Sunday, January 27, 2013

Psychology: Science or Not?

Photo: Narayan k28

Is Psychology a Science?

Someone, who shall remain Jersey, recently stated "just Google "psychopathy success," and you'll see what I'm talking about. This is big talk among science geeks like me these days." Which got me, an admitted science geek thinking... is psychology really a science?

Undoubtedly there are aspects of both psychiatry and psychology that are indeed scientific.  There are distinct conditions with objectively measurable criteria by which a determinable diagnosis can be made.  These conditions are usually related to genetics and manifest themselves physically in chemical, hormonal, and physiological measurable ways. On the other hand, there are aspects of both psychology and psychiatry that manifest themselves in ways that are totally subjective. 

Psychology, the New Religion?

Subjective determination of normal and abnormal behavior is based entirely on models that bear a remarkable similarity to, and little scientific difference from other models based on either philosophy or religion.
Clinical psychology can make virtually any claim and offer any kind of therapy, because there is no practical likelihood of refutation – no clear criteria to invalidate a claim. This, in turn, is because human psychology is not a science, it is very largely a belief system similar to religion. Like religion, human psychology has a dark secret at its core – it contains within it a model for correct behavior, although that model is never directly acknowledged. Buried within psychology is a nebulous concept that, if it were to be addressed at all, would be called “normal behavior.”
Tom Widiger, who served as head of research for DSM-IV, says "There are lots of studies which show that clinicians diagnose most of their patients with one particular disorder and really don't systematically assess for other disorders. They have a bias in reference to the disorder that they are especially interested in treating and believe that most of their patients have." And, because of clinical psychology's supposed status as a science, the patients don't typically object to the diagnosis they are given. Indeed, some of them embrace the diagnosis, however implausible, and proceed to exhibit all the symptoms the clinician expects to see 

The Argument Against Psychology as Science

Psychology isn't science.  Why can we definitively say that? Because psychology often does not meet the five basic requirements for a field to be considered scientifically rigorous: clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and, finally, predictability and testability.
Happiness research is a great example of why psychology isn't science. How exactly should "happiness" be defined? The meaning of that word differs from person to person and especially between cultures. What makes Americans happy doesn't necessarily make Chinese people happy. How does one measure happiness? Psychologists can't use a ruler or a microscope, so they invent an arbitrary scale. Today, personally, I'm feeling about a 3.7 out of 5. How about you?

The Argument For Psychology as Science

I saw many great arguments against psychology being  a science and few good arguments for.  Many arguments for psychology as a science were apologetic in nature, excusing quite obvious shortfalls.

The main argument that claims psychology is a science states that it uses scientific methodology as the preferred method of investigation used by psychologists all over the world. Most psychological experiments take place in a laboratory and this has become the most common method for investigation as it allows an experimenter to be in control and predict what will happen for example most behavioral research takes place in a laboratory, for example Pavlov’s experiment with dogs which led to the accepted theory of classical conditioning.

Oxford University Press

As initially stated, this argument goes on to apologize for a lack of concrete objectivity by stating:

In psychology objectivity is considered by some to be not possible and, since this is a fundamental requirement in science this means that any subjective influences, such as experimenter expectations, can interfere with the investigation or distort the results.
It goes on further in a vain attempt to discredit the objectivity of other sciences using Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

Objectivity isn’t possible in any science. For example in physics Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that the simple act of measuring a sub-atomic particle changes the behaviour of that particle. Also Jones and Elcock in 2001 challenged that science is as much a social activity as a mechanical application of correct procedures. Scientist’s everyday lives are influenced by social factors such as promotion and being liked by colleagues and also by the day to day concerns of human beings, this is known as the sociology of scientific knowledge.

Got a Good Argument for Psychology as Science?

By all means, please share it.  I'm a hard science kind of guy inclined to relegate psychology to the realm of the Department of Philosophy while admitting that there are medical conditions that fall within the realm of psychology.  But I'm willing to listen.




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