Posts Tagged ‘Melanie Tannenbaum’

Social psychology may be rigorous but it is not a science

August 18, 2013

Scientific American carries an article by a budding psychologist who is upset that many don’t accept that it is a science – but I think she protests too much. I have no doubt that many social psychologists study their discipline with great rigour. And so they should. (And I accept the rigour of most of the researchers in this field notwthstanding the publicity seeking, high profile fraudsters such as Stapel and Hauser who did not).

But it is not any lack of rigour which makes psychology “not a science”. It is the fact that we just don’t know enough about the forces driving our sensory perceptions and our subsequent behaviour (via biochemistry in the body and the brain) to be able to formulate proper falsifiable hypotheses.  Behaviour is fascinating and many of the empirical studies trying to pin down the causes and effects are brilliantly conceived and carried out. But behaviour is complicated and we don’t know the drivers. Inevitably measurement is complicated and messy.

Even the alchemists made rigorous measurements. But they never knew enough to elevate alchemy to a science. And so it is with psychology and with social psychology in particular. We are waiting for the body of evidence to grow and the insight of a John Dalton and a Antoine Lavoisier to lift psychology from an alchemy-like art to the true level of a science.

Her article is interesting but a little too defensive. And she misses the point. Just having rigour in measurement is insufficient to make an art into a science.

Psychology’s brilliant, beautiful, scientific messiness

 Melanie Tannenbaum

Melanie TannenbaumMelanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior.

Today, sitting down to my Twitter feed, I saw a new link to Dr. Alex Berezow’s old piece on why psychology cannot call itself a science. The piece itself is over a year old, but seeing it linked again today brought up old, angry feelings that I never had the chance to publicly address when the editorial was first published. Others, like Dave Nussbaum, have already done a good job of dismantling the critiques in this article, but the fact that people are still linking to this piece (and that other pieces, even elsewhere on the SciAm Network, are still echoing these same criticisms) means that one thing apparently cannot be said enough:

Psychology is a science.

Shut up about how it’s not, already.

But she gets it almost right in her last paragraph. Indeed psychology is still an art – but that is not additional to its being a science (by definition).

.. The thought, the creativity, the pure brilliance that goes into finding measurable, testable proxies for “fuzzy concepts” so we can experimentally control those indicators and find ways to step closer, every day, towards scientifically studying these abstractions that we once thought we would never be able to study — that’s beautiful. Quite frankly, it’s not just science — it’s an art. And often times, the means that scientists devise to help them step closer and closer towards approximating these abstract concepts, finding different facets to measure or different ways to conceptualize our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors? That process alone is so brilliant, so tricky, and so critical that it’s often worth receiving just as much press time as the findings themselves.

To keep psychology in the realms of art rather than science is not to demean the discipline or to attack the rigour of those working the field. And maybe psychologists should consider why they  get so upset at being called artists rather than scientists and why they wish to be perceived as something they are not.

There is much of the study of psychology which is brilliant and beautiful and messy – but it is not a science – yet.

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