Paul P. Mealing

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Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Is psychology a science?

This is another letter I wrote to New Scientist in response to an article by Dorothy Rowe, an Australian psychologist apparently, and author of What Should I Believe? No, I haven't read her book, but the article is erudite and intellectually provocative enough to suggest that she's worth reading.

I have to point out that I don't have a degree in psychology or science, or philosophy, for that matter, but I've studied all three at tertiary level, and I've read widely in all fields. The reason I was prompted to write this is that I've always held an opinion on it ever since I did study psychology at Uni and was struck by the obsession of the faculty to be taken seriously as a science. Having also studied science, and physics in particular, I was always aware that there were differences. This is not to denigrate psychology, at all, but to point out that whilst the study of psychology becomes more technical I believe there are fundamental aspects of psychology that make it uniquely different to the study of other 'natural phenomena', which is how I define science.

Below is the letter I wrote. By the way, I haven't really addressed Dorothy Rowe's article, which was titled, Ask better questions, just responded to her opening question.

'Is psychology a science?' is the opening question in Dorothy Rowe's article in New Scientist (1 November 2008, p.18). Somehow, psychology still seems to sit somewhere between science and philosophy, involving both, but not belonging to either. Human behaviour will never be distilled into a set of laws, even remotely like physics, or even biology. In other words, the ability to predict behaviour outcomes, will be statistical at best. In psychology, an aberrational datum will be seen as an outlier, whereas, in physics, it's either an error or the genesis of a new theory. Also, different theories attempting to provide insight into the same behaviour, generally don't provide any synergy. Example: attachment theory and Lee's 6 types of love both deal with relationships, but have no common ground. This is not an atypical example.

I was taught that psychology was a dialectical process - opposing theories are combined into a new thesis; like the nature and nurture debate (genes versus environment) having to be both taken into account. Science is also a dialectic process, though, between theory and experiment, rather than between opposing theories.

I found that psychology is a very good tool for tackling philosophical problems, like the social dynamics that lead to acts of evil (see my Oct.07 post on Evil). So, at the end of the day, they deal with different issues, different problems. Science may tell us where we came from, but it can't tell us why we kill each other. So I still see them as separate, but having some methodologies in common.


larryniven said...

I myself think the question is misleading. Psychology has too many sub-fields now to be considered as just one thing, so far as I can tell: neuropsychology is much more like a traditional science than, say, psychoanalysis is. I wouldn't want to say - without investigating them more first, anyway - that any one of these branches is a science, or is scientific, but clearly there's some variegation in terms of their scientific-ness. Also, just to reiterate your point, none of this implies value judgments: psychoanalysis has its place, and so does neuropsychology.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Larry, for your comment.

Regards, Paul.