The Reification Problem: The Difference Between Naming and Understanding

In “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” Richard Feynman tells this story about things his father did that helped teach him to think like a scientist:

He had taught me to notice things and one day when I was playing with what we call an express wagon, which is a little wagon which has a railing around it for children to play with that they can pull around. It had a ball in it – I remember this – it had a ball in it, and I pulled the wagon and I noticed something about the way the ball moved, so I went to my father and I said, “Say, Pop, I noticed something: When I pull the wagon the ball rolls to the back of the wagon, and when I’m pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon.” and I says, “why is that?” And he said, “That nobody knows,” he said. “The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving and things that are standing still tend to stand still unless you push on them hard.” And he says, “This tendency is called inertia but nobody knows why it’s true.” Now that’s a deep understanding – he doesn’t give me a name, he knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something, which I learnt very early.

Unfortunately, there are many scientists, especially in the social sciences who fail to appreciate the difference between naming something and knowing something. In the social sciences we have lots of names to describe things that we observer – workload, situation awareness, trust, intuitive thinking, analytical thinking, etc. In most of these cases, the words are very good descriptions of the phenomena being observed.

However, it can be problematic when these descriptions are ‘reified’ as explanations (e.g., “the pilot crashed because he lost situation awareness”); or objectified as internal mechanisms (e.g., System 1 and System 2). The words describe phenomenon that are of central concern for applied cognitive psychology and design. They are aspects of human experience that we hope to understand. But they reflect the beginnings of scientific enquiry – not the end! ¬†They are not answers!

Scientists who use these words as explanations fail to appreciates the lessons Feynman’s father taught him at a very early age about “the pleasure of finding things out.”

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