Is psychology a science? (“That’s all very well and good but does it work outside the lab?”: Part two)

by endlesspsych

People do seem to be very fond of displaying their intellectual credentials by retaining and displaying a sceptical attitude about science. Now for the most part this is probably a helpful attitude to have with one fairly major proviso:- You really, really should, if levelling a criticism at science, level it with an understanding of what science is and how it works. Otherwise your criticism, in my opinion, is worthless because all it shows is that you don’t understand how science and the scientific method work.

People are also very fond of deciding psychology isn’t a science. Which is a view I disagree with. I believe that psychology satisfies the criteria to be considered a scientific endeavour or a young science. Philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 critique implied psychology overall was in a pre-paradigm state, lacking the agreement on overarching theory found in mature sciences such as chemistry and physics. Other common criticisms point to the use of survey methods and other forms of self report (particularly concerning emotion, personality and thinking). However I’d point out that there isn’t a confirmed unified theory of physics and that whats actually important, in considering where something is a science or not, is to follow the scientific method. Psychology is an eclectic discipline and contains many schools – it could also be thought of as a kind of bridge between the social sciences, philosophy and neuroscience and other more lab coat friendly disciplines. There are also issues about the interpretation of statistical results derived from psychological experiments and studies. The accusation being that statistical significance is often mistaken for substantive significance. However steps are being taken to address this with a focus in psychology now on effect sizes as opposed to just significance.  It’s also worth noting that the process by which Cochran reviews are conducted (systematic meta-analytic reviews) was conceived by psychologists trying to prove whether or not psycho dynamic therapies worked…

To my mind the following, recycled from an older piece on another blog, describes the basic criteria for something to be considered a science and I consider psychology to fit that criteria. It is written in the form of a sort of guide to criticising scientific research but the main points are there to be dug out.

Firstly the research must be measuring something. This is where operational definitions come in. What is being studied must be clearly defined you wouldn’t for instance get away with studying “anger” you’d have to set out what anger was with an operational definition. Then you would have to design a measure that is logically related to your operational definition.

Secondly the research findings must be replicable. Different scientists must be able to replicate the findings and thus validate the results. A good example of this is the Milgram experiment on obedience which has been replicated many, many times in different social settings, countries and so on and so forth with the results largely holding true.

Thirdly the research findings must be falsifiable. That is the experiment, survey or what have you must be designed in such a way that someone could come along and prove it false. A good example of this would be the stable state theory in physics which was popular until a certain Stephen Hawking came along with the big bang theory.

Its important to remember science is not essentialist. Its not hear to answer the big “why?” questions like “why are we here?” and such. It’s operationalist and as such links concepts to actual events.

Its also important to realise that you can’t really criticise science on the basis that it runs counter to common sense. Common sense has been proved wrong in many, many ways.

Now its good, in a way, that people question scientists and their interpretations of results. Or rather it would be if people realised the results we get to hear about, that get published in reputable journals have already been under the scrutiny of the peer review process. Now I don’t claim this process is perfect but it doesn’t have to be because I guarantee if someone, anyone within the scientific community published findings that seemed “wrong” or biased in any way shape or form its likely a large number of papers refuting the findings would soon appear. There is a fine line however between questioning scientific results and dismissing them under the guise of scepticism. The Scientific method and community works in such a way that findings are bigger then any one scientist or any one opinion. For that reason more then any other if you wish to say “As for “established results, statistics and figures,” what I question is their interpretation, not only by scientists with agendas other than scientific truth, but by the media that report them.” realise this

A:) Very rarely happens in proper science. (Almost never)
B:) Generally if it does happen the scientific community is quick to act on the debunking front
C:) The Media and people at large (even scientists in other fields) are quick to mistake pseudo-science for science.

I do suspect people mistrust science because they don’t understand how the scientific method and scientific community work at large. Probably the medias “anything goes” approach to science is to blame after all despite testimonials and eye witness testimony being generally worth the grand total of sweet fuck all in the grand scheme of things newpaper science correspondents seem to lap that sort of stuff up.

To return to the issue psychology and it’s nature as regards science…

Science for science sakes, the furthering of human knowledge.

No science is flawless and no science produces absolute fact theories can always be disproved.

Yes elements of psychology are subjective and that’s not always desire able. Yes there are issues in sampling – as psychology experiments are generally volunteer based they instantly exclude anyone who doesn’t want to give consent to be in a psychology experiment – but it would be highly unethical in any science to observe and make inferences about people without their prior knowledge and consent.

Psychological therapy is imperfect as is our full understanding of human cognitive factor. Our knowledge of neural networks is highly limited and concepts of consciousness could be said to be in their infancy.

However our research methods for the most part are scientifically rigorous – to you this is my opinion to me it is fact I suppose we will have to agree to disagree on this one- Some of our research may be psychology for psychology’s sake but its fair to say that our research has more bearing on real everyday human life than pure mathematics has or for that matter theoretical physics – If they are not, at least at this point in time science for science sake then what are they? I can’t see any direct physical uses of their findings and theories. If we only research what we believe to be of use now we deprive ourselves of so much. Much like the Romans chopping the heads off Pythagoras and thereby losing the knowledge that would eventually lead to the ability to calculate the volume of a cylinder.

Attacking psychology and its research methods with valid – reasoned arguments would be fine (perhaps this statement is massively unfair coming from me given some of the ways I have attempted to present my arguements in these many discussions…) but falling back on black and white absolutes – merely stating something and someone is wrong is unfair to those amoungst us who are willing to accept methods that may seem scientifically unsound to yourself but are constructed as rigourously and in some cases as objectivly as possible.

I also suspect that most peoples problem with psychology in particular comes from the long shadow cast by psychoanalysis and Freud. Who to many will be the epitomy of psychologist. Except he never was a psychologist he was a medic who became a psychoanalyst. Psychodynamic theory has long be disproved and psychology has moved on considerably. Why can’t some of it’s critics?