Book: The Scientist in The Crib

But what makes a science really advance isn’t just the astonishing geniuses, it’s the methods that allow us ordinary idiots to do the same thing as the astonishing geniuses.

“The Scientist in the Crib” by Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl explores how children explore the world using scientific methods or – the scientific method is built on the framework that children use to explore the world.

Children build theories on the world, test them methodically, and will try out just about anything with unwavering enthusiasm.

It’s not that children are little scientists but that scientists are big children.

Children and good scientists use the same methods, and they are equally baffled and amazed by the world. They conduct real experiments and note their effects with astounding diligence.

The “Theory Theory” states that children have theories of the world

Babies learn about the world by interacting with it. Only after having an experience they can name it. They have a “language explosion” at the same time they learn to solve new problems – like object permanence, manipulation, etc.

  • Babies who are figuring out the sounds of language babble
  • Babies who are figuring out how we see objects play hide&seek
  • Babies who are learning how people think, play imitation games

Experiments show that babies are born with the ability to recognize every syllable of every language. After 1 year, they are limited only to the language they hear at home, so they’ll lose vowels they don’t hear their parents speak. After another 14 years, they’ll pay big money for language classes to recognize those sounds again.

I was dismissive of Baby Talk, but it turns out its really valuable and tailored precisely for language learning:

  • Elongated vowels
  • Clear sounds
  • Slight variations of the same sentence “What a nice toy you have, such a nice toy, who has a nice toy?”

Funny how we’re such great teachers instinctively. Put down your Mozart tapes.

There are no adults

The longer I live, the more convinced I am that in fact there are no adults, and we’re all big babies in oversized suits trying to figure this all out as we go along (I even wrote something to that effect in my wedding vows).

But if even children themselves aren’t “childlike,” the whole picture collapses. There are no savages, noble or otherwise, and there are no “children of nature,” not even among children. There are only human beings, children and grown-ups, women and men, hunter-gatherers and scientists, trying to figure out what’s going on.

As with hard distinction between people and animals, or mind and body, Aristotle is yet again proven wrong. Hilariously, the book shares Plato’s student’s work on Men and Women having different numbers of teeth, a view he probably didn’t consult with his wife. Men have a long history of theorizing without confronting their ideas with facts.

like Aristotle with the teeth, neither Freud nor Skinner took the step of doing systematic experiments with children or babies. Freud largely relied on inferences from the behavior of neurotic adults, and Skinner on inferences from the behavior of only slightly less neurotic rats. And like the philosophers, Freud and Skinner got the developmental story wrong, too.

The more we learn about babies, animals, and the universe, the more we are confronted with our own unremarkableness. It was a nice myth to treat ourselves as the final achievement of evolution, but we’re just lucky animals.

Due to frequent child deaths (as described in Factfulness), children were treated as less than adults for the majority of history. It was an easy way out of both the gruesome reality of child death and the preservation of the special status of the full-grown humans. But we have to get real now.

Parenting

Maybe this book’s biggest benefit is preparing me for the challenges ahead. My baby girl is 6 months old now, and already testing her parents’ patience a little bit more every day. So-called “Terrible Twos” sound particularly scary, and the book helps me to mentally prepare and understand her antics later. She is not out to make me angry, she’s just trying to learn the world. Repeat that again and breathe.

The terrible twos seem to involve a systematic exploration of that idea, almost a kind of experimental research program. Toddlers are systematically testing the dimensions on which their desires and the desires of others may be in conflict.

It will also help to prevent me from strolling up and down the block like a proud peacock whenever she does something impressive:

Parents egocentrically tend to think that they are the deciding factors in their children’s lives. But for a two-year-old, an older brother or sister may actually be a more enthralling exemplar of human nature.

I’m already struggling as my little girl tests the object permanence where she drops toys on purpose to see if that picks them up. He does.

The traditional environment where the children grew up was very different from the modern family. Remote work brings us back, with children being closer to their parents during the day instead of being locked away in daycare

“Perhaps the telecommuting home office with the crib next to the fax machine will turn out to be the contemporary equivalent of the baby on the sling on its mother’s back or the father plowing next to his children”

Read more in “Farmers always worked from home”

Related Books

My Kindle highlights

  • We decided to become developmental psychologists and study children because there aren’t any Martians.
  • worst of all when we turn to the sounds that
  • Our job as developmental psychologists is to discover what program babies run and, someday, how that program is coded in their brains and how it evolved.
  • Finally, the babies have the universe’s best system of tech support: mothers.
  • For human beings, nurture is our nature. The capacity for culture is part of our biology, and the drive to learn is our most important and central instinct.
  • It’s not that children are little scientists but that scientists are big children.
  • But if even children themselves aren’t “childlike,” the whole picture collapses. There are no savages, noble or otherwise, and there are no “children of nature,” not even among children. There are only human beings, children and grown-ups, women and men, hunter-gatherers and scientists, trying to figure out what’s going on.
  • Luria, wildly excited by his results, couldn’t wait for the Trans-Siberian Railroad journey back and telegraphed Vygotsky, “Tatars have no illusions.” He was immediately arrested; there was only one subject about which Tatars could have no illusions. Luria decided to leave developmental psychology and became a military brain surgeon at the front—it was safer. Vygotsky himself avoided the purges only by dying young, at thirty-eight.
  • like Aristotle with the teeth, neither Freud nor Skinner took the step of doing systematic experiments with children or babies. Freud largely relied on inferences from the behavior of neurotic adults, and Skinner on inferences from the behavior of only slightly less neurotic rats. And like the philosophers, Freud and Skinner got the developmental story wrong, too.
  • But what makes a science really advance isn’t just the astonishing geniuses, it’s the methods that allow us ordinary idiots to do the same thing as the astonishing geniuses.
  • One-month-old babies imitate facial expressions. If you stick your tongue out at a baby, the baby will stick his tongue out at you; open your mouth, and the baby will open hers.
  • The newborns imitated, too.
  • When babies are around a year old, they begin to point to things and they begin to look at things that other people point to.
  • The terrible twos seem to involve a systematic exploration of that idea, almost a kind of experimental research program. Toddlers are systematically testing the dimensions on which their desires and the desires of others may be in conflict.
  • Systematic studies indicate that two-year-olds begin to show genuine empathy toward other people for the first time.
  • (3 y/o) always thought there were pencils in the box. It’s as if the children think that since there is only one world out there, a single reality, everyone will understand it the same way. People will never have different beliefs about the same thing, and they themselves will never change their minds about anything.
  • The children, though, make just the same mistakes whether they are reporting their own mental state or predicting the mental states of other people.
  • A relatively brief experience of a friend or an aunt or a teacher can provide children with an alternative picture of how love can work.
  • Three-year-olds do act like lovers toward their parents. In fact, they act like lovers out of Italian opera, with passionate and sensual embraces and equally passionate despair at separation and jealousy of rivals.
  • We can show systematically that “real” lies only begin to appear at about four, at the same time that children start to understand “false-belief” problems like the deceptive candy box. Similarly, children only begin to understand that they can be deceived at about that age.
  • Children with autism don’t seem to have the fundamental presupposition that they are like other people and other people are like them.
  • They are likely to understand the trick box problem at a younger age than older siblings. And the more brothers and sisters children have, the better they do.
  • Parents egocentrically tend to think that they are the deciding factors in their children’s lives. But for a two-year-old, an older brother or sister may actually be a more enthralling exemplar of human nature.

Hello World!

Life does not come with a user manual. But why?
This series of posts is addressed to my baby daughter and documents the aspects of life that I should have learned at school but didn’t.


The World says Hello

This week, you were born. The angels, wise wild animals from the depths of the jungle, fairies, elves, and wizards came by to welcome you to this endlessly fascinating world. They also gave us lots of advice about your magical powers and supernatural destiny, but that is not relevant now.

Today, I’m writing to let you know about all my good intentions. I know life can be bumpy sometimes, but I’m hopeful I’ll be able to stay the course and be a half-decent dad. My dad (grandpa Robert) was an amazing example, and I can only hope I can play the same role for you.

I have no experience of growing up as a girl, so I will probably behave awkwardly at times (or all the time). But I’m also a firm believer that there is no such thing as ‘girly’ or ‘boy’ things and games. We’ll have tons of fun dressing up our dog for the ball, hiking, pointing out this funny bird, building tables, and whatever else will captivate us both.

I think all parents start with good intentions and high hopes of being there for their children. But good adults, good parents, and good people sometimes do stupid things (quite often actually).

We sometimes convince ourselves that the best way to do a [good thing] is to suffer through a [bad thing] first. For example:

  • “I need to work plenty of overtime, sacrificing playtime so my family is wealthy and my baby can have a good life.
  • “We cannot stay and watch the leaves fall because we have to rush to the pottery class so that my baby can do something interesting.”
  • “I need to teach my baby respect so that she can appreciate me.”

If you stop and think you may discover that the thing in front of you is what you were seeking all along and this convoluted game in your head is useless.

I have to note that daddy is not super smart here. This is a very often repeated lesson – something we call a cliche.

But we adults forget things all the time, especially the cliches we hear a lot. We like to pretend we are so smart that these basic lessons are beyond us. And that is what I need your help with.

I need you to help me remember these basic lessons and make me stop and think about them with you. We, adults, are always in a hurry and in our heads. But you are smart and not yet tainted by the adult ways of thinking. I encourage you to try to stay that way.

Many adults like to play the “I have this figured out” game. It’s like playing house or any pretending – we act as if we know everything, we dole out advice, and act like we are better than everyone who admits they don’t know.

It’s only a game and the truth is that we’re all learning – just as you. I’m here a little bit longer but don’t have all the answers yet. I hope I can answer your questions thoughtfully and admit when I don’t know. “Because I say so” is never a good answer and you should not accept it from anybody – even from Daddy.

My final ask is that you have some patience for Mommy and Daddy. We are sometimes tired or hungry and say things we don’t mean (like “because I say so”). You will do things you don’t mean when you are tired too. As I said – I’m here a little longer, but otherwise, I’m a child too.

I’m sure the next few decades we spend together will be filled with fun and learning. They are the same thing really.


Your loving Daddy.

PS: Your Mom also has a letter for you.