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Jul 16

Psychology is Science

I hope that most people who read Alex Berezow’s editorial in the Los Angeles Times denying that psychology is a science found it misinformed and bordering on absurd. All Berezow had to do to find evidence that psychology rises to his standards of science was to read past the opening paragraphs of the very editorial that he was responding to, written by Tim Wilson just the day before. Unfortunately, there are still people out there who have a distorted and caricatured idea of what psychology is, a problem that Wilson was trying to combat. Sadly, the LA Times found one of these people and gave them editorial space to perpetuate their ignorance.

Berezow’s argument hinges on psychological science’s failure to meet certain requirements needed to be “considered scientifically rigorous,” all of which are met by vast amounts of psychology research. Of course Berezow doesn’t agree and goes on to build a straw man out of happiness research, ignoring countless examples of research in psychology that would refute his claims, including research on happiness (e.g., Nobel Prize winner Danny Kahneman’s work on how we experience vs. remember happiness)! Berezow himself does a perfectly good job refuting his own claims when he tells us that his own example is a terrible one:

To be fair, not all psychology research is equally wishy-washy. Some research is far more scientifically rigorous. And the field often yields interesting and important insights.

Well said. But let’s put Berezow’s abject ignorance of the empirical methods of psychological research aside for a moment and ask a different question:

Do we just give up on any question that can’t easily be studied in a test tube or under a microscope?

 If psychology is real – and I don’t think even Berezow is denying that – then how exactly does he propose that we study it? Do we just give up on any question that can’t easily be studied in a test tube or under a microscope? Because we certainly can’t ask a physicist to explain to us which post-traumatic interventions are effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD; we can’t ask a chemist to explain to us why people have difficulty explaining why they made the choices they made; and we can’t ask a biologist to tell us why they are bad at predicting what will make them happy. You know who we can ask? Tim Wilson.

Psychology uses scientific methods to help us better understand and predict things about the world. To me that makes it a science. Not a perfect science — Wilson acknowledged this too — but then again the “hard” sciences got a few centuries of head start.

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  1. Michael J. Kane

    Dr. Berezow seems to have forgotten his important “rule,” which he explained when criticizing Stephen Hawking for speaking authoritatively beyond his area of expertise. I quote: “My problem with Dr. Hawking is not that he speaks about subjects outside his area of research. As a scientist-turned-editor, whose job it is to read and comment upon multiple scientific fields, that would be a hypocritical stance. However, I do have a rule: When commenting on fields outside one’s area of expertise, scientists should be as “conservative” as possible; that is, their comments should shy away from “extremist” positions.”

    From Berezow’s American Spectator piece, “Stephen Hawking Should Stick To Physics” (Nov 6, 2010): http://spectator.org/blog/2010/11/06/stephen-hawking-should-stick-t

    Perhaps Berezow should stick to microbiology…

    1. Dave Nussbaum

      Thanks for the link, Michael — it certainly does make him sound hypocritical in addition to misinformed.

      If you read his article but substitute “medicine” for psychology (and pain for happiness) it makes just as much sense as the current version — except I’m pretty sure he doesn’t reject the idea that medicine is a science. So I think it’s fair to say that his position qualifies as “extremist”.

      1. Wiles

        I made basically the same argument on twitter regarding Berezow’s article. Psychology is plagued by the problems of any historically new field, but that’s more of a gap between technology & what we’re trying to measure than anything else. Furthermore, Berezow gives no inkling as to how he thinks we should study the human condition or the brain. Almost similar to the anti-psych folks & their habitual lack of any substantive suggestions for alternatives.

  2. Wiles

    Enjoyed the article! One additional argument one could make is that psychology is arguably a subset of statistics, and statistics a subset of math, and math is as “hard” as a science gets. Think i’ve seen that argument elsewhere, but can’t precisely recall.

    1. Tommy Tang

      lol. good troll.

  3. Raihan

    Good story! I think that psychology is not completely can described by science. I agree with this comment-
    ”Psychology often does not meet the five basic requirements for a field to be considered scientifically rigorous: clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and, finally, predictability and testability.”

  4. Raihan

    Good story! I think that psychology is not completely can described by science. Psychological theories are not fulfill the conditions of science like quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and, finally, predictability and testability.

  5. Raihan

    Good story! I think that psychology is not completely can described by science. Psychological theories are not fulfill the conditions of science like quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and finally, predictability and testability.

  6. Dustin Rodriguez

    I think everyone is aware of the very real and very significant problems psychology faces. Ethical and practical concerns prevent them from being able to perform experiments that are actually reliable indicators of truth. They are guaranteed to not control for an infinite number of variables in every experiment, regardless of the effort they expend to try to avoid uncontrolled factors. This fundamentally means that their findings are on exactly the same ground, rationally speaking, as intuitive guesses.

    For a psychology researcher to produce findings of greater reliability than intuitive guesses, they would need to be radically conservative in the conclusions they draw. Unfortunately, this is exceptionally rare. Though an experiment does not, for example, control for the cultural background, diet, life experiences, mood, worldview, etc of its participants it will, more often than not, claim to have reached a conclusion that applies to humanity as a whole. That’s just flat out indefensible overreach. But, because laying out how limited a defensible conclusion actually is is itself a very difficult task and reduces the claims being made to what seems like a trifle, many researchers prefer not to go the extra mile.

    It should be frustrating to everyone that so many studies are done which simply ignore the millions of uncontrolled variables because they’re ‘too hard’ to control for. Truth does not care about difficulty. Simply because it is profoundly difficult to, say, control the diet of every single participant of a study, does not mean that you can take a guess that diet ‘probably’ doesn’t factor into what you are studying and then claim your conclusions are science. As soon as you make such a guess, you have abandoned objective study and are engaging in a subjective quest to prove your own preconceived notions.

    1. Dave Nussbaum

      Hi Dustin, thanks for your comment.

      I think you’re making a mistake in your understanding of how experimental psychology works. The title of this blog, Random Assignment, is a tip of the hat to the methodological process experimental psychologists use to overcome the problem you’re raising. In experimental psychology we rarely try to directly control for variables such as the ones you mentioned. Instead, we assign people at random to either an experimental condition or a control condition. The people in the experimental condition get some “treatment” while the people in the control condition do not. Because the two groups are composed at random, statistically we expect that the two groups should be roughly equal in terms of any variables that are not part of the experiment.

      There are definitely limits to the generalizability of many psychological studies, most psychologists will readily concede that. But that does not make the results of experiments the same as intuitive guesses. We are not, as you say, guessing that diet probably doesn’t factor in. We are using experimental methodology to allow us to focus in on the effects of the variables we manipulate.

  7. Alessandro Moralessi

    Good argument Dave. It seems like Mr. Berezow’s should have done more research before writing his article. A lot of people in the physical sciences (chemistry and physics) seem to think that because psychologists study behavior, it cannot be scientifically measured. They fail to realize that psychologists measure language, reaction time, neurological activity, and various tests to measure human and animal behavior.

  8. matteo

    fantastic post.

  9. matteo

    the ignorance about psychology on the web is discouraging

  10. matteo

    @dustin you’re wrong: there’s not a in-out condition , no intuition-scientific separation.
    reality is a range of situation, from extremely intuitive to extremely verifiable in a scientific way. Knowing that plants need water is better than not knowing, and knowing times in which they need water is better than knowing that they need it. Yours is the error of many ignorant scientists. Fortunately not all.

  11. matteo

    moreover, “scientific method ” is not about “all the variables”, but is about “the way we find out order from chaos” … at any level. The truth “per se” is an absurdity.

  12. matteo

    @dustin your definition of “intuitive guesses”
    is at least questionable

  13. Roberto (@Roberto_Nacci)

    Berezow’s mistake is that he is taking the science he is familiar with and trying to apply it to something he doesn’t have a clue about. I also wrote a response to his article should anyone want to take a look:

    http://robertonacci.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/psychology-and-science-debate-reply-to.html

  14. stan klein

    “Psychology uses scientific methods to help us better understand and predict things about the world. To me that makes it a science” the author goes on to admit “not a perfect science…”

    But, this is exactly the misconception stemming from the failure to separate necessary from sufficient.

    To briefly summarize, the fact that I go and purchase official NFL gear and make certain I play by the official rules does not warrant the conclusion I am a pro football player. The sad, all too frequent refrain “but we use scientific method and method = science” is illustrative of the bigger problem with psychology as a science.

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