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Can Psychology Ever Become A Science?
A student's inquiry.

Copyright © 2009, Paul LutusMessage Page

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  I read your fascinating and thought provoking article on psychology as a pseudo-science. I agree with your assessment, especially in regards to clinical psychology but also with studies like Zimbardo's Prison Experiment, which conveniently is not replicable. Simply using scientific tools does not make science! Yes, but particularly when the "scientist" responsible for the study is able to say things like, "Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph?" Obviously "evil" is a relative, emotionally laden term, subjectively defined, and has no place in the thinking of a scientist (except when considering issues of ethics). When one reads Zimbardo's writing, one is reminded of the language of comic books and old-time Saturday afternoon matinees. I am, however, struggling with the implications (partly, because viewing psychology as a pseudo-science in its entirety is a fairly new idea to me). It seems to me that psychology does look at some things that are worth studying. It is more accurate to say that psychology would like to examine such things in a scientifically rigorous way, but doesn't know how — as proven by Zimbardo's experiments and those of others. There seems to be something beyond firing neurons that influences our human behavior - call it the ability to ask "why," as Daniel Dennett puts it. But the act of asking "why" is also the firing of neurons. This raises two issues. One, we are hoping to do science on ourselves — sort of like trying to turn a microscope on itself — and two, we can't ethically perform the kinds of studies that would shed light on the subject of our investigation. There doesn't seem to be a way to circumvent these obstacles. At its best, psychology attempts to study this, presumably that was Zimbardo's goal for example. I actually think Zimbardo's goal was to become a modern-day Stanley Milgram. It isn't as though Zimbardo was exploring territory not already visited by others. However, based on your points, it seems to me almost impossible to study this scientifically. So, does this mean that we have to give up trying to understand what makes us tick beyond the mechanical? No, it means we have to understand and accept the limitations of any ethical study of human beings — we have to stop pretending to be able to step outside ourselves. For example, I can accurately say, "People like owning cell phones," but I cannot accurately say why (in any scientific sense). This makes psychology a "descriptive science" — it can describe, but it can't explain.

(Scientists, not unlike teenagers, have a private language among themselves. For a scientist, the expression "descriptive science" is a euphemism — it means it isn't science, it's accounting.)
Or put differently: Can psychology ever become a science? At the moment that is an open question. At the moment there are powerful forces aligned against that goal — the drug industry and clinical psychologists, among others. I think in part, psychology should not become a science since it is studying a "psyche," which is just a continuation of "soul." Since you have now used the term "soul," I am beginning to see the distance yet to be covered in your personal journey toward science. Scientists try to avoid referring to things for which there is no evidence and no realistic prospect for obtaining evidence. This is why neurophysiologists will say "brain" but try to avoid saying "mind" — the brain is an organ, but the mind is a metaphysical abstraction.

This is not to paint science as a soulless enterprise, but it means scientists understand which parts of the human experience are open to scientific investigation and which are not. Another way to say this is that scientists can produce all sorts of useful results, but only by temporarily abandoning any conception of "soul" as a meaningful topic of discussion.
But, again, there seems to be something in human behavior that influences us, which seems to be worthwhile studying even if it cannot be done to the highest scientific standards. This suggests that we can divide science into parts, like flavors in an ice cream store. But in the science store, there's only one flavor.

Some people think of science as a mountain — if you climb halfway up but then turn around, it's still an achievement. But this is a mistake. Nobel Prizewinner Richard Feynman perfectly described this way of thinking in his essay "Cargo Cult Science". In his essay, Feynman compares pseudoscientists to the South Sea islanders who enjoyed the material goods brought to their shores by American airplanes during World War II. At the end of the war the airplanes left, and the islanders desperately tried to recreate the cargo experience — they built make-believe airplanes and control towers out of local materials, hoping somehow to produce real cargo with imitation airplanes and imitation runways.

According to Feynman, in the same way pseudoscientists hope to produce the benefits and status of science by going through the motions of science — laboratories, experiments, publications — but without any commitment to science's actual requirements.

If science consisted only of laboratories, research subjects, experiments, statistical analyses and publication, then psychology would be a science. But this leaves out the heart of science — shaping theories about the evidence, conducting research that addresses existing theories, and allowing new research findings to falsify prevailing theories. In contemporary psychology, these elements are simply not present.

There is one more property that would be required for psychology to be regarded as a science, and that is theoretical unification — the same unification present in physics, chemistry, biology and every other scientific field.

For a biologist, evolution is the central, unifying theory, and all research in biology addresses evolutionary theory in a direct or indirect way. If an experiment were to falsify any aspect of evolution, every practicing biologist would sit up and take notice.

For a chemist, atomic structure is the central, unifying theory, and all work in chemistry addresses this theory in a direct or indirect way. If an experimental result contradicted our present understanding of atomic structure in a large or small way, it would revolutionize every aspect of chemistry.

For a physicist, a surprisingly small set of theories governs the entire enterprise, and every aspect of physical research and practice addresses those theories. If present physical theory were to be contradicted in experiment, the consequences would be profound and would influence virtually all scientific and engineering disciplines.

All these fields (and many not listed) are unified by theories that define them, and all scientific work addresses those theories directly or indirectly. Any scientist's research findings have the potential to falsify the theories that define her field. This is the most basic principle of science, and the history of science is a record of periodic revolutions brought on by the experimental falsification of prior theory.

But this is not how psychology works — theories are rarely addressed and never falsified. One recent correspondent pointed out that there are 53 separate specialties of psychology, and on investigation I saw that this was so. I also noticed that those 53 specialties have virtually no theoretical links, and consequently no way for them to influence each other — they might as well not have the same name.
I cringe as I write this because that is exactly the problem with psychology now! No, actually, the problem with psychology is that it can't decide whether it wants to be a science or a business. As long as there are commercial practitioners of psychology who insist that psychology is already scientific and who resist any moves toward scientific discipline (and they are legion), it will be difficult to accept the fact that psychology is presently a collection of unrelated pseudo-scientific fields, all huddled under the same umbrella in a violent rainstorm. Maybe we need to come up with standards that are as close to science as possible, given the ethical issues that might make it impossible to have true scientific experiments, for example. Am I missing something here? If so what? You are missing the point that approaching a microscope doesn't make one into a scientist any more than approaching a water buffalo makes one into a lion.

You are also missing the point that it doesn't matter how strongly people would like psychology to be scientific, or how useful that would be. The fact that something ought to be so has no bearing on whether it is actually so — indeed, that's a logical error I call the "moral fallacy". Because science must be conducted with perfect objectivity and dispassion, what we would like to be true cannot play any part. This is the single most common error with respect to science — our passions, what we believe is "right" and "just," can have no bearing on the outcome. Giving in to things we wish were true is a fatal mistake.

This is why science and politics don't get along. In politics, you can explain away any problem in a smoke-filled back room, far from the cameras and microphones. But in science, everything must be out in the open, published with shocking candor by people trained to acknowledge the weaknesses in their own work. This talk of politics may seem like a digression, but present-day psychology is much closer to politics than it is to science, for the reason that it became a business before it had any chance to be guided by evidence. This greatly complicates any move toward reform.

About 100 years ago, by emphasizing science and evidence, we successfully overhauled mainstream medicine. When the snake-oil salesmen complained that scientific standards would ruin their business, the medical reformers replied, "Your clients are dying." Public safety decided the issue and in due time, medicine became respectable. In psychology such a reform has yet to begin, even though, just as with the snake oil salesmen, the clients are dying.


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