Saturday, May 26, 2012

Paul Thagard's "The Cognitive Science of Science"

Paul Thagard is Professor of Philosophy, with cross appointment to Psychology, Director of the Cognitive Science Program, and University Research Chair at the University of Waterloo. He is a graduate of the Universities of Saskatchewan, Cambridge, Toronto (Ph. D. in philosophy) and Michigan (M.S. in computer science). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the Cognitive Science Society, and the Association for Psychological Science, and received a Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize. Thagard's books include The Brain and the Meaning of Life, Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science, and Hot Thought: Mechanisms and Applications of Emotional Cognitions.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Cognitive Science of Science: Explanation, Discovery, and Conceptual Change, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Cognitive Science of Science is not very representative of the whole book, which largely concerns the mental representations and processes that enable people to develop scientific knowledge. The three parts of the book concern explanation, discovery, and conceptual change, combining psychological and neuroscientific perspectives with computational modeling. Page 99 occurs in the most philosophical chapter in the book, “Coherence, Truth, and Scientific Knowledge”.

The major point of this chapter is to argue that the adoption of scientific theories on the basis of their explanatory coherence sometimes leads to truth, especially when theories are deepened by finding mechanisms that provide much more detail concerning what makes the theory work. For example, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection had a great deal of explanatory coherence when he first proposed that species could evolve as the result of a struggle for existence among individuals subject to variation and transmission of characteristics to their offspring. The coherence of Darwin’s theory increased markedly decades after he proposed it, when genetics provided a mechanism of how transmission works.

Page 99 discusses the prospect of the same kind of deepening occurring in the social sciences, arguing that it is already happening in some areas. Many areas of psychology are currently being enriched by rapid increases in understanding the neural processes responsible for mental processes in all kinds of thinking. At the same time, economics is benefitting from psychological and neural critiques of the inaccurate models of rational choice that have dominated the field for decades. Sociology and political science have not yet taken much advantage of the enriched explanations of human social behavior based on psychological and neural mechanisms, but I am optimistic that a full fledged cognitive social science will arise.
Learn more about The Cognitive Science of Science at The MIT Press website.

Visit Paul Thagard's University of Waterloo faculty webpage and blog for Psychology Today.

The Page 99 Test: The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

--Marshal Zeringue