownership of her newly made objects when they were asked direct ownership questions, suggesting that 3-year-olds may have lacked the motivation rather than the competence to protest against violations of a third party’s ownership rights”, so it can be argued that “3-year-olds viewed the investment of effort into creating new objects – but not the mere handling of materials – as sufficient for establishing ownership of previously un-owned materials.”

One might argue, however, that the key factor here is creation (which involves both having an idea about what to make, and actually investing effort in creating an object) and not simply invested labor or effort. (As Levene et al make clear in Levene, M., Starmans, C., & Friedman, O. (2015). Creation in judgments about the establishment of ownership. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 103–109.)

Finally, “The most remarkable finding in our studies is that 3-year-olds are capable of attributing ownership to a third party and yet they seldom intervene when the third party’s possessions are at stake. There are two possible explanations. Three-year-olds’ understanding of the social consequences of ownership (such as violations of ownership rights) may lag behind their ability to track ownership relationships. Two-year-olds track ownership relationships (Fasig, 2000; Hay, 2006), but at age 3 children already interfere in ownership conflicts on behalf of a third party (Rossano et al., 2011). Moreover 3-year-olds have been found to regularly intervene in a variety of situations involving violations of conventional and moral norms (Rakoczy et al., 2008; Schmidt, Rakoczy, & Tomasello, 2012; Vaish et al., 2011). Our discrepant findings thus may not reflect different developmental trajectories but rather different task demands. While answering ownership questions only requires the child to point to or to name a person, intervention in ownership violations requires an assessment of the social situation and, importantly, a motivation to act on behalf of a third party.”

Children think that creative labor justifies ownership transfers (Kanngiesser)

Text #10

Kanngiesser, P., Gjersoe, N., & Hood, B. M. (2010). The effect of creative labor on property-ownership transfer by preschool children and adults. Psychological Science : A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21(9), 1236–1241.

Another important study by Kanngiesser.

Let me first paste the abstract:

“We investigated whether preschool children and adults believe that ownership of one person’s property is transferred to a second person following the second person’s investment of creative labor in that property. In our study, an experimenter and a participant borrowed modeling-clay objects from each other to mold into new objects. Participants were more likely to transfer ownership to the second individual after he or she invested creative labor in the object than after any other manipulations (holding the object, making small changes to it). This effect was significantly stronger in preschool children than in adults. Duration of manipulation had no effect on property-ownership transfer. Changes in the object’s identity acted only as a secondary cue for children. We conclude that ownership is transferred after an investment of creative labor and that determining property ownership may be an intuitive process that emerges in early childhood.”

First reflection: even though from our theoretical point of view we like to distinguish between things like “creation”, “discovery” or “transformation through the investment of labor”, maybe these are not too different from each other from the point of view of the child. That is, in all these cases, there is an agent that develops a purposeful and laborious activity on the object that is transformed as a result; and that is transformed into something that is either beautiful, or useful, or has value in some way. So children (and humans in general) understand that value is created through an agent’s activity. (This is Locke’s thesis, and it’s also part of our common sense). Once you think about it in these terms, it makes sense that children don’t pay attention to things like “duration of possession” or minor manipulations of the object; they don’t follow such mechanistic criteria, they look at transformations that make sense.

This paper, therefore, does not belong to the topic of “ownership transfer” but to the topic of “ownership claims”, in my opinion. If you take the duck and make an ashtray, you might say that the ownership of the play dough was transferred. But you can also say that you destroyed the duck and created an ashtray. You are the owner of the object you created (ownership principle).

“When asked to justify their property ownership decisions, 3-year-olds never mentioned creative labor, whereas 4-year-olds justified ownership transfers with explicit reference to creative investment. Moreover, we found that for children, the main component of creative labor was the invested effort, and the secondary component of creative labor was changing an object’s identity.” “We found that this transfer overruled an established bias to assign ownership to the individual who first possessed an object.”

“We found that children transferred ownership more frequently after making small changes to another person’s object than after possessing the same object, a result suggesting that children’s ownership judgments may even be finely calibrated to the amount of effort invested in an object.”

Creative labor has an effect on ownership judgments in adults, but the effect is less pronounced in adults than in children.

Rossano & Tomasello: Children’s understanding of violations of property rights

Paper #6

Rossano, F., Rakoczy, H., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Young children’s understanding of violations of property rights. Cognition, 121(2), 219–227.

This is such a relevant and decisive article. From the very beginning it posits the all-important issue of ownership (about which we have talked repeatedly in this blog) in an extremely clear manner:

“Possession and property structure many, if not most, of our everyday interactions with objects. Young children (and even some animals) care about physical possession, and indeed many of children’s early conflicts with peers are over physical possession (…). By around 24 months, young children can reliably identify who possesses familiar objects (…), and their appropriate use of possessive language (“my milk’’, ‘‘mommy’s sock’’) suggests some nascent understanding even earlier than that.”

The authors then proceed to differentiate possession from property. Whereas possession has to do with physical control, property (or ownership) is a social an institution and, therefore, it is supported by social agreements to mutually recognize each person’s rights to possess things.

The authors also introduce a useful distinction between conditions of ownership (“under which conditions who owns what”) and implications of ownership (rights, commitments, entitlements). One my classify the existing literature and research on the development of ownership into studies that focus on conditions of ownership and studies that focus on implications of ownership.

In addition, the authors make the point that rules of ownership are supposed to have normative force in an agent-neutral way. This theoretical claim translates easily into an empirical claim: if children understand ownership rules as agent-neutral, they should protest transgressions against ownership when they affect a third party and not only when they affect their own interests.

How did they investigate whether children have this capacity? They used a three-party situation, involving the child, a puppet and an actor. The puppet was the agent that took either the child’s property or the actor’s property. The study found that 2 year olds protested when the puppet took their property or tried to throw it away; but 3 year olds protested also when the puppet took the actor’s property. The very fact that children protest such violation of property rights is supposed to involve an agent-neutral view of rules.

In the authors’ words: “Standing up for the property rights of a third party, using normative justifications on occasion, demonstrates (…) young children’s emerging understanding of the normative dimension of property as it applies to all persons equally in an agent-neutral manner. It is not just that I do not like it when someone takes or throws away an object that doesn’t belong to them; it is wrong.”

The authors conclude that, according to this study, by 3 years of age children understand the basic normative structure of property and property rights violations. This entails a basic understanding of institutional reality in Searle’s sense, and therefore of conventional norms and status functions. (This stick is a horse; this ball is mine; I’ve made a promise).

My only minor disagreement is that Tomasello sometimes refers to the institutional reality as “conventional”. I think one might distinguish between the moral domain, a conventional domain (arbitrary rules such as rules of etiquette) and legal or institutional norms that are neither moral nor conventional. Ownership, stealing, exchanges, contracts, membership, etc. all fall in this last category.

Dialogue of the deaf

Dialogue of the deaf

I had a stimulating discussion with a neuroscientist the other day. I tried to explain to her that my interest in children’s cognitive development is linked to my interest in epistemology, that is, to what I refer to in this blog as the normativity of thought.

For example, I argue that researchers who try to explain children’s knowledge of math from a nativist point of view, can only explain the starting point of cognitive development. The starting point is innate mathematical knowledge, which is mostly implicit, and basically consists in an ability to identify the numerosity of collections of objects found in the outside world. In other words: researchers have shown that animals (humans included) have the innate ability to assess the size of a collection of perceived objects (for example, they can notice that a collection of 15 pebbles is greater than a collection of 10 pebbles). They can also discriminate among exact quantities, but only when dealing with small sets (two, three, and perhaps four objects). Also, some animals and human babies can perform elementary arithmetic operations on small sets (adding two plus one, subtracting one from two, etc.) I am referring here to studies by Dehaene (2011), Izard, Sann, Spelke, & Streri (2009), Spelke (2011), and many others.

This basic capacity is certainly different from fully-fledged “human math.” The latter involves, at the very least, the symbolic representation of exact numbers larger than three. We (humans) can represent an exact number by saying its name (“nine”), or by using a gesture that stands for the number in question (depending on the culture, this might be done by touching a part of one’s body, showing a number of fingers, etc. – see Saxe ( 1991) and also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_number_gestures). And, of course, we can write down a sign that represents the number (for example, with using the Arabic numeral “9”).

Scholars agree on the fact that advanced math is explicit and symbolic, and that it builds on (and uses similar brain areas to) its precursor, innate math. Once they operate on the symbolic level, humans can do things like: performing operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and others), demonstrating mathematical propositions, proving that one particular solution to a mathematical problem is the correct one, etc. To sum up: our symbolic capacities allow us to re-describe our intuitive approach to math on a precise, normative, epistemic level.

Now, here’s when it gets tricky. I argue that the application of algorithms on the symbolic level is not merely mechanical. Humans are not computers applying rules from a rule book, one after the other (like Searle in his Chinese room). Rather, as Dehaene (2011) argues, numbers mean something for us. “Nine” means nine of something (anything). “Nine plus one” means performing the action of adding one more unit to the set of nine units. There is a core of meaning in innate math; and this core is expanded and refined in our more advanced, symbolic math.

When executing mathematical operations (either in a purely mental fashion, or supported by objects) one gets a feeling of satisfaction when one arrives to a right (fair, correct, just) result. Notice the normative language we apply here (fair, correct, right, true, just). We actually experience something similar to a sense of justice when both sides of an equation are equal, or when we arrive to a result that is necessarily correct. (Note to myself: talk to Mariano S. We might perhaps do brain fMRIs and study if the areas of the brain that get activated by the “sense of justice” in legal situations, also light up when the “sense of justice” is reached by finding the right responses in math. If a similar region gets activated, that might suggest that there is a normative aspect to math that corresponds to the normative aspect of morality).

For me, then, the million dollar question is: how do humans go from the implicit, non-symbolic, automatic level to the explicit, symbolic, intentional and normative level? What is involved in this transition? What kind of biological processes, social experiences and individual constructions are necessary to achieve the “higher,” explicit level? (These are interesting questions both for the field of math and for the field of morality). And my hypothesis is that this transition necessarily demands the intervention of a particular type of social experience, namely, the experience of the normative world of social exchanges and rules of ownership (I’ve talked a little about such reckless hypotheses in other posts of this blog).

Now, when I try to explain all this to the neuroscientist, I lose her. She doesn’t follow me. For her, human knowledge is the sum of a) innate knowledge and b) learning from the environment. Learning is the process by which our brain acquires new information from the world, information that was not pre-wired, that didn’t came ready to use “out of the box.” Whether such learning involves a direct exposure to certain stimuli that represent contents (a school teacher teaching math to his or her students) or a more indirect process of exposure to social interactions is not an interesting question for her. It doesn’t change her basic view according to which there are two things, and two things only: innate knowledge and acquired knowledge. What we know is the result of combining the two. And this is the case both for humans and for other animals. Period.

Something similar happens when I talk to her about the difference between “cold processing” and “hot processing.” We were discussing the research I am conducting right now. I interview children about ownership and stealing. In my interview design, children watch a movie where one character steals a bar of chocolate from another, and eats it. The interviewer then asks the child a series of questions aimed at understanding her reasoning about ownership and theft. Now, the movie presents a third person situation. This means that the child might be interested in the movie, but he or she is not really affected by it. Children reason about what they see in the movie, and sometimes they seem to say what they think it’s the appropriate thing to say, echoing adults’ discourse. Because, after all, the movie is fiction, not the real world.

I believe that normativity emerges not from absorbing social information that comes from external events (watching movies, attending to teachers’ explanations) but from children’s real immersion in first person, real world, conflictive situations. When a child is fighting against another for the possession of a toy, there are cries and sometimes there even is physical violence. These encounters end up in different ways; sometimes children work out a rule for sharing the scarce resource, sometimes they just fight, and sometimes an adult intervenes and adjudicates in the conflict. The child’s reactions during these events is not dictated by cold reasoning but by deeper impulses. It is in these situations where we should look for the emergence of our basic normative categories, such as reciprocity (both social and logical, or “reversibility”), ownership (or the relationship between substance and its “properties”), quantity (used to implement equity and equality), etc.

But, again, my biologist friend does not feel that the distinction between the impulsive, intense, hot reactions we experience when involved in real conflicts and the kind of third person reasoning that is triggered by movies and artificial stimuli is an important one. In both cases, she argues, it’s the same cognitive system that is at work. What we think about third person characters is probably similar to how we reason about ourselves (thanks to our capacity for empathy, our mirror-neurons, etc.)

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong here.

 

Dehaene, S. (2011). The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, Revised and Updated Edition. The number sense How the mind creates mathematics rev and updated ed (p. 352). Oxford University Press, USA. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/dp/0199753873

Izard, V., Sann, C., Spelke, E. S., & Streri, A. (2009). Newborn infants perceive abstract numbers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 106(25), 10382–10385.

Saxe, G. B. (1991). Culture and Cognitive Development: Studies in Mathematical Understanding. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Spelke, E. S. (2011). Quinian bootstrapping or Fodorian combination? Core and constructed knowledge of number. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(3), 149–150.

 

Interviewing children without inducing the answers

When we interview children for research purposes we usually face two typical dangers:

–          Suggestibility: sometimes researchers use biased questions that contaminate children’s beliefs or memories. Sometimes children just want to give interviewers the reply they feel is expected or “socially desirable”. It’s easy to induce a given response in a 4- or 5-year-old, and if this happens… then research results are worthless.

–          Unreliable memories: Not only are young children very suggestible, they are also not reliable when recalling events that just took place. Thus, if we show them a video clip and then ask them some questions about it, it’s important that we make sure that children understood what they saw and can retain the events in their memory.

 

To sum up: it is essential, when we are designing our research interviews, to avoid any tricky questions or stimuli that might interfere with children’s spontaneous thinking (the latter being what we are interested in). I’ve just read three papers that supply interesting and relevant findings we should keep in mind when designing appropriate research interviews with young children.

1) Roebers & Schneider (2005) found that the better the child’s language abilities the less suggestible the child is. Language development seems to be key (especially language fluency and comprehension) rather than other general domain variables such as executive function or working memory. Investigative interviews are language dependent; language abilities play a major role for explaining differences in suggestibility. This finding, however, comes with an interesting caveat: it is also easier to purposely disrupt children’s memories when they have good language skills. The reason for this is that children with better language skills process (false) verbal information provided by the researchers more efficiently, and later they have trouble distinguishing between original and suggested information. Individuals with better language skills encode, store, and thus remember the contents of the misleading questions better than do individuals with poorer language skills. Language can work either way.

2) Peterson, Dowden, & Tobin (1999) investigated the influence of question format on 3 to 5 year old children. They found that when researchers frame their questions with a yes/no format (e.g., “did the woman take the man’s hat?”) many preschoolers tend to reply “yes”. This is so even in cases when they don’t know the answer or when they have been presented information that requires a “no” answer. By way of contrast, when children are asked the equivalent wh- question (e.g., “what did the woman take?”) children give more accurate answers and the percentage of children who answer “I don’t know” increases. The authors conclude that there are dangers inherent in yes-no questions: answers may be influenced by response biases or other factors besides how veridical the underlying proposition is. Children seldom say “I don’t know” when they are uncertain or do not know the correct answer. Specific wh- questions seem to be less problematic.

3) Mellor & Moore (2014) investigated elementary school children’s ability to use Likert scales during research interviews. In my opinion, their work has several important methodological flaws. Mainly, the questions are too complicated and children’s failures to use the scales adequately reflects, in my opinion, more the inherent difficulty of the problems posed to children rather than the (un-)reliability of Likert scales. There are a few interesting comments in the paper, anyhow: a) children tend to respond to Likert scales with a left-bias (that is, they seem to pick the first item in the scale more often than the rest); b)  5-point scales yield similar results to 3-point scales (they don’t seem more difficult to understand for elementary school children); c) word-scales (eg: very good-kind of good-more or less-kind of bad-very bad) produce more reliable results than number scales (5-4-3-2-1).

Altogether, three interesting and relevant papers. I’ll keep these findings in mind when designing my own research interview.

Mellor, D., & Moore, K. A. (2014). The use of likert scales with children. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 39(3), 369–379.

Peterson, C., Dowden, C., & Tobin, J. (1999). Interviewing preschoolers: Comparisons of yes/no and wh- questions. Law and Human Behavior, 23(5), 539–555.

Roebers, C. M., & Schneider, W. (2005). Individual differences in young children’s suggestibility: Relations to event memory, language abilities, working memory, and executive functioning. Cognitive Development, 20(3), 427–447.

 

On Bloom’s “The Moral Life of Babies”

Very nice piece by Harold Bloom in the popular press (NYTimes), where he summarizes recent cognitivist-nativist research on morality. He claims, for instance that:

“A growing body of evidence (…) suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.”

Throughout the article he tries to present a moderate position that recognizes cultural variation in moral codes and the necessity of social experience for moral development, but claims that there is an innate core of morality, a cognitive starting point shared by all humanity. This innate aspect constitutes a basic moral sense (in a sense similar to which Stan Dehaene talks about the number sense). So, for instance, he acknowledges the relevance of the convincing studies by Joseph Henrich (this one, among others) yet asserts that those cultural codes are built upon the firm base of our innate capacity for feeling empathy, compassion, and for distinguishing aggressive (“evil”) agents from cooperative ones.

Thus, when commenting on Tomasello’s research that seems to imply an innate capacity for cooperation, he argues:

“Is any of the above behavior recognizable as moral conduct? Not obviously so. Moral ideas seem to involve much more than mere compassion. Morality, for instance, is closely related to notions of praise and blame: we want to reward what we see as good and punish what we see as bad. Morality is also closely connected to the ideal of impartiality — if it’s immoral for you to do something to me, then, all else being equal, it is immoral for me to do the same thing to you. In addition, moral principles are different from other types of rules or laws: they cannot, for instance, be overruled solely by virtue of authority. (Even a 4-year-old knows not only that unprovoked hitting is wrong but also that it would continue to be wrong even if a teacher said that it was O.K.) And we tend to associate morality with the possibility of free and rational choice; people choose to do good or evil. To hold someone responsible for an act means that we believe that he could have chosen to act otherwise.”

To present morality as a list of features, however, does not help us understand what is distinctive about morality in opposition to innate cognitions: its normative nature. So, when Bloom asserts that “the morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with” I couldn’t agree more (and I am happy to notice that a nativist like Bloom has the intellectual courage to make this point); but his very theoretical framework doesn’t help him to clarify in exactly what way cultural morality is different from a biological tendency to process information in a certain way.

“The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology (…) A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development.” Yes, I agree. But: what is culture? How does exactly culture build the normative, universal, deontic discourse that we call morality on top of our innate capacities? That is the question.

Alison Gopnik and the mirror of nature

Gopnik’s (1996) argues that scientific knowledge (as well as children’s theories) stems from a device-powered ability. In her candid account, a child (or a scientist) discovers truths by using a truth-discovering device we’re all equipped with. Individuals (children and scientists) have direct access to truths; and truths involve a two-way relationship: they are a mirror-like match between the individual’s representations and the world (as opposed to, for example, being the result of a social, normative, constructive process).

Gopnik acknowledges that epistemology has a normative component, but only in the sense that some epistemologists and philosophers of science prescribe the structure of the ideal scientific inquiry. Indeed, when most scholars talk about traditional epistemology schools (logical positivism, falsificationism, etc.) as being “normative” they mean exactly that kind of external, prescriptive attitude. Yet there is another way of understanding the normative side of epistemology (one that Piaget, for example, emphasizes frequently): epistemology is normative, in this second sense, because its object of study (science) is inherently normative; that is, because scientists try to conduct their research according to certain binding rules and, moreover, they try to formulate laws, rules and models that explain, not just how the world works, but also why the world must work in that way. Scientists use a deontological language when talking about their research; they believe some theories are bad and others are good; they require that scientific statements be justified; they demand other people to be fair in their evaluation of their theories. Epistemologists, in this second version of “the normative,” do not try to impose prescriptions from the outside, but to reveal what is inherently normative in actual science. Gopnik does not take into account this inherently normative nature of science, but she reduces normativity to the traditional epistemologist’s recommendation of certain rules of enquiry to the scientist.

Hand in hand with Gopnik’s neglect of the internal normativity of science, she sees science as stemming from an individual, internal ability to “find the truth,” that is, as something that “people do” (they eat, they sleep, they have sex, they find the truth). She consequently endorses a naïve realism according to which science “gets it right” and succeeds at “uncovering the truth” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 489), and this because “human beings are endowed by evolution with a wide variety of devices that enable us to arrive at a roughly veridical view of the world” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 487). She claims that human cognition is a system that “gets at the truth about the world” because “it is designed by evolution to get at the truth about the world” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 501).  I will not delve into the obvious circularity of such assertions (briefly: to assess whether our cognitive device works well and yields true representations we use that very device). But I believe that this very way of talking about cognition (“we have a device inside our head that operates with rules and representations and is ready-made to find the truth”) makes it impossible from the start to provide an adequate account of a) the normative and b) the social aspects of cognition, since social norms are in this view necessarily reduced to an external source of information, i.e., to the device’s input. Gopnik’s words: “They [mental representations and rules] may be deeply influenced by information that comes from other people, but they are not merely conventional and they could function outside of any social community” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 488). Furthermore, when Gopnik talks about the institutions of science or the division of labor in science, she sees social organization simply as a way of being more effective at achieving a certain goal (reaching truths). It’s a merely technical, means-end reasoning.

What concept of “truth” is Gopnik using when she asserts that the human cognitive system produces truths? She seems to rely on a naïve version of truth as correspondence: our cognitive system is like a mirror of the world; it produces representations that match up to the outside world (Gopnik, 1996, p. 502). Needless to say, this correspondence view of truth has been criticized and destroyed over and over again by philosophers and epistemologists from all schools; it is untenable for a number of reasons. The three main reasons: 1) knowledge processes do not imitate reality but to impose certain abstract, mathematical or relational models unto the world, 2) consequently, our mental representations are not copies of the world; rather, they contain abstract concepts (atom, mind, time, gravity, homeostasis) that radically redescribe the object we are trying to know; and 3) we only say that some things are true within a certain form of life or cultural context that provides the rules to evaluate what is true and what is not.

Gopnik treats truth as a natural fact and as a tangible property of representations, which are also pretty much treated as tangible things. Yet the concept of “truth” only exists within certain normative systems; and normative systems only exist in culture, not in nature; truths are not things; we say that certain propositions or theories are “true” always in the context of complex, relational systems such as science. Animals try to solve concrete problems, but they don’t search for the truth. Human interest in the truth cannot derive from having a natural device implanted in our brain only; something else needs to be added to the mix.

Most interesting theories about the social origins of scientific knowledge do not focus on “socially transmitted information” or “social input” but on social structure. Yet Gopnik finds it “hard to see how a particular social structure, by itself, could lead to veridicality” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 491).

It is in my opinion much easier to see how social structure could lead to veridicality than how a computer-like device could do so. Social structure creates institutions that formalize adversarial scenarios, so that one party is in charge of attacking a position and the opposite party is in charge of defending it. They enforce rules, in many contexts (from editorial boards to legislatures and courts) that specify what counts as a legitimate argument and as valid proof. Moreover, institutions create authorities that rule above the parties in the dispute and are in charge to adjudicate between them, to say who’s right, “who has the truth”. States have succeeded in creating the first institutions that were “impersonal” in the sense that they represented abstract principles or the common good (rather than the interest or the point of view or a specific individual); once people got used to think in terms of impersonal principles (the Greeks called them arches) they applied this form of thought to nature and started discovering principles and laws in the world around us. I’m collapsing into one paragraph thousands of pages written by very diverse authors (Hegel, Durkheim, Vernant) who recognized that social institutions created something absent in the natural world: truth.

If you accept at least provisionally that what is particular about science is not only that it gets things right (its efficacy) but also that produces legal-like knowledge (legitimate, verifiable knowledge that aims at universal validity), you can start to see what it is that social structure adds to the mix.

Says Gopnik: “An important point of the empirical developmental work, and a common observation about science, is that the search for better theories has a kind of internally-driven motivation, quite separate from the more superficial motivations provided by the sociology. From our point of view, we make theories in search of explanation or make love in search of orgasm” (Gopnik, 1996, p. 498). Her idea is that evolution built our internal device in such a way that would feel thrills of pleasure when finding the truth. Yet I believe that the passion of scientists has more to do with a social feeling, namely justice. They strive for truth with the passion that a rebel fights for justice. As when the equation works, the pleasant experience results from the recognition that the result is fair, that the right explanation is given its due value.

Summing up, my argument against Gopnik (1996) proceeds in three steps: 1) She doesn’t recognize the normative dimension of scientific knowledge, so she imagines we have a scientific-knowledge device that is effective, but not one that produces valid, legitimate knowledge; 2) The non-normative conception of truth (which is conceived as a match between the mind and the world) makes her embrace a naïve realism; 3) this narrows, or rather kills, the power of her theory to include the social aspects of knowledge. The main flaws in Gopnik’s theory, therefore, derive from her understanding of scientific activity as resulting from a mere ability to investigate and find truths rather than as a social, normative practice.

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