Concept Discovery in a Scientific Domain


  • Kevin Dunbar

    Corresponding author
    1. McGill University
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    • Kevin Dunbar from the National Sciences and Engineering Council Canada (OGP0037356) and the Spencer Foundation, and also from NICHHD grant R02-HD25211 to David Klahr.

Department of Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 1B1


The scientific reasoning strategies used to discover a new concept in a scientific domain were investigated in two studies. An innovative task in which subjects discover new concepts in molecular biology was used. This task was based upon one set of experiments that Jacob and Monod used to discover how genes are controlled, and for which they were awarded the Nobel prize. In the two studies reported in this article, subjects were taught some basic facts and experimental techniques in molecular biology, using a simulated molecular genetics laboratory on a computer. Following their initial training, they were then asked to discover how genes are controlled by other genes. In Study 1, subjects found no evidence that was consistent with their initial hypothesis. Subjects then set one of two goals for conducting experiments and evaluating data. One goal was to search for evidence consistent with the current hypothesis (and they did not attend to the features of discrepant findings); none of the subjects who only had this goal succeeded at discovering how the genes were controlled. Other subjects in Study 1 used a different goal: Upon noticing evidence inconsistent with their current hypothesis, these subjects set a new goal of attempting to explain the cause of the discrepant findings. Using this goal, a subset of these subjects discovered the correct solution to the problem. Study 2 was conducted to test the hypothesis that subjects' goals of finding evidence consistent with their current hypothesis blocks consideration of alternate hypotheses and generation of new goals, it was predicted that if subjects could achieve their initial goal of discovering evidence consistent with their current hypothesis, they would then attend to particular features of discrepant evidence and solve the problem. To test this prediction, an additional mechanism of genetic control that was consistent with subjects' initial goal was added to the genes. Here, subjects had to discover two mechanisms of control: one mechanism consistent with their current hypothesis, and one inconsistent with their hypothesis. Twice as many subjects reached the correct solution in Study 2 than in Study 1. The findings of the two studies indicate that goals provide a powerful constraint on the cognitive processes underlying scientific reasoning and that the types of goals that are represented determine many of the reasoning errors that subjects make.