When I began drafting this blog post, it was originally going to be entitled “Why Psychology Is Not A Science.” Now no doubt this was going to cause controversy, maybe even elicit some rage-fuelled responses. Knowing the storm it would likely cause, I wanted to ensure I had my facts absolutely correct before posting anything. So I did what any good writer, and of course, skeptic, would do. I researched.
Firstly, I am not saying that psychology is not valid. It is a very useful and interesting field of study, which has offered and I’m sure will continue to offer valuable information and insights into human behaviour. But, I have long been of the opinion that it wasn’t a science, at least, not in the true meaning of the word “science.” To me, science was something concrete and tangible, it was the study of things that were indisputably measurable. It wasn’t an area of study where the subject matter (human behaviours and emotions) couldn’t be directly observed and so relied on the over-operationalisation of its variables to be able to draw any kind of conclusion.
But then I actually looked up the definition of “science.”
Science has two main definitions, according to Webster’s, which are:
- Knowledge attained through study or practice
- Knowledge covering general truths of the operation of general laws, especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.
Needless to say, the draft title of my post immediately changed, as clearly, according to the first definition anyway, psychology is indeed, a science. But does it appropriately use scientific method? The answer is, annoyingly, yes and no.
The biggest problem with psychology is that we can’t see a person’s feelings, thoughts, motivations or reasoning, all we can observe is the associated behaviour and their own self-report. Any scientist will tell you, self-report is one of the least scientific methods of gathering data, due to people’s unintentional inaccuracies, plus those that downright lie. But in most cases, it’s all psychology has.
Which brings me to something else psychology has, considered its most powerful tool in its arsenal. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The one book that psychologists will hold up as the proof that their discipline is a science, is valid and necessary. But the DSM, does not do psychology any favours in terms of asserting its credibility…
Let me explain. The DSM lists various psychological conditions and asserts specific diagnostic criteria for determining whether a person is afflicted with said condition. First year psychology students will inevitably diagnose themselves with something upon their first eager perusal of the volume. As laughably eyebrow raising as this is on its own, actually reading the diagnostic criteria reveals huge flaws. The most striking example lies in the diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder. One of the diagnostic criteria for this one, is that the person has a criminal record…
I can practically hear the criminologists shaking their head at this one, just as I did. To include criminal history as a diagnostic criteria in fact tells us nothing, except that the person committed a crime and got caught, and that the charges went far enough to end up on a person’s record. What of all the ASPD sufferers who didn’t get caught? Or, shock horror, have actually never committed an actual crime because they saw no benefit in it for themselves? And worse, what of criminals who do not have ASPD, but end up labelled with it because of their offending? These are important questions which many psychologists who tout the DSM as valuable seem unable to adequately answer.
But of course psychologists do realise that slapping a diagnostic label on someone has far reaching implications for that person’s life. So even though they have this DSM and insist its wonderful, they seem very reluctant to formally diagnose their patients with any of the listed conditions. Instead, they will assert that a person has certain “traits” associated with a particular condition or conditions. What they are saying here, is that a person meets some of the diagnostic criteria for a disorder, or disorders, but not quite enough to justify a full diagnosis.
Problem with this? Every single person walking the face of this earth has “traits” of these disorders. All of us. If you look hard enough, you’ll see these “traits” everywhere. So unfortunately, saying that someone presents with certain “traits” also tells us nothing terribly helpful.
To re-iterate, psychology is valid. And yes, it’s a science. But it does seem to somewhat overstate its power. I am not encouraging anyone to dismiss psychology, merely to urge you all to use caution when reading and interpreting the results and recommendations asserted by this field.