To decide whether psychology is a science, we firstly have to define a ‘science’. A science is ‘objectively obtaining data and organizing it into theories’. A science follows a process, when investigating anything scientific. Firstly, inductive reasoning takes place whereby the investigator looks at the science/idea around its subject.
Secondly, a generalization is made about that subject matter and a hypothesis is formed. Next, deductive reasoning takes place where by the subject matter is tested, and either verified or falsified.
A science is characterised by the fact that it is supposed to our objective and the variables tested need to be testable, among others.
Firstly, objectivity – for a subject to be a science, it needs to be objective in that the researcher imposes no ideas, which may be biased to what they believe in their study. This can sometimes be established. For example, behaviorist, biological and cognitive theorists all use lab studies when they investigate their theories, which are largely controlled and therefore unbiased by the researchers own beliefs. However, psychodynamic theorists, when investigating subject matter use, in the majority, case studies. These are generalized and involved the biased interpretation of the researcher.
So, from this point of view, depending on which psychological is carrying out the investigation, depends on the matter of whether the method is objective.
A second argument that could be used as either for or against psychology as a science is the process of operationalising variables. In normal sciences, for example, chemistry and physics, variables are obviously established. They use voltage, amps and grams when carrying out research, which are easily established.
However, when psychologists investigate areas, they cannot establish such things. For example, if they are looking at stress, they may find indirect variables, such as sweat, but they cannot firmly say that this is a direct variable linked to stressful situations.
So, again, from this argument, it is difficult to say that psychology can be a science, as they cannot very well establish causality.
The third thing that does establish is causality. This means that a cause and effect relationship, in that the IV had an effect on the DV. In sciences, this is very well established, as most of those use laboratory experiments, which are controlled and show this cause and effect relationship.
To some extent, psychology can also establish causality. In the behavioural, biological and cognitive approaches, lab experiments are often used and so they can establish causality in their highly controlled conditions. However, again, psychodynamic theorists raise problems when they are investigating as they mainly use case studies. This means causality cannot be properly established even when lab experiments are used to investigate psychological phenomena, there are problems raised. Lab experiments lack ecological validity (cannot be applied to real life) and can create demand characteristics (whereby the participants thinks they know how the investigator wants them to act, and acts accordingly). They can also lack experimental validity where by the participant does not believe in the experiment.
The fourth and final argument that can be used to show whether psychology is a science is its use of theory. Major sciences have paradigms, which are general theories that encompass many smaller theories, such as physic’s theory of relativity. However, psychology does not have any of these. Instead, it has levels of explanations that are used to explain phenomena. Thomas Kuhn (1990) said, because of this ‘psychology is a pre-science’. He meant that psychology had not quite reached the stage of being a science, but may do one day. On the other hand, however, paradigms change all the time, so does psychology really need one? It is not really important that it does not have paradigm as its different levels of explanation make up for this fact.
In conclusion, there are both arguments for and against psychology as a science. However, on the whole, the type of experiment used to investigate the phenomena will establish, to a certain extent whether psychology is a science. To look back at the original definition of a science – ‘objectively obtaining data and organizing it into theories’, I believe that psychologists, on the whole, may be with the exceptions of psychodynamic theorists, can establish this.
A science has to be observable
- In the same way that biology is the study of the living world and physics the physical world, psychology is the study of the mind and behaviour. If the behaviourist and physiological approaches are to be considered than psychology can be considered to be observable as both approaches focus on behaviour which is an observable phenomenon.
- However the psychodynamic and cognitive approach both focus on the mind which is a hypothetical construct and therefore not observable.
- One problem with observation in psychology is that some of the things studied for example fear cannot be observed so what are considered to be the effects of fear are measured, for instance pupil dilation. This can cause problems as it can be argued that we are not focusing on and testing the thing we originally intended to.
- On the other hand it can be argued that scientists study things such as gravity which in itself is not an observable phenomenon but is still considered to be scientific.
A science has to be the objective study of matter and facts, not the study of beliefs
- Both the cognitive, physiological and behaviourist approaches use objective methods such as lab expts, CAT scans and EEG machines.
- However approaches such as the psychodynamic approach are not objective as methods such as dream analysis rely on personal interpretations therefore making them subjective.
- Although much research within the Psychodynamic approach is subject to a lack of objectivity attempts have been made to use objective measures for example lab expts have been done to support reaction formation.
- Also modern day scientists do not necessarily study things that really exist. Science increasingly studies tings that cannot be observed directly such as ‘strong force’. We can also say that the existence of ‘subatomic particles’ help to explain a variety of phenomena just as schemers in psychology explain many other factors.
Science must be concerned with theory construction and falsifiability
- Psychology is full of theory which attempts to explain certain phenomenon for example there are several theories for the causation of Schizophrenia, one is that it stems from a biological causation in the same way that a physical illness would another theory is the dopamine hypothesis.
- Problems arise when trying to test these hypotheses as to carry out a scientific test the thing being tested needs to be observable and behaviours such as motivation are hypothetical constructs which cannot be observed.
- Some theories are not falsifiable such as Freud’s dream theory.
- Some theories such as schemas are not testable although their ideas are widely accepted; equally scientific theories such as strong force are not testable but are accepted.
Science has to be nomathetic; it has to have discovered laws or principles
- The learning approach attempts to apply general laws to everyone such as Thorndike’s law of effect; that behaviour is a product of our consequences.
- Similarly the social approach has the ‘law of proximity’ which is concerned with the amount of personal space people like to have around them.
- It is also very rare in psychology that a law is found in terms of a cause and effect relationship for example a stomach ulcer might be said to be caused by psychological stress however other factors such as excess stomach acid, bad diet or a physiological predisposition.
- However it has been argued that even in natural sciences a purely nomathetic approach is not thus making the distinction between natural and human science is a false dichotomy.
- Allport claims that taking an ideographic approach, i.e. looking purely at individuals without generalisation, can actually be more scientific than a nomothetic approach as it can make better predictions about individuals. A modern example of how this may be true is that by looking at how individuals have unique genomes and unique environments, using elements of the ideographic approach, we can make better predictions about individuals when compared to the nomothetic approach. For example, a nomoethic approach would predict that 1 in every 5000 children in the UK will develop symptoms of PKU, yet by taking an ideographic approach and looking at an individuals genes and what environment they grow up in, we can make far greater predictions about whether a child will develop the disorder.
A science has to have a specific paradigm – a specific idea or a belief system.
- Psychology lacks a paradigm as there is no common goal or perspective as there are five different approaches.
- On the other hand psychologists argue that psychology has already encountered several paradigms shifts the first being structuralism represented by introspectionism which was replaced by behaviourism which was replaced by cognitive.
- However, Glassman (1995) claims there has never been a complete reorganisation of the discipline that has happened in physics.
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