- Define science.
- Describe the three fundamental features of science.
- Explain why psychology is a science.
- Define pseudoscience and give some examples.
What Is Science?
Some people are surprised to learn that psychology is a science. They generally agree that astronomy, biology, and chemistry are sciences but wonder what psychology has in common with these other fields. Before answering this question, however, it is worth reflecting on what astronomy, biology, and chemistry have in common with each other. It is clearly not their subject matter. Astronomers study celestial bodies, biologists study living organisms, and chemists study matter and its properties. It is also not the equipment and techniques that they use. Few biologists would know what to do with a radio telescope, for example, and few chemists would know how to track a moose population in the wild. For these and other reasons, philosophers and scientists who have thought deeply about this question have concluded that what the sciences have in common is a general approach to understanding the natural world. Psychology is a science because it takes this same general approach to understanding one aspect of the natural world: human behavior.
Features of Science
The general scientific approach has three fundamental features (Stanovich, 2010). The first is systematic empiricism. Empiricism refers to learning based on observation, and scientists learn about the natural world systematically, by carefully planning, making, recording, and analyzing observations of it. As we will see, logical reasoning and even creativity play important roles in science too, but scientists are unique in their insistence on checking their ideas about the way the world is against their systematic observations. Notice, for example, that Mehl and his colleagues did not trust other people’s stereotypes or even their own informal observations. Instead, they systematically recorded, counted, and compared the number of words spoken by a large sample of women and men. Furthermore, when their systematic observations turned out to conflict with people’s stereotypes, they trusted their systematic observations.
The second feature of the scientific approach—which follows in a straightforward way from the first—is that it is concerned with empirical questions. These are questions about the way the world actually is and, therefore, can be answered by systematically observing it. The question of whether women talk more than men is empirical in this way. Either women really do talk more than men or they do not, and this can be determined by systematically observing how much women and men actually talk. There are many interesting and important questions that are not empirically testable and that science cannot answer. Among them are questions about values—whether things are good or bad, just or unjust, or beautiful or ugly, and how the world ought to be. So although the question of whether a stereotype is accurate or inaccurate is an empirically testable one that science can answer, the question of whether it is wrong for people to hold inaccurate stereotypes is not. Similarly, the question of whether criminal behavior has a genetic component is an empirical question, but the question of what should be done with people who commit crimes is not. It is especially important for researchers in psychology to be mindful of this distinction.
The third feature of science is that it creates public knowledge. After asking their empirical questions, making their systematic observations, and drawing their conclusions, scientists publish their work. This usually means writing an article for publication in a professional journal, in which they put their research question in the context of previous research, describe in detail the methods they used to answer their question, and clearly present their results and conclusions. Publication is an essential feature of science for two reasons. One is that science is a social process—a large-scale collaboration among many researchers distributed across both time and space. Our current scientific knowledge of most topics is based on many different studies conducted by many different researchers who have shared their work with each other over the years. The second is that publication allows science to be self-correcting. Individual scientists understand that despite their best efforts, their methods can be flawed and their conclusions incorrect. Publication allows others in the scientific community to detect and correct these errors so that, over time, scientific knowledge increasingly reflects the way the world actually is.
Science Versus Pseudoscience
Pseudoscience refers to activities and beliefs that are claimed to be scientific by their proponents—and may appear to be scientific at first glance—but are not. Consider the theory of biorhythms (not to be confused with sleep cycles or other biological cycles that do have a scientific basis). The idea is that people’s physical, intellectual, and emotional abilities run in cycles that begin when they are born and continue until they die. The physical cycle has a period of 23 days, the intellectual cycle a period of 33 days, and the emotional cycle a period of 28 days. So, for example, if you had the option of when to schedule an exam, you would want to schedule it for a time when your intellectual cycle will be at a high point. The theory of biorhythms has been around for more than 100 years, and you can find numerous popular books and websites about biorhythms, often containing impressive and scientific-sounding terms like sinusoidal wave and bioelectricity. The problem with biorhythms, however, is that there is no good reason to think they exist (Hines, 1998).
A set of beliefs or activities can be said to be pseudoscientific if (a) its adherents claim or imply that it is scientific but (b) it lacks one or more of the three features of science. It might lack systematic empiricism. Either there is no relevant scientific research or, as in the case of biorhythms, there is relevant scientific research but it is ignored. It might also lack public knowledge. People who promote the beliefs or activities might claim to have conducted scientific research but never publish that research in a way that allows others to evaluate it.
A set of beliefs and activities might also be pseudoscientific because it does not address empirical questions. The philosopher Karl Popper was especially concerned with this idea (Popper, 2002). He argued more specifically that any scientific claim must be expressed in such a way that there are observations that would—if they were made—count as evidence against the claim. In other words, scientific claims must be falsifiable. The claim that women talk more than men is falsifiable because systematic observations could reveal either that they do talk more than men or that they do not. As an example of an unfalsifiable claim, consider that many people who study extrasensory perception (ESP) and other psychic powers claim that such powers can disappear when they are observed too closely. This makes it so that no possible observation would count as evidence against ESP. If a careful test of a self-proclaimed psychic showed that she predicted the future at better-than-chance levels, this would be consistent with the claim that she had psychic powers. But if she failed to predict the future at better-than-chance levels, this would also be consistent with the claim because her powers can supposedly disappear when they are observed too closely.
Why should we concern ourselves with pseudoscience? There are at least three reasons. One is that learning about pseudoscience helps bring the fundamental features of science—and their importance—into sharper focus. A second is that biorhythms, psychic powers, astrology, and many other pseudoscientific beliefs are widely held and are promoted on the Internet, on television, and in books and magazines. Learning what makes them pseudoscientific can help us to identify and evaluate such beliefs and practices when we encounter them. A third reason is that many pseudosciences purport to explain some aspect of human behavior and mental processes, including biorhythms, astrology, graphology (handwriting analysis), and magnet therapy for pain control. It is important for students of psychology to distinguish their own field clearly from this “pseudopsychology.”
The Skeptic’s Dictionary
An excellent source for information on pseudoscience is The Skeptic’s Dictionary (http://www.skepdic.com). Among the pseudoscientific beliefs and practices you can learn about are the following:
- Cryptozoology. The study of “hidden” creatures like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, and the chupacabra.
- Pseudoscientific psychotherapies. Past-life regression, rebirthing therapy, and bioscream therapy, among others.
- Homeopathy. The treatment of medical conditions using natural substances that have been diluted sometimes to the point of no longer being present.
- Pyramidology. Odd theories about the origin and function of the Egyptian pyramids (e.g., that they were built by extraterrestrials) and the idea that pyramids in general have healing and other special powers.
- Science is a general way of understanding the natural world. Its three fundamental features are systematic empiricism, empirical questions, and public knowledge.
- Psychology is a science because it takes the scientific approach to understanding human behavior.
- Pseudoscience refers to beliefs and activities that are claimed to be scientific but lack one or more of the three features of science. It is important to distinguish the scientific approach to understanding human behavior from the many pseudoscientific approaches.
- Discussion: People sometimes suggest that psychology cannot be a science because either (a) human behavior cannot be predicted with perfect accuracy or (b) much of its subject matter (e.g., thoughts and feelings) cannot be observed directly. Do you agree or disagree with each of these ideas? Why?
- Practice: List three empirical questions about human behavior. List three nonempirical questions about human behavior.
- Discussion: Consider the following psychological claim. “People’s choice of spouse is strongly influenced by their perception of their own parents. Some choose a spouse who is similar in some way to one of their parents. Others choose a spouse who is different from one of their parents.” Is this claim falsifiable? Why or why not?
Hines, T. M. (1998). Comprehensive review of biorhythm theory. Psychological Reports, 83, 19–64.
Popper, K. R. (2002). Conjectures and refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge. New York, NY: Routledge.
Stanovich, K. E. (2010). How to think straight about psychology (9th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.