No, children are not natural born scientists

Illustration for article titled No, children are not natural born scientists

We like to think that children are born scientists. Because Neil deGrasse Tyson says so. Because The National Science Foundation proclaims it on its website. Because when Mark Twain warned that school should not "interfere with [one's] education," he clearly meant it as a prophetic indictment of No Child Left Behind and the Rod Of Standardized Tests that schools use to cudgel creativity and curiosity right out of students' skulls, and who dares question Twain's brand of smart, sassy wisdom — what are you, a communist?

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Here's the thing: sure, children love to ask questions, probe their surroundings and, yes, even "experiment"; but they're still a far cry from being natural-born "scientists". To suggest otherwise, warns real-life, classically trained astrophysicist Matthew Francis, is to cultivate a pernicious myth which, "like many myths, [is] a mixture of truth and falsehood, but ultimately... damaging," and prone to leading us into "bad habits of thought."

A small excerpt from his post:

I'm going to tentatively say that none of us are "born scientists". We have the potential to become scientific thinkers and researchers, and some of us will have an easier go of it than others (for reasons springing both from nature and nurture). The job of an educator is to feed the curiosity, use the plasticity, and help the student build scientific intuition, to borrow a phrase my college advisor often used. It may seem paradoxical to talk about building intuition, but it seems to be a useful concept: we can learn to think in certain ways, especially if we start early. We humans aren't naturally scientific or skeptical thinkers: we often get the wrong end of the stick on basic notions like correlation/causation, randomness, probability, and the like.

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Francis isn't overreacting here. It should go without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway, because someone is inevitably going to accuse him of this) that he's not just shitting on this very well-meaning aphorism by being a dick and stating the obvious (of COURSE children aren't nuclear physicists, etc.). What he's getting at is more subtle. One of the more important points he makes is that science is often counterintuitive. In many cases, it's perplexing in ways that are in every way at odds with the way we're wired, instinctively, to perceive the world. In this sense, the concept of "scientific training" is very real; the scientific mind is cultivated, not innate. See what he's doing here? This isn't parade-raining, this is a wonderfully pedantic and imperially scrupulous assessment (and what are scientists if not pedantic and scrupulous?) of a convenient idea many of us — myself included — have just sort of accepted to be true.

Go give the rest of Francis' post a read on his blog, Galileo's Pendulum. It's choice stuff.

Top image via Shutterstock

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DISCUSSION

Doesn't this all depend on what "born scientist" means? I mean, if I were to think it means "born with a white lab coat on and two test tubes" I'm going to say no, most every time. But if it means "born with an urge to experiment and a desire to know"—is there anything harmless about considering that the default attitude?

Anyone who says kids are born literal scientists, I'll have to look at funny. People who are focussing on certain important traits of scientists and saying that children share them, I'm going to understand what they mean, and even agree. All scientists aren't even scientists, man. In the meanwhile, I'm good with metaphor being different from definition.

(And, seriously, no one who knows me thinks this is the argument I'd make)