Psychology is an integral part of our modern society, and its influence is quite widespread. Many important decisions, which are made in our society, can be based on psychology – decisions which affect the lives of many people. This is why it is important to determine whether or not psychology is a science. The answer to the question if psychology is a science is not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – it depends on the area of psychological study, on the theory used within an area, and often on the way the researcher chooses to study a phenomenon ( Makunda, 1997).
It also depends on what is meant by ‘scientific’ – for the philosopher of science Karl Popper, for instance, the most important criterion was what he called ‘falsifiability’. There are also other criteria of science, which I am going to present in this essay. I will examine different psychological theories in the light of different aspects of scientific endeavour. Defining science is not an easy task. There are many different concepts of science.
According to Webster (1992) science is the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena, through objective means. Put it simply scientists conduct experiments and observations to collect data about world and to explain these facts. Chalmers (1999) states that science is something visible, touchable, hearable, rather than opinions or beliefs. Davies says that: “Science is a structure based upon facts”(as cited in Chalmers, 1999, p. 1).
The American Heritage Science Dictionary appears to encompass the general consensus, and defines science as: “The investigation of natural phenomena through observation, theoretical explanation, and experimentation, or the knowledge produced by such investigation. Science makes use of the scientific method, which includes the careful observation of natural phenomena, the formulation of a hypothesis, the conducting of one or more experiments to test the hypothesis, and the drawing of a conclusion that confirms or modifies the hypothesis. Therefore, it seems that for a field to be considered a science, it must utilise observation and experimentation to confirm or falsify a hypothesis.
There are several aims of science – description, prediction, understanding, and control . Science provides objective descriptions of phenomena which allow the development of predictions. Predictions add support and credibility to the knowledge obtained in the description phase, which in turn allows for understanding of the cause and effect of the phenomena. Once understanding of the cause of a henomenon is accurate, control is possible(Malim, Birch &ump; Wadeley, 1992). Many would argue that for psychology to be called science it needs to display all these characteristics of science. Does psychology display all these? Therefore, can it be called a science? The word psychology comes from the Greek words – psyche, meaning soul and word logos, meaning study. Thus, a basic definition of psychology could be: the study of soul. However it is broadly agreed that psychology is the study of mind and behaviour. According to Clark and Miller (1970) psychology is: “the scientific study of behaviour.
Its subject matter includes behavioural processes that are observable, such as gestures, speech and physiological changes, and processes that can only be inferred, such as thoughts and dreams (as cited in Gross, 2005). Definition of psychology have changed over years, mainly influenced by different approaches within its field. Kline (1998) argued that these approaches within the psychology should be perceived as separate disciplines. He states that a field of study can only be considered a science if researchers agree with a common, global perspective or ‘paradigm’.
According to Kuhn (1996) psychology is not a science because it does not fit in with the ‘normal science’ paradigm, which is a set of assumptions, concepts, values and practices that affect the way reality is viewed. Kuhn states that there are three stages in science: pre-science – before a paradigm has evolved, normal science – a paradigm has emerged and dictates what is to be studied and how results are to be interpreted in relation to the paradigm and the third stage is revolution shift, where different kinds of theory become accepted as better.
He argues that psychology is at the pre-scientific stage as there are a number of different schools of thought in psychology. However Palermo (1971) believes that psychology has been through several paradigm shifts, like structuralism, behaviourism and cognitive psychology, so is now in the revolution stage and can therefore be considered a science. Popper (2002) says that psychology is a science only if its theories are falsifiable or testable. He proposed that for a theory to be scientific it must be possible to show evidence that the theory is falsifiable.
This is, it must be possible to imagine some evidence, which, if obtained, would refute the theory. Popper formulated his so-called falsifiability principle, by which he claimed to ‘demarcate’ science from pseudo-science (Fuller, ) Freud’s psychoanalytical theory is an example of a non-falsifiable theory. Any symptoms or behaviour that person expresses are possible to explain in terms of childhood experience, defence mechanism or constructs, like id, ego and superego. This ‘capacity’ to explain everything imaginable is a weakness of this personality theory.
Differently, Piaget’s theories of cognitive development of children are falsifiable, thus scientific. For instance, one of his theory says that children during the first 8 months of life develop a sense of ‘object permanence’. To test this an object was hidden in front of child and his reaction was recorded. After, the findings were described, the other researchers found out that children under 8 months show evidence of object permanence, they were behaving inconsistent with Piaget’s theory of object permanence.
Those researchers modified also his experiment and proposed more detailed theory to explain this phenomena. Some theories offer testable hypothesis, and some do not. Some are also rejected in favour of new one. As Popper said, however: ‘continually rejecting theories in favour of better ones is the very scientific endeavour. The most fruitful attitude is to view any theory as the best picture so far, instead of as the complete picture”. It can be argued that psychology is scientific because research can be carried out using the experimental method.
The basics of conducting a psychology experiment involve randomly assigning participants to groups, defining variables, developing a hypothesis, manipulating the independent variables and measuring the depending variables. Any science must have hypotheses, which will be testable. This involves making specific predictions about behaviour under certain specified conditions, for example, predicting that by combining the sight of a rat with the sound of an iron bar banging behind his head, a small child will learn to fear the rat, as is the case of Little Albert (1923).
Also, empirical methods are used in scientific fields to collect data, relevant to the hypothesis being tested to support them. Additionally, scientific experiment should be replicable, this is doing the same research again should confirm earlier results to increase confidence of findings (Gazzaniga, Heatherton &ump; Halpern, 2010). Scientific methods need to control for extraneous variables, this is ones which have an undesired effect on what is being investigated. Psychologist have relatively little control over a large number of so-called ‘nuisance’ variables, which have an impact on behaviour they are measuring.
The experiment conducted in laboratory settings allows the researcher to control things, like time of the day, surroundings, etc. But there are also the other variables, which are really difficult to control, like for instance influence of whether or mood on participants. Also is not always possible to change aspects of a situation, e. g. , we can’t change the gender of participants. Because we do not have as much experimental control, we cannot ascribe cause and effect.
For example, if we find girls score higher on IQ tests than boys, is this because of their biological sex? Because of differences in their treatment in school? Or because girls learn to try harder? Therefore, the researchers use experimental design, e. g. control group, random assignment, placebo, etc. and statistical analyses which enable them generalize the findings beyond their samples. A good scientific theory explains phenomena as simply as possible. Most psychologist look for the simplest possibles explanation of evidence, formulating by this parsimonious theories.
Psychologist B F Skinner proposed theory of learning called operant conditioning, based on one assumption, the Law of Effect, which says that behaviour positively reinforced is more likely to occur under similar conditions, rather then one which is punished. His theory was extremely useful because helped to explain all human behaviour from this one simple principle. Unfortunately, the operant conditioning was viewed as too simplistic theory and nowadays there are many different explanations of human behaviour, each with its own assumptions. Science is meant to be objective and unbiased.
It should be free of values and discover the truths about what it is studying. Positivism is the view that science is objective and a study of what is real. For example, schizophrenia, when diagnosed as being caused due to excess dopamine, is being studied in a scientific manner. The explanation does not take into account any cultural customs or individual differences that might lead to ‘schizophrenic’ behaviour. However, even in scientific research like this the person is doing the diagnosing has his or her own views, and may misinterpret behaviour because of his or her own subjective biases.
For example, if someone talks about hearing voices, they may be referring to a spiritual experience, but a medical practitioner might well diagnose schizophrenia. So objective, value-free study is not easy, because the scientist has views and biases, and cultural or other issues are perhaps important factors. Some say that a truly objective study is not possible, and that a scientific approach to the study of people is not desirable. It appears, in conclusion, that there is no easy answer to the question “is psychology a science? ” The issue of psychology as a science is cloudy. On the one hand, psychology is a science.
The subject matter is behaviour, including mental aspects of behaviour such as memory.. Variables are measured, and carefully controlled. Laboratories are often used in an effort to improve controls, so that general laws about behaviour can be built. On the other hand, psychology can be viewed not as a science, as it does not aim at scientific principles to measure the whole world. In many areas of psychology there is no attempt to generalise from some human behaviour to all human behaviour. .It might be a more worthwhile exercise to divide psychology into its separate fields and ask the question of each.
It could be argued that the behaviorist approach is the most scientific, focussing on what people do, rather than how they think; something that is observable. The approach ignores speculation while putting emphasis on objectivity. Conversely, most of Freud’s theories within the psychodynamic approach seem untestable, unfalsifiable and, ultimately, unscientific. The question and answer sessions associated with psychoanalysis rely on introspection, of which there is scientific doubt. Without doubt is that he debate of psychology as a science will probably remain a debate for some time.