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

Every so often, the ‘is psychology a science?’ debate sparks up again, at which point, I start to weep. It’s one of the most misplaced, misfiring scientific discussions you can have and probably not for the reasons you think.

To understand why it keeps coming around you need to understand something about the politics of studying things.

Science has higher status in academia and industry than the humanities so suggesting to a practitioner that “they’re not a scientist” can be the equivalent of suggesting “you’re not as valuable as you make out”.

This plays in out in two ways: less scientific disciplines get less funding and people start being knobs at parties. The second is clearly more serious.

Probably every psychologist has had the experience of someone coming up to them and drunkenly suggesting that psychology is ‘all made up’. Psychiatrists get the same sort of crap but in the ‘you’re not a real doctor’ vein from other medics.

This makes people who work in psychological disciplines a bit insecure, so they’ll swear blind that ‘psychology is a science’.

Psychology, however, is not a science. It’s a subject area. And you can either study it scientifically or non-scientifically.

I’m going to leave aside the debate of what defines science, which has been better covered elsewhere. No, there isn’t a strict definition of science, but the “you know it when you see it” approach is sufficient if we want to see if something can be widely considered scientific.

I’m also going to leave aside the debate about whether you can study mind and behaviour scientifically. It’s clear that you can, even if some areas are harder to measure than others. This is what is usually meant by the “is psychology a science?” debate. I consider this to be a settled issue but it is also where the debate usually misfires.

In other words, psychology can be a science, but it isn’t only a science.

There are many folks who do legitimate psychology research who are not doing science. It’s not that they think they are but really aren’t (pseudoscience) or that they’re doing it so poorly it barely merits the name (bad science). It’s that they don’t want to do science in the first place.

Instead, they are doing qualitative research, where they intend to uncover patterns in people’s subjective impressions without imposing their own structure onto it.

Let me give you an example.

Perhaps I want to find out what leads victims of serious domestic violence to drop a prosecution despite the abuser already being safely in jail, pending trial.

I could come up with a list of motivations I think might be plausible and then find a way of testing whether they are present, but essentially, no matter how rigorous my methods, the study still depends on what I think is plausible to begin with.

This could be a problem because I may not know a whole lot about the area. Or worse, I may think I do, but might largely be basing my assumptions on prejudice and what passes for ‘common sense’.

Qualitative methods get at how people understand the situation from their own perspective and it looks at common themes across what they say.

In this case, the study by Amy Bonomi and colleagues applied a kind of qualitative analysis called grounded theory to transcripts of jailhouse phone calls between victims of domestic violence and the abusers.

Here’s what they found:

…a victim’s recantation intention was foremost influenced by the perpetrator’s appeals to the victim’s sympathy through descriptions of his suffering from mental and physical problems, intolerable jail conditions, and life without her. The intention was solidified by the perpetrator’s minimization of the abuse, and the couple invoking images of life without each other.

Once the victim arrived at her decision to recant, the couple constructed the recantation plan by redefining the abuse event to protect the perpetrator, blaming the State for the couple’s separation, and exchanging specific instructions on what should be said or done.

There is no pretence that this study has discovered what happens in all cases, or even if these are common factors, but what it has done is shown how this works for the people being studied.

This is massively useful information. If you’re a scientist, suddenly you have a whole bunch of hypotheses to test that are drawn from real-life situations. If you’re not, you understand one instance of this situation in a lot more detail.

The reason that human psychology can be studied both scientifically and non-scientifically is that the object of study can be objectively observed and can describe their own subjective experience.

This doesn’t happen with electrical impulses, enzymes or subatomic particles.

I’m a neuropsychologist by trade, perhaps the most clearly scientific of the psychological disciplines, but I’m not going to pretend that qualitative research psychologists aren’t doing important work that makes psychology more valuable, not less.

So psychology is not just a science, and is better off for it.

Oh yeah, and the drunk guy at the party? He’s like someone who thinks a screaming orgasm is only a drink. I’m laughing at you chump, not with you.

43 Comments

  1. weskaggs
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    As I see it, the real difference between a hard science like chemistry and a “soft” science like psychology is technology. Theories come and go, but if a technology works, it works forever. Psychology just doesn’t have much in the way of technology, so it always feels sort of ephemeral.

  2. Sofie
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this very interesting view!
    I think that’s also the most important work of a therapist: Doing something of a qualitative research of a client, finding out why this particular client is acting like he acts, can be very interesting to help the client to overcome his problem.

    • Posted August 25, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

      “Qualitative research can be valuable for providing ideas on what to test scientifically. We get into the realm of quackery, however, when interventions or therapies that have not passed replicable randomized controlled trials with active control groups that properly control for expectations make their way to the public under the false guise of ‘healthcare’ or ‘treatments.’”

      What you’re suggesting may be “interesting” to a therapist but harmful to a client. When a therapist inadvertently projects her own thoughts, feelings, biases, experiences onto a client in a naively trusting or vulnerable position, then memories get twisted, inaccurate labels get applied, and the client may be left with a warped perception that causes far more harm than good.

      • Posted August 25, 2013 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

        To clarify, the first paragraph above is in quotes because it is copied from a prior comment. The second paragraph above is addressed to Sofie’s comment.

      • Sofie
        Posted August 26, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

        I see, on your website, that your starting point is:
        ‘Psychotherapy or “talk therapy” is an unethical, damaging practice with conflicts of interest and perverse incentives at its foundation. The problems with therapy can be put into roughly the following categories: paradoxical and dehumanizing structure of therapy relationships, lack of scientific validity, lack of transparency and consumer protections, and harmful outcomes.’

        That’s not scientific at all. It’s an example of some real biases, like thinking in terms of black end white, ignoring the huge amount of scientific studies about therapy and so on. Maybe you once tried psychotherapy and your experience was not so good. If so, I feel sorry for that. But, we also know that a lot of clients are satisfied during or after the therapy.
        I’ve also learned, in the meantime, that starting a discussion with people who are so convinced about themself and yhink in terms of black and white, is not useful. So, that’s the end of our discussion. ;-)

        I wish you all the best!

      • Posted August 27, 2013 at 6:24 am | Permalink

        Responding to a substantive concern regarding the impact of therapist subjectivity/non-neutrality by dodging the issue with ad hominem attacks followed by ‘I’m not playing anymore’ provides another demonstration of my points.

  3. John W
    Posted August 21, 2013 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Last year, I saw an article entitled “Why psychology isn’t science” in the LA Times
    http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/13/news/la-ol-blowback-pscyhology-science-20120713

    It’s quite different from the article linked in this post “elsewhere”, which goes to a blog written by the author Neuroskeptic on discovermagazine, who explains:
    “There is no special ‘scientific method’ that sets ‘science’ apart (Soft and Hard sciences). Different branches of science use different methods to uncover the truth.”

    I know it’s a old argument to say it, but the difference between the Hard sciences and the Soft sciences is that the Soft sciences violate mutiple parts of the scientific method. Hence the Term ‘soft’ is actually derogatory, that they have no ‘hard’ evidence.

    Science has nothing to do with ‘Truth’, a term which is often used in psychology to imply that logic can be performed with words, which is what psychology is based on (like most of philosophy).

    The basis of the scientific method is that logic can *not* be performed with words, only numbers are objective, and logic can only be performed with numbers. There is an infinate degree of variation in a subjective observation, but numbers are finite.

    Turning words into numbers is not scientific, such as with “rating scales”. Something that has an infinate degree of variation cannot be given arbitrarily a limited degree. These observations can not be reproduced the same way from one observer to another.

    The scientific method uses statistical analysis to determine the degree to which a sample (a set of observations) can be determined to have not occured by pure chance. You can only prove what degree of confidence (Cofidence level) you have that your observations weren’t by chance alone. There is no ‘truth’. In order to meet the minimum requriment in the scientific method, a cofidence level of 98%, or 3 standard deviations must be met. Subjective observations like ‘rating scales’ used by psychiatry and psychology can never archive this, and usually only make it at most to a 95% CI. A 95% CI means there is a 5% chance all observations we made by chance, which is unacceptable. Science is about producing knowlege with reproducable observations, as much as proving they didn’t happen by chance.

    The guy in the bar is technically correct that the scientific method does not allow the mixing of subjective and objective observations. He’s also not always drunk or in a bar. Sometimes he’s the blissfully sober president of the National Insitute of Mental Health:

    Psychiatry: A very sad Story:
    http://www.readcube.com/articles/10.1038/497036a?locale=en
    (Published in the journal Nature)

    Forgive me for the long winded comment, but I had to spill my heart out on that one.

  4. christo22
    Posted August 21, 2013 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    Go Vaughan go! Well said.

  5. Posted August 21, 2013 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    Excellent example of the value and limitations of qualitative research!

  6. Posted August 21, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    This is the best post on the subject I read so far.

    One reason to be even less panicky: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting” (Ernest Rutherford). The science-nonscience divide does not necessarily run along the quantitative-qualitative divide

    One reason to not lay back and believe that all is well: Psychology already was in trouble as a scientific endeavour before the modern funding agencies (1850-1900). The issues debated in the past are still thrown at psychological science, especially the quantitative part of the discipline. And don’t forget that Cohen and other Statisticians warned about power and NHST in 1960s, but nobody listened an this continues even today.

    I don’t think it is surprising that some people are loosing patience.

    “The second condition which our science is to fulfill is that it must be a *modern science*. The subjects of science are facts and hypotheses. The distinguishing characteristics of modern science are the establishment of accurately determined facts and the founding of hypotheses upon such facts alone. *A would-be science that neglects any possible means of developing these characteristics finds itself at once in disrepute.*
    The science of mental processes dare not begin with metaphysical hypotheses and twist the facts to suit them; it dare not rest contented with loose and insufficient methods of ascertaining facts.”

    Scripture, E. W. (1891). Psychology as philosophy. Mind, 63, 306-326.

    http://anti-ism-ism.blogspot.nl/2013/08/defending-psychology-in-science-wars.html#.UhQheBa9YwI

  7. Posted August 21, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Great post! I think we actually do have to define “Science” before a discussion like this, but ultimately it all comes down to (ironically, I guess) human perception.

    Without instruments, psychology would be much more accurate than say, cell biology or astronomy. Because our perception of stars or cells would be weak or nonexistent without tools. That’s the “Methods” section.

    Then you have the “Results” section. I suppose one could argue that cell biologists have just as challenging a task interpreting the actions of a cell or a star as neuroscientists do after using an MRI machine, but I don’t see it that way. I think if we’re talking about behavior (human or not), it’s much harder to interpret the behavior of a living organism than a single cell or nonorganic material.

    The Methods though are limited only by our imagination. The best methods are elegant and simple, and work with the least amount of room for interpretation – especially for behavior and if you want to call it hard science.

  8. Posted August 21, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    For a similar but slightly different take on this issue, see:
    http://legacy.earlham.edu/~jacksmi/content/narrow_and_broad_science.html

  9. John W
    Posted August 22, 2013 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    In my previous comment I breifly tried to explain the role of statistical analysis in the scientific method, and the difference between the use of objective and subjective observations.

    I thought I’d give some very specific examples where this plays out in published science.

    There was an article in ‘the guardian’ which attempts to explain how many papers published in neuroscience often can’t have their conclusions or observations replicated:
    “Unreliable neuroscience? Why power matters”
    http://www.theguardian.com/science/sifting-the-evidence/2013/apr/10/unreliable-neuroscience-power-matters

    Another in a blog on national geoprahic, but covered more then one field of science:
    http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/04/10/neuroscience-cannae-do-it-capn-it-doesnt-have-the-power/

    A paper published in BMC Neuroscience went into better detail as to what the specific errors in statistical analysis were:
    “The problem of pseudoreplication in neuroscientific studies: is it affecting your analysis?”
    http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2202/11/5

    A real test of the integrity of a field of science is when an engineer has to apply what knowlege science has created to build a device to measure observations in that field. This is a test of what has been replicated.

    For example, neurology was able to have enginneers create devices to measure brain function and structure, using knowlege produced by neurology’s Computational and Molecular neurosciences. These devices required objective mathmatical knowlege to create.

    The brain is bascially and evolved information processing system, which operates on the same basic principle as all systems which perform information processing (manmade or otherwise).

    At some point, the competing profession of psychiatry started using these devices in their own field’s of research, such as “behavioral neuroscience”. They then declared their field in the APA’s 1980′s DSM-3 ‘evidence based medicine”.

    Today there are still no diangostic tests for Mental illness, over 30 years later. There is also little or no scientific explination for how treatments ‘work’ as oposed to ‘get an effect’ (e.g by disrupting brain acticity).

    Psychiatry considers itself seperate from psychology, and psychology considers itself a field that is also studied in neuroscience.

    Most fields of neuroscience today are divided towards psychiatry and psychology, with only a few orgional fields first established from neurology.

    Not everything has to be scientific, except in science, but a field can’t be both scientific and not scientific. An area of research is only as strong as what it’s founded on.

    Anyway that was my full take on it all, again I appologize for the length.

  10. James
    Posted August 22, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    I’d like to see a psychological study on the frequency of these ‘is psychology a science?’ articles popping up in the media.

    Surely someone has to square this hermeneutic circle?

  11. Kevin Conroy
    Posted August 22, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Qualitative research complements quantitative research. It explores the richness of data in a specific social context, that can cue quantitative research that may be generalised. Both are part of the scientific method. I think ‘soft’ & ‘hard’ are mis-categorisations. Prefer ‘higher’ & ‘lower’ order concepts of human experience. For example, relationships, trust, culture, character are higher order to length, density. Arguably impossible to quantify the human reality of the higher order concepts without narrowing their definition for quantitative measuring purposes.

  12. Fred
    Posted August 22, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    It is possible to have a science of the brain and it is possible to have a science of behaviour (as the behaviourists would define it) but it is not possible to have a science of the mind as it is not a scientific concept.

    Mentalism retards attempts many attempts by psychologists to conduct scientific research.

  13. Posted August 23, 2013 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    Just read What can qualitative research do for randomised controlled trials? A systematic mapping review: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/76296/

  14. Posted August 23, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    So Steven Pinker in “How the Mind Works” indirectly provides a good test of the quality of a science (also hinted at in comments above):

    Can an engineer replicate the phenomenon under study? Can we reverse-engineer the system?

    It’s seems apparent we can build pretty smart machines, for example we can accuratley model aspects of the visual system and get computers to spot and identify objects, and see motion and color and such. We can also get them to land airplanes, detect fraud, answer jeopardy questions, etc. This all hints that psychology is on the right track, although I would guess is still somewhat in its infancy as a “hard” science, but we are certainly getting there.

    I think the best litmus test for a science is whether it’s an *experimental* science. Can we do testing in which we control variables, test theories, blind subjects (and experimenters), and interpret the results in a framework that leads to new predictions that can test or refute the framework. In this respect, psychology is on firm scientific footing.

    • Posted August 23, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      The problem with psychology being “on firm scientific footing” is that you can *try* to quantify something like pain by asking the research subject to quantify their pain on a zero (no pain) to ten (extreme pain) scale. However, “pain” is still a fairly subjective, abstract concept. I have hydrocephalus, or “water on the brain”. I have a surgical drainage tube, or shunt, implanted to drain the excess cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) elsewhere into my body (currently, I have a ventriculo-atrial, or VA, shunt which drains into my heart). I’ve experienced shunt failure so severe and painful that I’ve passed out. That’s my 10. I’m always careful to mention that to any doctors who ask the “pain from 0-10″ question. If you’ve never experienced shunt failure, you can’t know what it’s like. My husband’s a non-attorney hearing representative for claimants applying for Social Security disability. He’s had claimants tell him with a straight face that “oh, the pain from the hangnail on my thumb is so bad, it’s a ten!” Must be nice to have experienced so little pain in your life that you consider a hangnail a ten!

      • Posted August 23, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        I should also add that I have fibromyalgia, a condition similar to rheumatoid arthritis. I experience musculoskeletal pain all over, every day, it’s just a matter of degree. The “zero to ten” question usually comes up with my doctors in reference to the fibromyalgia. I would quantify my “normal” daily pain level somewhere between 5-7, but again, that’s assuming my 10 is shunt failure. When my doctors hear 5-7, they assume my pain level “must not be that bad”. That’s why I always have to remind them that my 10 is passing out from shunt failure. My pain level can also be stress-dependent. The more stress I’m under (anger, fear, etc), the higher my pain level skyrockets.

      • Posted August 23, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

        I’m sorry to hear you are in so much pain, and have experienced so much pain. And while I agree that pain is subjective and abstract, the measurement of pain need not be.

        Yes, your 10 is different than mine, and your 7 might be my 10, or whatever. But there are entire fields within psychology dedicated to dealing with subjective measurement issues like this (psychometrics), or even relating physical variation in stimuli with the resulting subjective variations (psychophysics). These fields always have to contest with this critique, there are pretty good ways of dealing with it now. The method of “rate your pain from 1 to 10″ is the most primitive method and is basically not used for scientific purposes anymore (although it works in a pinch in the clinic, when people are screaming or in need of immediate drugging).

      • Posted August 29, 2013 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

        Hi Jennifer

        sorry to hear about your pain, your post reminded me of this blogpost about pain charts which I hope you find amusing (it seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people in pain)

        http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.co.nz/2010/02/boyfriend-doesnt-have-ebola-probably.html

        Thankfully it’s not something I’ve experienced myself but I can imagine how frustrating it must be to be asked to rate your pain out of ten.

      • Posted August 30, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        Cute chart. Thanks! :-)

  15. Posted August 23, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I’ll also add that psychology has been wrestling with these common critiques since its very beginning, and a great breakthrough was the development of “psychophysics” in the mid to late 1800′s (work by Fechner, Weber, Stevens, etc.).

    Of course much of the general public (and even psychologists) are unaware of its development, and its ability to *directly* measure perceptions with the caveat that a (noisy, messy, sometimes unpredictable) human is still in the loop of measurement. Nevertheless, great strides in psychological knowledge have been gained through this approach, and is probably the most “hard”, “scientific” subfield within psychology.

    • Posted August 23, 2013 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

      Thank you so much for your intelligent, thoughtful response. You’ve given me a lot to think about!
      :-)

  16. fed up Psych Student
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    I believe this post as well as most of the defenses by psychologists of their field are hilarious cop-outs now that everyone can see the historical lack of rigor, fragmentation and shallowness of thought in psychology. Of course it is a subject area, but why would the most well known psychologists in history (from Wundt, to Freud, to Skinner, to Chomsky, to the current most well-known bloggers, not you in this case Vaughan) have been so defensive of their field and theories and concerned about its scientific status if the question was misguided or unimportant? This is the question that has driven the whole field forward. If it wasn’t for their proposed answer to this question (which by the lack of theoretical development (NOT of data or publications which just keeps growing) of the discipline till now can be seen as mere hand waving and wishful thinking), psychology would have never developed in academia as it did and, most importantly, psychologists opinions wouldn’t have been taken seriously in health care, law, education and other fields of public concern.

    Therefore, the answer to the question of whether it is a Scientific Field (not a subject area, because wondering about this would be stupid (because anything can be a “subject area”), nor just “science” because particular studies can be conducted scientifically without delivering the goods in the form of progressively consolidating theories which allow to make accurate predictions) is crucial for professional psychologists and psychology researchers.

    And the simple answer is that it hasn’t been because of most of it is composed of “theoretical constructs” that aren’t experimentally testable and whose implications and interactions (for social dynamics or for individual mental states) can only be conjectured, assumed and “measured” through questionnaires, procedure which can’t falsify proposed answers to the core question: “how does the mind work” and its implications…(or at least this can’t be so until behavioral neuroscience or AI can replace folk psychology, IF that is possible). When it is studied objectively as Mr. Bell says, what is studied is behavior and the brain. When subjectively, what is studied can be parsed between linguistics, cognitive psychology, phenomenological psychology, psychoanalysis and whatever other “perspective” they can bring to the table. When looking for a cause, you can go from sociology to neurology, pure behavior doesn’t cut it. But in the middle of all of this there is a void called the mind, which can’t be defined scientifically or put to experiment and can’t bring satisfying explanations to the field. So psychologists benefit from the confusion and operationalize this and that conjectured mental content or “representation” or whatever until the dust settles and they are forced to return to the questions they don’t even want to try to answer (because they can’t).

    This means that the field won’t be able to develop clear, all-encompassing core theories which will force the opponents of said theories with enough intellectual integrity (to avoid the comparison with evolutionist vs creationist debate) to shut up until they amass a lot of evidence to deliver a decisive counter-blow.

    One has only to go to a physics or an engineering department to see that the intellectual dynamic is merciless (but even for them standards have declined), while in psychology departments they still have a little bit of everything so that all of the students and professors (from the most hard headed scientist to the most esoteric free-thinker) are happy and the dept is healthily financed. And when it comes to application everyone has something to say, until the opinion based on the most fashionable paradigm (which is oh surprise, the one that is seen as more scientific in general by academia and in the age of the internet more and more by the public) is the one applied or even forced upon the patient, pupil, prosecuted person or whatever to justify some social imperative.

    The thing is, when psychologists find themselves cornered about all of this, they start getting offended or acting aloof about the whole issue, but it’s time people knew better and weren’t fooled by their inocuous attempts to make things seem better than as they are (and were, the whole time people were being managed based on the opinions of psychologists).

    This is just the 2 cents from a former psychology student who spent a lot of time and money waiting for the intellectual atmosphere in the field to get better, while his teachers told him to “do philosophy” somewhere else because psychology was a science, only to find that whatever was taught to me as the Real Scientific Method is now being scrapped and replaced for something else (thanks to the dissemination of information through the internet mostly!). The attitude of wishful thinking and hand waving, making straw men, begging the question, acting aloof, being condescendent and many others unworthy of serious thinkers is basically the same.

    In other words, scientific spirits and attitudes in psychology are rare, most of its scholars have huge egos and are more in love with their worldviews and personal values than with the pursuit of answers (which can be said of all of academia, except that in other disciplines there is better quality control). AND when they defend their discipline they make an even bigger mess and need to learn some (or even a lot of!) philosophy urgently, just to keep the debate tight and not reinvent the wheel every time. Cheers!

  17. fed up Psych Student
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    Sorry Mr. Bell, this isn’t mean to diss you, but to criticize your “it’s not a big deal” stance on the issue and also the associated posts on other blogs. Really dig your blog, cheers!

  18. Jamie
    Posted August 24, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    Yes, qualitative research can be valuable for providing ideas on what to test scientifically. We get into the realm of quackery, however, when interventions or therapies that have not passed replicable randomized controlled trials with active control groups that properly control for expectations make their way to the public under the false guise of “healthcare” or “treatments.”

    http://whereistheburdenofproof.wordpress.com/

  19. Fred
    Posted August 25, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    “Cognitive Science is the creationism of psychology.”

    http://people.uncw.edu/galizio/rapfiles/aces/papers/Skinner(1957)Why.pdf

    “Eventually a science of the nervous system based upon direct observation rather than inference will describe the neural states and events which immediately precede instances of behavior. We shall know the precise eurological conditions which immediately precede, say, the response, “No, thank you.” These events in turn will be found to be preceded by other neurological events, and these in tum by others. This series will lead us back to events outside the nervous system and, eventually, outside the organism”.

  20. dharbour60
    Posted August 25, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Those who disparage psychology, and mainly those like your drunk party critic are probably most in need and in fear of it.

    • Posted August 25, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      Science progresses by means of curiosity (including curiosity about what may be wrong with an area of inquiry), critiquing and determining what is wrong with existing theories and approaches, experimental study, correcting past mistakes, proposing and testing improved approaches, etc. I would think that the fear of criticism and need for ad hominem attacks on characters rather than ideas would be most problematic for advancing knowledge.

      • BrainThink
        Posted January 10, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

        I totally agree with this comment above me.

        In addition:

        I believe Psychology is a helping profession. When someone feels the need to ad hominem attacks on criticism out of fear of criticism rather than empathizing with differing points of view and joining the discussion with an open mind, it seems to me they should re-evaluate the reason for becoming a Psychologist in the first place.

        This person’s response was clearly subjective. It implies an absolute without a logical conclusion. The desire to end the discussion displays the arrogance that makes the scientific integration of Psychology impossible.

        After all, how can someone who projects this mentality objectively observe a client without adding their subjective interpretation on a client’s impression, that may or may not be objective, which might harm the client, if they aren’t aware of their own projections?

        There is so much more I need to say, but my brain processes it and completes much faster than I can articulate.

  21. Pete Attkins
    Posted August 27, 2013 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    There is science-based medicine and evidence-based medicine (evidence collection and analysis that uses the scientific method): every alternative to these types of medicine is quackery.

    There are areas of psychology that are science based, but most areas are just Tooth Fairy Science, which sounds science-y to the majority of the audience.

    Step one in the scientific method is to fully establish that an observation actually exists.

    Step one in pseudoscience is to start explaining an observation because, anecdotally, is seems to exist.

    The extreme pain suffered by a previous commentator should make it abundantly clear that patient self-evaluation is not scientific. Self-evaluation could be useful to monitor patient progresses if, and only if, a plethora of cognitive biases have been totally accounted for, but this step is not performed in any of the standard basic mental health tests: the tests do not include supplementary comment fields.

    Ad hominem attacks issued by a supporter of psychology and/or psychotherapy are not actually ad hominem attacks, they are victim blaming attacks, which is much more serious because this modus operandi causes real, often permanent, harm to patients.

    In science there are no authorities, just a few experts, which seems to be the antithesis of psychology and psychiatry.

  22. Posted August 28, 2013 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    Is mental health treatment the only accredited specialty in which research only follows the widespread use of a modality on the public?

  23. Le Je
    Posted August 29, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Interesting.

    In Germany they wouldn’t dare consider that humanistic sciences “are not actually science”.

    The question is really about whether psychology should act more like the non-humanistic sciences, in particular medicine, in respect to their studies and publications OR whether they can continue adopting methodologies that are only theoreticized and not properly clinically proven. The problem (and there is an actual problem) is even more serious regarding the practices, in particular psychologists, who are not well enough trained for the kind of work they actually do, IMHO.

    • Posted August 29, 2013 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

      Here’s one look at the kind of reckless harm that can result from trying unvalidated therapies on the public:
      http://mindhacks.com/2011/09/10/escaping-from-the-past-of-disaster-psychology/

      • Le Je
        Posted September 17, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        That’s pretty much what I had in mind. I was thinking of different examples. Psychology made a fool of science so often until now. It needs to take things seriously. It needs to mature, just like other scientific fields. Its an arduous process, it will get there at some point.

  24. Posted September 6, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    I disagree with most of this. There is qualitative research in all sciences as well. I do qualitative research most of the time with my organic compounds and I doubt any of you will argue that my approach is not scientific.

    • Posted September 6, 2013 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

      It’s different when the objects of study are material and observable versus subjective mental states of conscious beings.

  25. fed up
    Posted October 13, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    the psychology of the “psychology is a science” argument:

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/2013/08/13/psychology-is-a-science/#comment-813

    ok, time to let it go

  26. BrainThink
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    It is my opinion that Psychology is an art. To be of benefit to any conscious being, it must remain as a blank canvas to the subject matter.

    It must be left open to interpretation and the Psychologist should be completely self-sacrificial during the process. What I mean is, it should focus on the area of relationship. A supportive dynamic should take place.

    A therapist should be like a living diary for the client, which nobody else can access or find the key to except the client. A mirroring takes place so that the client discovers who he/she is and gains access to the inner voice they stopped listening to.

    It is also my opinion that repeated attempts to make Psychology a Science ultimately harms the client (having a subjective experience) it was designed to help because it puts the therapist in the driver’s seat, if you will, and further impedes a client’s ability to think for themselves.

    My brain sped ahead again.


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