Monday, May 26, 2014

Is Psychology a Science? (Part 1)

 This entry will identify and integrate both the objective and subjective dimensions of human conscious experience into a unified theory. The first part of this paper will focus on situating the often referenced, but rarely resolved problem of psychology qua science. That is, since psychology’s inception it has been concerned with objectivity, with working within the structure of scientific methods, with discerning laws of human behavior that are reliable, predictable, accurate—and hopefully cross cultural and universal. Psychology has been defined variously throughout its progression, whether it be the study of human behavior, human nature, or even the ever ambiguous designation of the study of the “mind”. Yet, the method of quantifying the objective component in the midst of so much subjectivity has produced a plethora or methodologies, schools, systems and theories. Nor is this a relatively modern problematic. Despite claims that the methodological fragmentation in psychology is a recent occurrence (Goertzen, 2012), it was indeed as early as 1929, that Karl Bühler published his famous Die Krise der Psychologie.[1]
            The issue becomes even more fragmented, when one reviews the literature on the subject. Ironically, the so called ‘crisis literature’ itself is disjointed, with some arguing that the crisis is merely an institutional or disciplinary issue (Stam, 2004), while others urge that the real issue is epistemological and methodological (Staats, 1983; Kantor, 1979). This paper, however, will follow Thomas Kuhn (1996) in noting that any science that holds competing paradigms is only a pre-science until a uniform methodology is adopted and will therefore focus on the present epistemological fragmentation.
            Nor is this simply a theoretical and philosophical conundrum. On the one hand, the very reputation of the science of psychology is frequently questioned as psychological findings are often dismissed as either common sense or in no way comparable to the strict statistical measures of the hard sciences.[2] This ongoing fragmentation in the field of Psychology has indeed left not a few leading psychologists wondering how such a fracture will affect psychology’s validity as an academic and scholarly pursuit (Gardner, 2005; Rychlak, 2005; Driver-Linn, 2003). On the other hand, psychology is an inherently practical endeavor insofar as clinicians are working with individuals, families and children, and policy makers are forming decisions based on psychological findings and recommendations from authorities in field.
            After situating the state of the question and reviewing the literature, the second half of this paper, then, will focus on incorporating the work of the philosopher Bernard Lonergan in an attempt to fill the lacunae of a methodological framework that can encompass both the objective and subjective dimensions of the study of human behavior.
The nature of scientific inquiry
            Socrates was fond of meandering around Athens, asking people, “What is piety?” or “What is justice?” As would be the case today, most could readily provide examples of piety or justice, but very few could provide a systematic definition of the terms. It wasn’t until Aristotle that systematization is offered. With Aristotle, virtues such as temperance are defined as the mean between the two extreme of insensibility and intemperance.
            The above Aristotelian anecdote serves also to highlight the systematization inherent in scientific pursuit and methodology. Surprisingly, it was not too long ago that scientific methods were based on inductive reasoning. Newton, for example, first observed the apple fall and only then proceeded to form hypotheses about the physical phenomenon that he observed.  In contrast to this stands Karl Popper’s (1935) vision of science as hypothetico-deductive system, where hypotheses come first, followed by careful experimentation, and discrete falsification.
            Falsification, as the key for Popper, relies on the assumption that inductive evidence is limited. Since one is unable to observe the physical world at all times, one is not epistemically justified in creating universally applicable rules based on one instantiation. Popper provides his famous swan example: for hundreds of years, Europeans were familiar with the white swan. Using inductive reasoning, one could then conclude that all swans are white. Yet exploration to the East revealed black swans in Australia. Induction, then, can never yield certainty since only one falsifiable observation is needed to refute the (inductively based) theory.[3]
            From this, six foundational concepts necessary for scientific pursuit can be discerned. A description of these events, followed by their role within the science of psychology will be given.
        Empirical evidence is the first component to scientific pursuit. The data collected does not rely on belief or argumentation; rather it is collected through direct observation or experimentation. Careful experimentation and documentation is necessary for data collection and future replication of the study. Next, accurate science requires objectivity. Personal feelings and values should be eliminated so as not to compromise objectivity. The data should speak for itself, even if that implies a different outcome than the investigator initially desired. Third, control of all extraneous variables is necessary to validly establish cause (IV) and effect (DV). Prediction of future occurrences of the phenomenon is the fourth component of a reliable scientific method. Hypothesis testing is the fifth component. Hypothesis testing requires that the hypothesis be made prior to the experiment, serves as a prediction, and is derived from theory. Both a Null and Alternative hypothesis must be operationally defined and unambiguous so that they can be tested and replicated. Finally, the replication process ensures accuracy and confidence in creating a scientific body of knowledge. Intense discoveries that cannot be replicated should not be accepted by other scientists.

[1] Similarly, Vgotsky’s monumental critique of the fragmented methodologies in the field of psychology was published in 1928.
[2] While relevant to the topic of the scientific nature of psychology, a discussion of Null Hypothesis testing, Bayesian vs. non-Bayesian statistical methods, and the incorporation of stricter statistical protocols that mimic the natural sciences is beyond the scope of this present discussion. 
[3] Popper was also conscious of the reciprocal interaction between the individual and her environment. He therefore rightly rejected the naïve empiricist claims of objective observation of the natural world. Rather, Popper holds that all observation begins from a specific viewpoint and is influenced by the knowledge and experience already possessed by human beings.

by Phillip Kuna, PhD (abd) 
for John G. Kuna, Psy.D. and Associates Counseling

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