Friday, August 5, 2016

Is Psychology A Science?

I often tell the people I work with not to put too much trust in numbers. Usually it's because we're using a test or study and I'm explaining the background and limitations.  
Actually, this is part of larger discussion, and for what it's worth, here are some quick thoughts on the debate. They're meant for a general audience so feel free to wade in with comments and criticism. 

In a college or university, you’ll probably find the chemistry, biology and physics departments are part of the School Of Science whereas the psychology department is part of the School Of Art And Social Science.   
So, does that mean psychology is not a real science? 

Note: if you love flame wars, you’re going to enjoy this discussion!

If you've not picked up a paper or textbook since school, you might remember how you did an experiment in physics or chemistry and then replicated it again and again and again.

This is why for many people science involves: clearly defined terminology, having a hypothesis that explains the phenomenon you’re examining, and if you love Popper (and who doesn’t?) being able to falsify that theory too, then setting up a tightly controlled experiment that will test your theory, being able to observe, quantify and record results accurately, and finally, being able to reproduce the results.
Karl Popper
Karl Popper, serious brain.

Psychology isn’t like that.  There are no universally agreed on definitions for depression, happiness, and stress.  Even observing them can be tricky.

This is why people often refer to chemistry, biology and physics as “hard science” and psychology as “soft science”.   
In such discussions, there’s often a bit of sneering, with the idea that soft science is somehow a bit grubby, a kind of parlour trick. 

However, hard science is in poor supply.  If you keep an eye on the news, you’ll see that biologists argue over what kinds of cells qualify as stem cells, chemists argue over how to classify crystals (and over hyphenated terms!)  and physicists tend to work with concepts so out there, that they’re still been arguing over the quantum mechanics theory, 90 years after it was first published, and discussing whether it really is necessary to provide empirical evidence for their ideas at all.   
And let’s not talk about how scientific medicine is, or we’d be here all day!

For me, when I'm not cautioning clients over numbers, the issue isn’t who has the hardest science.  What I’m interested in are investigations into human nature that tell us something about ourselves. 

Psychological research deals with challenging topics that affect us all.  Like, why do we rush to help if it’s just us and them, but we’ll maybe stand back if there are fifty of us?  And why does a great piece of good fortune coming our way not make us permanently happy?

We have some ideas about why these things happen, but they are controversial - meaning that some studies are hard to replicate. 
While psychological research isn’t perfect, we’re doing some good work at understanding ourselves.   

Ideally everything we do should be revealing in some universal way.  But given the difficulties involved in this field, I think that any kind of insight is useful.  
 If someone can provide information that only applies to a particular group, like Scottish nuns aged 25 to 40, that’s okay.  As long as it helps someone, and we're all clear about limitations and caveats, I’m all for it.
I am not okay with pushing theories and practices that have been disproven. I understand why people hate to give up on old ideas even if they are proven to be pseudoscience and nonsense, but I don't approve.

I believe that what really matters is critical thinking.  When it comes to therapy, you need to have a good grasp of the field, and to be clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence when it comes to practice.  And above all else, there’s the fundamental ancient principle, do no harm.