Why Psychology is Still a Science
So once again I come across this tiresome debate on whether psychology is a science or not. This one was sparked by an editorial in the LA Times (by Alex Berezow) and a brief, but well written, response against it (by Dave Nussbaum).
However, I wish that Nussbaum had given more space to the methodological considerations in psychology. Namely, he does not criticise Berezow’s attack on the lack of “scientific methods”. Now, had Berezow paid attention to scientific methods in psychology he would have understood that he is not talking about science but empiricism – there is a clear distinction. This represents an old but persistent issue in psychology. The frequently infantile dismissal of psychology because of the object of its study or how it is studied comes across less as a “maintaining the purity of science” than it does as methodological fascism. By criticising psychology the way he does, Berezow is displaying a twofold ignorance regarding the subject.
First, there are many areas of psychology where they employ rigorous empirical approaches (for example, cognitive neurosciences). Nussbaum rightly points out that you cannot ask a physicist to explain PTSD! Second, Berezow does not understand that these methods in some cases simply do not apply. I have already written about methodological issues in psychology, so I will not elaborate on that too much now. I will point out one thing, however, which is that if empirical methods consistently do not yield fruitful results when studying ‘the social’ then it is quite reasonable to assume that it is not the social world that is not working.
There is a vast literature on the methodological difficulties of applying empirical methods in the social world, for example; Arguing and Thinking (Billig, 1996 – 2nd ed.), Discursive Psychology (Edwards & Potter, 1992), Discourse and Social Psychology (Potter & Wetherell, 1987) & Representing Reality (Potter, 1996). The point of listing so many books is to show that psychologists spend a great deal more of their time and energy into exploring the appropriateness of methodologies in research than natural scientists do.
With this in mind, I will conclude with a final thought. If it is the psychologist who has to deal with more methodological ambiguities when trying to explore the world – which they most certainly do – then this inevitably leads to a greater degree of methodological awareness. So, armed with a better knowledge of how to explore the world, it would not be entirely inappropriate to say that the psychologist is more of a scientist than the physicist, the biologist, the chemist and others who may struggle to understand the world without the empiricist’s microscope.