Field of Science

Is psychology a science, redux

Is psychology a science? I see this question asked a lot on message boards, and it's time to discuss it again here. I think the typical response by a researcher like myself is an annoyed "of course, you ignoramus." But a more subtle response is deserved, as the answer depends entirely on what you mean by "psychology" and what you mean by "science."

Two Psychologies

First, if by "psychology" you mean seeing clients (like in Good Will Hunting or Silence of the Lambs), then, no, it's probably not a science. But that's a bit like asking whether engineers or doctors are scientists. Scientists create knowledge. Client-visiting psychologists, doctors and engineers use knowledge. Of course, you could legitimately ask whether client-visiting psychologists base their interventions on good science. Many don't, but that's also true about some doctors and, I'd be willing to bet, engineers.

Helpfully, "engineering" and "physics" are given different names, while the research and application ends of psychology confusingly share the same name. (Yes, I'm aware that engineering is not hte application of physics writ broadly -- what's the application of string theory? -- and one can be a chemical engineer, etc. I actually think that makes the analogy to the two psychologies even more apt). It doesn't help that the only psychologists who show up in movies are the Good Will Hunting kind (though if paleoglaciologists get to save the world, I don't see why experimental psychologists don't!), but it does exist.

A friend of mine (a physicist) once claimed psychologists don't do experiments (he said this un-ironically over IM while I was killing time in a psychology research lab). My response now would be to invite him to participate in one of these experiments. Based on this Facebook group, I know I'm not the only one who has heard this.


There are also those, however, who are aware that psychologists do experiments, but deny that it's a true science. Some of this has to do with the belief that psychologists still use introspection (there are probably some somewhere, but I suspect there are also physicists who use voodoo dolls somewhere as well, along with mathematicians who play the lottery).

The more serious objection has to do with the statistics used in psychology. In the physical sciences, typically a reaction takes place or does not, or a neutrino is detected is not. There is some uncertainty given the precision of the tools being used, but on the whole the results are fairly straight-forward and the precision is pretty good (unless you study turbulence or something similar).

In psychology, however, the phenomena we study are noisy and the tools lack much precision. When studying a neutrino, you don't have to worry about whether it's hungry or sleepy or distracted. You don't have to worry about whether the neutrino you are studying is smarter than average, or maybe too tall for your testing booth, or maybe it's only participating in your experiment to get extra credit in class and isn't the least bit motivated. It does what it does according to fairly simple rules. Humans, on the other hand, are terrible test subjects. Psychology experiments require averaging over many, many observations in order to detect patterns within all that noise.

Science is about predictions. In theory, we'd like to predict what an individual person will do in a particular instance. In practice, we're largely in the business of predicting what the average person will do in an average instance. Obviously we'd like to make more specific predictions (and there are those who can and do), but they're still testable (and tested) predictions. The alternative is to declare much of human and animal behavior outside the realm of science.

Significant differences

There are some who are on board so far but get off the bus when it comes to how statistics are done in psychology. Usually an experiment consists of determining statistically whether a particular result was likely to have occurred by chance alone. Richard Feynman famously thought this was nuts (the thought experiment is that it's unlikely to see a license plate printed CPT 349, but you wouldn't want to conclude much from it).

That's missing the point. The notion of significant difference is really a measure of replicability. We're usually comparing a measurement across two populations. We may find population A is better than population B on some test. That could be because population A is underlyingly better at such tests. Alternatively, population A was lucky that day. A significant difference is essentially a prediction that if we test population A and population B again, we'll get the same results (better performance for population A). Ultimately, though, the statistical test is just a prediction (one that typically works pretty well) that the results will replicate. Ideally, all experiments would be replicated multiple times, but that's expensive and time-consuming, and -- to the extent that the statistical analysis was done correctly (a big if) -- largely unnecessary

So what do you think? Are the social sciences sciences? Comments are welcome.


Anonymous said...

Re: statistics in psychology. Physicists take pride in matches between experimental results with a priori theoretical predictions (up to the 10, 15, 20th digit after the decimal point). Psychologists, on the other hand, appear overjoyed by mismatches between experimental results and some hastily composed baseline.

GamesWithWords said...

Anonymous: If I could predict what you're going to say for the next week, being off only by a couple words, it would scare the shit out of you! So I don't know if you want to complain too much.

But seriously, I have no idea what you mean by "some hastily composed baseline."

Becky said...

I am not sure if I believe in predictions, however I just watched a great DVD documentary titled "Something Unknown" by Renée Scheltema that was pretty interesting- it is helping me distinguish real magical powers from the fraudulent ones.