Is psychology a “real” science? Does it really matter?

Scientific American:

Fellow Scientific American blogger Melanie Tannenbaum is flustered by allegations that psychology is not a science and I can see where she is coming from. In this case the stimulus was a piece by Alex Berezow, a microbiologist, who in a short and provocative piece in the LA times argued the case that psychology is not a real science. I think he’s right. I also think that he misses the point.

Berezow’s definition of science is not off the mark, but it’s also incomplete and too narrow. Criticism of psychology’s lack of rigor is not new; people have been arguing about wishy-washy speculations in fields like evolutionary psychology and the limitations of fMRI scans for years. The problem is only compounded by any number of gee-whiz popular science books purporting to use evolutionary and other kinds of “psychology” to explain human behavior. Neither is the field’s image bolstered by high-profile controversies and sloppy studies which can’t be replicated. But it’s hardly fair to kill the message for lack of a suitable messenger. The same criticism has also been leveled at other social sciences including economics and sociology and yet the debate in economics does not seem to be as rancorous as that in psychology. At the heart of Berezow’s argument is psychology’s lack of quantifiability and dearth of accurate terminology. He points out research in fields like happiness where definitions are neither rigid nor objective and data is not quantifiable.

Read the whole story: Scientific American


I think psychology is a science. While it may not meet them in the same ways, it does meet all of the standard criteria for science– theory, testing, clarity and consistency of definition (e.g. factor analysis, use of standard measures), replication, favor of parsimony, and predictive validity.

Perhaps much of the conflict comes from the need to operationalize “made up” constructs, such as extroversion. I would argue that these are no less “made up” than many constructs in other scientific areas though– say, ether, atoms, quarks, invisible waves, or dark matter, from physics. Names have been ascribed to phenomena. It’s not different. Though extroversion might be harder to measure than radio waves, I would be shocked if anyone were to deny that some people are more social than others, or happier, for that matter.

Moreover, predictable and replicated results from weak concepts only indicates the strength of psychology as a science. It would be succeeding despite its claimed critical weakness. However, this success also hints that some of the concepts in psychology might not be as weakly defined and tested as imagined.

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