Does psychology belong in the science club?

For many people, psychology is at best a “soft” science. AlicePopkorn

Does psychology belong in the science club?

For many people, psychology is at best a “soft” science. AlicePopkorn

First, a disclaimer: I’m the proud holder of a Bachelor of Science (upper second class) in experimental psychology. So you shouldn’t be too surprised when I tell you psychology is a science.

But for many other people, particularly scientists from other disciplines, psychology is at best a “soft” science. It doesn’t belong in the same exalted company as physics, chemistry, or, dare I say, neuroscience.

The long-standing debate about psychology’s scientific credentials was reignited last year by microbiologist and founding editor of RealClearScience, Alex Berezow. In a provocative article entitled Keep psychology out of the science club, Berezow argued:

The dismissive attitude that scientists have toward psychologists […] is […] rooted in the failure of psychologists to acknowledge that they don’t have the same claim on secular truth that the hard sciences do.

Left unanswered was the question of how science arrives at this so-called “secular truth”. More to the point: how is psychology any different when it comes to interrogating reality?

Models in mind

In the introductory chapter of his most recent book, The Magic of Reality, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins discusses how we know what is real.

Most obviously, we can use our senses. If we can see or hear or feel something, if we can touch it or taste it, then we know that it’s real.

We can also use machines to enhance and expand our senses. Bacteria are invisible to the naked eye but we can see them with a microscope. We can’t perceive radio waves, but we can have them translated into sounds we can hear.

But as Dawkins notes:

There is a less familiar way in which a scientist can work out what is real when our five senses cannot detect it directly. This is through a model of what might be going on, which can then be tested […]

We look carefully at the model and predict what we ought to see or hear, etc. if the model were correct. Then we look to see whether the predictions are right or wrong. If they are right, this increases our confidence that the model really does represent reality […]. If our predictions are wrong, we reject the model, or modify it and try again.

Dawkins illustrates this point with some famous examples of scientific modelling. Crick and Watson, for instance, didn’t see the double-helix shape of DNA: they built a model (literally, with cardboard) and saw that its predictions were consistent with observations made by another scientist, Rosalind Franklin.

Possibly the greatest DNA-themed science rap video ever.

From genetics to climate change, building, testing, and improving models of reality is an entirely legitimate way of doing science - and that’s precisely how psychology works. We can’t measure memories, beliefs or attitudes directly. But we can measure behaviour. And we can use those measurements to test the predictions of our psychological theories - our models of the mind.

Psychology is a science. But the connection goes far deeper.

The science of thought

In his 1951 book The Common Sense of Science, Jacob Bronowski argued that science should be thought of just like any other form of human thought: “science is made by people, and it has their style.”

Bronowski would doubtless be fascinated to learn of subsequent developments in psychology research. At every turn, we find analogs between science and everyday human cognition.

A good example comes from the work of vision scientist Richard Gregory, who argued the way our visual system works is akin to the scientific process. Making sense of the light patterns hitting our retina involves generating hypotheses about the objects in the world around us that could have given rise to that sensory “data”.

These perceptual “hypotheses” are only revealed on those rare occasions when they are wrong - when the hypothesis doesn’t match reality and we experience an illusion.

Professor Richard Gregory demonstrates the hollow mask illusion.

Similar analogs apply in theories of language. When reading a story or listening to someone speak, we make sense of the incoming stream of words by building up a model of the situation being described and making predictions about what will be heard or read next.

Perhaps the most compelling analogy comes from the study of young children. Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik refers to children as the the “Research and Development Section of the Human Species”, learning by exploring, playing, and trying out new ideas. Adult scientists, she suggests, are really just kids who haven’t grown up!

Why we all start out as baby Einsteins.

The psychology of science

The scientific nature of everyday thinking has important implications for understanding the human element of science.

What leads to new discoveries and ideas? Why do some catch on while others are neglected?

What does it take to abandon a cherished theory, to change the scientific model? These are all questions for psychology.

Perhaps most importantly, psychology has a crucial role to play in the effective communication of science. As we’ve seen, people will interpret each new piece of evidence in the light of their existing models of the world.

It’s not enough to simply expose people to science and hope for the best.

Science is our best tool for understanding reality and predicting the future.

But if science is to have a genuine influence in human affairs, if our decisions are to be guided by the best scientific evidence, scientists will have to start taking psychology seriously.