There is a theory in psychology called the theory theory. It’s a theory about theories. While this might sound obvious, the theory theory leads to counterintuitive conclusions. A quarter-century ago, psychologists began to point out important links between the development of scientific theories and how everyday thinking, including children’s thinking, works. According to theory theorists, a child learns by constructing a theory of the world and testing it against experience. In this sense, children are little scientists – they hypothesise on the basis of observations, test their hypotheses experimentally, and then revise their views in light of the evidence they gather.
According to Alison Gopnik, a theory theorist at the University of California, Berkeley, the analogy works both ways. It’s not just that ‘children are little scientists’, she wrote in her paper ‘The Scientist as Child’ (1996), ‘but that scientists are big children.’ Depending on where you look, you can see the scientific method in a child, or spot the inner child in a scientist. Either way, the theory theory makes it easy to see connections between elementary learning and scientific theorising.
This should be pretty surprising. After all, scientists go through a lot of training in order to think the way they do. Their results are exact; their methods exacting. Most of us share the sense that scientific thinking is difficult, even for scientists. This perceived difficulty has bolstered (at least until recently) the collective respect for scientific expertise on which the support of cutting-edge research depends.
It’s also what gives the theory theory its powerful punch. If science is so hard, how can children – and, some theory theorists argue, even infants – think like scientists in any meaningful sense? Indeed, in the age of what Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes call “the merchants of doubt” (not to say in the age of Trump), isn’t it dangerous to suggest that science is a matter of child’s play?
To gain purchase on this question, let’s take a step back. Claims that children are scientists rest on a certain idea about what science is. For theory theorists – and for many of the rest of us – science is about producing theories. How we do that is often represented as a short list of steps, such as ‘observe’, ‘hypothesise’, and ‘test’, steps that have been emblazoned on posters and recited in debates for the past century.
But where did this idea that science is a set of steps – a method – come from? As it turns out, we don’t need to go back to Isaac Newton or the Scientific Revolution to find the history of ‘the scientific method’ in this sense. The image of science that most of us hold, even most scientists, comes from a surprising place: modern child psychology. The scientific method as we know it today comes from psychological studies of children only a century ago.
At the turn of the 20th century, psychologists were busy working out the methods of their new discipline by studying a range of ‘other minds’. Kids proved to be convenient subjects. Studying children’s mental development gave psychologists a model of thinking, including their own: scientific thinking. They saw their research methods in the minds of the children they studied. Thus, science has always been child’s play. This does not mean that it is easy, or replaceable, or that it should be done away with. Much the opposite. Returning to this formative moment shines a bright light on the authority of modern science, including its method.