Psychology- Really a Science?


 In some ways, this article is less a defence of psychology, and more an attack on a regressive dichotomy that exists in science. This division is that of “hard” sciences, and “soft” sciences. Not only is this a false dichotomy, but it is a harmful one. This is the charge laid at the feet of the psychologist: he has neglected the basic principles of science and thus his assembled knowledge is not to be trusted. He allows the subjective to enter his research, and it therefore has no power of prediction. This division between the sciences is harmful because all knowledge is interconnected and unless each discipline is respected, a true cohesion of thought can never be obtained. In order to decide if the snobbery of the natural “hard” sciences is warranted, let’s assess what science truly is, and how modern psychology compares.

To understand the essence of science, it will useful for us to assess it in two ways: its goals, and the methods it employs to ascertain these. The goals of the sciences, in broad terms, are truth and understanding. The origins of the word derives from the Latin and French words for knowledge, and its first usage in English dates back to the 14th century in which it meant “knowledge acquired by study” . The APA defines psychology as: “…the study of the mind and behaviour… the understanding of behaviour is the enterprise of psychologists”. Psychology in its Ancient Greek means “study of the soul”. From a brief etymological exercise we appear to have already found some cohesion between that which constitutes science, and that which constitutes psychology, namely they are both concerned with the true nature of things.

The thing that really separated science from philosophy was its adherence to Lockean empiricism: the move from truth through logic and reason, to truth (or at least approximations of it) through observation, through the senses. With this came a whole host of tools to enable empirical research objectivism, empirical findings, hypothesis testing, etc. The importance of these principles for good research is drummed into undergraduate psychology students, and takes up huge swathes of their statistical textbooks. The birth of modern psychology with William Wundt was an attempt to apply such principles to the study of the human mind, and many other famous psychological experiments (Skinners rats, Banduras dolls, Milgrams shocks) have followed in the same vein. Again, we have a correspondence between science and psychology, this time in their method. Depending on the branch of psychology however (notably Humanistic or Psychoananlytic), methods can diverge from the path of empiricism. Subjective methods such as questionnaires or introspective accounts are used and this is where the contention lies: that psychologists have to resort to such “soft” methods to understand their subject. Instead of condemning social sciences as softer, weaker sciences, perhaps they should be seen as pioneering, cutting-edge disciplines.

Thus far we have determined the real difference between soft and hard sciences is not in their aims, but their methods. Of this, we have discovered that there are few divergences that make up this difference, and so the distance between hard and soft is already narrowed. For these divergences to be enough to exclude psychology from the sciences, or to support the hard/soft dichotomy, it must be shown that empirical methods are superior in every way; they must provide the best picture of the truth. Empiricism claims objectivity, and yet its entire philosophy is centred on knowledge acquired through the senses. What we see/hear/touch is essentially our perception of the world, and perceptions will always be subjective. The way a researcher thinks and feels about a subject will inevitably set unrealised constraints on research. In short, science is the business of humans, and therefore cannot claim objectivity, not even empiricism. This does not mean empiricism is bad science, it simply reduces it from the god it has become to what it really is one of many frameworks for understanding the world. Psychologists recognise this in their field. They recognise that empirical, quantifiable methods simply cannot give us the whole truth about human behaviour, and so are left with three choices. We can conclude no scientific study of human behaviour is possible, or we can sacrifice the whole picture for the snapshot empiricism can give us. These first two options are simply unacceptable if we are searching for truth. The final option available to us is that which thus far psychology has pursued- we study human behaviour with as much scientific rigour as we can, until this either becomes unethical, or as sometimes is the case, an actual roadblock in the path to knowledge.

Any activity consists of a purpose, and a method employed to achieve this. The crux of the debate is determined by the subjective entering psychological discourse. This is seen by many other scientists as simply unreliable and unacceptable. The simple fact of the matter is an introspective account from someone suffering from schizophrenia coupled with brain scans and measurements of brain chemicals is far more powerful than either of these on their own. It is in the name of understanding, and in the name of achieving a fuller picture of the world that these subjective methods are employed. So the question must be asked: are the methods of science more integral to its character than its true purpose? If science is no more than the sword of empiricism, then perhaps psychology has to be cut out of it. But if science is more than that, if it is a path to understanding and truth, as a way of providing us with a fuller picture, rather than a more refined framework, then psychology should be embraced. Yes, empirical methods are important where possible, but not to the exclusion of all other methodologies: not if it means sacrificing truth on the altar of empiricism. Perhaps one day all science will have to face the truth psychologists already acknowledge – that sometimes the empirical is not enough, and perhaps on that day, the dichotomy we have now will no longer exist.


Psychology- Really a Science?

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