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Thoughts and comments: Is psychology a science? (Paul Lutus)
In order to consider whether psychology is a science, we must first define our terms. It is not
overarching to say that science is what separates human beings from animals, and, as time goes by
and we learn more about our animal neighbors here on Earth, it becomes increasingly clear that
science is all that separates humans from animals. We are learning that animals have feelings,
passions, and certain rights. What animals do not have is the ability to reason, to rise above feeling.
The point here is that legal evidence is not remotely scientific evidence. Contrary to popular belief,
science doesn't use sloppy evidentiary standards like “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and scientific
theories never become facts. This is why the oft-heard expression “proven scientific fact” is never
appropriate – it only reflects the scientific ignorance of the speaker. Scientific theories are always
theories, they never become the final and only explanation for a given phenomenon.
Meh. Sure is phil of sci 101 here.
Besides the confusing word usage “become facts” (wat), a scientific fact is just something that is beyond reasonable doubt and enjoys virtually unanimous agreement among the relevant scientists.
Apart from being filtered through all possible explanations, scientific theories have another
important property – they must make predictions that can be tested and possibly falsified. In fact,
and this may surprise you, scientific theories can only be falsified, they can never be proven true
once and for all. That is why they are called “theories,” as certain as some of them are – it is always
possible they may be replaced by better theories, ones that explain more, or are simpler, or that
make more accurate predictions than their forebears.
No, that is not why they are called “theories”, they are called “theories” because thats the word for “explanation” in science.
Nothing can be “proven true once and for all” with absolute certainty. This is not specific to science.
It's very simple, really. If a theory doesn't make testable predictions, or if the tests are not practical,
or if the tests cannot lead to a clear outcome that supports or falsifies the theory, the theory is not
scientific. This may come as another surprise, but very little of the theoretical content of human
psychology meets this scientific criterion. As to the clinical practice of psychology, even less meets
any reasonable definition of “scientific.”
Nonsense. There have been many scientific theories that we could not figure out how to test to begin with, but we later did, and the evidence either test either confirmed or disconfirmed the theories.
Human psychology and the related fields of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy achieved their
greatest acceptance and popularity in the 1950s, at which time they were publicly perceived as
sciences. But this was never true, and it is not true today – human psychology has never risen to the
status of a science, for several reasons
Derp. Conflation of psychoanalysis crap with good psychology.
Although, to his defense, he did somewhat announce this in the beginning:
Since its first appearance in 2003, this article has become required reading in a number of college-
level psychology courses. Because this article is directed toward educated nonspecialist readers
considering psychological treatment, students of psychology are cautioned that terms such as
"psychology," "clinical psychology" and "psychiatry" are used interchangeably, on the ground that
they rely on the field of human psychology for validation, in the same way that astronomy and
particle physics, though very different, rely on physics for validation.
But as to the study of human beings, there are severe limitations on what kinds of
studies are permitted. As an example, if you want to know whether removing specific
brain tissue results in specific behavioral changes, you cannot perform the study on
humans. You have to perform it on animals and try to extrapolate the result to humans.
Eh. One can just look at case studies of people with brain injuries.
One of the common work-arounds to this ethical problem is to perform what are called
“retrospective studies,” studies that try to draw conclusions from past events rather than
setting up a formal laboratory experiment with strict experimental protocols and a
control group. If you simply gather information about people who have had a certain
kind of past experience, you are freed from the ethical constraint that prevents you from
exposing experimental subjects to that experience in the present.
But, because of intrinsic problems, retrospective studies produce very poor evidence
and science. For example, a hypothetical retrospective study meant to discover whether
vitamin X makes people more intelligent may only “discover” that the people who took
the vitamin were those intelligent enough to take it in the first place. In general,
retrospective studies cannot reliably distinguish between causes and effects, and any
conclusions drawn from them are suspect.
Think about this for a moment. In order for human psychology to be placed on a
scientific footing, it would have to conduct strictly controlled experiments on humans,
in some cases denying treatments or nutritional elements deemed essential to health (in
order to have a control group), and the researchers would not be able to tell the subjects
whether or not they were receiving proper care (in order not to bias the result). This is
obviously unethical behavior, and it is a key reason why human psychology is not a
He is just wrong. It is possible to distinguish between cause and effects. One has to do more studies of different kinds. Etc. It is difficult but not impossible.
The items listed above inevitably create an atmosphere in which absolutely anything
goes (at least temporarily), judgments about efficacy are utterly subjective, and as a
result, the field of psychology perpetually splinters into cults and fads (examples
below). “Studies” are regularly published that would never pass muster with a self-
respecting peer review committee from some less soft branch of science.
Another dumb conflation of psychology as a whole with some specific subfield, and the most dodgy of them all.
In an effort to answer the question of whether intelligence is primarily governed
by environment or genes, psychologist Cyril Burt (1883-1971) performed a
long-term study of twins that was later shown to be most likely a case of
conscious or unconscious scientific fraud. His work, which purported to show
that IQ is largely inherited, was used as a “scientific” basis by various racists and
others, and, despite having been discredited, still is.
1) The case against him seems rather weak.
2) His conclusions are very consistent with modern studies of the same thing.
See, John Philippe Rushton - New evidence on Sir Cyril Burt His 1964 Speech to the Association of Educational Psychologists
In the 1950s, at the height of psychology's public acceptance, neurologist Walter
Freeman created a surgical procedure known as "prefrontal lobotomy." As
though on a quest and based solely on his reputation and skills of persuasion,
Freeman singlehandedly popularized lobotomy among U.S. psychologists,
eventually performing about 3500 lobotomies, before the dreadful consequences
of this practice became apparent.
At the height of Freeman's personal campaign, he drove around the country in a
van he called the "lobotomobile," performing lobotomies as he traveled. There
was plenty of evidence that prefrontal lobotomy was a catastrophic clinical
practice, but no one noticed the evidence or acted on it. There was — and is —
no reliable mechanism within clinical psychology to prevent this sort of abuse.
Ah yes, lobotomies. He seems to have missed ECT on his example list.
The last claim is clearly wrong.
These examples are part of a long list of people who have tried to use psychology to
give a scientific patina to their personal beliefs, perhaps beginning with Francis Galton
(1822-1911), the founder and namer of eugenics. Galton tried (and failed) to design
psychological tests meant to prove his eugenic beliefs. This practice of using
psychology as a personal soapbox continues to the present, in fact, it seems to have
become more popular.
What these accounts have in common is that no one was able (or willing) to use
scientific standards of evidence to refute the claims at the time of their appearance,
because psychology is only apparently a science. Only through enormous efforts and
patience, including sometimes repeating an entire study using the original materials, can
a rare, specific psychological claim be refuted. Such exceptions aside, there is ordinarily
no recourse to the “testable, falsifiable claims” criterion that sets science apart from
ordinary human behavior.
Intelligence does actually seem to have fallen from when Galton and others measured reaction times to modern reaction time measurements, cf. this post.
Some may object that the revolution produced by psychoactive drugs has finally placed psychology
on a firm scientific footing, but the application of these drugs is not psychology, it is pharmacology.
The efficacy of drugs in treating conditions once thought to be psychological in origin simply
presents another example where psychology got it wrong, and the errors could only be uncovered
using disciplines outside psychology.
It's neither. It's psychopharmacology.
To summarize this section, psychology is the sort of field that can describe things, but as shown
above, it cannot reliably explain what it has described. In science, descriptions are only a first step
— explanations are essential:
• An explanation, a theory, allows one to make a prediction about observations not yet made.
• A prediction would permit a laboratory test that might support or falsify the underlying
• The possibility of falsification is what distinguishes science from cocktail chatter.
A labaratory test? Perhaps geology isn't science either? Surely, it has a history of crazy theories as well, try Expanding Earth theory.
As with most professions, scientists have a private language, using terms that seem completely
ordinary but that convey special meaning to other scientists. For example, when a scientist identifies
a field as a "descriptive science," he is politely saying it is not a science.
No... It means that is isn't a causal science. Say, grammar is a descriptive science/subfield within linguistics.
Depending on whather we include non-empirical fields in science, there is also logic and math, which are formal, descrptive and noncausal fields.
But in another use of the word, it means something else, namely, descriptive as opposed to applied.
This seems an appropriate time (and context) to comment on psychology's “bible”: the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and its companion, the International Classifications of
Diseases, Mental Disorders Section (hereafter jointly referred to as DSM). Now in its fourth edition,
this volume is very revealing because of its significance to the practice of psychology and
psychiatry and because of what it claims are valid mental illnesses.
These comparisons with religion (“bible”) are not very impartial. He would have helped his case if he was more neutral in his word choice.
That's not to say that the DSM's, psychiatry and the various diagnosis aren't dodgy.
Putting aside for the moment the nebulous “phase of life problem,” excuse me? – “Sibling rivalry”
is now a mental illness? Yes, according to the current DSM/ICD. And few are as strict about
spelling as I am, but even I am not ready to brand as mentally ill those who (frequently) cannot
accurately choose from among “site,” “cite” and “sight” when they write to comment on my Web
pages. As to “mathematics disorder” being a mental illness, sorry, that just doesn't add up.
Eh, they are refering to dyslexia probably, not the inability to distinguish various English homophones.
[table with the number of different diagnoses in the DSM over the years]
Based on this table and extrapolating into the future using appropriate regression methods, in 100
years there will be more than 3600 conditions meriting treatment as mental illnesses. To put it
another way, there will be more mental states identified as abnormal than there are known, distinct
mental states. In short, no behavior will be normal.
This doesn't follow. It might be that the diagnoses are simply getting more and more specific. For instance, there are now quite a few different eating disorders diagnosed, and quite a few diferent schizophrenic disorders. These are just splitting the diagnoses into more without covering more or much more behavior.
There is also the possibility that the future diagnoses will be more and more niche related, covering less and less behavior. In that case, there won't be any sharp increase.
Many conditions have made their way into the DSM and nearly none are later removed.
Homosexuality was until recently listed as a mental illness, one believed to be amenable to
treatment, in spite of the total absence of clinical evidence. Then a combination of research findings
from fields other than psychology, and simple political pressure, resulted in the belated removal of
homosexuality from psychology's official list of mental illnesses. Imagine a group of activists
demanding that the concept of gravity be removed from physics. Then imagine physicists yielding
to political pressure on a scientific issue. But in psychology, this is the norm, not the exception, and it is nearly always the case that the impetus for change comes from a field other than psychology.
Meh. Extrapolating much.
Does research honor the null hypothesis? The "null hypothesis" is a scientific precept
that says assertions are assumed to be false unless and until there is evidence to support
them. In scientific fields the null hypothesis serves as a threshold-setting device to
prevent the waste of limited resources on speculations and hypotheses that are not
supported by direct evidence or reasonable extrapolations from established theory.
Does psychology meet this criterion? Well, to put it diplomatically, if psychiatrist John
Mack of the Harvard Medical School can conduct a research program that takes alien
abduction stories at face value, if clinical psychologists can appear as expert witnesses
in criminal court to testify about nonexistent "recovered memories," only to see their
clients vigorously deny and retract those "memories" later, if any imaginable therapeutic
method can be put into practice without any preliminary evaluation or research, then no,
the null hypothesis is not honored, and psychology fails Point B.
That's not how the null hypothesis works. From Wiki:
The practice of science involves formulating and testing hypotheses, assertions that are capable of being proven false using a test of observed data. The null hypothesis typically corresponds to a general or default position. For example, the null hypothesis might be that there is no relationship between two measured phenomena or that a potential treatment has no effect.
In response to my claim that evidence-based practice is to date an unrealized idea, a
psychologist recently replied that there is "practice-based evidence." Obviously this
argument was offered in the heat of the moment and my correspondent could not have
considered the implications of his remark.
Practice-based evidence, to the degree that it exists, suffers from serious ethical and
practical issues. It fails an obvious ethical standard — if the "evidence" is coincidental
to therapy, a client will be unable to provide informed consent to be a research subject
on the ground that neither he nor the therapist knows in advance that he will be a
research subject. Let me add that a scenario like this would never be acceptable in
mainstream medicine (not to claim that it never happens), but it is all too common in
clinical psychology for research papers to exploit evidence drawn from therapeutic
What? Practice-based evidence is common in medicine. The reason is that we simply don't know how well many often used treatments work. Cf. Bad Science.
Case studies are also very common, and useful.
Let's compare the foregoing to physics, a field that perfectly exemplifies the interplay of
scientific research and practice. When I use a GPS receiver to find my way across the
landscape, every aspect of the experience is governed by rigorously tested physical
theory. The semiconductor technology responsible for the receiver's integrated circuits
obeys quantum theory and materials science. The mathematics used to reduce satellite
radio signals to a terrestrial position honors Einstein's relativity theories (both of them,
and for different reasons) as well as orbital mechanics. If any of these theories is not
perfectly understood and taken into account, I won't be where the GPS receiver says I
am, and that could easily have serious consequences.
Yes, let's compare it to a very disimilar field. Psychology is a social science. The fields are very different.
I offer this mini-essay and this comparison because most of my psychological
correspondents have no idea what makes a field scientific. Many people believe that any
field where science takes place is ipso facto scientific. But this is not true — there is
more to science than outward appearances.
But physics is not a good field to compare with. The epistemology of physics is EASY compared with social science, including psychology.
But this is all hypothetical, because psychology and psychiatry have never been based in science,
and therefore are free of the constraints placed on scientific theories. This means these fields will
prevail far beyond their last shred of credibility, just as religions do, and they will be propelled by
the same energy source — belief. That pure, old-fashioned fervent variety of belief, unsullied by
reason or evidence.
This essay feels like it was written by a physicist or something like that who is disppointed that the same evidence standard is not used in other fields. He chose some kinda of mix of psychology and psychiatry to blame. Unfairly blaiming the entire field of psychology, when the problems are mostly within certain subfields.
He also displays a lack of knowledge about many of the things he mentions.
Mix it with a poor understanding of phil of sci, yeah.
So what is he? Well, read for yourself.