Psychology and Science

I recently decided that I needed to clean off a shelf that contained the last five years of psychology today, monitor on psychology, and american psychologist. I quickly read through the psychology today finding it perfect reading for the train. Today, I finally completed my collection of monitor on psychology. In reading it, I was struck by the number of articles that related psychology to science.

A few of these articles, such as Breckler’s recent article entitled “Setting the Bar Higher”, focused on the importance of psychologists being educated in a variety of traditional sciences such as biology and chemistry. I cannot disagree with importance of a science heavy education, since as psychology matures and inquiry advances, theories will needfully become more integrated, drawing on evolution, biological processes and chemical reactions, cognitive science etc. To be able to understand results, comprehend theories, and contribute meaningful to the field it will become necessary for psychologists to be educated in all of the traditional sciences.

However, most of the articles were relating psychology to other sciences in research methodologies, societal importance, public opinion, etc. Such focus on psychology as, and in relation to, science prompts the question, is psychology a science? This is is a question that I have spent much time on in the past years. To address this question is to first define science. Science is both a structure and a process.

As a process, the term science describes the scientific method, which involves the inductive and deductive reasoning to characterize phenomena, to produce hypotheses about phenomena, to make predictions about phenomena, to conduct experiments to test these. From this description, psychology inarguably engages in the process of science as it attempts to understand the human condition.

However, science as a structure is a historical model that describes the structure of a field. Famously, Kuhn laid out one such model in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” in which he focused on science as a paradigm. A paradigm is is a set of practices that define a science and includes what is observed, the kinds of questions that are asked, how questions are to be asked, and how results are interpreted.

In his description, the progression of a science as comprised of three distinct stages. The first stage is pre-science. Within this stage, there is a lack of a single central paradigm. Instead, inquiry utilizes many different methodologies, which it applies to a number of different focuses within the description of a field. The focus of this inquiry is to develop a single paradigm to guide the field of study. Eventually, these different approaches begin to come into agreement, creating a single paradigm. The creation of a single paradigm allows for the second stage, known  and allowing for normal science to commence. Normal science involves problem solving where scientists engage in problem solving in order to expand the central paradigm. However, sometimes these activities reveal problems in the original paradigm. When these issues are sufficiently great to lead scientists to question the central paradigm, the discipline enters into the third stage, crisis, where scientists resolve the issues by constructing a new paradigm that resolves the issues that forced the old paradigm into crisis. This progression is known as a paradigm shift.

Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts is important because it characterizes scientific progression as not being cumulative, but being characterized by major theoretical shifts. In these shifts, the new paradigm is theoretically independent from the previous paradigm. This is to say that each paradigm has a different set of questions to ask, methods of investigation, etc. For example, gravity is a theoretical construct in multiple physics paradigms. From a Newtonian perspective, gravity occurs because an object falls towards the center of a larger object. However, from an Einsteinian perspective, gravity occurs because objects deform space like a bearing on a paper towel. Large objects create large deformations, and when smaller objects pass near the large object, the object slides down these deformations towards the larger object. Despite this theoretical difference, both paradigms describe the same phenomena.

Within this view, psychology would be considered to be a pre-science as there is no central paradigm within the discipline. What exists is a number of theoretical perspective that guide inquiry. Furthermore, these perspectives could be viewed to be incommensurable, which is to say that they are distinct. For example to a Freudian, the content of dreams hold meaning as they reflect the unconscious. However, to a cognitive psychologist dreams in themselves may not be meaningful, but could be considered to be useful in learning by allowing for an individual to train the connections between neurons in order to consolidate learning or to allow for the individual to practice for situations that do not commonly occur.

However, while this analysis may seem worthwhile, Kuhn developed his theory to specifically describe traditional sciences, not social sciences. As such, his description may not be an accurate representation of how a social science may function. This uncertainty may be enough though to further confirm that while psychology engages in the process of science, it is structurally not a science. Furthermore, the suggestion that psychology is structurally a pre-science suggests that . On a more personal note, one of the reasons I chose to study psychology was the diversity of its theoretical perspectives. I have no problems with psychology potentially being a pre-science. I enjoy the scientific process. It is for this reasons that I initially began my undergraduate education studying biology and chemistry. However, the prospect of being merely a puzzle solver led me to change the focus of my education to psychology. Being directly involved in the construction of a theoretical paradigm excites me.

References:

Kuhn. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.