What Makes Psychology a Science?
Psychology is not a Science! That's what THEY say.
Many people think that Psychology is not a scientific discipline. They claim that case histories and therapeutic techniques used in Psychology are not valid ways of studying and treating mental disorders. Some even go beyond criticizing research methods and claim that Statistics, a commonly used technique for data analysis, is not a valid way of establishing scientific truths. Furthermore, the topics on self-esteem, motivation and creativity, they say, are too subjective to be studied scientifically. When you search the internet, it may seem obvious that articles filed under "Psychology" are simple, logical and not-so-scientific, compared to those in the fields of Biology and Physics. Thus, people who claim that Psychology is not a science are fairly common. The media seems to be legitimate evidence that Science in Psychology is a fraud.
The problem with the above-mentioned claims, however, is that the sources, themselves, did not study Psychology as rigorously as any Psychology major would. Plus, Psychology articles in the web, if ever written by credible and experienced psychologists, are only simplified to cater to the general audience. The rigor of a study's methodology and data analysis are not presented to save space and facilitate a more layman understanding of the subject. Thus, any critical evaluation of a psychological article should be made directly from the research paper in which it was based. Lastly, methods used in Psychology are not as simple as they seem to be.
Psychology as a Social Science
Scientific disciplines are usually classified into two: the Physical Sciences and the Social Sciences. When you search for a Psychology book in the library, you will most likely end up in the Social Sciences section, perhaps even near to Philosophy. This is because the field of Psychology has its historical roots in Philosophy. Old-age philosophical inquiries to Being and Personality are studied psychologically.
Psychology is considered a social science because psychological principles affect social life - people and institutions alike. Oftentimes, the purpose of any psychological research is to make the world a better place to live in, that is, socially.
Just like other scientists, psychologists embrace scientific values in their research. In turn, these values shape psychologists and manifest themselves as attitudes in which all scientific studies are made. Any person who embodies these characteristics is considered to be a scientist. In this light, Biologists, Chemists, Physicists are no different from each other when they practice:
- Curiosity. A scientist has a curious mind. He constantly finds interest in anything related to his field of study. For instance, Psychologists are eternally interested in find out the causes of behaviors and mental processes.
- Skepticism. A scientist does not accept claims at face value. He digs deep and questions supposed "truths" and assumptions made in his field of study. For instance, psychologists challenge sweeping and simplistic claims on the nature of personality and intelligence.
- Objectivity. Human language is said to be full of ambiguity. In order to eliminate confusion and prevent misinterpretation, a scientist strives to clarify his words. Thus, a psychologist may define classroom self-esteem as the frequency in which a student participates in class.
- Critical Thinking. A scientist is critical not just of other people's work, but also of himself. He evaluates the evidence and the method rigorously, identifying both the strengths and weaknesses of a research study. For example, Psychologists typically include recommendations at the last part of their research studies to indicate how future studies can improve upon them. Thus, psychologists do not try to hide the limitations of their studies, but instead exposes them to help consumers make informed choices about their studies.
The above-listed scientific attitudes are ideal and are not always possessed by people considered to be scientists. Sometimes, too, psychologists become too attached to the remarkable logic of a single perspective that they fall short of thinking critically about its claims. The same thing goes with various theories in Biology, Chemistry and Physics.
The Scientific Method
The Scientific Method is what all scientists use to arrive at scientific truths. It's what makes a discpline scientific or not. And just like any other scientific discipline, Psychology uses the scientific method to study behaviors and mental processes. Below is the step-by-step guide for using the scientific method in psychological research.
- Conceptualizing Problems. Problems in Psychology may spring from curiosity of a psychological phenomenon or skepticism of a particular theory. For example, a Psychologist may ask what effects stress has on memory, or he may question the degree in which nature or the environment affect human behavior. Whatever the source of the problem may be, it is imperative that a Psychologist clarifies the psychological concepts used in stating the problem, along with the possible hypotheses that can be generated from it.
- Collecting Data. After identifying the problem or set of problems to be solved in a research study, a Psychologist needs to choose which method can best be used to answer the problems posed. Each research method has its own strengths and weaknesses, depending upon the nature of the problem being addressed. Another important thing a Psychologist has to consider under this step is to have an idea of the participants to be included in the study. Thus, not only is the method required to be identified, but also the source of the research data must be adequately described. For instance, a study of risky behaviors leading to teen pregnancy requires that participants became pregnant during their teenage years. Because such a population is too many to be studied one by one, a Psychologist may opt to limit the population into a more representative sample. This can be done by Random Sampling, in which members of the population have an equal chance to be studied), and generalizations that can be made across research studies. The latter part could mean that one study will focus on teenage pregnancy in the United States, another in European countries, and still another in Asian countries. In this way, although the Psychologist was not able to study the entire the population who underwent teenage pregnancy, the Psychologist has a fair grasp on the nature of the phenomenon through the representativeness of the sample used.
- Analyzing Data. Once research data are gathered, the psychologist can proceed to analyzing them. A common technique used in analyzing data quantitatively is by the use of Statistics. Statistics has been fundamental in describing and inferring conclusions about psychological phenomenon. Just like choosing the best research method to be used in the study, the choice of which statistical technique to use depends upon the goals of the research study, all of which are objectively stated at Step 1.
- Drawing Conclusions. If all the previous steps go well, conclusions can be easily drawn among the possible hypotheses listed alongside the problems posed in Step 1. Conclusions identify whether research design (method and analysis) adequately solves the problems stated in Step 1 of the Scientific Method. Most of the time, however, psychological studies provide valuable insights to the nature of the problem, and yet are not sufficient in directly answering the problem. For this reason, follow-up studies are done to eliminate loopholes in the design and strengthen or modify its findings. As soon as the body of research accumulates in relation to a specific theory, the theory in question can either be strengthened (as more evidences confirm the theory), or modified (as existing evidences begin to challenge its principles). The important thing to understand here is that Psychologists cannot make sweeping claims and generalizations based on a single study. They underscore the complexity of the subject matter of the field to make conclusions on various phenomena observed in Psychology.
The Scientific Method is obviously a reflection of the Scientific Attitudes described earlier. Problem Conceptualization operates under the values of Curiosity, Objectivity and Skepticism. These values pulse their way through the steps of Data Collection and Analysis, both of which, in addition to Conclusion-Generalization, are mainly products of critical and evaluative thinking of a scientist. Thus, Psychology stands firmly on solid scientific ground, no more and no less than the rest of the Social and Physical Sciences.
Collaboration in Psychology
Once a research study is completely done, a psychologist typically finds ways to communicate and share what he has found out. This can be done by requesting peer reviews, conducting or participating in related conferences, and publishing the work in academic journals. The last strategy is usually the most sough-after among psychologists. This is because journal publications are moderated by a board of experts that judge 10-20% of the submitted articles in terms of value, quality and clarity. Not only are academic journals read internationally, the filtering process done in selecting the articles serve to raise the credibility of the psychologist and his research study. Aside from popularity, of course, the main reason why psychologists share their work is to gather constructive feedback and critical insights from fellow psychologists. The quality of criticisms made by colleagues and other scientists refines the research study and gives it a more scientific value to the community.