Science is defined as the “systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”. Therefore, the scientific method employs a number of different measures. These include:
Paradigm – a set of theoretical rules and assumptions that are agreed upon by scientists (guiding principles/ general laws), to classify and standardise scientific knowledge.
Though it is argued that psychology’s many approaches (Biological, Social Learning, Cognitive, Behaviourist, Psychodynamic and Humanistic) all have unique aspects which cannot be disregarded, meaning that psychology does not have a paradigm, the emergence of a paradigm in modern psychology has been seen. The Cognitive approach’s computer analogy has seen a combination of cognition (software) and biological psychology (hardware). They are both complementary and so psychology has its paradigm.
Objectivity – a separation between the scientist and what they are studying, to allow the collection of data that is valid and reliable.
This is one of the trickiest to argue. Studies have shown that humans studying humans is ultimately subjective: Rosenthal found that participants’ performance of a task was altered by the physical characteristics of the observer. Similarly, psychology’s rushing into quantification means that many measures used today are self-report, the ultimate subjective tool. However, psychologists have an awareness of these influences so they can be reduced using inter-observer and inter-rater reliability. Coupled with a large sample size and other methodological strengths, subjectivity can be overpowered.
Empiricism – the exclusive collection of data that can be detected by the senses, so that it is objective and less open to interpretation.
Psychodynamic psychologists were the only people who ever collected data that wasn’t empirical. Today, empirical data is collected as standard. Though Coggies measure interal processes, this is done in a scientific way through structured interviews and observations used to create models that infer mental processes.
Falsifiability – theories are created which are capable of being proven wrong, and are challenged by hypothesis testing. Unfalsifiable theories like those of the Psychodynamic approach allow no progress to be made as nothing can be challenged so there is no opportunity for stronger, more refined theories to emerge.
Over time, the Social Learning Theory integrated into it more cognitive mediating factors. As their existence was proven using empirical inquiry, the SLT was scrapped and the Cognitive approach was born. Cognitive theory takes the environment into heavy consideration alongside its emphasis on internal mental structures. Therefore it seems that, on the basis of falsifiability, psychology is a science.
Quality control – the quality of findings is challenged by peer review and open discussion which may lead to replication. This means that work is looked at by other experts in the field who can check that findings really are valid. If not, they are challenged with replication, possibly using a different methodology, to see if the initial trend found remains.
Psychological research is published in major journals such as Science, Perception and British Journal of Psychology. All of these professional names are peer-reviewed so a leading expert in the field assesses the methodology and quality of the written report before deciding to publish it or reject it for publication. This means that nonsense like NLP, which makes large claims about its effectiveness but cannot provide any data, is not published as it is not eligible for peer review. The power of replication has also been seen within psychology: in 2008 a challenge to the so-called ‘Mozart effect’ was made, testing pop music and classical music on 8000 children. And surprise, surprise, the commonly-believed effect had been fabricated: though classical music does have a small, short-term enhancement in children, pop music is more effective.
Generalisation – the application of the findings of a study or a theory to the wider society or environment. This allows progress as general laws of commonalities can be made.
General laws are made all the time in psychology. The biological approach believes that everyone’s criminal behaviour is caused by the inheritance of traits which make us more likely to commit crime. Christiansen’s study of criminality in MZ and DZ twins was generalised not only to all twins, but the idea of genetic concordance was generalised to us all. Behaviourists even generalise the findings of animal studies to us. Freud generalised Hans’ oedipus complex to all 5 year old males. SLTs think that all children attend to models of perceived similarity and attractiveness. Generalisations are clearly made a lot.
Reductionism – the experimental method, whereby an IV is manipulated whilst a DV is measured and all other variables are standardised, requires the reduction of study to just an IV and DV. This allow cause-effect relationships to be established so that trends can be found. Theoretical reductionism can too be used by cutting through the complexity of the chosen subject to a few fundamental principles, allowing a simple and easily understood account to be gained.
Just like generalisations, pretty much everyone reduces us into our component parts because it is needed to conduct experiments, which pretty much everyone also does. Biological reductionism cuts through our complexity to study just evolution, genes and our Nervous System (put very simply). Machine reductionism is what Cogs use to portray our information processing systems that are the mind and brain. And environmental reductionism is the reduction of the causes of behaviour to exclusively external factors like our peers and the media. Whether or not such reductionism encompasses the complexity of us humans (that’s another debate entirely), it is consistent with science.
So then, is psychology a science? It seems so, yes. It may not be all lab coats and test tubes but the study of humans is rather more complex than all that, because cells and atoms don’t have conscious thought which detects demand characteristics! So, by breaking science apart into its fundamental method, we can see that psychology is a science. And a good job, too! If it wasn’t we’d all still be stuck in the post-Freudian era analysing inkblots…