Why Psychology Ain’t Science

Those interested in the post-NightWaves (http://rupertsread.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/me-on-radio3-on-science.html ) debate raging on Twitter on this topic, may wish check out my ‘Rupert Read’ twitterstream (https://twitter.com/RupertRead ). In any case, here, for those interested, and between teaching (and so in very brief), are some more thoughts — in more than 140 characters, on this important topic…:

[Note: if you haven’t heard the programme, I suggest you do that first, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01r5ps2; go 35 minutes in.]

I see no reason to quarrel with Keith Laws’s claim that psychologists selectively handle, frame etc their data in order to present novel positive findings and that this way of doing their work is systemic and fits well with journals’, editors’ and reviewers’ worrying desire for novelty for the sake of it, etc. . So there is some bedrock agreement between Laws and I. But I am unsure as to whether Laws appreciates what the real – deep — differences are between psychology and disciplines like geology, astronomy and physics. And does he really have a good understanding of how such sciences operate, or is he wedded to a simplistic picture, namely a Popperian one? If one is making the claim that Psychology, it if adopted a ‘rigorously’ Falsificationist methodology, would be more like other sciences, then it would be helpful to be confident that other sciences had adopted such a methodology themselves! And I have zero such confidence, for reason I will explain.

It seems to me that Laws treats truth as the sole scientific virtue much as Rawls does justice with regards to institutions (see the opening of Rawls’s A THEORY OF JUSTICE – as critiqued by me for instance here: http://rupertread.fastmail.co.uk/Wittgenstein%20vs%20Rawls.doc (paper published in the Proceedings of the Kirchberg Wittgenstein Colloquium, a few years back)). Rejecting a theory as false can be called finding a truth, but is it an interesting, significant truth or is it a mere triviality? There is nothing scientific in piling up truth upon truth. More needs to be said about the content of psychology, about its problems and its concepts. As I pointed up in the programme: Kuhn would suggest that improved qualitative understanding is what serious scientific advance is about, and that Popperian Falsificationism is an almost-complete misunderstanding of how real science actually works (Because all theories are born refuted; because if science were as Popper insisted it should be, then it would (ironically) be more like much philosophy or ‘social science’ than real science (because scientists would always be tearing everything up and starting all over again, rather than progressing); because Popper missed the massive phenomenon of ‘normal science’; & crucially because science needs to be based in a shared qualitative understanding of science based normally in a widely-accepted breakthrough).

Roughly: Does psychology have a ‘paradigm’? It looks in fact that it has too many (viz.: psychologIES), or none, rather than one. (For explication, see the relevant chapters of my and Sharrock’s KUHN (Polity, 2002), and our shortly-forthcoming piece in Kindi’s edited collection marking the 50th anniversary of Kuhn’s STRUCTURE, on social/human ‘science’ vs. natural science. Cf. also what I said in my NightWaves appearance on the 50th anniversary of the STRUCTURE: http://rupertsread.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/me-on-radio3-on-science.html ).

Sure enough, Laws demonstrates that the formal requirements of statistical method are not adhered to in psychology and that in cases where they are they might still leave room for gerrymandering (Why they do so in my view takes us partly back to psychology’s concepts and partly back to the comparison to other sciences/disciplines – as I mentioned in my first remarks in the programme). But suppose these problems were in fact solved through enforced replication. Would psychology fare any better? Granted its house would be orderly in a sense, but would it be closer to being a science? My suggestion is that things might, ironically, then be even worse: because psychology would then look more like the scientific image of science, while not actually being any closer to being or being able to be the kind of discipline that Kuhn talks about, when he talks – on the basis, recall, of extensive work as a historian of science – of the nature of actual sciences. (For more detail on why, see my and Sharrock’s KUHN, and also (and especially) my recent WITTGENSTEIN AMONG THE SCIENCES. In particular, Part 2 of the latter dissects some claims on the part of psychologists to match what (in Part 1 of the book) I argue real science is: roughly, Kuhnian puzzle-solving within a research tradition, in a field that is not one that we construct and inhabit just by virtue (following here Schutz and Garfinkel and Wittgenstein) of being competent social actors. (Cf. on this also my, Hutchinson’s and Sharrock’s THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SOCIAL SCIENCE.).)

If psychology were indeed a Popperian-style science it wouldn’t be a very good science – the operations which are designed to replicate (sic.!) the procedures of ‘genuine sciences’ are only pale imitations of their originals and the attempt to deliver ‘scientific achievements’ by means of ‘[allegedly] scientific procedures’ doesn’t yield any genuinely powerful findings, just vast and sprawling literatures and vast and weak databases. For, of course, wearing the outer trappings of science doesn’t make something into a science. But: psychology doesn’t need to be one – better understanding doesn’t only come from science. To think that it does is scientism.
My kind (and also Laws’s kind) of criticisms of our modern pseudo-sciences are regularly issued (and equally regularly disregarded) by the practitioners and methodologists and observers of those pseudo-sciences. To put the point polemically: Established Psychology is one of those juggernauts that Wittgenstein didn’t like, and rightly so. (See again the 4 programmes archived at http://rupertsread.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/me-on-radio3-on-science.html for my take on this, especially the NIGHTWAVES special on Wittgenstein and my recent discussion with Glaser on scientism and ‘Enlightenment’.)
Where Popper can be useful, as Nassim Taleb reminds us, is in a different way to that proposed by Laws and assumed by worryingly-many psychologists: Namely, in undercutting the pretensions of ‘social/human science’ to be able to model and predict the future. In opening our minds instead to the necessary presence in the human world of ‘black swans’.
A valuable exercise would be to follow the procedure of Lucas and of ‘Goodhart’s Law’ (implicit in 2.4 of my WITTGENSTEIN AMONG THE SCIE NCES, and cf. http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=4367 ) and to look into the extent to which it is conceptually absurd to think of Psychology as a timeless body of knowledge, because of the extent of its historicity and of absorption of any teaching it has into what we know and do (and thus adaptation of our expectations etc, and undercutting of that teaching). What has been done for Economics needs doing for Psychology too, before the latter results in some analogue caused by the latter of the credit crunch/crash… . And hereabouts, as I pointed out in the programme (and on twitter), is then another severe limit on the extent to which Psychology is in principle scientifisable: The nature of human learning, and the way in which Psychology feeds back into our society, makes Psychology constitutively ill-suited to being genuinely scientific in nature and outcome (because psychology is inherently unpredictable; by which I mean: there are inherent limits on its predictability, limits far deeper than those present in (e.g.) quantum phenomena. Limits analogous to those sketched by Taleb vis a vis Economics.).
Ironically: the more impact Psychology has, the less like a science – the less like chemistry or astronomy, etc. – it can be. Psychology cannot be scientific because our psychology plays a dance with it (psychological subjects inherently resist (or sometimes, sadly, welcome – but again, actively) objectification – see on this Michel Henry’s BARBARISM, and Merleau-Ponty’s magnificent manifesto of anti-psychologism, THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF PERCEPTION), while in actual sciences there is a more simple dialectic of subject and object.
I could go on, talking for instance about why Psychology just ain’t in the head; but this is I hope sufficient for now, to indicate the bases of my disquiet, and to provide some sources.
In sum and in short, then: Laws’s are familiar problems to anyone who thinks about rather than buys into professionalised social/human science including psychology, and it is helpful of him to have raised them, and pointed out ways in which Psychology does not live up to its main corporate (Popperian) self-image. But this tells us nothing about whether such a self-image is actually desirable. Law’s paper doesn’t address the serious question – what does all this (i.e. what Laws tells us) actually tell us about the aggregate value of that vast multitude of studies already out there? I would hazard that that value is, unfortunately, far lower than most Psychologists would like us to believe. Laws and his friends are too concerned with the processing of Psychological work, and not concerned enough with the content of what’s being processed.

[With thanks to Wes Sharrock and Leonidas Tsilipakos for input.]

Leave a comment ?


  1. Or to put it very very briefly, as a student once put it: ‘Anyone who thinks Psychology is a science needs to have his head examined’… 😉

  2. Physicists have been in a tizz for a century just because particles can’t make their minds up (to adopt an anthropomorphic metaphor) whether they are particles or not, or because particles can’t make their minds up whether they are coming or going at the same time as making their minds up about the speed at which they are coming or going.

    Psychology subjects not only don’t know what they really are, or whether they are coming or going, they’ll also lie to you about it, and often do not know they’re lying to you. I’d like to see a physicist deal with that degree of contrariness and uncertainty.


  3. Physicists have been in a tizz for a century just because particles can’t make their minds up (to adopt an anthropomorphic metaphor) whether they are particles or not, or because particles can’t make their minds up whether they are coming or going at the same time as making their minds up about the speed at which they are coming or going.

    Psychology subjects not only don’t know what they really are, or whether they are coming or going, they’ll also lie to you about it, and often do not know they’re lying to you. I’d like to see a physicist deal with that degree of contrariness and uncertainty.


    Early psychology was pretty much a black art.

    The definition of science is illusive. Mine is: science is nothing more than humans trying to find stuff out. But in acknowledging our personal human fallibilities with regard to our sensory limitations, our limited rational assessment of anything, then science is a collection of methods (hard to pin down to a singular ‘methodology’) that are attempts to find stuff out more rigorously in order to compensate for our personal fallibilities.

    Though we have the impression that our ability to understand our personal selves is reliable (and it is sufficiently reliable under many conditions), it is a gross mistake to think that our introspection comes anywhere close to what science can offer.

    Rupert, “Keith wants to make psychology more scientific and he thinks this is possible.”

    Rupert, “Why do disciplines want to be categorised as sciences in the first place.”

    But part of Rupert’s answer is, “science is where the money is”, which I find to be nonsense. Quack psychologists have been able to make a very good living with very little science – just a couch a pencil and a pad. Why on earth would you think they could earn more money by being scientists?

    There may be the personal pride issues that very human psychologists suffer from, wanting the kudos associated with ‘real’ science. But that can apply to any scientist.

    But even so, I should say that we outside a particular science, like psychology, should want it to be more science-like, in that we want it to be more reliable. And don’t mistake the continued difficulties in a discipline like psychology as total failure: it has improved grossly on much of the quackery of its past by being put to the challenge to demonstrate its science credentials.

    Rupert, “Psychology is about us and it’s unclear that we need a paradigm that is imposed upon us by a bunch of experts in order to understand ourselves. … Interrogating ourselves is much more complicated.”

    Well, yes it is; but not only for science but for ourselves too. Introspection is hopeless when the brain is going wrong. In physics the instruments used have to be calibrated and tested to make sure they are working right in order to get reliable results. In introspection the very subject you are examining, the human mind, is the very instrument you are using to examine it, and if it’s faulty in the first place how can you expect it to provide the right assessment. Introspection is the wrong tool for the job.

    Rupert, “It’s not that it is more complicated… we already understand ourselves. We have understanding of ourselves from within, if you like.”

    George, “You speak for yourself Rupert!”

    Quite! That was such a nonsensical statement by Rupert I find it hard to believe he would make it. You only have to read something like “The Tell-Tale Brain”, by V. S. Ramachandran, and it becomes patently clear that we do not understand ourselves when we are broken. And if we are broken we are not always likely to recognise that we are, to take up again the metaphor of an instrument calibrating and testing itself.

    Rupert, “We start from a position of some degree of self-understanding”

    Well, yes. But we also start from some degree of understanding that the Sun goes around the Earth, or that continents don’t move about on the surface of the Earth. This is the very point of science, to compensate for when our degree of understanding, of things or of ourselves, is not sufficient.

    Keith, “People don’t have insight; don’t intuitive knowledge about their motivations or the causes of their own behaviour. It’s well documented by psychologists [and more so by neuroscience] that people have incredibly poor insight about what drives their own behaviour. I guarantee Rupert that any knowledge you have about what drives your behaviour is probably false.”

    Yes. I wonder what drives Rupert’s behaviour to persuade him that introspection is sufficiently reliable that humans might not need the help of psychologists [or neuroscientists, or any third party] to fathom out what’s going on within.

    Rupert’s objection to the Millgram experiment’s reproducibility is one of the trickier aspects of psychology. Keith’s response was fine, but it is a genuine problem. As is the problem I pointed out in my earlier comment comparing physics to psychology. The subjects of psychology are contrary. And that’s why neuroscience is beginning to be more helpful to psychology.

    There are differences between all disciplines. Psychology is still to some extent a behavioural black box science; and the trouble with that is that different internal problems (that require different fixes) can result in the same external behaviour; and the same internal problem can result in different behaviours in different people, or even in the same person at different time under different conditions. But neuroscience is opening up the black box of the mind by examining the brain, so more and more psychology is done in the light of neuroscience, and is learning from that and other disciplines.

    I’m not disputing that there are problems that make some psychology unreliable, unscientific even, in some cases. But that should lead to a desire to make it better, rather than this simplistic dismissive.

    Rupert, “It would be helpful to … humanities …. philosophy”

    Oh, for pity’s sake no! Philosophy already ignores so much that has become well understood in neuroscience. Philosophy is not the way to go. You only have to look around the pages of this blog to see that much of it hasn’t moved on since the Greeks.

    “We are all psychologists, but that’s not something you can say meaningfully about physics.”

    Quite wrong. We live our lives in a physical world and there are many aspects of physics that we do use throughout our daily lives – we are just so used to living this way we take it for granted.

    Rupert is making a real big mistake here, in that he is passing off our limited fallible intuitions as psychology but does not allow our intuitive understanding of the physical world to be physics.

    He is portraying all of physics as this distant, almost magically separate, experience that only scientists can understand. Spend some time on youtube and you’ll see countless ‘experiments’ with everyday objects that we take for granted – the only difference is that we don’t always know the details of how a physics scientist frames them.

    And much of the pop psychology that passes for real psychology, done by non-psychologists, expounded in countless self-help books full of all sorts of speculative nonsense seems to be just what Rupert is suggesting is sufficient. Rediculous. We need a better, and improved, science of psychology, working alongside neuroscience.

    Keith doesn’t find many philosophers have great insight; and I’d agree. They have an inflated view of their own abilities to achieve insights because they feel their discipline gives them the tools. But those important but rather easy to acquire tools are not so easy to apply consistently and I see philosophers failing just as much as anyone. Perhaps they don’t get out enough.

    I’d like Rupert to name some current working philosophers and their ideas he thinks have particular insight into human behaviour.

  4. Ron:

    From my experience, I don’t see that therapists who work with a couch, pencil and pad are quacks.

    There may be some quacks who work like that, but then again, there are quacks and frauds in almost every line of work.

    Those who work with couches, pencils and pads may not be scientific in their approach, but distressed people often need “things” that science so far cannot offer.

  5. swallerstein,

    I agree. The difficulty is that it’s easy for a quack to pass off their work as scientifically based. As is the case with much ‘complementary’ medicine too.

    I agree totally with your last point, particularly with respect to “that science so far cannot offer”. This is the basis on which much new science proceeds – first steps are tentative, and often flawed. I acknowledge fully how much philosophy and religion has contributed to human wellbeing in our ignorant past; though in their own ignorance have done much harm too.

    I am acknowledging this particular difficulty with regards to psychology that makes it difficult for good science in psychology to win out. That’s why psychology needs to do more and better science, and not, as Rupert’s suggestions would imply, let the door remain open for quackery because he thinks we can understand ourselves introspectively.

    To put this into the context of our previous discussions I would generally portray the situation like this, for just a few subjects, in terms of increasing availability of empirical support, particularly with regard to understanding humans:

    theology/mysticism -> philosophy -> psychology -> neuroscience -> biology -> physics

    It also gets harder to do in that direction, with regard to humans. Physics does pretty well for stars and atoms but it’s difficult to frame our understanding of ourselves in terms of physics – great empirical support, but hard to apply to human scale problems. On the other hand theology and philosophy are easier to apply, but have less empirical support and so let in more crap. But biology and neuroscience have been coming along well and are contributing to weeding out the bad psychology, and together these sciences are approaching a much better system of human understanding that allows us to reject the junk and get as much empirical support as we can.

    The reason people want to make their particular domain ‘scientific’ is, despite what Rupert says, because they see that science actually does produce better results – it works. If I was practicing psychology now, knowing its history, I’d damned well want to make sure, as much as possible, that what I’m doing is actually right and is working and has some empirical support. It may not yet work as well as we’d like for psychology, but it’s early days in the contribution of neuroscience to psychology, and psychology has a legacy of much woo of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    Sadly, there are still plenty of philosophers living in ivory towers – the ivory towers, of course, being the delusional ones in their own heads. Fortunately some philosophers are coming round to this idea of the need to support their ideas, and are engaging in experimental philosophy.

    Back to my list: the ‘apparent’ relevance to human understanding seems to be perceived to be in the reverse order for many people; but that’s often because it’s easier to make unsupported claims in that direction and to convince people that you know what you’re talking about.

    The difficulty in this respect is that that something like religious comfort can work to help someone without there being any need for the factual claims about God or Jesus to be true at all. Same for philosophy – feeling you understand a problem can at least make you feel in greater control, even if you’re not; so philosophical ‘systems’ have often been fashionable (like the fads that Rupert attributes to some psychology). Placebo effects often do a good job. But this very understanding of placebos, the psychological effect of what makes religion, philosophy, psychology work for some people is becoming better understood through science.

    Theology may have been an important contributor to stabilising early civilisation enough to allow humans to develop further. And philosophy has been a great contributor too. But in just a short few centuries science has come to what it is now. The problem is that the fear of ‘scientism’ still makes people resistant too it, too eager to point of the human inflicted flaws in science and less likely to recognise the far greater flaws in other supposed ‘ways of knowing’. Theologians and philosophers are the biggest culprits in this misrepresentation of the efficacy of science compared to their own disciplines.

  6. Ron:

    Psychoanalytically oriented therapy has nothing to do with introspection.

    In fact, it is based on the idea that people do not know themselves well, that they repress aspects of themselves or deny aspects of themselves or lie to themselves and that another person, the therapist, can help one see oneself with more clarity.

  7. swallerstein,

    I’m not sure where in what I said you took that I thought it did.

    The whole point is that Rupert is advocating introspection and specifically saying he thinks we don’t need psychology to help us understand ourselves; whereas much of neuroscience and psychology, and much common sense, demonstrates that we don’t understand ourselves so well and do need science. So, in response to Rupert I’m saying we need the science, but also accepting some of his criticisms of psychology it needs to be done better to make it a better science.

  8. When I hear the word ‘introspection’ I reach for my revolver… 😉
    Wittgenstein, Winch, Merleau-Ponty et al are not talking about ‘introspection’. They are talking about the way in which (including ‘even’ in psychotherapy) we _express_ _ourselves_ by speaking, about the way in which our concepts saturate psychology in a way untrue of physics (Compare the centrality of a word like ‘belief’ in everyday discourse, compared to the irrelevance of words like ‘electron’ or ‘quanta’ to such discourse), about the way in which our very perceptions are constituted in a way that precedes and eludes scientisation, etc.

  9. Ron:

    I did not claim that you believe that psychoanalytically-oriented therapy depends on introspection. Excuse me, if my intention was not clear.

    My clarification was directed at any readers (if there are readers) who might not understand the limits of introspection and who might believe that what I call psychoanalytically-oriented therapy (since classic psychoanalysis is not used much these days, as far as I know) depends on introspection.

  10. It all depends on what you mean by Psychology. There are a distinctive number of different branches of this subject Some are as follows
    Abnormal Psychology
    Behavioural psychology
    Cognitive Psychology
    Comparative Psychology
    Cross cultural Psychology
    Developmental Psychology
    Educational psychology

    Each of these branches has its own special difficulty, which make it to my mind difficult to write in such manner as would apply to all. Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian Psychopathologies probably always were, and certainly now, are not regarded as relying on scientific method. That is not to say that at times interesting explanations never arose there from, which had a ring of truth, and or workability about them. Freud’s Id, Ego, and Super Ego, does give some indication of what may be going on in the Human brain and he did think that these were governed by brain structures which would eventually be identified. This is no longer a workable hypothesis. I do not include these disciplines in the above mentioned 8 branches of psychology.
    The object of any science and I include all the 8 breaches of Psychology here is explanation. And explanation in accordance with the principles of scientific method, which relies heavily on statistical analysis in the matter of psychology. In this connection we are here studying to a large extent animal/human behaviour. This is not like physics where results say in atomic research, can be when established, to apply to all atoms. The whole animal world has specific variations which make generalising at times very difficult. This is most apparent in Social science, a discipline the progress of which nowhere near matches that or Physical science.
    My first introduction to Scientific method, The principle of Induction and yes Popper’s Falsifiability principle came many years ago at University studying Psychology. I remember being intrigued by the scrupulousness and exactitude off all we did and were taught. The manner in which beginning with observation, one formed an hypothesis then an experiment to verify that hypothesis and from there on the writing of a scientific paper giving full clear details of all that had been done in great detail even the scientific instruments were described. Statistical analysis was vital and it has to be the the right kind of test out of many options to substantiate the point we wished to make,
    Now if this is not scientific method then I don’t know what is.
    Rupert says “Or to put it very very briefly, as a student once put it: ‘Anyone who thinks Psychology is a science needs to have his head examined’… “

    Personally I can see no way of reaching acceptable explanations in Psychology other than by the scientific method. yes they may be wrong but someone will eventually spot a problem and correct it, well they possibly will, if the paper is published in a Respective relevant Journal. Thus science marches on, its results are always tentative and subject to amendment in the light of new knowledge.
    I have not had the time to read this blog in full so possibly I may have misunderstood the point being made. However it seems to me, that if the criticism is about people who set themselves up as Shrinks Psychotherapists with their own special made up set of ideas and applications all words and no scientific background of established knowledge then if we believe them we probably do need our heads examined. People of that nature are not scientific I hasten to add that quite likely they may well have successes you know you pay your money and take a chance. But to my mind that is not Psychology.

  11. “Compare the centrality of a word like ‘belief’ in everyday discourse, compared to the irrelevance of words like ‘electron’ or ‘quanta’ to such discourse”

    What about the terms ‘motion’, ‘momentum’, ‘matter’, ‘force’ and so on. Each carries very different meanings when expressed in terms of intuitive physics from the formal and operationalised study of physics. Likewise terms such as ‘intelligence’, ‘activation’ and yes, even in certain areas ‘belief’ all take on specific and clear meaning as objects of psychological study quiet separate from the everyday uses employed in reference to such notions.

    Our understanding of the human mind is not yet so fundamental to have direct parallels to the choice terms you take from physics but psychology has cut itself off from common discourse just as successfully as the young physics of the 17th/18th century. And this turn has allowed for the accumulation of structured scientific knowledge.

  12. I am a psychologist, and I agree that much of what we do is ‘unscientific.’ They don’t teach critical thinking in psychology or require students to have any familiarity with the philosophy of mind or deductive reasoning, though we desperately need it. I explain why in this youtube video:

  13. Rupert,

    On hearing ‘introspection’ is the revolver for suicide or murder?

    “It’s not that it is more complicated… we already understand ourselves. We have understanding of ourselves from within, if you like.”

    That sounds like you’re referring to introspection.

    “we _express_ _ourselves_”

    Well, yes. When we express ourselves on the matter of the electron we are expressing ourselves on it from a third person perspective, because we don’t have the sensory capacity to examine our neurons let alone our electrons from first person POV. But when we “we _express_ _ourselves_” about ourselves using an “understanding of ourselves from within”, then that sounds pretty much like introspection to me.

    So much of what you said in the programme not only raising fair criticisms about psychology, with which I agree, but also seems to be arguing against it altogether.

    Psychology is waiting for neuroscience to provide more data to link what’s happening in the brain to the outer cognitive behaviour so psychology can build more reliable psychological models (the theories that Brad speaks of).

  14. Ron; I was thinking more of what Jim has just said. I.e. Self-expression is not usually a matter of ‘introspection’. ‘Introspection’ is a very specialised and relatively rare activity. It is when the term is used as a catch-all that I feel like shooting someone (either me or the user – just so long as it stops! 😉

  15. Thanks Brad.

    My view, following Winch, is that much psychology is misbegotten philosophy.

    Another fun-polemical way of putting my point would be as follows:

    Here is a moment of film of the original ‘cargo cults’ (it’s from a movie called Mondo Cane, part of a sixties sub-genre of what ought to be called anthropoexploitation movies): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmlYe2KS0-Y

    And here is Richard Feynman’s lecture in which he uses the cargo-cults as an example of merely imitative science: http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.pdf

    So the question is: is psychology (fully accepting here that this is of course massive over-simplification: as made clear above, there are different branches of psychology, etc) a ‘cargo-cult science’? In which one copies all the proceedures religiously (sic.), but nothing happens…

  16. Brad asks good questions. Reminds me of Wittgenstein’s important remark at the very end of PI Part II: In psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusions. The former can’t get one ought of the latter!

  17. Don,

    I agree with your assessment, for those branches of psychology.

    Some of the sub-disciplines you mention clearly are on the right track by incorporating biology and neuroscience insights. Many neuroscientists start off as psychologists, and those I’ve read seem to need to move to neuroscience because they want an empirical understanding of the mind/brain.

    But then see Brad’s branch, and his site here: http://www.bpeters.ca

  18. Brad,

    Your site page, What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? I think illustrates the point you’re are making about the difficulty of applying empiricism to your branch of psychology. It has a pastoral element that is there specifically to “put the individual on more of an equal footing with the psychologist, while acknowledging that the person seeking treatment will play an active role in the collaborative therapy process and must also share some responsibility for resolving the core issues they are looking to address.” And, as expressed on this page, is aimed at prevention; which I think is significant since persistant mild problems, or early stage big problems, can lead to stronger clinical conditions if ignored.

    As such I suppose there is a case to be made that to some extent the model used need not be harmful, though it can be. To the ‘clients’ of many very kind and generous religious pastors it probably doesn’t matter whether a divine Jesus exists or not in what we call reality [Rupert’s “In which one copies all the procedures religiously” being on-point in this regard], as long as the client finds the whole ‘experience’ (another term you use) efficacious. But just as some religious beliefs can be quite harmful I’m sure there are examples of psychology models being so far off the mark that they actually lead to more harm than good. So I can see that an empirical foundation for psychology models is highly desirable, and something you support.

    How do you measure efficacy of clients that don’t return, or even those that complete a course with you and leave saying they feel better? How do you do follow-ups? When a big part of your service is “offering an experience” (and I can appreciate that it is and that clients may find it efficacious to avoid a more clinical approach) how do you introduce empiricism into that domain?

    To pick up another point of Rupert’s,: “much psychology is misbegotten philosophy”, then reading your pages, such as Existential Therapy, I’m tempted to see his point. But then I would make the point that much philosophy is already misbegotten – and I often find too much similarity between models of reality offered in theology, psychology and philosophy**. If anything your page there seems to be a reasonably rational way to approach existential anxiety – acknowledge we have these thoughts from time to time and stop worrying about them* – because there is a distinction between the intellectual philosophical pursuit of these questions and the psychologically painful anxiety they can induce in some people. And for some philosophers perhaps both apply – do you treat many philosophers?

    I would suggest that you are right that psychology needs more empirical science, but not that it needs more philosophy and might benefit from less. Critical thinking is now a tool kindly delivered from philosophy, but, like science itself, now a utility for all disciplines and does not require a significant devotion to philosophy.

    [* I take that stopping of the anxiety to be the efficacious outcome, since you can’t offer immortality as a solution]

    [** The similarity being not in the specific content but in the apparent commitment to believing speculative models to be representative of reality and drawing prescriptive and proscriptive commandments from them without good empirical evidence for doing so. In this regard the meaning of ‘scientism’ that you refer to, often fired at scientists, seems more aptly directed at some theologians, psychologists and philosophers.]

  19. hi Ron. I totally agree that the problem is almost as bad in Philosophy as it is in Psychology! Philosophy too is rampantly scientistic, and indeed psychologistic.
    What we have going for us in Philosophy is a less thoroughgoing scientistic self-image, and a greater preponderance of wise voices, some of them I name above, in our history. Philosophy unlike Psychology has not been in the main ‘programmatic’ in its ambitions [in the manner that I discuss in the ‘Lecture Transcripts’ at the opening of my WITTGENSTEIN AMONG THE SCIENCES.].

  20. @ Rupert…
    “So the question is: is psychology … a ‘cargo-cult science’? In which one copies all the proceedures religiously (sic.), but nothing happens…”

    I like the comparison… maybe there’s something to it. I think sometimes when we don’t see the results we want, we often say: “just look harder!” The problem is in some ways the same as that for the other sciences, but for us, far worse, since the object of inquiry is partially subjective (versus objective), and also because our paradigms are more likely to be taken for granted (since they are comparatively ‘untethered’ from the physical world). If an evolutionary psychologist, for example, did not find psychological evidence for a particular ‘mental module,’ it might refute that particular hypothesis, but the paradigm remains intact (even if it is founded on poor reasoning). In other words, we are not good at ensuring that our paradigms/theories are falsifiable.

    @ Ron…
    “How do you measure efficacy of clients that don’t return, or even those that complete a course with you and leave saying they feel better? How do you do follow-ups?”

    Well, we usually don’t do long-term follow up… though if I had more resources, I would definitely do that. I seem to have a very low drop-out rate… at least in comparison to what colleagues report in casual conversation. I’d guess that it might have something to do with the fact that I am always ‘assessing’ client-therapist rapport. Psychologists ought to be good at ‘making sense of’ the client’s problem and we gently push them in a direction believed to help resolve the issue that a client is concerned with. This can be a discomforting process, which is why it is very important to be able to ‘read’ someone’s level of discomfort and your rapport with a given client. I will always ask a client questions such as: “how are we doing today?” “how are you feeling about this conversation just now?” “does our work appear to be helpful at all?” “would you feel comfortable telling me if it was not?” If I sense that there is a ‘distance’ between us, I will express my intuitive feeling, and see if there is any truth to it, while working through potential ‘impasses’ or ‘misalignments.’

    “When a big part of your service is “offering an experience” (and I can appreciate that it is and that clients may find it efficacious to avoid a more clinical approach) how do you introduce empiricism into that domain?”

    Same as above. It is not so much ’empirical’ as an asking about the client’s subjective thoughts and feelings, though sometimes you can also get objective data. For example, I might have a client who presents with neurological symptoms (e.g. difficulty walking due to severe muscle weakness); physical pathology has been ruled out by several physicians. Let’s say that I ask the client about the symptom onset and discover that that it coincides with the anniversary of their mother’s death. I have a working hypothesis that there might be some unresolved feelings about this loss. I test my hypothesis by asking questions about it. I gather ‘evidence’ by the fact that the client shows signs of unconscious anxiety (e.g. sighing, tapping their foot), and in their efforts to change the subject (note: if there were only mild signs of previously worked-through sadness, or at least no anxiety, my hypothesis is likely to be discredited… and I’d perhaps go in a different direction). In future sessions, I persist on the topic and challenge the person to recognize their avoidance and their anxiety… this generally causes a crisis moment, where the anxiety and defense mechanisms falter under continued pressure, flooding the person with their repressed feeling about their mother’s death (e.g. sadness, anger, regret, etc.). This is quite a visceral ‘experience’ in every sense of the word. Now, here’s the important part insofar as it relates to objective evidence… you ask the person to stand, and inquire about any muscle weakness… they will often note that their symptoms have lessened, which suggests that the issue was indeed repressed affect exhibiting itself through conversion symptoms.

    “… there is a distinction between the intellectual philosophical pursuit of these questions and the psychologically painful anxiety they can induce in some people.”

    I could not agree more. And yes, we would tend to focus on the latter.

    “And for some philosophers perhaps both apply – do you treat many philosophers?”

    No, but they are a challenging lot to work with. Like most intelligent people, they are more likely to engage in intellectualization (e.g. they might be good at thinking about their feelings, but have a hard time feeling them). It all depends on where a person is ‘stuck’ – I think it definitely helps me from time to time, to be aware of philosophical issues as it relates to meaning and death, but that would be in rarer cases to be sure.

  21. Thanks Brad! Great stuff.
    [Could you please post up part II of your video?]

  22. I am fascinated by the quasi-religious deference we accord to anything labeled a “science”. There clearly is a psychological power to that association which would be eagerly sought in any field. I suspect there is a demarcation here between purely phenomenological sciences like Physics and Chemistry and emergent order ‘sciences’ like Psychology, Sociology, and Economics.

  23. Lee,

    Since science specifically isn’t about affirmation, praxis, deference to authority, or faith I don’t know why you think it quasi-religious deference. The very opposite. Admiring the success of some methods while at the same time being critical of where they don’t work in order to promote more reliable successes seems more like common sense.

    I don’t think the demarcation is that simple. You leave out organic chemistry, biology, neuroscience. And, each has its own sub-disciplines. So I think there’s a range of difficulties according to how generally deterministic and non-chaotic the subject matter is. My first comment on this post was an attempt to express the difference between physics and psychology, and that’s applying psychology to a single subject/person. Economics has to deal with untold such subjects all mutually competing to different degrees, and what’s more many of them are lying SOB’s, so all predictability bets are off. Economics is a bit like cosmology – by the time you’ve figured out what happened several billion years have elapsed.

  24. Thanks Rupert. Here is part 2 of that video (I hoped it would have automatically linked).

  25. It is my opinion that psychology is not a science. Further, I think this important discipline has been damaged by attempts to make it one. Psychology deals with far too much subjective human stuff to be able to use tools such as reductionism or the scientific method. Then again, psychology is surely not an art. I leave it to psychologists with actual, practical, experience to tell us what psychology is, and what it does. ❓

  26. Hi Ron,

    “Since science specifically isn’t about affirmation, praxis, deference to authority, or faith I don’t know why you think it quasi-religious deference.”

    Yes, in theory. In practice, science no more resembles its theoretical (ideal) counterpart than religion does. Science manifests in the form of (human) scientists, and their work, just as religion manifests in the form of (human) priests, and their work. In both cases, the theoretical entity is sometimes horribly mangled by its human practitioners.

    Your words accurately describe what science is in theory. They are much less relevant to science as it is presented and practiced by scientists. But here, in the real world, in practice, is where we all encounter science. How much point is there in describing its utopian visage, which has so little in common with protecting reputations, scrambles for tenure, faked data, and so on?

  27. Interesting quotation from American Philosopher John Dewey “Scientific theories are instrumenmts or tools for coping with reality” God knows what goes on outside of the human mind. Additionally the first priority of the human mind is self preservation. What works for us as such and such,the Anthropomorphic viewpoint, may not be an exact expression of what in reality is the case. I guess most of us know this, but I think it often requires a little more consideration.

  28. “Psychology deals with far too much subjective human stuff to be able to use tools such as reductionism or the scientific method.”

    Yes but it also deals extensively with Animal stuff. We may not always be, in psychology, able to apply scientific method par excellence but generally adaptations and or additions are made to research methods which will generate an explanation which can be rejected, accepted, found, to work and also if you like have the quality of Falsifiability. Nothing is perfect we have to make do with what we have got and adapt it to whatever we are trying to discover or explain. This is what I mean by scientific method; a thorough painstaking sincere procedure which employs all the existing knowledge man has agreed is most probably the case in a supreme effort to further human knowledge perhaps in one small department of Nature. If you do your psychology like this surely it is in the nature of scientific endeavour and in any case a psychological paper will indicate problems in method and subjects which may be seen as difficult if not impossible to deal with adequately.

  29. In order to not get confused, we have to be clear whether we are talking about science as it is actually practiced or Science as an ideal, just as there is a huge difference between, say, democracy as it actually occurs in the U.S. or the U.K. or other countries which are generally considered to be democratic and Democracy in theory, in the books.

  30. Re Swallerstein

    As practiced I think. Presumably it has to be as near as practically possible to the ideal. As I said Scienticic method par excellance is, depending on the subject matter, not always possible. If it fails in this respect, “being as near as practically possible” it is surely just bad science and I am not saying that never occurs

  31. Don Bird:

    I haven’t been inside a science lab since school, 50 years ago, and I may be wrong, but I assume that human nature is fairly constant and that petty corruption, favoritism and cheating occur everywhere, from the post office to the banks to the science lab.

    I don’t see why scientists would be any less or more corrupt than people who issue bank loans.

    Of course, corruption varies from culture to culture and some cultures are less corrupt than others. Most would say that the Netherlands is less corrupt than Venezuela.

    So maybe scientific culture attracts fewer corrupt people than does banking culture. I have no idea.

    I always count my change everywhere, in any case.

  32. So that no one accuses me of racism, here is Transparency International ranking of perceptions of corruption.


  33. “… in any case a psychological paper will indicate problems in method and subjects which may be seen as difficult if not impossible to deal with adequately.”

    Yes and no. Theoretical paradigms (e.g. cognitive, behavioral, evolutionary psychology, existential, etc.) tend to be conceptually insulated. This means that if I am a behaviorist, I might recognize study limitations from the view of my favored paradigm, but an information-processing theorist or evolutionary psychologist might have additional thoughts or see additional limitations that I would not recognize because I have not allowed myself to think in those terms (if I was a behaviorist, I would probably regard these paradigms as vapid or uninteresting).

    It is also an unsaid understanding that in the ‘study limitations’ section, we tend to be a little dishonest by noting (and minimizing) the less problematic concerns. The real big ones are usually conceptual… related to the paradigm. Usually some philosopher will easily point it out and some metaphysical issue blows up in the face of any psychologist willing to pay attention to it. More often than not, however, we just ignore it. Take Raymond Tallis’ book ‘Aping Mankind,’ where he critiques neuroscience and evolutionary psychology… scathing critiques, but our field will pay no attention to them… after all, he’s just thinking stuff… we’re doing research, and that is the hallmark of real science. 😉

  34. This is an argument riddled with controversy, which owes largely to the contentiousness of the premises.

    From what I can tell, Rupert’s complaints about the social sciences come from a Kuhn-styled proposal about how to demarcate science from philosophy. So, he argues that real science is “roughly, Kuhnian puzzle-solving within a research tradition, in a field that is not one that we construct and inhabit just by virtue … of being competent social actors.”

    The first part of the quote gives expression to a pretty unusual view. I doubt that Kuhn himself would have said that normal science exhausts all that there is to science.

    The second part of the quote is one I agree with: science must be more than just something that follows trivially from playing our part in a social game. Science is not just a kind of social game.

    But then again, most institutions are not just kinds of games, either. Many of them are productive enterprises, which can be calibrated according to their instrumental effectiveness, and not just the rules set up by whoever. Big science is an example of a productive institution (hence, we have cell phones). Social science is productive in a similar sense (hence, we have the panopticon).

    Granted, you may need some normal research programme in order to even make sense of the idea that science is productive. But it seems to me that what you surely don’t need is the hegemony of a single normal programme. If the social sciences have a bunch of co-habitating programmes, then that is not by itself sufficient grounds to deem them unscientific. Why should we ever expect such uniformity?

  35. BLS: Kuhn DID believe that virtually all science was normal science. Now, of course, most of us (including in some ways Kuhn!) tend to be most interested in science at times of crisis – it is then most striking; and most requiring of genius. But such times are very rare; and even when ‘extraordinary science’ is taking place, most methods used are still those of normal science (as explicated in the relevant chapters of Sharrock’s and my KUHN).

  36. As argued in the ‘Normal science’ chapter of our KUHN, the problem in psychology and ‘social science’ and like-disciplines (we explicitly reference Midgeley’s critique of psychiatry: see pp.129-130) is that the warring ‘paradigms’ act as if they want to achieve total victory (i.e. act as if they really are a science). It would be fine if they acknowledged their status as one ‘view’ (as Brad wants). But they typically don’t. This is what produces the disastrous situation of ‘co-habiting paradigms’ _seeking_ hegemony.

  37. It’s true, of course, that Kuhn thought that normal science was where most of the productive value of science came from. It’s also true he thought revolutions were pretty rare. But I don’t think for a moment he would say that scientific revolutions were cases of pseudoscience, and that’s what you end up having to say if you want to remain committed to the claims I quoted from the OP. Galileo is not on all fours with homeopathy.

    I think it’s quite healthy to have competing research programmes search for the best explanation. I also think it’s inevitable that people will use different metaphors to build their theories. What I require is that, in the process of competition, the metaphor tracks the most different kinds of evidence, and explains that evidence in the simplest way all other things equal. That’s what real science aspires to achieve: consilience of evidence plus simplicity plus metaphorical strength.

  38. @Rupert Read

    Except psychology has established a paradigm over the last 50 years in the cognitive-biological approach to the study of mind and behaviour. This way of understanding psychology is as good as universal now (the outskirts that still criticise it often make a big fuss about not being scientific themselves, i.e. discourse analysis) and provides a common language for discussion of intelligence, language development, mental heuristics, personality; all across psych. Disagreements abound but they are all local and at root employ the language of this approach.

  39. BLS: I think you have seriously misunderstood me. I have no idea what you mean when you say that I say that ‘scientific revolutions are cases of pseudoscience’.

  40. I don’t say that you say that. I say that it follows logically from what you say, insofar as what you say has meaning.

    So, above, I said that you say that real science is “roughly, Kuhnian puzzle-solving within a research tradition”. But if this claim has any meaning at all, it entails that real science is normal science, while revolutionary science is not. Unreal science, then, includes revolutionary science and pseudoscience. This entailment is fraught. We can diagnose the problem in the fraughtness of your initial claim.

  41. No. Sorry if my haste was misleading. When I said ‘roughly’, I meant, roughly: ‘the vast majority of the time’. Roughly: Science is NORMALLY normal science. Our paradigm of science is (or ought to be – for it isn’t, for Popperians) normal science. And even revolutionary science is not just a descent back into philosophy: methods during extraordinary/revolutionary periods are still fairly continuous with methods in normal science.
    But I can see how what I wrote misled you, BLS – sorry for not being more precise in how I put this, too concisely, in my initial piece, above.

  42. Ah, I see. That’s fair enough.

  43. Everyone suffers at least one bad betrayal in his or her lifetime. Betrayal can happen in marriages, in committed relationships, between friends, family members, in businesses, and between two nations.

  44. Looking back over the post-NightWaves debate on twitter (not the mostly more-civilised debate here on TP), it’s revealing to see the outrage unleashed by my suggestion that Psychology ain’t science.
    I’ve been greeted with consternation(and incomprehension) for daring to question the dogma of scientism that dominates Psychology in universities and beyond, today… http://sfy.co/fGVM
    Dogmatic scientism would harry, close down and de-fund any mode of understanding that is not ‘scientific’. Compare for instance the brilliant work of Iain McGilchrist, as I’ve explored it in a previous post on this blog, to see how this works: how the scientific image seeks to dominate the world.
    Insofar as it insists on dogmatic scientism, Psychology undermines the true spirit of Popperianism – preservation of an open society.
    Mightn’t this explain why probably the world’s leading living Popperian, nassim taleb,took my side in the twitter debate…http://sfy.co/fGVM
    Popper’s real purpose in his philosophy was to question dogmatism. In that sense, isn’t I, ironically, who am the real Popperian, and not the Psychologists who explicitly pretend Popperianism…

  45. Lee: ‘I am fascinated by the quasi-religious deference we accord to anything labeled a “science”. There clearly is a psychological power to that association which would be eagerly sought in any field.’

    Good point. There is certainly prestige to be gained by association with the more successful sciences, and attaching the label “science” delivers some of that prestige. I think this makes us worry too much about whether to apply the label or not.

    Another contributory factor is our natural tendency towards reification and dichotomous thinking: it’s either science or it isn’t, and I want to know which is the case. But on a more realistic understanding of language we should see “science” as a rather vague word, and the distinction between science and non-science as a very fuzzy one. By analogy, we shouldn’t think there is a fact of the matter as to whether a 16-year-old is a child or adult. The child/adult distinction is just not that well-defined. (There may be a well-defined legal sense, but I’m using the words in an ordinary sense.)

    I think it’s more helpful to think in terms of a spectrum of scientificity, from the hardest physics down to our everyday intuitive judgements about the world. Then we might think of psychology (and that’s another vague word) as lying somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Another approach–between dichotomy and continuous spectrum–would be to introduce more categories. We might try three: hard science, soft science and non-science. Labelling psychology a soft science might feel more comfortable. We acknowledge that it’s a bit scientific, but not in the same league as physics.

    I’m speaking in broad terms here, because I don’t have much specific knowledge of psychology. Someone with more knowledge of the field would be better placed to locate psychology on the scientificity scale, though we shouldn’t think in terms of there being a precisely correct location. And perhaps (as I interpret Rupert) professional psychology isn’t significantly more scientific than our everyday “folk psychology”.

    Lee: ‘I suspect there is a demarcation here between purely phenomenological sciences like Physics and Chemistry and emergent order ‘sciences’ like Psychology, Sociology, and Economics.’

    When I hear the word “emergent” I reach for my revolver. 😉

    The way I would put it is that the latter fields are attempting to model reality at a much greater degree of abstraction (i.e. in terms of more abstract concepts). They’re forced to do so because of the vast complexity of the systems involved. Mind-level concepts, like beliefs and desires, are particularly abstract. That needn’t stop us from having general theories about them. But those theories will never be nearly so precise and reliable as our atom-level theories.

  46. Re Richard Wein

    “When I hear the word “emergent” I reach for my revolver. ;)”

    Me too. Not keen on “Epiphenomenon” either. Such words have little or no explanatory power.

  47. I’ve just listened to the radio recording. I was interested in Rupert’s comment doubting whether there is any such thing as the scientific method. I think it all depends on how you interpret that phrase. I don’t think there can be any formula or algorithm for doing science, the sort of thing that Karl Popper was looking for. But there’s a difference (albeit a fuzzy one) between doing science well and doing it badly (or not at all), and whatever constitutes doing science well could be called “employing the scientific method”. There are things we can say about how to do science well, as long as we don’t look for a complete formula or inviolable rules. Some things must be left to judgement, and we can’t reduce good judgement to a formula. But good judgement doesn’t just happen by chance. It’s a result of developing the right sorts of cognitive processes. The scientific method (as I’m using the term) includes using the right sorts of cognitive processes. Those processes exist in some sense, even if we can’t describe them.

    If you say “there’s no scientific method,” it sounds like you’re denying that there’s anything that constitutes doing good science. It makes science sound arbitrary. I would be wary of saying such a thing unless you have the opportunity to clarify what you mean.

  48. Of course there is a scientific method. How on Earth was the Higgs Bosun detected without a method employed in science? Yes there are variations depending on the subject matter and often mathematics predominates. Karl Popper advocated ‘Bold Conjectures’ in his peculiar procedure, but even so does this not often occur in the formation of an hypothesis, which may well be thought worth validating in a non Popperian manner? Interestingly J S Mill’s Canons of inductive enquiry seem to have had no mention here, and yes they can be adversely criticised here and there, but they all laid down a method of scientific enquiry which still can be exhibited today. Rather interestingly there seem to be few practising scientists today who have ever heard of Mill’s Canons. They are largely common sense about how we may do science well. Perhaps it could be argued that there are a number of Scientific methods perhaps a sort of Wittgensteinian Family where some family members have similar traits. Surely without method, science would be little better than guesswork.

  49. A couple of corrections…

    Listening to the broadcast again, I found that what Rupert actually said was “I’m skeptical that there really is this scientific method.” I took him as meaning “…this thing that people call the scientific method.” But since he said this in a context where falsificationism had just been mentioned, he might have been referring just to that particular (supposed) method. Anyway, I apologise to Rupert for paraphrasing him in a potentially misleading way.

    Also, I’ve been interpreting Rupert as questioning whether the existing practice of psychology can correctly be described as a science. But on re-reading I think he is primarily concerned with challenging how psychology is currently practised. So when he says that psychology isn’t a science, I think he is saying that the subject matter of psychology is not the sort of subject matter that is appropriate for scientific treatment. (I think the confusion arose in my mind because the word “science” can be applied both to the practice and to the subject matter, but in philosophical discussions I’m mostly concerned with the nature of the practice, and I mostly take the word as applying to that.)

  50. Thanks Richard. I basically agree with what you are saying.
    Don: of course there are methods that are used in science! But not just ONE. In particular, in crisis.

  51. “But on re-reading I think he is primarily concerned with challenging how psychology is currently practised.”

    But Psychology is a vast subject what actual department of this subject does Rupert question? And can he give us examples of Unscientific procedures which purport to give conclusions which data does not support or data-less conclusions which are no more than imaginings.
    I am thinking of Developmental Psychology here and the work of Jean Piaget, which as been censured for method. To save my self time here is a clip from Wikipedia concerning this:-

    “As Piaget believed development was a universal process, his initial sample sizes were inadequate, particularly in the formulation of his theory of infant development.[29] Piaget’s theories of infant development were based on his observations of his own three children. While this clearly presents problems with the sample size, Piaget also probably introduced confounding variables and social desirability into his observations and his conclusions based on his observations. It is entirely possible Piaget conditioned his children to respond in a desirable manner, so, rather than having an understanding of object permanence, his children might have learned to behave in a manner that indicated they understood object permanence. The sample was also very homogenous, as all three children had a similar genetic heritage and environment. Piaget did, however, have larger sample sizes during his later years.
    Development of research methods
    Piaget wanted to research in environments that would allow children to connect with some existing aspects of the world. The idea was to change the approach described in his book The Child’s Conception of the World and move away from the vague questioning interviews. This new approach was described in his book The Child’s Conception of Physical Causality, where children were presented with dilemmas and had to think of possible solutions on their own. Later, after carefully analyzing previous methods, Piaget developed a combination of naturalistic observation with clinical interviewing in his book Judgment and Reasoning in the Child, where a child’s intellect was tested with questions and close monitoring. Piaget was convinced he had found a way to analyze and access a child’s thoughts about the world in a very effective way. (Mayer, 2005) Piaget’s research provided a combination of theoretical and practical research methods and it has offered a crucial contribution to the field of developmental psychology (Beilin, 1992). “Piaget is often criticized because his method of investigation, though somewhat modified in recent years, is still largely clinical”. He observes a child’s surroundings and behavior. He then comes up with a hypothesis testing it and focusing on both the surroundings and behavior after changing a little of the surrounding. (Phillips, 1969)”
    Yes I agree Piaget’s work as criticised above is riddled with examples of bad science and we might reject it on those grounds. However looking at it pragmatically it does seem most likely to work and is still taught to those studying Developmental psychology. But not all Psychology is subject to such problems. I think whatever discipline we Consider From Anthropology to Zoology we if sincere, strive to reach a truth. This is not easy and scientific method is no magical key for unlocking the door of knowledge. We do the best we can with our tools which embrace Scientific method to a point permitted by the nature of the subject under consideration.
    We might be interested for example in discovering if the higher primates have any indication of what what we usually understand as a “Theory of Mind” and/or are they creatures which exhibit Intentionality. So How does one start to do this? Dan Dennett gives a good reply here which I think are the first steps of a scientific approach that is what we will do and how will we do it. He says:-
    “—-you decide to treat the object whose behaviour is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent  ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs” cf Dennett D 1981 “True Believers: “The Intentional Strategy and why it works.” In Heath A F (ed) Scientific Explanations. Clarendon Press Oxford.
    Here we see the formation of an hypothesis and prediction of what might happen. We then decide what observations are to be made preferably in the wild and how we can intervene without corrupting the inquiry to produce a result which may support our hypothesis. This is my idea of scientific method in psychology and it could with certain modifications be used in respect of observation of humans, Does it produce a truth? No, only a probability, again scientifically determined. I have never claimed there is only one scientific method no more than i would claim there is only one surgery there are many but they are all surgery provided they are done properly.

  52. Thanks Don. Of course you are right that Psychology is a mixed bag. I talk about some of the specifics in my side of the twitter-storm: @RupertRead. And I talk about some more at greater length in WITT AMONG THE SCIENCES.
    As for ToM: I’m not impressed. Here’s why:
    ‘Theory of Mind’ theory aims to explain what it is that autists are missing. But in the course of doing so what it actually attributes to normals is the very thing that autists struggle to develop to replace what it is that they are actually missing: an easiness at being-in-the-world, the normal ‘affordances’ of the world, etc. . It says that normals have such a theory: But that is to make all normals into brilliantly-coping autists, rather than to characterise adequately the difference between normals and autists. Claiming that we all have a ToM theory, that autists lack, and that the grasp of this theory by scientific psychologists is the scientific progress enabling us to see this, is to place all of us — normals, autists, and psychologists – on the Autism spectrum. To put the point just slightly polemically: ‘ToM’ is exactly the theory of mind that one would expect a high-functioning autist, rather than a properly right-brained normal, to come up with. Its wide acceptance indicates something deep, in my view, about how right McGilchrist is about the extent to which left-brain scientism has overtaken our culture, and also about how deep Wittgenstein’s worries about the tendency of ‘scientific’ thinking to lead us to pathologically over-generalise and reify cut. ToM is a heightened and subterranean form of the very disease of which it takes itself to be the explanation and solution.

  53. Re Rupert Read March 23rd
    I understand your viewpoint but so far as theory of mind and Autism are concerned what you say here is a scientific problem which still has to be resolved. The Theory of Mind itself is merely an artifice to enable us to speak about human/animal behaviour. We have to invent words in order that we can somehow discuss these matters. Where the science comes in will be when and if we can isolate the neural correlates which represent what we have called theory of mind. Even then we are not finished. For instance were we to discover the neural correlates of consciousness we would be no further to answering the Hard Problem of Consciousness which is how a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue. TH Huxley described this in 1866 a just as unaccountable as the appearance of Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp,
    Autism is thought to be a problem with Mirror neurons. These fire when a person sees something done and does it himself say chopping wood. Animal studies confirm this. The autistic lacks the ability to have neural discharge when watching other people doing things. Now much if this is still conjectural, tentative, but has some solid science behind it and probably going in the right direction, thus we cannot criticise this psychological study as not scientific, as it is far from finished. It could turn out to be as Colin McGinn suggested some time ago that certain problems may well be beyond our present intellectual capability. As for instance, consider Quantum Theory. We know it works the maths are OK but the results registered are way outside of normal human understanding and experience.
    So yes psychology can be in certain departments vague, conjectural, uncertain and using words which are really no more than a convenience allowing us to talk about the subject. This does not entail that research here is unscientific we desperately would love to establish something testable, falsifiable, and which resists all attempts to falsify.
    If you want an example of non scientific Psychology consider Phrenology J F Gall. Absolute rubbish. Again a huge part of Psychotherapy is nonsense. The reason being that the theories are not falsifiable as when challenged the practitioner changes his theory to accommodate a reply to the question. Popper has dealt with this problem where he criticises Astrology and Communism as not falsifiable. It should not be thought that these defects are so common in Psychology as a whole as to invalidate it as a scientific venture. And yes of course some Psychologists have published papers which contain purposeful; inaccuracies just to gain the credence and advance themselves. The famous Sir Cyril Burt was found guilty of this. Scientists in other disciplines also have done this as have Accountants Solicitors and perhaps every body at times I certainly have, not so far as I know in science or philosophy but in harmless instances just to save time and preserve content I have doctored records. Nobody lost money no-one was inconvenienced nobody suffered and the records were destroyed promptly. If we are true to ourselves and prepared to admit I would guess such action is very common. Never do it in what matters like science research or dealing with people in very serious matters accuracy here is essential. In an office say, How many mistakes did Jack make this week you reply 24 whereas he made 25. 25 he gets the sack Jack is in other respects the mainstay of the office I want to keep him. I will discipline him for his mistake but not tell him of my favour. I think I am getting carried away here this is really irrelevant but I will let it stand; could be a good subject foe another type of discussion.

  54. Another example of bad science, bad psychology. Teaching Chimps American Sign Language in the belief that they would exhibit Language in due course. Chimps do not have, as per Chomsky Universal Grammar. The human child does, and this is the essential requirement for language to be learned, In fact our parents could not possibly teach us all the subtleties of language, Innate neural connections are necessary and these the chimp does not have. Yes they may sign astounding things but that is all. What they cannot do is to have a conversation, which is the outstanding aspect of language. Again here Universal Grammar allows us to speak of something we have observed. It seems very likely, but neurologically, is not so far as I know, firmly established.

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  56. Hi Rupert,

    I’ve taken a closer look at the Twitter exchange you recently posted. I agree with some of your points. However, ultimately, I agree with your interlocutors.

    Like you, I acknowledge that the human social sciences are interactive kinds (Ian Hacking’s term). So they’re distinguishable from other sciences in that way. But this is more or less just to say that the social sciences are ontologically subjective: that we are studying mind-dependent facts. But this is *not* to say that the social sciences make claims that are epistemically subjective, as the results of an experiment are not so radically contingent upon taste and context. (This distinction is one that Searle makes forcefully.)

    You claim that nothing could count as a replication of the Milgram experiments by saying that humans are subjects. One of your interlocutors, Matt Hodgkinson, responded by arguing that humans are both subjects and objects, and can be studied insofar as they are objects. I think Matt is right about that, because of the distinction between epistemic and ontological objectivity.

    That is not to say we are far apart on everything. I think that, as a matter of constitutive fact, persons just are partially bound to the reliable expectations that others have of them in addition to their own psychological continuity. No doubt, many participants in the original Milgram experiment had their ‘being’ altered by changing social expectations, etc. — after all, it really was a traumatizing event. So there is a relevant sense in which you cannot replicate the same study with the very same participants, since they are (in a sense) different persons after the event. They really would have to be brainwashed in order to replicate the study.

    However, the results of a study can be reliably replicated without using the same participants. And I think that’s a reasonable enough way of thinking about the idea of replication, since presumably no-one really wants to replicate all the particulars of a study (unless those particulars interfere causally). There really is no cargo cult.

  57. BLS Nelson
    “that we are studying mind-dependent facts”
    I am a bit puzzled. Are there any facts which are not mind dependent?

  58. Hi Don, for realists, there are. The physical structure that we refer to as “the moon” would still exist even if humanity didn’t.

    Of course, you can deny this if you’re an idealist. But even idealists should be able to accept the distinction I was pointing out to Rupert.

  59. Yes; what I hold here is that the Moon in itself is not a fact. A fact is a state of the human mind which believes that a certain state of affairs exists. For this reason I held that facts are only mind dependent, a function of the brain/mind and accordingly it is incorrect to speak or suggest there are facts which are not mind dependent. There are I admit Orobably states of affairs, which presently unknown, may, when they irritate the human nervous system be judged by that system as a fact.

  60. Jim:

    I guess it depends on what one means by “the world”.

  61. Re:- James Houston.

    Good old Joad I loved him. Reading his book “Guide to Philosophy” sparked my interest in the subject. He wrote many other books as well It is still on my choice selection of reference books on my bookshelves. Yes Yes “It all depends on what you mean by —–” spoken in that exacting intellectual voice. A phrase, often these days forgotten by philosophical commentators.
    Yes of course Russell’s refusal to write a recommendation for the book indicated his Knowledge that Joad verged on Plagiarism of Russell’s work in the content of the book. Head of department at Birkbeck College he transformed the department to a flourishing popular centre of Philosophy. I think there is still a Joad prize there. Known as Professor, he never actually was granted a professorship. One of his great interests was swindling the Railways by not paying. Eventually he was caught prosecuted and sacked by the BBC. A sad fall from grace. Loads about him on Wikipedia.

  62. Jim and Don:

    Thanks for the interesting anecdotes.

    I’m not capable of doing the hard work myself, but it seems that Wittgenstein and Strawson aren’t using the word “world” with the same meaning.

    Wittgenstein, as I recall, says that the limits of my language are the limits of my world.

  63. Jim:

    The difference between “the world” and “my world” seems important, although “the world” might be the collection of all individual worlds, but then again some individual worlds are more “accurate” than others, I guess and it is clear that some individual worlds contradict other individual worlds (the world of a creationist contradicts that of a darwinist, etc.)

    I’m incredibly lazy myself except when an issue inspires me, which is not often. There doesn’t even seem to be any consistent reason why issues inspire me.

    Happy easter to you and to everyone else too.

  64. It must be “MY World”. That is all we have access to. I have no immediate access to anybody else’s world surely.

  65. Don Bird:

    I agree that I only access to my world, but:

    What is “the world” if it is anything but my world or a collection of our worlds?

  66. Re Swallerstein
    “I agree that I only access to my world, but:
    What is “the world” if it is anything but my world or a collection of our worlds?”
    What is it? you ask. For you it is the massive conductivity of neurons in your brain. The same for me but of course a different brain. We can match our experiences and find there are similarities in the sense that one house brick can me matched with another but they are essentially different bricks. The brain generates conscious states. This embraces a huge amount of energy which accounts for the fact that awareness of events occurs somewhat after the event has commences or even finished much of the brain’s work goes on at an unconscious level. As you no doubt know this generates huge problems as to our freedom to make our own choices in the world Free will etc. We can actually function pretty well in an unconscious state Your foot is in the brake before you become conscious that a child is in the road just for one example. So the world is our own particular conscious state and that goes for everybody. The marvel is the huge amount of discovery that humans have made about what they call the World and the fact that things seem to work.
    I could hold forth on this with much more detail and in a far more scholarly manner but time and other matters including a sick wife no not permit me currently. You might be interested to read Incognito By David Eagleman to get a sort of flavour of what I am driving at, but I don’t think from what we have said in the past you main philosophical interests are elsewhere and do not embrace scientific/philosophical issues in the main. Perhaps stick with what you prefer, you are one of the best contributors on this site for all issues.

  67. Re J Houston
    Thanks Jim I knew that one and have always liked it. Could it be a pinch from Russell? I do not know.

  68. Don Bird:

    Thank you for the kind words and the undoubtedly wise advice.

    I hope that your wife recovers rapidly.

  69. Bls: I agree that humans can be scientifically studies inasmuchas they are objects. Wittgenstein allowed as much in the Blue Book, btw. But where we disagree is: I think that there us virtually zilch in humans of psychological unterest that is of the nature of an object. Eg obedience is certainly not an object. Objects: think of
    something middle sized and dry. Even the human body isnt dry… (See Merleau-Ponty on the body as pre- and supra- scientific) But more importantly, the human mind isnt even middle sized…

  70. Rupert, explanation in the social sciences is quite like explanation in the natural sciences, in that both are primarily concerned with answering “How-” and “Why-” questions. Science tries to figure out how things function, under the assumption that we’re all more or less on the same page about what we’re talking about. If I understand you correctly, you’re introducing a “What-” question, a question of ontology. To paraphrase, you’re asking: “What is it that we’re studying in the social sciences, if not objects?”

    Since I am a naturalist, I think the answer to the “what-” question is “physical reality”. I also think that eventually all answers to these questions must be in physicalistic terms. (Any old objects will do. It is neither desirable nor required for us to restrict science to the investigation of medium-sized objects.) But I don’t see why our answer to this question makes an immediate difference to the “Why-” and “What-” questions that we are asking. Ideally, physicalism is not the warden who monitors all scientific explanation and punishes deviance. Rather, physicalism is the best explanation that arises out of the ongoing investigation, like the front-runner in an election. (There are sociological mechanisms that do punish deviance from physicalism, but that is not the fault of physicalism, the abstract doctrine.)

    So when you say that “there is virtually zilch in humans of psychological interest that is of the nature of an object”, it really depends on what you mean. If you mean to point out that psychological explanations cannot be reduced to obviously physical stuff — i.e., motor behavior, genetics, cell biology — then that’s true, because we have to do justice to first-person phenomena too.

    But if you mean that psychology can get on well enough without making reference to behavior, genetics, etc., then that’s false. If the study of the mind is the study of what works, and the study of what works is the study how how first-person states relate causally to motor behavior, the brain, and its environment, then the study of the mind is deeply connected with the study of the physical. It is correct to point out that the mind is not an object, but also irrelevant. A tornado is not an object, either — but we study it all the same!

  71. Ok, then it is clear why we disagree. I think that physicalism is a prejudice, and that it is certainly of no use when it comes to the methodology of ‘social science’. But I am unlikely to persuade you of either of those things any time soon, I suspect…

  72. Quite so. Explanations in the social sciences are not, and cannot be, stuck in hermeneutics, i.e., interpreting how things are represented. (That’s the caricature of what you do in certain sorts of English or lit-crit classes.) In contrast, many social scientific explanations cannot work unless they get the causal story right. Certainly that’s what’s going on in the best areas of psychology.

  73. Psychology may not be a science per se but tremendous social engineering has been accomplished through the psychological laboratory. It may be considered that it is a technique of engineering, which simply relies on what works. That it is become buried under a mound of conflicting nonsense from inception is what a military general could perceive in the term, smoke-screen. However, if then psychology can affect efficient causes that change nations socially, in the metaphor of draughts, floods, whirlwinds, hurricanes, earthquakes: what is a science if it doesn’t give knowledge that produces replicable results?

    This question isn’t embedded in the philosophical discourse cited here. Looking at the object psychology in its effect on the social body, this question is begged. When determining what instrument science is and what distinguishes psychology from hard sciences, can it be said it exists in the context of effective social acting, when social action produces effects that are determined in experiments? Doesn’t that look like science, and not an image of science?

  74. So many people are typecast incorrectly !

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