“If you just let yourself be wrong and accept that you’re wrong, that’s discovery, right?…That’s how science moves forward.”


An interview with David Barner, PhD
Professor of Psychology & Linguistics, University of California, San Diego

By: Michelle Johnson, October 26, 2018

What drew you to the area you’re working in now?

When I went to junior high, I had a really good friend: we were living in a small military town, 10,000 people, and there was this one guy who played guitar, was really intellectual, kind of an outcast, and so I quickly became friends with him. He was reading Nietzsche in grade 10, and I was like, who is this guy? He ended up going to college, we became roommates, and he was studying linguistics while I was studying psychology. I ended up becoming interested in the link between cognition and language, just through our conversations. We ended up co-authoring our first papers together and are still really good friends and collaborators to this day.

Can you give a real-world example that touches on some of your research?

A lot of the work that I do is related to how kids learn mathematics, and we look at different stages of development in different countries. We do work in the US but also in India, China, Japan, Europe, and we look at different cultural practices for teaching mathematics, but also how the way that different languages talk about numbers affects how kids learn. One of the things we’re interested in is how these differences between languages makes it easier or harder for kids to learn addition and multiplication and so on.

There are also weird things that kids learn—in some cultures there are these crazes, like kids are learning how to do “mental abacus.” It’s like using these old, ancient calculators that you might see in Chinatown, for example, but using them to do math at lightning-speed by visualizing the abacus and then moving the beads around in your mind. There are international competitions that do this and we’ve done a bunch of work on what’s going on: how are these kids doing this, what are they visualizing, how is that possible?

What have your experiences been like with interdisciplinary collaborations?

Most of collaboration is about trying to learn techniques that you don’t know or accessing methods or populations that you can’t otherwise work on yourself. One example is when we’ve done work in India: we showed up there interested in mathematics for a variety of reasons, but we ended up creating collaborations with social psychologists because when you go to India, the most obviously interesting thing isn’t how they do math, it’s the fact that there are Hindu and Muslim people living together side by side. There’s a history of conflict between these groups, there are caste systems on the Hindu side that are less important than they were in the past but they still structure society and structure people’s beliefs about each other. So, we collaborated with social psychologists to figure out how the caste system works. That’s my ideal case where you are working on one thing, and then you lift your head up from what you’re doing and you notice that there’s all this other stuff going on.

What have you found surprising as a scientist?

I think the most interesting thing about being a scientist is if you do it right, you can be surprised. If you design a study, propose a hypothesis, you’re careful to articulate what the null hypothesis is, and then you conduct the study in an unbiased way, you can be wrong. And if you just let yourself be wrong and accept that you’re wrong, that’s discovery, right? That’s when your expectations and what most people around you think likely should be true turns out to be false. That’s how science moves forward.

What is the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given you?

My favorite quote from Anthony Bourdain, the famous chef, is just “Show up, and show up on time.” That’s like 90% of it. That’s a general piece of advice I give to students and faculty. I’ve seen people not get tenure probably because they’re 10 minutes late for everything. What my military father drilled into me for my entire childhood is right: you’ve got to show up, and you have to show up on time.

To learn more about Dr. David Barner’s lab and research, click here.

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