Dr. Deena Skolnick Weisberg is the Principal Investigator of Villanova’s Scientific Thinking and Representation Lab. Click here for her CV.
One aspect of my research focuses on the development of imaginative cognition, which includes fictional stories, pretend games, and counterfactual and hypothetical scenarios. Although even very young children can distinguish reality from fiction, little else is known about the nature of their imaginative abilities. How do children think about these non-real representations? When children play pretend games or listen to stories, what principles govern their interactions with these imaginary worlds? And what role does children’s imaginative cognition play in their development? There seem to be close links among the playful uses of imaginative cognition in pretend games and stories and the serious uses of imaginative cognition in future planning and scientific reasoning. Far from being a frivolous childhood activity, then, imaginative play can help to bolster children’s developing reasoning skills.
Current studies on these topics investigate how preschool-aged children use their real-world knowledge to construct these representations and how they think about information within a non-real context. These studies also examine how both children and adults can learn from non-real sources, and under what circumstances they will take information presented in stories and pretend games and apply it to real life. Discovering more about how children create and interpret stories can help to shape more effective early childhood curricula and educational media.
Another research interest deals with the nature of children’s abilities to reason scientifically. My two goals in this line of work are to determine what children know about science and to discover ways to bolster their latent scientific reasoning skills. One current project in this line examines children’s beliefs about the scientific process and how this knowledge relates to their capacities for scientific reasoning.
This project also has connects to my work on the development of imagination, since both rely on the capacity to make suppositions and to represent possibilities that may not reflect how things really work. Future projects will use stories to teach scientific concepts, taking advantage of the underlying commonalities between imagination and science in order to start children on the path of scientific literacy.
Public Understanding of Science
I also investigate adults’ knowledge of science and the ways in which a lack of scientific understanding can lead to poor judgments. One major project in this area asks whether adults find certain types of scientific explanations easier to understand or more intuitive than others. My first study of this question used explanations for psychological phenomena as a test case. In this study, people judged explanations of psychological phenomena as more satisfying when these explanations contained neuroscience information, even though this information was entirely irrelevant to the logic of the explanation. Follow-up studies found that the same effect occurs for other special sciences.
A second project on this topic investigates adults’ acceptance of publicly controversial scientific topics, particularly evolutionary theory. Many people resist accepting evolutionary theory as the correct explanation for the origins and diversity of life on Earth, especially in the US. My studies aim to discover what people understand about this theory, the reasons why they fail to accept it, and the connections between (lack of) understanding and (lack of) acceptance.