In order to consider whether psychology is a science, we must first define our terms. It is not overarching to say that science is what separates human beings from animals, and, as time goes by and we learn more about our animal neighbors here on Earth, it becomes increasingly clear that science is all that separates humans from animals. We are learning that animals have feelings, passions, and certain rights. What animals do not have is the ability to reason, to rise above feeling.
Science's goal is to create reasonable explanations (theories) to describe reality – theories that rely, not on feelings or passions, but on evidence. Science defines “evidence” in a special way that will seem rather strict to someone only familiar with the legal definition. To science, evidence is gathered and evaluated (and sometimes discarded) according to some rigid rules, rules meant to assure that a scientific theory reflects reality to the best of our ability.
How strict are science's rules of evidence? Well, let's first compare science to law. The legal definition of evidence is (as one example) a set of observations that appear to associate a particular person with a particular event. Typically, legal proceedings begin with an investigation meant to collect evidence, followed by a trial that establishes whether that evidence meets a criterion – “beyond a reasonable doubt” in criminal proceedings, and “according to the preponderance of evidence” in civil proceedings (in the US).
The point here is that legal evidence is not remotely scientific evidence. Contrary to popular belief, science doesn't use sloppy evidentiary standards like “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and scientific theories never become facts. This is why the oft-heard expression “proven scientific fact” is never appropriate – it only reflects the scientific ignorance of the speaker. Scientific theories are always theories, they never become the final and only explanation for a given phenomenon.
As to the ever-popular expression “scientific law,” this is often an earnest effort by scientists to bridge the gap between the level of certainty required in science and that accepted in ordinary life. In fact and strictly speaking, there are no scientific laws, only theories about which we are very certain, like entropy and gravity, which, if they were to be tersely expressed in everyday language, would read: “Eventually it will break, and when it does, it is going to fall.”
About scientific evidence, philosopher John Stuart Mill said, “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.” This saying aptly summarizes the difference between scientific evidence and every other kind of evidence, and it dramatizes the difference between science and ordinary human thinking.
When properly conducted, scientific investigations never draw conclusions directly from observations. This may sound unnecessarily strict, but it is necessary for science to accomplish what it does. To demonstrate this, here is a hypothetical conversation between a psychic wannabe (PW) and a scientist (S):
PW: “I successfully predicted 100 coin tosses, therefore I am psychic.”
S: “How many total coin tosses were there?”
S: “So you guessed half correctly, and half incorrectly, yes?”
PW: “Yes – isn't that amazing?”
S: “No, not really. It is the outcome predicted by chance.”
(a day goes by ...)
PW: “I correctly guessed eight coin tosses in a row! Now that's proof that I'm psychic!”
S: “How many total coin tosses this time?”
PW: “Umm, 256.”
S: “With that many coin tosses, eight sequential correct guesses has a probability of ½ of coming about by chance. You might be psychic, but there is a much more likely explanation – chance.”
This example highlights a cardinal rule of science: Always consider alternative explanations, never accept anything at face value.
In everyday life, people are regularly taken in by con men who rely on public ignorance of reason and science. Here's an example – you receive a mailing from someone who wants to be your financial advisor. He predicts that the stock market will fall (or rise) during the next month. At the end of the month, his prediction turns out to be correct. Then, for six months straight, he mails you a prediction, and each prediction turns out to be correct. In a quick calculation you realize you would have made several million dollars by following his advice.
Having “proven” his abilities, the financial advisor now wants you to give him control of your portfolio. His is the best performance you have ever seen, he obviously has special skills, what do you do? Well, hopefully you follow the cardinal rule:Always consider alternative explanations.
Here is a very likely alternative explanation – the “financial wizard” is a con man, a hustler. Here is how this well-known con works:
Blurring of research, diagnosis and therapy.
Walter Freeman performing a lobotomy
In the 1950s, at the height of psychology's public acceptance, neurologist Walter Freeman created a surgical procedure known as "prefrontal lobotomy." As though on a quest and based solely on his reputation and skills of persuasion, Freeman singlehandedly popularized lobotomy among U.S. psychologists, eventually performing about 3500 lobotomies, before the dreadful consequences of this practice became apparent.
At the height of Freeman's personal campaign, he drove around the country in a van he called the "lobotomobile," performing lobotomies as he traveled. There was plenty of evidence that prefrontal lobotomy was a catastrophic clinical practice, but no one noticed the evidence or acted on it. There was — and is — no reliable mechanism within clinical psychology to prevent this sort of abuse.
These examples are part of a long list of people who have tried to use psychology to give a scientific patina to their personal beliefs, perhaps beginning with Francis Galton (1822-1911), the founder and namer ofeugenics. Galton tried (and failed) to design psychological tests meant to prove his eugenic beliefs. This practice of using psychology as a personal soapbox continues to the present, in fact, it seems to have become more popular.
This bogus field sprang into existence, fueled by the wish that specific disabled (autistic, severely retarded) people might be able to communicate with their loved ones after all. It purports to allow communication with a disabled person through the agency of a facilitator, someone who typically holds a writing implement (or operates a keyboard) simultaneously with the disabled person, and the two together create a written account of the disabled person's otherwise inaccessible experiences. Frequently, the “communication” seems to reveal that the disabled person is being abused horribly by parents or caretakers. This in turn has resulted in bogus legal actions, spurred by prosecutors who think psychology is a science.
Was this set of beliefs tested and shown to be flawed in a scientific study? No. Was it called into question because of the utterly fantastic content of the “communications”? No again. How then was the fraud uncovered? Well, the PBS television program “Frontline” showed up and taped some typical clinical practice, revealing some aspects of the practice anyone not brain-damaged should have been able to notice, such as the fact that the disabled person was often looking at the ceiling while supposedly coöperating in keyboard communication, a behavior that requires one to look at the keyboard at least occasionally. The facilitator, of course, was looking intently at the keyboard.
And finally, after evidence of the bogus nature of both the practice and the communications was demonstrated, was the field abandoned? Of course not – it is still widely practiced, with the difference that TV cameras are now typically excluded from the clinics.
This doesn't mean psychology lacks theories. It means the theories, when applied to humans, either cannot be tested in a scientifically rigorous way, or the tests fail without anyone noticing or caring. This explains why psychology's frequent theoretical failures tend to be discussed in a courtroom rather than a laboratory or a scientific journal.
As with most professions, scientists have a private language, using terms that seem completely ordinary but that convey special meaning to other scientists. For example, when a scientist identifies a field as a "descriptive science," he is politely saying it is not a science.
Over the history of the DSM and as a result of valiant efforts, this "bible" of clinical psychology has come to define more and more conditions as evidence of mental illness. As an example, in the current edition, the following conditions are defined as mental illnesses:
· Spelling Disorder
· Written Expression Disorder
· Mathematics Disorder
· Caffeine Intoxication/Withdrawal
· Nicotine use/Withdrawal
· Sibling Rivalry Disorder
· Phase of Life Problem
Putting aside for the moment the nebulous “phase of life problem,” excuse me? – “Sibling rivalry” is now a mental illness? Yes, according to the current DSM/ICD. And few are as strict about spelling as I am, but even I am not ready to brand as mentally ill those who (frequently) cannot accurately choose from among “site,” “cite” and “sight” when they write to comment on my Web pages. As to “mathematics disorder” being a mental illness, sorry, that just doesn't add up.
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