There is a story that once, not long after he came to Berlin, Planck forgot which room had been assigned to him for a lecture and stopped at the entrance office of the university to find out. Please tell me, he asked the elderly man in charge, 'In which room does Professor Planck lecture today?' The old man patted him on the shoulder 'Don't go there, young fellow,' he said 'You are much too young to understand the lectures of our learned Professor Planck'.
We think there are very strong similarities between some particular types of early learning—learning about objects and about the mind, in particular—and scientific theory change. In fact, we think they are not just similar but identical. We don't just think that the baby computers have the same general structure as the adult-scientist computers, in the way that perceptual learning and artistic learning and political learning may all have the same general structure. We think that children and scientists actually use some of the same machinery. Scientists are big children. Scientists are such successful learners because they use cognitive abilities that evolution designed for the use of children.
Parents with college graduates still living in the spare room may occasionally envy the mother cats and father birds who ruthlessly throw their young out after a couple of months. But we know that we couldn't summon up a similar ruthlessness, nor would our babies survive if we did (of course, the college graduates may be a different story). No creature spends more time dependent on others for its very existence than a human baby, and no creature takes on the burden of that dependence so long and so readily as a human adult.
These features of our evolutionary design are consistent with the idea that human beings have unusually powerf-ful and flexible learning abilities. We deploy those abilities during that protected and protracted Eden we call childhood. During our immaturity we don't have to commit ourselves to act t in any particular way in order to survive; grown-ups take care of us. That leaves us free to explore many possibilities and to learn just what to do in our particular world. Childhood is a time when we can safely devote ourselves to learning about our specific physical and social environment. We can do pure, basic research while the grown-ups provide the funding and the technology.
For most grown-ups, for most of history, that learnirgg may have largely stopped when we reached maturity and turrmed to the more central evolutionary business of the four /'s (feeding, fleeing, fighting, and engaging in sexual reproduction) We learned most of what we need to know a long time before kindergarten. As adults we can survive in our particular world because as children we figured out how it works.
All the same, the continued existence of these learning abilities allows some of us, some of the time, to continue to learn new things about the world around us. When we give grownups leisure and money and interesting problems to solve, they can be almost as smart as babies. We think that, throughout history, some adults continued to learn new things about the world, especially when they were relevant to particular problems of survival. This might explain, for example, the achievements of hunter-gatherer "folk botany" or of Australian aboriginal geography. But the contingencies of history some five hundred years ago gave many more adults the chance to learn about the world. We invented institutions that re-created the conditions of childhood—protected leisure and the right toys. We call those institutions science
Five hundred years ago a natural activity of children was transformed into an institutionally organized activity of adults. Of course, this transformation led to many differences between what children do and what scientists do. Perhaps the most important difference is that children typically make up theories about close, middle-sized, common objects, including people. As a result they are positively immersed in evidence that is relevant to their theories. Everything they need to know is easily available to them. Scientists, in contrast, often make up theories about objects that are very small or very big, hidden or rare or far away, and the relevant evidence is often very thin on the ground. They make up theories about things such as distant stars and elusive diseases. This relatively small difference has big cognitive and social consequences.
At the same time, children with special abilities and skills need to be nourished and encouraged. They are a national treasure. Challenging programmes for the 'gifted' are sometimes decried as 'elitism'. Why aren't intensive practice sessions for varsity football, baseball and basketball players and interschool competition deemed elitism? After all, only the most gifted athletes participate. There is a self-defeating double-standard at work here, nationwide.
Intellectual quackery extends throughout the landscape of academia; tenured professors in the humanities and social sciences, on the right and left, are constantly purveying theories that are the philosophical, literary, and artistic equivalents of junk science. That many of the researchers consider themselves intellectuals is sad but unremarkable in the annals of quackery withing academia: junk thought with an intellectual patina fosters anti-intellectualism as effectively as junk science with a scientific patina fosters public misunderstanding and suspicion of real science. This sort of junk thought knows no racial, political, or gender boundaries; among teh most notable examples is a wacky but influential movement within academic feminism, mainly in the humanities and such fields as psychology and sociology, intent on attacking some of the most monumental fields of human endeavor as hopelessly tainted by the male lust for violence and domination. These tainted phallocentric pursuits include science and classical music. In a work published in 1986, Sandra Harding, professor of philosophy at the University of Delaware, compared the scientific method to "marital rape, the husband as scientist forcing nature to his wishes."