Sunday, 31 March 2013

Psychology and the Science debate: A reply to Alex Berezow

The question as to whether psychology is a science is something of a cliché.  It is asked as though one is expected to obtain brownie points by just mentioning it, used to re-enforce one's opinion about what and how science should operate, and at times is used as an example to justify one's own profession.  It is hence evoked with little to no thought about the 'nature' of psychology and takes for granted how science operates.

When people speak about something not being 'scientific', they tend to look down on the subject and disregard it as if it has fallen from the grace of truth and correctness.  Indeed, the term science itself is also taken for granted as it is blindly absorbed into 'everyday speak' to the extent that when someone hears something being 'scientifically proven', they automatically assume its superiority over and above things that are deemed unscientific, when in reality science doesn't really prove anything at all.

Personally, I don't believe it is of any benefit (other than perhaps the need to vent one's agression) to treat psychology like a 'tug-of-war between being a science or not because in almost all cases people - scientists included - summon the term rather blindly.  Those (scientists) that are familiar with the role that science plays in their own field loosely take it and try to fit it in, or apply it, to psychology without giving any consideration or thought about the complex subject matter psychology is actually dealing with.  The primary sin they are committing is to pass judgement from something they know to something they don't.

Alex Berezow, who holds a microbiology doctorate, is, I believe, one such person.  In his reply to psychologist Timothy Wilson's resentment at being dismissed as a scientist at a university meeting one day, Berezow claims that such a dismissive attitude scientists have toward psychologists isn't rooted in snobbery [As Wilson claims], but is rooted in intellectual frustration.  Berezow then cements his position by proclaiming that psychologists fail to acknowledge that they don't have the same claim on secular truth that the hard sciences do, and then goes on to sympathise with the tired exasperation that scientists feel when non-scientists try to pretend they are scientists.  Berezow then asserts provokingly: [T]hat's right.  Psychology isn't science. 

Perhaps he is right.  But I do not care whether psychology is to be regarded a science or not.  What I do care about and oppose is the attitude levelled against psychology when it is disregarded by those like Berezow - the so called holders of secular truth - when they feel that it doesn't fit in with their own view of things.  

Given Berezow's academic credentials - a doctorate degree - I find it quite striking that he has taken the time to publish his article in the Los Angeles Times, given his lack of psychological knowledge and somewhat unsympathetic view to its method of investigating psychological 'data'.  But whether he holds a doctorate or not, to come from a different profession and attack another without qualification is like searching for a hated Youtube channel and leaving a nasty comment before logging off.  Incase Berezow hasn't noticed: Psychology is not a chemistry a physics or a biology.   It is no geology and certainly no astronomy.  Psychology is very different in that its subject matter is concerned with human behaviour and, indeed at bottom, the mind.  This is perhaps the most important point and one that seems to have slipped Berezow's mind completely.

The problem thus facing psychology is not the discipline itself, but its subject matter.  Berezow perhaps takes for granted the fact that when he goes to the lab and observes cells and other biological entities down a microscope, he is directly observing the intricacies of nature.  How great is that! Psychologists on the other hand, despite the technological advancements over the years, are inherently stumped in making any such observation other than inferring from behaviour.  Indeed behaviour itself is troublesome because people might not always behave in definite and predictable ways; indeed they can be very impulsive.  This isn't a problem with whether psychology is scientific or not, but a problem inherently bound up when one tries to explain and/or examine human behaviour either by a 'scientific' method or not.  I do not want to give the impression that psychology has not been able to predict human behaviour because it has.  Studies in social psychology, for example bystander behaviour, has demonstrated that patterns in human behaviour do exist.

Under such circumstances, it could well be argued that psychology is an even harder subject than the likes of biology in that its data is less objectively driven.  It is far easier to observe test and reproduce experiments to check for patterns in biology because there is no complex human mind operating behind the data.  Should Berezow ever feel tempted to dip into conducting a psychological study, then I'm sure he would appreciate the difficulties facing it.

In saying all this Berezow has 5 reasons why psychology isn't a science.  These are listed below
  • clearly defined terminology
  • quantifiability
  • highly controlled experimental conditions
  • Reproducibility
  • predictability and testability.

Now, I am not going to go through them all because as much as they do pose problems for psychology, I don't think any psychologist would seriously disregard their field as a science because of them. Yet in saying that I think there are studies out there demonstrating that psychology can incorporate these criteria to a certain extent anyway.

To support his claim, Berezow provides us with the example of happiness as being a great example of why psychology isn't a science.  Happiness cannot be defined because it differs from person to person and especially across cultures, and cannot be quantified because psychologists cannot use a rule or a microscope, so they invent an arbitrary scale. 

The great thing about Berezow's chosen example is that it shows how out of touch he is with what psychological research is all about.  Should he had read a little before hastily sending his article for publication, he would have seen little to nothing on studies on 'happiness', and more about cognition such as memory and intelligence research e.t.c.  How on earth are we supposed to take happiness as a prime example in refuting the entire subject of psychology when it bears no resemblance at all to what psychological research is all about?  Indeed, a part of me is crying out: 'is this guy serious?!'

But let us take his chosen example anyway.  Even though happiness might vary across cultures and that one cannot objectify happiness in-itself (whatever that might mean), but instead see it's effects - such as smiling or laughing - doesn't that allow us to infer that the person in question might be feeling, well, happy?  Indeed, perhaps the definition of being happy is in the word itself.  But I think this notion of inferring effect from cause is crucial to science across a range of subjects.  Take the electron or a black hole as a prime example.  Are they clearly defined?  And if so how clear is clear?  Niether electron(s) or black holes have ever been observed, but rather they're existence is inferred from the effects they make - cathode rays and the bending of light for example.  The same is true of happiness, we presume people are happy from some sort of effect.

Scales are common in measuring psychological data.  But if they are so detrimental to 'science', what other alternatives are there for psychology? Should psychology not bother at all, is that what Berezow is suggesting?  The mistake he is making yet again is to take something concrete from the physical sciences and apply it to psychology.  That is like trying to compare chalk and cheese.  All scales are in some way arbitrary.  Take the thermometer as an example.  A thermometer is just a tool used to extend our experience of the world.  Whether one records a temperature of 25 or 25.4 degrees, I don't think many people would really care.  But we associate a rise or fall in temperature with the rise and fall of 'numbers' - that in itself is completely arbitrary even though it might help give us a perspective of things.  Again the same is true in psychology.

Because Psychology fails to meet clearly defined terminology and quantifiability, Berezow claims that this makes it almost impossible for happiness research to meet the other three criteria.  

I don't think this is necessarily true.  I think it is possible to produce controlled experiments, reproduce, test and make predictions in terms of happiness research; but the real question is to what degree.  Remember, we are dealing with humans here.   So what is going to be happy for one person will differ to another for a whole heap of reasons - mood, life-style quality e.t.c.  But that shouldn't put us off being able to examine it in some sort of methodological way.  Indeed, there is no other way.

There is no reason for Berezow to be intellectually frustrated.  The label 'scientist' isn't reserved for people in particular.  It doesn't belong to anyone, nor should he feel that it is something only a minority of people can have access to if they study the right subjects.  In my view historians can be scientific in their own way just as biologists are in theirs.  But to claim that the so called hard sciences have unequivocal access to secular truth is disrespecting other researchers in other fields, and that calling psychologists pretend scientists is nothing less than ignorance.

© 2011 Roberto Nacci All Rights Reserved  

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