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Yes, but ...
A psychology undergraduate speaks out.

Copyright © 2008, Paul LutusMessage Page

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  I came across this article ["Is Psychology a Science?"] while researching this very topic as part of one of our own project for my undergraduate psychology course. I found it particularly persuasive against psychology as a science, which is my own belief at this time. There are however, counterpoints I would like to put forwards. I welcome your views. Your claim of psychology as constantly flitting between different views and opinions, just like a religion, is something that most sciences have gone through. Each science has come across something new and has essentially developed a fixation with subjects and specializations. Fixations often become practice in psychology, but in science such fixations eventually fail the evidence test. In mainstream science, fads and fashions collide with a requirement for evidence, and only those ideas that survive this test become part of the field. Plate tectonics, relativity, quantum mechanics, particle physics — each of these started as a wacky idea but ended up supported by repeatable evidence. Very importantly, if the evidence had not been forthcoming, these ideas would have been abandoned.

By contrast, in psychology ideas can survive for decades without ever being tested against evidence. An example is Recovered Memory Therapy, which should have been cast out long ago based on the number of clients who later realized their "recovered memories" were fantasies.

Walter Freeman performing a lobotomy
Unfortunately evidence plays a weak, peripheral role in clinical psychology, and as a result many people have been jailed based on the "expert" testimony of recovered memory therapists. Most of these victims were later released when the accusers realized their memories were nonsense. This history of conscientious reversals has profoundly affected the legal standing of clinical psychology (courts will no longer hear cases in which "recovered memories" are the primary evidence), but there has been almost no change within psychology itself, where Recovered Memory Therapy is still practiced.

This is an example where three different standards of evidence come into conflict:

  • In science, evidence is primary — anyone can refute a theory by presenting reliable evidence, regardless of how long a theory has existed or how eminent the theory's advocates are (evidence trumps eminence).
  • In law, evidence is very important, but there is an adversarial structure built into the process that pits one side against another, which means some things never happen (an advocate never changes sides when faced with contradicting evidence).
  • In psychology, evidence plays a role secondary to ethical considerations, simple belief, tradition and reputation (eminence trumps evidence).
As an example of the last point, neurologist Walter Freeman singlehandedly popularized prefrontal lobotomy among U.S. psychologists, eventually performing about 3500 lobotomies, based solely on his reputation and skills of persuasion, before the dreadful consequences of this practice became apparent.

At the height of Freeman's personal campaign, he drove around the country in a van he called the "lobotomobile," performing lobotomies as he traveled. There was plenty of evidence that prefrontal lobotomy was a catastrophic clinical practice, but no one noticed the evidence or acted on it. There was — and is — no reliable mechanism within clinical psychology to prevent this sort of abuse.
I would also like to note that case studies are unfortunately a large problem of psychology, and despite them being non scientifically performed, I do believe that the more scientifically controlled something becomes, the less realistic it becomes. This is quite false. In astronomy, early workers crafted a rather complex theory called "epicycles" to account for the motion of the sun and planets, in order to support a belief that the earth was the center of the system. Eventually scientists (then known as "natural philosophers") threw out the entire idea and replaced it with a model that turned out to be simpler and more predictive (more "realistic" to use your word), in exchange for accepting that the earth is just another planet orbiting the sun (the "heliocentric system").

In biology, a complex theory without any evidence whatever (divine control) has been replaced by evolution, a much simpler theory that has the added benefit of being testable and well-supported by copious evidence — thus more "realistic."

Examples like these abound in science. In each case a testable theory replaced a belief, and in each case the theory explained more of nature using fewer assumptions. In all such cases in science, theory depends on evidence — no evidence, no theory.

In psychology by contrast, any number of clinical practices rely on belief and personal reputation rather than evidence. in the 1970s psychologist Bruno Bettelheim decided that autism was produced by "refrigerator moms" — according to Bettelheim, women incapable of emotional attachment produced children incapable of emotional attachment. This notion won wide acceptance based on — evidence? — no, based on Bettelheim's reputation and standing in the field of psychology (eminence trumps evidence).

Bettelheim's belief wasn't cast out based on contradicting evidence, instead it slowly evaporated over time and was replaced by other beliefs, like the present idea that autism is caused by Thimerosal in childhood vaccines. A recent plan to gather evidence for/against this idea has been abandoned for ethical reasons.

Under present circumstances, to do real science in psychology is to risk being sued by outraged parents, and with regard to the recently abandoned Thimerosal study, if it had gone ahead the parents would have been justified in suing.
While aspects of physics and chemistry require this, biology and psychology make this important. By observing an object, you change it, and this applies doubly within the context of other human beings and animals. This observation issue is not a problem in mainstream science, only in psychology. Even if we were to set aside ethical considerations, it is difficult to design a study of human beings that creates reliable evidence, because in most psychology studies we depend on the trustworthiness of a subject's own reports. This is why so few psychology studies are successfully replicated, and why many studies rely on experimental designs that would be rejected in mainstream science.

Where self-reporting is not an issue, where the evidence consists of brainwaves or hi-tech images, we surrender the ability to reliably correlate the images with particular subjective states. By contrast, in mainstream science we can quantify and accommodate the effects of observation to the degree that some values in physics are accurately measured to ten decimal places.

It turns out that my view of clinical psychology is shared by a number of influential people within the field. Ronald Levant, the President of the American Psychological Association, recently exhorted his profession to adopt evidence-based practice, but with little effect and much grumbling. Here is a quote from Levant's later defense:

"Some APA members have asked me why I have chosen to sponsor an APA Presidential Initiative on Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) in Psychology, expressing fears that the results might be used against psychologists by managed-care companies and malpractice lawyers."
In all respects and in my view, Levant is right. He is right in saying that present clinical practice is not based on evidence and should be. He is also right in saying that malpractice lawyers will exploit this debate. This issue reveals a fundamental difference between science and law — in science you speak candidly, while in law you avoid saying anything that might be used against you in court.

One problem with contemporary clinical psychology is that it is neither science nor law. As a result the field is disparaged for not being more scientific, but by candidly acknowledging the science issue it exposes itself to a tangible legal threat.

Another problem with the present state of psychology is that most people don't understand the present state of psychology. These people cannot make an informed choice, for the reason that they are not informed.

Thanks for writing.

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