The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind

The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind

by Gregory J. Feist, Gregory Feist

In this book, Gregory Feist reviews and consolidates the scattered literatures on the psychology of science, then calls for the establishment of the field as a unique discipline. He offers the most comprehensive perspective yet on how science came to be possible in our species and on the important role of psychological forces in an individual’s development of

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In this book, Gregory Feist reviews and consolidates the scattered literatures on the psychology of science, then calls for the establishment of the field as a unique discipline. He offers the most comprehensive perspective yet on how science came to be possible in our species and on the important role of psychological forces in an individual’s development of scientific interest, talent, and creativity. Without a psychological perspective, Feist argues, we cannot fully understand the development of scientific thinking or scientific genius.
The author explores the major subdisciplines within psychology as well as allied areas, including biological neuroscience and developmental, cognitive, personality, and social psychology, to show how each sheds light on how scientific thinking, interest, and talent arise. He assesses which elements of scientific thinking have their origin in evolved mental mechanisms and considers how humans may have developed the highly sophisticated scientific fields we know today. In his fascinating and authoritative book, Feist deals thoughtfully with the mysteries of the human mind and convincingly argues that the creation of the psychology of science as a distinct discipline is essential to deeper understanding of human thought processes. 

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Editorial Reviews

Robert J. Sternberg
"No one has even come close to creating the kind of systematic organization for the field of psychology of science that Feist has."—Robert J. Sternberg, Yale University, editor of Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid

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Yale University Press
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The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind

By Gregory J. Feist

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Gregory J. Feist
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11074-6

Chapter One

Psychology of Science and the Studies of Science

Science and scientific thinking, as prototypes of human thought and understanding, have long fascinated scholars and thinkers in philosophy, history, and more recently, sociology. Indeed, philosophy of science, history of science, and sociology of science are well-developed disciplines. By contrast, psychology of science is an infant that has much to learn from the other, more mature metasciences. My intent in this chapter is to examine the developmental paths taken by the three major players in science studies-history, philosophy, and sociology-as a means for understanding what may be necessary for psychology of science to establish itself as a viable discipline. If psychology of science is to learn from these other more codified studies of science and develop its own identity, then it must knowingly proceed through similar stages.

As a precursor to discussing the stages of development that other studies of science have taken, I first must be clear on what the psychology of science is. Although the heart of this book is an elaborate answer to that question, for now suffice it to say that the psychology of science applies theempirical methods and theoretical perspectives of psychology to scientifically study scientific thought and behavior (hence, it is a "metascience"). At its core, psychology of science is the empirical study of the biological, developmental, cognitive, personality, and social influences of scientific thought and behavior. Scientific thought and behavior are not limited to scientists per se but also encompass thought processes of children, adolescents, and adults who are simulating scientific problem solving and developing mental models of how the world works. Just as science can be either implicit or explicit, so too can be the psychology of science. In fact, I view much of the work discussed in this book as implicit psychology of science: the psychologists doing it would not label it "psychology of science" or think of themselves as "psychologists of science." One of my goals, therefore, is to convince these researchers that they are in fact doing psychology of science.


Psychology in general is and has been the model for the psychology of science. That is, all the major questions and perspectives for an informed psychology of science derive directly from the parent discipline and its subdivisions. Psychology is a field that currently has five or six major perspectives: biological-neuro-science, developmental, cognitive-perceptual, personality, social, and clinical-mental health. Biological-neuroscience psychology explores the link between brain, mind, and behavior; cognition examines how we perceive, think, remember, speak, and solve problems; developmental psychology explores how humans change and grow from birth to death; personality psychology investigates how dispositions influence one's unique responses to the environment and the consistency of these dispositions over the lifespan; and social psychology explores how individuals are perceived and influenced by the real or imagined presence of others.

In table 1.1, I have listed some examples of major questions addressed by each of psychology's subdisciplines and whether each might also be a topic for psychologists of science. These questions are rather general and meant only to give a taste of the kinds of questions each subdiscipline addresses. For instance, to the degree that biological-neuroscience uncovers the neural mechanisms and anatomical architecture of sensory, perceptual, and cognitive processes involved in abstract, spatial, and quantitative reasoning, it sheds light on the neural and anatomical basis of scientific thought. Because cognitive psychology is concerned with perception, concept formation, learning, memory, problem solving, and creativity, it has the most obvious possible connection with a psychology of science. The only subdiscipline I do not take up in the book is clinical psychology, simply because there is little to no empirical work directly related to scientific thought and behavior. The one fascinating clinical topic that has garnered some empirical attention and could justify including a clinical subdivision in the psychology of science in the future would be the extent to which particular mental disturbances (for example, autism, manic-depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder) help or hinder interest or creative achievement in science. For example, as I discuss in the chapters on development and evolution, Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues have found a connection between high functioning autism (Asperger's Syndrome) and scientific interest and talent.

Not only does psychology suggest general questions and topics, but it also offers the psychology of science guidance in research methodology. For instance, one method that psychologists of science bring to the study of science that no other metascientific field does is the experimental method. The two essential ingredients for the experimental method are random assignment of participants to conditions and manipulation of the main variable in question (holding all else constant). Cognitive and social psychologists in particular make use of the experimental method because cognitive and social factors are relatively easy to manipulate.

Just as psychology is the model for the psychology of science, the latter can also be a model for the former. Over the last fifty years, all major subdisciplines in psychology have become more and more isolated from each other as training becomes increasingly specialized and narrow in focus. As some psychologists have long argued, if the field of psychology is to mature and advance scientifically, its disparate parts (for example, neuroscience, developmental, cognitive, personality, and social) must become whole and integrated again. Science advances when distinct topics become theoretically and empirically integrated under simplifying theoretical frameworks. Psychology of science will encourage collaboration among psychologists from various sub-areas, helping the field achieve coherence rather than continued fragmentation. In this way, psychology of science might act as a template for psychology as a whole by integrating under one discipline all of the major fractions/factions within the field. It would be no small feat and of no small import if the psychology of science could become a model for the parent discipline on how to combine resources and study science from a unified perspective.


As the least developed study of science, psychology has much to learn from the more established metascientific disciplines of history, philosophy, and sociology of science. The most important lesson comes from knowing the general stages that any scientific discipline goes through in its path toward maturity. Guiding the discussion of the development of each study of science, I make use of but modify Nicholas Mullins's stage model of theory or network development. Mullins argued for four potentially overlapping stages of development in theories and/or scientific networks in sociology. I propose only three stages and apply them not just to one field (sociology), but to all of the metasciences (history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology). In addition, I simplify the components of each stage and focus only on each stage's intellectual leaders, social-organizational leaders, research-training centers, and intellectual successes.

In stage 1, Isolation, scholars work on the same problem in isolation, with the founding intellectual figures setting the stage. There is no social organization in terms of training centers, conferences, or societies. Late in stage 1 and early in stage 2, a core group of scholars may be working in the field, but doing so implicitly rather than explicitly, not yet labeling themselves as members of the field.

In stage 2, Identification is reached, as the intellectual success of the founding figures provides explicit theoretical and conceptual parameters for the field that attracts a wider range of students and other scientists who start to explicitly identify themselves with the field. Semi-regular meetings are organized and the first training-research centers may form. Such training centers are usually highly centralized around an intellectual leader, whose students have begun to have a major impact on the field. A leading journal becomes necessary as the outlet for the increased level of productivity of the field.

In stage 3, Institutionalization, the field becomes well established and institutionalized. Meetings become annual conferences because societies have now formed with their own social structure and hierarchy. Often multiple societies, some of them international, become necessary. Training centers proliferate and become less centralized, and at least one journal is now required for the expanding productivity of the field. Indeed, splinter movements, with different foci or agendas, may form and either break away or stay on the edge of the central field.

Brief History of Metasciences

Philosophy of Science. Although philosophy of knowledge (that is, epistemology) was a central theme in ancient Greek philosophy, the field of the philosophy of science is a much more recent development. Its origins are seen in three trends: classification of the sciences, methodology, and the philosophy of nature. The intellectual leaders, in the sense of writing the first books on the topic, were William Whewell (1794-1866) in England and Auguste Comte (1798-1857) in France-both of whom wrote in the 1840s. Whewell actually wrote two books on the philosophy of science and coined the terms "scientist" and "physicist" in the process. He took a modified Kantian view that there are laws of nature independent of our understanding and that by our inductive intuitions, rather than raw empiricism, we can come to understand the laws of nature (see table 1.2).

John Stuart Mill (1806-73) developed his own positivist position in reaction to Whewell's inductivist position. Indeed, the two major proponents of positivism were Comte and J. S. Mill. Positivism holds that nature has no ultimate purpose and there is no "essence" to be discovered a priori. All scientific knowledge must be based in observable and positive facts. Positivists, at their core, are refuting the purely reflective method of acquiring knowledge, believing that only what comes through the senses is valid, scientific knowledge. Comte, in particular, put a historical spin to the positivist argument and claimed that the history of ideas passes through three phases-theological, metaphysical, and positivist (scientific)-with positivism being the penultimate stage of knowledge. In so doing, Comte was taking a classic empiricist stance by arguing that human nature was modifiable and capable of progress. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the publication of books in the philosophy of science went from a trickle to a fast drip, with some major works, including William Jevons, Ernst Mach, and Karl Pearson.

At the turn of the century scholars began to organize more formally and establish the philosophy of science as an independent field of study (stage 2, Identification). For instance, the first congresses on the philosophy of science were held in Paris in 1900 (as sections of the First International Congress of Philosophy), and the first manifestations of what later became the Vienna Circle began in 1907.

The Vienna Circle (formed officially in 1922) played a big role in establishing the parameters of philosophy of science, gave it an empiricist-positivist orientation, and established the first modern answers to basic questions in the philosophy of science. The members of the Vienna Circle provided logical positivism its clearest and most cogent voice. Their fundamental argument was that empirical statements and their verifiability take priority over all other forms of knowledge, especially metaphysical and ethical. Can an idea be empirically verified? If not, it is meaningless-a conclusion they came to concerning ethics, morality, and metaphysics. The primary advances by the logical positivists over the positivists were the law of verification and the addition of mathematical and logical methods of analysis. Hence the "logical" descriptor to the positivist name. The major figures in forming the Vienna Circle were Max Neurath, Moritz Schlick, Ernst Mach, Herbert Feigl, Kurt Gödel, and Rudolf Carnap, all of whom were influenced by Auguste Comte's positivism as well as Bertrand Russell's logic and mathematical precision. Logical positivism went on to shape the entire field until the 1960s, and indeed all of modern philosophy of science owes its origin to logical positivism (if nothing else as a critical jumping-off point). By the early 1930s, the founding members of the Vienna Circle began to disperse, landing in positions throughout Europe and the United States. In no small part because of the dispersal of these members of the Vienna Circle, the third stage in philosophy of science's development became established internationally in the decades between the two world wars, a movement that was codified with the first dedicated journal (Philosophy of Science) and the founding of the Philosophy of Science Association in 1934.

Karl Popper (1902-94) was a mathematics- and physics-oriented philosopher who early in life was influenced by the rational and scientific attitude of the Vienna Circle (especially Carnap and Schlick) as well as its intellectual father, Bertrand Russell. He published a critique of logical positivism that set the stage for philosophy of science for the next forty years. That book was originally published in German in 1935 under the title Logik der Forschung (Logic of Research) and was not published in English until 1959 under the somewhat different title Logic of Scientific Discovery. Whether Popper's book is seen as a death knell for logical positivism (as he claimed) or as a critical variant of the position (as many others have claimed) is still a matter of debate.

Popper tackled head on one of the major questions in the philosophy of science: what makes one form of knowledge "scientific" and another "nonscientific" or "pseudoscientific"? To this demarcation question Popper did in fact provide a different answer than the logical positivists. Instead of verifiability, Popper argued it was falsifiability that separated science from nonscience. If a theory makes clear, unambiguous assumptions and predictions that can be put to both logical and empirical test, and if a negative result contradicts the theory, then the theory is falsifiable and therefore scientific. If a theory does not do these things and explains away (post hoc) both positive and negative results then it is not falsifiable and not scientific.

In the 1930s, when Popper was developing his ideas, Einstein's theory of relativity, Freud's and Adler's psychoanalytic theories, and Marx's theory of dialectical materialism were the predominant theories of the day. Each claimed to be scientific, but Popper felt that there were real differences between Einstein's and each of the social science theories, which propelled him toward the solution of falsifiability. It was especially after the experimental corroboration in 1919 of Einstein's theoretical and risky predication that gravity should bend light that Popper realized that real scientific theories prohibit rather than allow. They make risky and specific predictions, and if they are not supported empirically, their validity is inherently undermined and challenged. Theories by Freud, Adler, and Marx made no such claims and indeed contradictory findings could each be subsumed (and often were) post hoc under their respective theories. They could explain everything; scientific theories, on the other hand, must forbid some events. In Popper's mind, therefore, they were pseudoscience rather than science.


Excerpted from The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind by Gregory J. Feist Copyright © 2006 by Gregory J. Feist. Excerpted by permission.
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