Uh Oh! Babies May Be Smarter Than We Think

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Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy visited The Brian Lehrer Show today to talk about her new book The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. She spoke with guest host Mike Pesca.

Listen to the whole interview:

Here's an excerpt from their conversation:

Mike Pesca: What’s interesting or significant about “uh oh”?

Alison Gopnik: It turns out that “uh oh” is one of the very first things that young children say which is sort of surprising. When you actually look carefully at how they use it, which is what I did when I was in graduate school, it turns out that they’re actually using 'uh oh' to talk about the fact that they’re trying to do something, that they have vision of the world and it's not working out. That’s a very abstract thing for very young babies to be talking about.

Pesca: Maybe it’s overstating it, but your premise is that babies are not only smarter than we thought they were, they may in some ways be smarter than we are. What do you think of that?

Gopnik: Babies and young children are really designed for learning. One of the puzzles about human beings is, why do we have this long period of childhood at all? Why are we immature for so long and dependent on our parents for so long?

One of the ideas that has come out of both evolution and psychology is that we have that protected period so that we can learn all the things that we need to learn before we actually have to put them into action. From that perspective, it makes sense that babies and young children would be the best learning machines in the universe. Then when you actually look at what they can do, especially work we’ve done in the last 10 years, it turns out that they can recognize statistics they can use probabilistic logic, they can do things that the best machine learning programs and scientists can do.

Pesca: Obvious question is, how do you know they can learn statistics? Maybe it's best to talk about the ping pong ball experiment you set up.

Gopnik: This was actually an experiment that my colleague Fei Xu set up. What she did was show babies a box full of mixed up ping pong balls, 80% of them white 20% of them red. Then she showed babies an experiment, either taking all white balls out of the box or all red balls out of the box.

If you’ve got a mixed-up box, both of those sequences are possible, but it's much more probable statistically that you’ll pick out all white balls for an 80% white box and all red balls. In fact, the babies were very surprised. They looked much longer when they saw the experimenter picking out the red balls from the mostly white box. That means that they must have been sensitive to this pretty abstract statistical fact about the sample that you can take from a population.



A short piece from BookVideosTV about Gopnik's new book The Philosophical Baby

A discussion about "children and freewill" from Bloggingheads