Is Psychology ‘Science’?

Science begins and ends at the door of the physics department…

– so says Professor Brian Cox, with the mix of humour and evangelical spirit that’s a hallmark of the BBC’s science series, The Infinite Monkey Cage.

What a physics department door ought to look like

One of the useful things about TIMC is the way listeners can pick up, across a few episodes, a sense of what it might feel like to work inside the world of university or laboratory science. This includes the notion of gradations of respectability and integrity amongst the various branches and sub-branches of science.

As Cox’s remark suggests, physics tends to be regarded as the hardest, the most grrrrr, of hard sciences – where ‘hard’ attests to the purity and unassailability of what is studied and how.

Here, psychology has always had a problem. What exactly is its object of study, and are its methods really suited to that object – and if they are, are those methods really scientific?

If you tell your scientific would-be colleagues that psychology is all about ‘the inner life’ or ‘human behaviour’ they might reply that you seem to be dealing in metaphors and in social phenomena, and that there’s a time and a place for these sorts of things (the time being when you realise you don’t have the talent for real science, the place being Humanities or Social Sciences departments). And indeed there are those working in the field of psychology who see the introspective and observational talents of the Buddha, Socrates, Shakespeare and any number of philosophical and literary figures as making them ‘psychologists’ in some real sense.

The Buddha: never received a penny of research funding

If, on the other hand, psychologists go too far towards emphasizing measurable characteristics of the brain and nervous system in making the case for their discipline – as much of the French tradition in modern psychology has done – they risk being told that what they’re talking about is basically physiology, and naming it ‘psychology’ is a misleading conceit.

It’s a problem that says a lot about how science mingles with culture. In the Europe of the late nineteenth century there was a kind of culture war over how science and medicine should address human cognition and behaviour. A desire in some quarters to put clear blue water between emerging professional science and the subjective, intellectually regressive metaphysical and religious notions of the past went up against a contrary concern that to study cognition and behaviour solely from the ‘outside’ – with no reference to anyone’s lived experience of thinking, willing, having emotions, etc – risked making a nonsense of science’s ambition to give the fullest possible account of the world.

No surprise, then, that the likes of Gustav Fechner were celebrated when they came along. By recording the distance at which a small candle became visible to someone, as it was moved slowly towards him, Fechner suggested the existence of a proximity threshold at which physical energy begins to register in someone’s consciousness as a stimulus.

Fechner seemed to be showing that, contrary to the assumptions underlying the culture war of his day, even subjective experience could be studied and measured in the systematic and rigorous way that emerging, professionalised science demanded.

Gustav Fechner (1801 - 1887), who showed that baldness on top, straggly hair at the back, and wire-framed glasses could make them think you're a scientist

Work like his held out the possibility of a convenient ‘dual aspect’ idea that might clinch psychology’s right to exist as a branch of the sciences. Psychology and physiology could be seen as two, intimately complementary sides of the same coin: psychology the inner, experiential aspect of physiology (especially the nervous system), while physiology was the outer aspect of psychological experience.

Psychology now had both a clear object of study and the beginnings of a method that would allow it an independent status. This method expanded into the trained introspection of Wilhelm Wundt and Franz Brentano (the latter saying that while introspection could never be objective it could certainly be orderly), the building of laboratories, and the structuring of questionnaires geared towards assessing human behaviour in carefully regulated ways.

A Harvard psychology lab, mid 20th century

Psychology continues to suffer its critics, though, and it remains an interesting weathervane for attitudes towards what constitutes science and reliable knowledge.

There are those who say that ‘psychology’ is still no more than an umbrella for competing and often incompatible theories and systems, lacking the established basis of generally agreed theories and results that more or less satisfactorily underpins biology and chemistry, etc.

Psychology’s methods too have been seen as suspect: is a questionnaire survey really ‘science’? The systematic gathering of people’s self-representations feels distinctly second-hand, and fraught with problems both of commensurability (of one person’s autobiographical account with another person’s) and of interpretation.

At least as damning, perhaps, is the impact of popular interest in psychology – the wear and tear suffered by delicate concepts when us untrained ordinaries attempt to ‘psychologise’ our own problems or relationships, or get stuck into jargon-laden self-help books at New Year.

The famed Star Trek 'transporter'. Popularization tends to enhance the standing of physics and physicists, while often having the reverse effect upon psychology

These things function as a kind of cultural kryptonite, steadily killing the credibility of a discipline that continues to struggle to stake out its own intellectual territory amidst medicine, neurology, sociology, and other overlapping disciplines.

Compare this with the way that popularization via science fiction doesn’t so much damage the reputation of cosmologists, engineers, and physicists, as offer them a double win: enhancing public interest in and respect for their work, and reminding us of the distance between our puny, naive understandings and the magisterial esotericism of the real thing.

That said, psychology has one major thing in its favour. Looked at functionally, in terms of what it achieves rather than the theoretical detail that underpins it, it’s hard to doubt psychology’s value: helping our understanding of child development, measuring and trying to enhance our various personal and social capabilities, and providing a language for human potential, distress or impairment to be explored with relative moral neutrality.

We’d undoubtedly miss psychology if it went away. And how wonderful to have an intellectual discipline out there so closely involved with its subject matter – i.e. us –  that our on-going worries over its right to exist end up becoming part of its explorations…


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