Is Psychology a science? [Part 3]

By | November 26, 2014

I hadn’t intended to make a third post on this topic. But for some reason the issue regarding the definition of science that’s been debated in a LinkedIn discussion continues to generate new opportunities to further develop the point. So what follows is a somewhat reworked version of my concluding post there; there’s not much more I can say.

The point of entry is that there is a special label and significance attached to science in general, and rightly so. Science as a methodology has a lot to commend it; it’s certainly done a lot more to improve the quality of human life than faith ever did (which is just about nothing), and it’s faster and more effective than heuristics. So activities labeled as scientific rightly acquire a priority in the public mind. In certain circles these days, of course, that’s not true, but that’s another issue.

But it’s wrong to insist that ideas generated through application of the scientific method to topics in physics are somehow inherently more “true” than ideas generated through application of the same methods to topics in human behavior. There are multiple schools of thought in physics just as in psychology. For example, the nature or even the existence of dark matter is hardly a settled issue, let alone something that’s “true”. Ought only physicists be allowed to explore the issue? If so, just what level of training is required to join that club? Could an undergraduate physics student be allowed, or does he have to have a PhD first? From just any university, or must it be Harvard?

Clearly, I’m pushing this issue toward absurdity, but that’s what it is. Science is, as I’ve always said, a process, not a body of content; science is a verb as well as a noun.  There is good science done by good physicists, and occasional bad science done by good physicists. There is bad science done by bad physicists, and occasional good science done by bad physicists. There are propositions made by physicists that hold up under scrutiny long enough to be accepted as axioms for the development of further science, and those that don’t. But the moment that physics stops being open to further development and insists that a particular proposition is “true”, it stops being science and turns into faith. And this entire description is equally true for psychology.

It’s the application of scientific methods to human problems that society applauds, and ought to applaud. It’s the expansion of human understanding and predictability that the application of scientific methods provides that’s valuable to society, and this exists in the exploration of human behavior just as in the study of the cosmos. You seem to believe that scientists form some sort of priesthood that uniquely privileges them to generate “true” statements, and moreover that “true” statements can only be generated in some areas of inquiry and not others. But the essence of science is and always has been the understanding that what we “know” is always subject to further exploration and even radical change. New models are always being generated and investigated, and old models rejected or modified. That’s why science as an activity is good, and fun.

Of course there are always people who will cloak themselves in the mantle of science, using parts of its language for their advantage. That doesn’t make them scientists or uniquely privilege their assertions. If one explores their assertions using real scientific methods, they are easily debunked. That’s what ought to happen, although far too often it doesn’t, because far too few people really understand that science is a method that everyone can and ought to be able to apply. Instead, they’ve been taught to believe that “real science” is a separate domain entered only by people with advanced degrees after their names. Thus, they come to grant privilege to people with those degrees, rather than investigating their claims.

This is the source of the acceptance on faith of pronouncements not founded on scientific methods just because they’re pronounced by privileged individuals. It’s how the propositions were generated that ought to confer privilege, not who utters them. People don’t understand this, and scientific education is deplorably lacking. But this situation will never be improved by insisting that only a few things can be investigated scientifically.

In particular, the standing of physics in the mind of the public will never be improved by insisting that other areas of inquiry like psychology are inherently less able to generate useful and testable propositions or to be unable to apply scientific methods. All you will do is to undermine the public’s understanding of the importance of scientific methods generally. Real science does deserve some public privilege. But it’s the activity that deserves the privilege, not the domain of inquiry. It’s simply false that physics generates “true” statements and other domains do not. All phenomena are appropriate targets of inquiry, and all statements about them remain open to reconsideration.

Of course some areas of inquiry converge toward consensus faster than others, but consensus does not generate truth. For 300 years the consensus in physics was the existence of a luminiferous ether that pervaded all things and carried light. Toward the end of the 19th century new research called that concept back into question, and a new model called “relativity” replaced that consensus (although not without a lot of wrangling). But relativity itself is just a model, and idea – it’s hardly “true” in some special sense. There are currently lines of investigation in physics that are based on differences from the general understanding of relativity. They may not pan out, or they may generate the faster-than-light drive that we have to have if humanity is going to last much more than another million years or so. Ought we not to conduct such scientific experiments just because we have the relativity model that doesn’t allow for FTL?

My point has always been that science is a method and a process, not a body of content. The debate has at least converged on the idea that propositions generated by science ought to be socially privileged over propositions generated by the other epistemologies, faith and heuristics in particular. But the cause of science is not served by summary rejection of any propositions made scientifically just because they are made in one domain of inquiry rather than another. Science has a hard enough time establishing its credibility without some scientists insisting on the priority of their propositions about the universe over those made about other domains of inquiry.


Soon after finishing this post, I came across another previous post that says much the same thing, but perhaps clearer and more eloquently. Let’s hear it for

“Don’t panic but psychology isn’t always a science”