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.]

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