Scientific thinking yet again

My friend I-Chant had a sharp response to my last post:

Geez, Praj, you have never been trained as a psychologist, yet you know about going to PsycInfo, using some relevant search terms to pull up research that you are looking for, and marginally interpret it. Well, you shouldn’t know how to do that, should you? But yet, you did it, and I bet you didn’t think of the irony. 😉 [It would have been easier to just call me a hypocrite:)–PK]

There is actually a lot of cognitive psychology that backs up my (and others’) point earlier. The first question here is whether problem solving skills transfer at all. We in the field call it positive transfer. Transfer to a new context is called far transfer, and there is evidence for that as well. The answer from many years of research (Chen and Klahr, 2008, and heck, that is for kids!; Barnett and Ceci, 2002) is yes, these things definitely happen. I will send you the PDFs.

The second question here is whether Chu, or what I think we may agree on is an expert in his field, can do it better than a novice (I think a novice could be a non-scientist, i.e., politicians, Paul Krugman, and Toni Morrison). Again, cognitive psychology research says yes, experts have the advantage. The approach problems completely differently, do not have the learning curve that novices would in building up that skill set (and in this oil crisis, I think we probably agree that not wasting time learning is important), and they also have more space for creativity (a couple of landmark studies are Larkin, McDermott, Simon, Simon, 1980 and Sweller, 1988, lots of more recent ones). There are surprisingly a lot of studies that look specifically at physics problems and physicists as well so I don’t know how you can claim that there is no evidence or data for this! We’ve already agreed that there are probably people who are more expert in this problem than Chu, but Chu can quickly acquire the knowledge that he needs and his job as Secretary of Energy has given him some practice at that. There are probably lots of other qualities that Chu has that may make him more desirable in this situation, including a broader, more creative perspective by not being entrenched in this problem, lots of connections to get him the right expertise, and political backing. Again, I’m not arguing he is the best person in the world for this job, but he is a pretty good one and certainly better than Robinson gives him credit for.

I’ll point out that in my first post I explicitly said “As far as I know, there’s no data either way.”  Now I do know and duly stand corrected.  I am interested, however, in what specifically we mean by “problem-solving skills.”  I’m sure that some things do transfer.  But from my personal experience theorists  often make clumsy experimentalists and vice versa.  So even within a single field there isn’t always strong transfer, and I suspect that when it does occur the problems have a large degree of overlap.

Nevertheless I will grant that Chu is better suited for this role than I gave him credit for, though I’m still not sure if his scientific thinking or management experience helps more.  Perhaps I’ll be convinced after reading the articles or having I-Chant lecture me some more!

But there are a couple deeper issues here.  First, as Ryan pointed out, the question isn’t expert versus non-expert.  It is the specific type of expertise needed, and whether we assume someone with a physics Nobel Prize is the right type.  Robinson’s refusal to blindly accept the latter proposition is what I most appreciated about his column.  We need more skepticism along these lines, and Robinson should be applauded for the effort.  We need more pushback against the conventional wisdom that scientists’ analytical powers qualify them to discuss everything.  So while Robinson’s analysis may have gone overboard here, his desire to challenge the mainstream view is commendable.

As I’ve said before, climate skeptics succeed partially because more people do not adopt such a critical stance (see disunity and climate change).  Scientists are viewed as a single authoritative, undifferentiated mass, and there’s no recognition of the immense diversity that exists.  This attitude allows Freeman Dyson to attack global warming on the cover of  the New York Times Magazine even though he has no credibility as a climate scientist.  Of course if you believe that all it takes is arbitrary expertise and exceptional analytical skills, there’s no problem here.  We can just assume that near, far and medium transfer makes Dyson qualified to discuss global warming.

But quantum field theory is not climate change and Freeman Dyson is no Stephen Schneider.  All scientists are not equal on every issue.  Even if cognitive psychologists can prove the existence of scientific thinking, I suspect the extent of transfer depends critically on the particular situation.  So in the end we must decide whether the default is trust or skepticism.  While there is a happy medium, the mere existence of people like Dyson and Frederick Seitz is proof enough that we’ve swung too far in one direction.  You can even read entire books about the damage caused by scientists speaking outside their domain.  If more people thought like Eugene Robinson this might be less of a problem.


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