Carving nature at its joints: the double-edged sword of theory-driven discovery
Speaker: Marina Dubova
To understand and navigate our world, both individuals and scientific communities create simplifying representations, such as concepts and theories. How do we construct useful representations from our experiences, and how do we use these representations to guide our learning? In this talk, I discuss empirical research on the mechanisms of human concept learning, highlighting the ease with which we adopt new, even arbitrary, conceptualizations. I illustrate how these acquired concepts instantly shape how we perceive and explore the world. For example, I show that our perception of objects becomes biased by our conceptual needs and our knowledge about these objects. I demonstrate that similar mechanisms are at play when scientific conceptualizations, such as the DSM in psychology and the periodic table in chemistry, guide scientific exploration. Then, I discuss the double-edged nature of theory-guided discovery: although conceptualizations can efficiently steer us towards new observations that further refine our knowledge, they can also lead our exploration astray. For instance, by motivating new experiments based on the current theoretical understanding of phenomena, scientists might end up missing important aspects of the world not yet captured by their theories. I conclude by reviewing my current and future research that aims to enhance our understanding of how theories and data can inform each other to support—rather than hinder—individual learning and scientific progress.