Is Psychology a Science?

‘Science’ as defined by the Science Council in 2009 is,

the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.’

This definition embraces a diverse range of subject matter including thermodynamics, ecology, cognitive psychology and biochemistry. Psychology sits within the domain of social science researching patterns in the social world and therefore, on the face of it seems to fit squarely within the above definition.

1024px-The_Scientific_Universe.png

The Science Council’s definition of, following asystematic methodology’ based upon evidence,  is inextricably linked with the scientific method, primarily laboratory experimentation.

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‘Scientific methodology’ needs to be objective and therefore;

  • Replicable –research results needs to be testable and therefore, reliable usually obtained through a set of highly standardised controls. Read an article on how this affects recent psychological research.
  • Falsifiable  -a Hypothesis/Theory must be able to be proven as false.  Although falsifiability can suffer from the Raven Paradox.
  • Precise – Accomplished through explicit operationalisation, this can be measured quantifiably,  for example, by the spread of data around the mean.
  • Parsimonious (also known as Ockham’s Razor) -the simplest explanation is usually the right one’.

The ‘Yes’ Argument

Psychology has certainly exhibited many examples from decades of research a significant body of evidence utilising the scientific process, Physiological Psychology, Developmental and Behaviourism all have peer reviewed journals with over 100 years of history.

Some examples of the application of psychological research;

  1. Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behaviour. It is both a thriving academic discipline and a vital professional practice.
  2. British psychological research was fundamental in challenging the view that autism resulted from poor parenting and has given us clearer understanding of autism and led to more appropriate care and support systems (Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith, 1985).
  3. A British psychologist, C.S. Myers, introduced the term ‘shell-shock’ during World War One. This condition is now widely known as post-traumatic stress disorder (Myers, 1915).
  4. British psychological research has contributed to our understanding of how to encourage people to participate in recycling schemes (Nigbur, Uzzell, Lyons & Muckle, 2005).
  5. Many manufacturers of children’s buggies and pushchairs are now selling more rear-facing designs following psychological research showing the importance parent-child communication helps in relieving infant stress (Zeedyk, 2008).
  6. Research by British psychologists on aircraft cockpit design has led to a reduction in air accidents (Craik, 1940).
  7. The design of British coins was based upon psychological research into which shapes are easiest for blind people to identify (Bruce et al., 1983; Bruce & Hellawell, 1988).
  8. Psychological research on interviewing has led to the use of video recordings of child witnesses in court (Davies et al., 1995).
  9. Psychological research on the accuracy of eye witness testimony has led to changes in the way evidence is obtained and used (Gudjonsson, 2003; Holliday et al., 2008; Loftus, 2005)
  10. Psychological research on how to communicate information the benefits and side effects of medicines to patients has led to significant changes in the wording on their packaging (Berry, 2006; Berry et al., 2002, 2003, 2006).

Source; The British Psychological Society

The ‘No’ Argument

Kuhn argued without an agreed set of assumptions or framework  (a unified paradigm) even with a scientific methodology, a subject, such as psychology, can only be defined as a prescience.   It is thought eventually, one set of assumptions e.g Physiological Psychology dominates and unifies the subject evolving into ‘normal science’.

KuhnCycle_BasicCycle

However, Sigmund Koch commented;

The 19th-century belief that psychology can be an integral discipline, which led to its institutionalisation as an independent science, has been disconfirmed on every day of the 112 years since its presumptive founding. When the details of that history are attended to, the patent tendency has been toward theoretical and substantial fractionation (and increasing insularity among the “specialities”), not toward integration. Moreover, there are many principled considerations that underline the futility of seeking theoretical, conceptual or even paradigmatic unification. Sigmund Koch (1993, p. 902)

An article from the Guardian discussed the problems with psychological research as a whole that contributed to the labelling of psychology as a stagnating, non-scientific discipline.

Psychology as a Pseudoscience?

Pseudoscience, making scientific causal claims but not using a systematic methodology, sometimes can be difficult to distinguish.  Well known pseudoscientific claims include, ancient astronauts,  numerology, polygraphy, psychoanalysis, homoeopathy, and noetics.  Psychology has in its history elements of pseudoscience, Psychoanalysis being the most prevalent. It doesn’t help that the one person most associated  with Psychology also has received the greatest criticism from all sides, as being unfalsifiable, subjective and non-scientific as Sigmund Freud. 

So what’s the, or more accurately ‘an’, answer……

Psychology has in its relatively short history contained elements of a highly scientific methodology but without a shared paradigm and is still viewed by the physical sciences very much as pseudoscience, however, this is arguably largely based upon a misunderstanding of the breadth of psychological theory.  There is certainly some research in the field that qualifies as science, however, this gets easily lost by the myriad of research that falls under the remit of bad science/pseudoscience.  Psychology has many problems to overcome if it wants to be viewed as a ‘hard science’.  The biggest is probably the lack of a unified paradigm as the different perspectives and approaches in psychology seem to becoming more polarised rather than merging towards a common set of assumptions.  Many of the approaches also still use methodologies that leave themselves open to overt criticism.

However, arguably Psychology’s greatest weakness is also it’s greatest strength.  A holistic view, whilst fundamentally unscientific, offers a fuller range of explanations and ways of describing the human experience beyond the objective, irrespective  of its lack of replicability. Until science has the tools to measure the range of micro to macro experiences, psychology will invariably fall short of the defining qualities of science. Psychology is barely into its second century of study and is certainly showing a lack of maturity compared to the ‘hard sciences‘.  However, even in these embryonic stages, it is an exciting developing discipline which has much to offer the wider community even it if does suffer from ‘physics envy‘. Asking if Psychology is a science? is and will continue to be a matter of debate and some may argue it is even the wrong question.

However, in the words of Emeritus Professor Philip Zimbardo;

Does psychology matter? Can psychological research, theory, methods, and practice make a significant difference in the lives of individuals, communities, and nations? Do we psychologists have a legacy of which we can be proud? Can we do more and better research that has significant applicable effects in the real world? Are we ready now “to give psychology away to the public” in useful, accessible ways? And finally, can we learn how better to collaborate with the media, with technology experts, with community leaders, and with other medical and behavioural scientists for psychology to make an even more significant difference in the coming decade? My final answer is simply YES, YES indeed! May the positive forces of psychology be with you, and with our society.

Further reading. 

 

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