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?