“Is Psychology Science?” Is The Wrong Question

By Neuroskeptic | August 19, 2013 3:05 pm

This week, there’s been lots of discussion over whether psychology is a science.

This is an ill-posed question.

“Science” is a term which has evolved over time. It was once a synonym for “knowledge” and referred to any field of formal study.

It now covers a subset of these, namely physics, chemistry, and biology… except maybe the more psychological bits of biology… maybe mathematics… and geography? Economics? Don’t even go there…

The boundaries are rather blurry.

While ‘science’ can be a convenient term, those kinds of study called ‘science’ have nothing essential that sets them apart from the rest:

There is no special ‘scientific method’ that sets ‘science’ apart. Different branches of science use different methods to uncover the truth.

Theoretical physics, organic chemistry, and evolutionary biology have nothing in common beyond the fact that they study something. And nor should they.

All attempts to prescribe (or even describe) a single ‘scientific method’, or a list of criteria for being science, have failed. Scientists don’t find them useful in practice. scientists study things and adapt their methods to the nature of the questions asked.


So “Is Psychology Science?” is not a good question. The answer depends on what you mean by the word ‘science’. That’s a semantic issue.

But facts are facts. So a better question to ask of psychology is: “is it true?” – or rather “how true is it?” Few fields are 100% true or false.

I think that most people are in fact asking about truth when they ask ‘Is It Science?’. But in that phrase, the sensible question of truth is mixed up with a vague jumble of less sensible questions such as (most often) ‘is it mathematical?’ or ‘is it systematic?’

What these questions tend to amount to is “Is it physics?’ Psychology is not physics, but neither is anything in biology, and even chemistry is on doubtful ground. Darwinism certainly doesn’t measure up to physics standards, but only creationists care about that. Those are not good standards to apply generally.

I’m not suggesting that all fields are equally valid and can be left to ‘police themselves’. Astrology, for example, is rubbish, because it consists of claims both implausible (given the rest of science) and empirically groundless.

But the rubbishness of astrology has nothing to do with whether or not it is ‘science’. Astrology is – on the surface at least – actually more ‘scientific’ than other fields, such as history. It is more systematic, and more mathematical. But history is truer.

So is astrology ‘science’? You can call it that, if you like. Is astrology true? No.

Whether psychology is true, that’s the big question – and one best broken down into chunks, because it’s a big field. I am concerned that much of psychology (and other fields) is not true. My blog is full of criticisms of particular claims in  psychology.

But I’m not concerned – or interested – in whether it’s ‘science’.

  • Axel Blaster

    the demarcation problem?

  • Buddy199

    “The only function of economic forecasting is to make Astrology look respectable.”
    – J. K. Gilbraith

  • Chris Allen

    Astrology certainly cannot be proven by anything measurable we have to date. That doesn’t make it untrue; it makes it unproven… much like the Higgs-Boson was unproven, until recently.

    Most people’s understanding of astrology is limited to “that silly section in the newspaper,” and many people think the system is deterministic: i.e., if you are a Scorpio sun sign absolutely you will be brooding and potently sexy. The astrologers I’ve read assert that it’s not absolute, that instead it indicates influences upon and tendencies within a person, which we can express or alter as we choose. Yes, the basic idea is that our sun, moon, and planets, and the 12 constellations, exert a certain themed influence of energy, and that this gets further complicated by their positions in relation to one another in the sky over your birth place at any given time. Calculating these is, as you said, a mathematical chore; interpreting the results is rather subjective.

    No one to date has measured or recognized any type of energy coming from the planets, or seasonal “in the air” with the constellations. Yet we live in a time where microwaves are commonplace items, and where physicists are hypothesizing everything from Dark Matter and Dark Energy, to variations of String Theory, etc. At this point, the only evidence we have that Astrology might have something to it is purely anecdotal—but that doesn’t mean that someday we might not find that there actually *is* something to it, though what that might be may be far from what we anticipate.

    Have you seen the experiments where they pour sand upon a metal plate, then run a sound frequency through the plate? Each frequency causes the sand to bounce around and form into a pattern… and oddly enough, some of those patterns resemble mandalas; for instance, one is almost an exact match for the mandala for the meditative sound “Ohm.” Where I’m going with this: we tend to denigrate the science of our ancestors… but sometimes they were right. (For instance, leeches to remove blood from surface hematomas is coming back into medicine.) I grant that astrology can’t be proven to be factual in any demonstrable, objective fashion at this point in time.. but I also keep an open mind on it. I’ve seen subjective evidence that it can help one understand one’s tendencies and traits, with the psychological goal of understanding self and trying to alter undesirable traits in one’s behavior.

    • facefault

      Astrology is almost certainly false for the same reason psychic powers are almost certainly false: no force that we can detect is capable of doing what is claimed, and any force that we *couldn’t* detect (http://prd.aps.org/abstract/PRD/v87/i11/e112008 ) would be too weak to do what is claimed. It’s a simple matter of phsyics.

      The observer-expectancy effect is sufficient to explain everything I’ve ever heard about astrology.

    • Buddy199

      Fish, insects and other life forms coordinate their reproductive cycles according to lunar cycles; a basic form of Astrology. Maybe that was the germ of how this idea originated thousands of years ago.

      • Sebastian

        Perhaps an interessting question here would be what a thought is. I read somewhere that it would theoretically be possible that thoughts have a physical mass, albeit too small to meassure. I heard elsewhere that vedic philosophy assumes this. Thus one idea is that planets affect thoughts via gravitation. How it would effect them I do not know.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Martin Hill

    It might be sensible to talk about whether some things are more or less reliably known, which is a lumpy multi-dimensional set of scales, rather than as I think you say, ‘is or is not’ science.

    But to exclude economics – amongst others – from science is a bit weird. There are many hard, complex disciplines that are difficult to study, but just because we don’t understand them well is not a good reason to exclude them from ‘science’

  • Robert R.

    I have to nag about a few things:

    “Few fields are 100% true or false”
    What does “100% true” even mean? At some point one has to make assumptions, since no one can prove “everything” to be right. I wouldn’t go so far as to call something “100% true” just because it seems valid within its set of assumptions.

    I also don’t like your definition of science. According to yours, a pseudoscience (astrology) is science just because it is complex? “pseudoscience” may have “science” as a suffix, but… well “half-truth” doesn’t equate to “it is truth”, does it?

    Let me quote the first sentence off of Wikipedias “Science”-article:
    “[…]in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe”
    Here is what astrology does wrong: it makes a whole bunch of “predictions” but ignores their outcome.
    And this is the reason why biology, physics and history are called science: Because they present a hypothesis, make efforts to (in-)validate it and finally publish their findings such that other people can test the claims.

    Afair therein lies the reason why psychology is getting picked at: very few studies get replicated. If the sample size is small (and psychology isn’t known for large sample sizes), you won’t know if your numbers are just a fluke.

    • Buddy199

      Here is what astrology does wrong: it makes a whole bunch of “predictions” but ignores their outcome.


      That could apply to Paul Krugman, Ben Bernanke, Keyenes, Marx or any other renown economist.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

        Friedman, Hayek…

      • Robert R.

        that’s why I didn’t include economy in my list 😛
        “And this is the reason why biology, physics and history are called science”

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      What I’m saying is, “science” is an ill-defined label so if you like, you can apply it to astrology.

      But astrology would still be wrong.

      To put it another way, somethings’ being science is orthogonal to its being true. That might sound radical but it’s really just common sense: if only truth can be science, only some scientists are doing science right now – the ones whose theories will ultimately turn out to be true.

      We have no idea who they are. They might not be the most skilled or talented scientists. But they are the only ones doing science. The others are… doing what? Not science, though it is, today, indistinguishable from it.

      Now, that seems unlikely.

      • Robert R.

        “science” is an ill-defined label so if you like, you can apply it to astrology”
        I strongly disagree. I don’t know where your impression of this ill definition is coming from. Anyhow, calling astrology “science” would give it implicit credibility. At least until you come up with a new word for “real science” and make it widely known.

        Continuing, I wouldn’t lock science to the term “truth”.
        It is not important if your hypothesis turns out to be true or false. What matters is how that conclusion was reached.

        At the end of the day, what “science” imo boils down to is: rigorous testing and NOT ignoring results.

        • Pablo Currea

          “Continuing, I wouldn’t lock science to the term “truth”.”


          Neither would Neuroskeptic. In fact, his premise in the above article and in the reply to your comment is that “science is orthogonal to its being true” — orthogonal meaning mutually independent. They’re irrelevant. You two are in agreement over that.

          Also, science is not always tested. I’m not an expert in physics, but I know most of the research in string theory and subatomic particles is not observable or testable .. yet. So is that a science?

          If not, then you disagree with how many people use the word ‘science’ and thus must either agree with Neuroskeptic’s claim that “”science” is an ill-defined label” or his first claim that “science is an evolving term.”

          If so, then you admit that “rigorous testing and NOT ignoring results” is an insufficient definition and, thus, that we have no satisfactory definition of science.

          Either way, you must agree with his intended premise: it is not easy to decide whether a field is science.

          An interesting assumption of Neuroskeptic’s argument (and you mentioned it previously) is that truth is defined beyond disciplines, fields, or paradigms like psychology or science. What is that definition? Is there even popular definition of objective truth?

          Because I’ve yet to see a good definition of one, I assume truth is operationally defined within each paradigm. Nonetheless, I would love to be shown such a definition.

          • Robert R.

            Point taken, I somewhat misread his answer about “truth of science”.

            “If not, then you disagree with how many people use the word ‘science’ and thus must either agree with Neuroskeptic’s claim that “”science” is an ill-defined label” or his first claim that “science is an evolving term.”

            This is a false dichotomy. There is at least another possibility, and it applies for me: The term is well defined, but many people who use it don’t know its definition/meaning and are therefore sloppy with its use. Probably one of the best examples: “quantum-theory”. The misuse of that term neither means it has a weak definition, nor that the term itself is evolving. It just means that many people don’t comprehend what it stands for. Anyhow, I personally don’t see a problem with wikipedias “Science” article. Can you point out some issues?

            If one uses that definition “String Theory” is no science – and I honestly don’t see a problem with that. Last time I checked, there where at least half a dozen (I think there are 9) different “String Theories”, depending on the made assumptions. And until none of them (or their unification) is testable, they are “only” interesting mind experiments.

            The scientific method relies on falsifiability. If you are not using the scientific method, you are not practicing science.

          • (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

            Haha can’t believe someone downvoted you (yes I can see legit downvotes with a plugin).

            Your last remark was straight on undeniably correct! There is truth in this comment that some people are either too closed-minded to see or are just purely ignorant.

      • Jacob Chacko

        Just like a scientific theory is just a theory, right? Lol.

      • Jacob Chacko

        I think part of the problem you’re having is that science actually does not deal in proofs. Only mathematics does. Science still deals only in subjective theory but builds from this position to get as closed to something as reliable as a-priori knowledge.

        If it dealt in proofs it couldn’t change when new evidence contradicts previous theories.

  • Paul Richter

    Psychology continues to discredit itself. Perhaps better than even “is it true,” would be to ask “can it manage to sustain a continued session of tests of its theories” or does it just continue to discredit itself.

  • Peter C Howie

    While on this subject it is also worthwhile considering that all knowledge is belief. Try it, and see. See if there is anything you know (knowledge) that isn’t subject to your believing it is knowledge. Whether an aspect of that belief is heaps of other people also believing or saying it is true, or the fact ‘speak for themselves’. Despite the reasonable and valid reasons for saying something is true, or knowledge, belief is also a part of that equation.

  • Mark

    This commentary kind of misses the point.

    It’s not that things are sciences if they are formalised or complicated or technical (a la astrology). Things are sciences if they can be practised in accordance with the scientific method.

    The key characteristics of a science are: observability, testability, repeatability, and (if you want to embrace Popper, and let’s) falsifiability.

    The reason that what you might call the “hard” sciences are hard (box A on your chart) and the “soft” disciplines are soft (box B on your chart), is dependent on how strongly they follow the scientific principle. Some are more compliant than others and thus are more scientific than others.

    But this is _still_ missing the point. Not all valid knowledge must be science. Science is a very specific and very small branch on the tree of philosophy. It is a particular, specific philosophy that is a descendant of rational positivism and is extremely useful for dealing with particular types of questions. It’s utterly useless for dealing with other types of questions. For example, as Einstein pointed out, the concept of science without morality (the philosophical discipline of ethics) is a terrible thing to contemplate. Science is not the final word in knowledge or credibility, and nor should we accept it as such.

    Why must history or psychology or anthropology or geography be shoehorned into the definition of science in order to be considered good and useful disciplines? They shouldn’t. Let them be as they are. There’s no need to redefine everything useful as “science” then throw everything else out as rubbish – that’s not a useful way to approach human thought.

    The article reads like a polemic on dressing psychology up as a full scientific peer of physics, but that’s not necessary, helpful, or meaningful. Psychology is what it is. Let’s take it as such; recognise it as such; and be at peace with it.

    I realise that science is somewhat flexible in its definition, as is any definition. It is nonetheless a quite clear set of practices. Should we start to retrofit the scientific method to include “reckoning”, “opinion”, and other valid, interesting, and studious, but non-scientific commentary, then we will break the definition of science.

    The notion of scientific rigour and evidence rules are what has produced the phenomenon of science. They are what gives us light and demonstrates the difference between that that is science and that that is not – however interesting. It has, for example, allowed scientists to clearly refute “creationism” and “intelligent design” as scientific disciplines.

    If we start accepting things outside of rigeur as if they are science, then we risk breaking the dam wall, and the light shed by this little branch of rational positivism might sputter. In lusting after scientific praise for non-sciences, their proponents risk stifling the very thing they crave.

    • M_1

      In other words, the right question would be, “Is psychology scientific?”

      • Jordan Grey (Jack)

        Rather, “How scientific is psychology?”

        • s klein

          I think you missed my point (hint: not all of nature can be captured via quantification of objectification).

          Current attempts to make science all-inclusive must, of necessity, limit what counts as “all of nature” (subjectivity comes to mind [!] as one rather serious example of such Procrustean restriction — i.e., fitting of phenomenon to method and, in the process, reducing the phenomenon virtually out of existence).

      • s klein

        No. The question is “Should Psychology be a science?”

  • ultimativity

    I am finding it difficult to reconcile the 2 quotes from your article. 3 fields of science have nothing in common, but astrology is scientific due to systematics and math? The 3 scientific fields are not systematic or mathematical? If so, they have something in common.

    Also, astrology is used for prediction, yet its predictions are not true. Theoretical physics predicted the existence of a boson, which gives everything mass. That prediction was true.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      I wasn’t saying astrology is more scientific, I wrote that it’s more ‘scientific’ in the popular sense which means (roughly) more like physics.

      This is not a criterion I endorse however because evolutionary biology (etc.) doesn’t fit it.

      • ultimativity

        Thanks for replying. I am enjoying your blog.

  • Fred Hasselman

    The scientific method is not different for different fields: 1. A scientific theory lays explanatory claim on a part of reality. 2, If the theory can produce testable predictions that can be evaluated for their (empirical) accuracy then the scientific method is applied to appraise the theory.

    Just applying the method does not make a science. A science applies the scientific method repeatedly and rigorously in order to advance knowledge about a part of reality. That is, it tries to prove the theory is wrong and not that it is true! It has to show it would be a “damn strange coincidence” if the results were due to chance. If it turns out to be imprecise and inaccurate it should be amended or discarded.

    That is why astrology is not a science. Inaccurate predictions of the occurrence of many “damn strange coincidences”, do not harm the truth status of the theory according to astrologers. No tests have been conducted by astrologers that could show their claims are wrong.

    Does psychology engage in this behaviour of proving themselves wrong? I know some who do, but it is not a generally accepted practice.

    Showing you have made an effort to prove your claim is wrong, but failing to do so in the process, is the only way to convince the true skeptic you might be on to something :)

    I wrote about the recent “allegations” as well, but have been told it is a very poorly communicated criticism of the criticism of those allegations. I did not pretend it to be anything better than that so: http://anti-ism-ism.blogspot.nl/2013/08/defending-psychology-in-science-wars.html#.UhLQHxa9YwI

  • Lisa Sansom

    Are we looking for some conclusions that are universally applicable and “true”? Because if so, I doubt that psychology will ever measure up. In physics (etc.) we can presumably delineate and define a certain set of conditions and (in classical physics anyhow) we will get the same outputs from the same inputs given the same parameters. Cylinders rolling down inclined planes and projectiles getting thrown out of windows at sea level and all that. However with psychology, we are looking at averages across population sizes. In classical physics, we don’t have to say that “on average” the pendulum with mass=m and string length=l will exhibit such and such force, inertia, potential energy and so on. We can calculate specifically for THAT individual pendulum. We can’t do this same extrapolation from the average back to the individual in psychology. Is that what you mean by “true”? What is “true” in the average in psychology will almost never be “true” for the individual, and you can’t simply multiply what is “true” for one individual to get what is “true” for the masses.

    Perhaps the fault lies in trying to even compare psychology to physics. Perhaps it’s time for psychology to get over it, and just be.

    Perhaps psychology is more quantum anyhow. Where is “spooky action at a distance” and famous theoretical cats when you need them?

    And there’s a lot that’s “untrue” about history – at least, the way that it’s (re)written. Very open to interpretation and lack of objectivity. I would say history is more psychological than ‘scientific’ really…

  • Melanie Tannenbaum

    Hi Neuroskeptic,

    Thanks for a great contribution to this discussion. I’ve linked to it on my PsySociety Facebook page, with some of my own commentary (which I’ll paste below as well).

    I agree with many points in this post — specifically the idea that
    “science” should not be considered a synonym for “worthwhile” (this is a critique of my original post that I’ve received a lot, even though it’s not how I actually feel) and that it is often more useful to debate the merits of the work done in a field, rather than debating semantics and labels.

    However, where I disagree is that it’s not meaningful to debate if something is “science.” Earning the “science” label is not just a matter of pride so we can go on feeling cool and thinking we’re totally superawesomescientists. It has really important implications for funding. In fact, if you go back and look at the article that I was originally criticizing, the larger context of it was that it was Berezow’s argument that NSF should defund psychological research because it is not really “science” and, therefore, shouldn’t receive funding from the
    National Science Foundation. Losing funding from the NSF and other
    funding organizations with “science” in the title would be a HUGE blow
    to psychological research — and, let’s be clear, it would greatly
    hinder psychologists’ ability to actually *do* all of the work that so
    many of the critics on this topic are (rightfully) saying we need to do
    before we can call ourselves appropriately scientifically rigorous. After
    all…collecting diverse, non-WEIRD samples, collecting larger samples
    in general, and replicating all of our effects? That costs A LOT of
    money. Money that we usually get from agencies like NSF, NIH, etc.

    So, I agree that this is a great *conceptual* point when it comes to the fact that not all useful knowledge must be called “science” and it’s more important to appreciate good work/knowledge than it is to argue semantics & labels. However, I would still be very worried
    about psychology being officially deemed a “non-science,” especially considering the fact that the concerns I raise above are not straw man arguments (Berezow really DID write his entire piece in order to argue that psychology should lose all funding from “scientific” grant-funding organizations). Because once we don’t get access to that funding anymore…forget about any chance of our field becoming more methodologically rigorous. We’re pretty much screwed.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Thanks for the comment Melanie.

      If by “science” we mean “things that the NSF should fund”, then I’m happy to say that psychology is science. Psychology should be funded and the NSF is as good a fund as any.

      Not least because most psychology could also be described as ‘neuroscience’ or ‘biology’ – which the NSF clearly does fund – and it would be impossible to draw a line where the money ought to stop.

      However, this is really a discussion about budgeting – albeit an important one! – on a deeper philosophical level, I’m saying there’s no meaning in the statement “X is science” or “X is not science” :)

      • Melanie Tannenbaum

        We’re in agreement here, NS! I think the philosophical debate is an interesting one, and worth having. I just wanted to clarify what pushed me to write the initial piece — I didn’t make this clear enough in the post itself, which is a fault of my own writing, but I was really spurred by concern about the fact that the authors of the original criticisms were calling for “social science” to be defunded by institutions like NSF. So, when people now are saying “we should be debating the scientific merit of individual studies/research programs,” I say, yes! Absolutely! Which is what (ideally) the grant-funding organizations should be doing when reviewing grant applications, and awarding money only to the “good science.” However, the call in the original article was for Psychology to be a domain that is uniformly barred from applying for money from places like NSF without exception, because it is not a science. This, as we have established, is something we both agree is a horrible idea. So I think we’re totally on the same page — and this is why my original point was to try and say, hey, no, what we do is science to the extent that it should be funded as such. Any criticisms you (not you in particular, you as General Reader) have about psychology as science are actually things that can (and should) be addressed, by doing MORE SCIENCE. Which we need money to do. Moneyyyy!

        Another thought I had (and I’m sorry for the crazy tl;dr comments) relates to the effect of “science” vs. “not science” on public literacy when it comes to psychological findings. Yes, you and I understand what psychological research “looks like” and how psychologists gain this knowledge. But the general public often does not. So, my other concern (which I briefly raised on Twitter, using lots of sub-140-character abbreviations) was that this might have an impact on how the public reads, interprets, and understands psychological research when it IS reported in the media (which happens a lot, as you know…especially in my sub-domain of Social…because everyone loves makin’ it flashy. Sigh.) In theory, I imagine that a more public understanding of psychology as “science” would make it easier to grasp that the findings being reported were achieved through controlled experiments, rigorous statistical analyses, etc. — the things people associate with “science,” basically, whether this is right or wrong. If psychology becomes swooped into “humanities” as many are calling for, my concern is that people would read psychological research findings and the automatic assumption would be more akin to what we see in history or English — very scholastic and noble endeavors, to be sure. This is NOT to undermine the incredible amount of work that goes into those fields. But the methodology is just starkly different than psychology. And I think that swooping “psychology” in with History and English would make it more likely for people to implicitly assume that psychological findings come about because psychologists read through stuff and either form (largely subjective) interpretations of their own that could differ from other interpretations and all would be valid, as is done in literature, or that we’re just studying archives of stuff qualitatively, which (from what I can gather) is what is done in History. Again, I don’t have an advanced degree in either domain, so I could be TOTALLY WRONG and if I am, I stand corrected and would love to be educated by someone who knows better on this. But, that is the impression I get — and when it comes to how psychological findings are actually developed, it’s much more “science” than “humanities,” regardless of the “hardness” of the underlying concepts. So, eeks sorry for the tl;dr. But that was my other concern — that umbrella-ing psychology in with the humanities would make it even harder for public literacy to grasp that psychological findings are (or should not be) subjective or matters of interpretation of stuff we read, but based on theories, hypotheses, and experimental data.

        I hope that makes sense…thanks again for the conversation :)

        • Seriously?

          “Because once we don’t get access to that funding anymore…forget about
          any chance of our field becoming more methodologically rigorous.”

          “Any criticisms you (not you in particular, you as General Reader) have
          about psychology as science are actually things that can (and should) be
          addressed, by doing MORE SCIENCE. Which we need money to do. Moneyyyy!”

          Uhm, I don’t understand this. For the sake of what I don’t understand about what you said, let’s say psychology has serious issues.

          It seems to me that this problematic situation has been established, and/or allowed, by current (leaders of) institutions, journals, and individual researchers. This has gone on for decades. This all has costed lots of money, effort, etc. And now you want even more money to make things better? Aside from wondering why, and how exactly then, more money would improve things, to me that sounds a lot like those banks that got bailed out.

          #Here is an idea: think of how to improve things by using the same amount, or less money.

          #Here’s another idea: do not even worry about money. Instead read some articles which are freely available about how to improve things, use freely available internet tools for data-storage, power-calculatioins, pre-registration, etc. and conduct your next project in a proper way.

          • Seriously?

            Ow, and if you really want things to change for the better maybe you could then also show your professors these things. You know, chances are they could be the ones partly responsible for the current situation. They have their “tenure” and all, so I don’t see what’s stopping them from applying soms higher standards for their own research at this point in their career (it’s not like they can use reasons like ‘publication pressure’ and ‘to get tenure I need to publish x-amount of articles’ anymore I would reason)

          • Melanie Tannenbaum

            Actually, a lot of this *is* going on right now. Every single psychological conference over the past several years has had numerous sessions explicitly devoted to ways to improve our field. You can read this blog written by several of my colleagues at UIUC for more musings on a lot of these issues (http://pigee.wordpress.com/). These are tenured professors, and they are not just speaking about these issues — their actions are living up to their words. My labmate was not allowed to defend his dissertation until adding in a direct replication of his effect with several times more subjects. My colleague Dan Simons is chairing the Registered Replication Report Initiative. There are several more examples, but rest assured, this is not all just talk. Work is being done, by both tenured and non-tenured academics alike.

            Also, most of the specific criticisms revolve around (a) lack of replication, (b) lack of suitably large sample sizes, and (c) lack of suitably diverse samples (e.g., not just university students). There are no free ways to remedy these issues, as they all require money, at the very least, to pay subjects for participation. Unless you suggest slave labor. But I’m pretty sure that IRBs might take issue with that.

          • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

            All good points – but I would emphasize that preregistration (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2013/04/25/for-preregistration-in-fundamental-research/) would be (almost) free and very useful, so we have no excuse for not introducing it 😉

          • Seriously?

            “.. so we have no excuse for not introducing it ;)”

            No scientific reasons perhaps. Lots of other reasons maybe. For instance:

            -fake researchers would not be able to submit any of their brilliant exploratory publications anymore (without added risk of possible exposure)

            -bad researchers would have to come up with better ideas, for which they may not have the capacity, and/or it would become clear which researchers actually have good and useful ideas and which do not

            -journals would publish less articles perhaps, which could cost them money and all

          • Melanie Tannenbaum

            See my response to Neuroskeptic’s comment above. There are these initiatives that have already been introduced or are in the process of being introduced.

            Also, I respect a number of the comments you’ve made here, but a few times your tone has started to toe the line into disrespectful or smearing all psychologists as a monolith. Speaking as one, I respectfully ask you to refrain from doing that. It’s rude and uncalled for in an academic discussion, especially if you’re not entirely familiar with all of the ongoing efforts that many, many psychologists have been working very hard to implement.

          • Seriously?

            “Also, I respect a number of the comments you’ve made here, but a few
            times your tone has started to toe the line into disrespectful or
            smearing all psychologists as a monolith.”

            I think it is scientific to refrain from speaking about the person, but instead about facts, results, arguments etc.

            “Äd hominem ”


            #If my reasoning, facts, and wondering contained any ‘adhominem’ attacks, I apalogize

            #If I, as a member of the general public, can’t comment on (social) psychology because I am “smearing all psychologists as a monolith” then I wonder how I am supposed to detect which psychologists’ research to take seriously and which I do not

            Stated differently: reasoning from the perspective that there are problematic issues in (social) psychology, then hoe did these arise? Are all (social) psychologists responsible for it? Are there “good” and “bad” ones? If so, why hasn’t that been made clear to the general public, and why was it okay to view all (social) psychologists as “a monolith” when things were all peachy, and when it has become clear that there are problematic issues speaking of them/ (social) psychology as “a monolith” is not appropriate?

            The point I am trying to make is that if Stapel colleagues were “sloppy” by not checking the data for instance, maybe you could say that most (?) (social) psychologists, journals, or institutions have been “sloppy” for decades by not adhering to higher standards.

            Nothing personal, no ad hominem arguments, and I don’t understand what (and more importantly why) I have been disrespectful. Can’t I be critical about the state of (social) psychology, and how that has come about as a result of practices that have been going on for decades? I thought when you used facts, reasoning, etc. that it can be seen as the scientific thing to do really. But please correct me if I am wrong, or if my view on science is wrong.

            I totally agree with you that it is not appropriate to be disrespectful
            to anyone, especially while using fake arguments, and non-truthful
            facts/assumptions. More importantly then it not being respectful
            however, I think it’s not scientific. I think that’s what the focus
            should be on first.

            I think that an adademic discussion (leaving aside what that exactly is, and if a blog like this one calls for the use of that term) should be about facts, logic, and reasoning, not about who says what and whether someone is a professor, (social) psychologists, or “merely” a member of the general public (whose tax-money could have been used for much social psychology research).

            If it were about who said what, and not whether arguments are valid, etc. then science and (social) psychology are in an even worse state then I thought (aside from that being a bit ridiculous as well).

            I don’t even know what science, or (social) psychology is about really…As a result of reading about several issues, and about what
            some (social) psychologists say, I frankly have given up on the whole thing entirely. For several reasons. In fact, I don’t even want to read anything about it from now on, or engage in any discussion about it. I am totally done with it now.

            Maybe the most important thing is what (social) psychologists think of their field, journals, and colleagues themselves: if they think it’s okay for them, then it’s okay for them.

            To be clear: I admire (social) psychologists (wanting) to change things for the better very much ! And I wish every institution, journal, and researcher all the best in their efforts to improve their science !

            “All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind.”- Martin H. Fischer

            “A master can tell you what he expects of you.
            A teacher, though, awakens your own expectations”- Patricia Nea

            “Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.”- Thomas Szasz

          • Melanie Tannenbaum

            “As a true social psycholgy scientist you have to always say
            something like the following to defend the poor state of your field
            (for which you yourself, of course, hold no responsibility whatsoever)”

            If you can’t see how this crosses the line from “legitimate criticism” into “unnecessarily rude,” I’m not sure what to say. Regardless, I have a lot of work I need to get done and I’ve said my piece, so I’m likely done replying in this comment section, FWIW. Nothing personal, I’ve just said what I need to say so anything past this would likely not be a necessary or worthwhile contribution on my part. Just letting you know.

          • Melanie Tannenbaum

            There are preregistration initiatives, being implemented now. For example, as I mentioned above, the Registered Replication Report Initiative. And I know from speaking with colleagues that there is a broader preregistration initiative in the works, not just for replications, with incentives for pre-registering studies before running them (or submitting them for publication, at least), though it would be difficult to enforce any sort of regulation that would keep people from “preregistering” studies after they’ve already been run…but I don’t know if it’s in existence yet or if I’m mistakenly just thinking it is because I’ve heard about it so much. So I will keep quiet on that for now in case nothing’s been announced yet and details are still being worked out. But rest assured, it’s happening – and if it’s not out already, it’s close enough to fruition that I’ve heard some of the details about it.

          • Seriously?

            “There are no free ways to remedy these issues, as they all require money, at the very least, to pay subjects for participation.”

            To pay participants is not necessaruly related to improving things in my reasoning and logic. What I mean is something like this:

            How about not publishing 3 substandard publications (e.g. low powered studies, non-pre-registered) and only publish 1 good one instead (i.c. use the money available now only for executing, and subsequent publishing, of highly powered studies)

            Or this one: how about journals deciding not to publish any (and I mean ANY) substandard publications (or as some call it “exploratory studies”). Think of the amount of money that could be saved by researchers not building their work on false positives, and/or simple BS.

            How about university-managers getting the sack because they do not understand science at all.

            With some luck, you could probably find wise and capable real scientists who would do that work for a far less higher paycheck.

            It seems so incredibly simple and also totally free of cost, and definitely not needing MORE money.

            Did I make any mistakes in my reasoning?

          • Seriously?

            “Did I make any mistakes in my reasoning?”

            Yes you did. As a true social psycholgy scientist you have to always say something like the following to defend the poor state of your field (for which you yourself, of course, hold no responsibility whatsoever):

            -(social) psychology is a relatively “young” science, you just have to give us time (this is totally true and has nothing to do with money of course, really)

            -(social) psychology really develops itself as a science by publishing many “exploratory” studies. Afterall: it are these “new” ideas that are truly brilliant, useful, and develop science optimally (they totally do not cost lots of money, and effort in the long run at all, really)

            -(social) psychology is a “hard” thing to study, humans are super complicated so…(this totally is a valid argument for not setting some higher standards, really)

            -in (social) psychology nobody is really responsible for anything, it’s amazing: (leaders) of institutions, journals, and individual scientists can all point to eachother to point to reasons why each of them can’t really help anything (this especially means they should get lots of money to hire phd students, and to hire the “best” researchers which obviously publish in “top tier’ journals. None of these parties have any responsibility in things, really)

            -Should the above things fail, there is always a final escape/tactic. You use the super-special “paradigm-shift” argument (especially without ever having read Kuhn, or knowing whether it even applies or not). That one is really special, and also totally valid, really.

          • Seriously?

            “Actually, a lot of this *is* going on right now. Every single
            psychological conference over the past several years has had numerous
            sessions explicitly devoted to ways to improve our field”

            Yes, talking about things is super important. Let’s hope it is followed by action also :)

            I believe there have been people talking about these issues for decades. For example on “power” from 1992: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19565683

            “One possible reason for the continued neglect of statistical power analysis in research in the behavioral sciences is the inaccessibility
            of or difficulty with the standard material.”

            I am sure they had symposia and all in 1992 as well.

            By the way, are these symposia free to attend? Do scientists have to fly all over the world to go there? Does that cost any money?

            Why doesn’t someone make a nice overview of what is important about these talks and symposia and write it down somewhere or something like that. O wait, isn’t that what academic papers are for? So, basically all this information could have already been out there for decades, without any need for symposia or talks.

            Hmmz, that gets me thinking: why doesn’t some institution, journal, or researcher (and hold on, this is a radical concept coming up) actually simply read these articles and information and then (here comes the radical part, hold on) actually execute the advise in it.

            Super simple stuff: no need for any symposia or talks. And think about the money that would be saved by not attending, and organising all these symposia all over the world. Damn !!

          • Seriously?

            “Unless you suggest slave labor”

            That got me thinking about the Levelt report on social psychology and Stapel.


            Page 41: “Whereas Mr Stapel’s group of PhD students had a certain separate identity and pride, it would clearly be going too far to conclude that it was a closed group: PhD students mixed not only with PhD students from
            their own group (Stapel), but also with those from other groups.”

            “Mr Stapel’s group held an honours class for motivated social psychology students, with regular sessions to discuss research. This little club was an important source for recruiting PhD students. Mr Stapel relieved many of his PhD students of work by engaging a student assistant for data entry”

            Page 44:”Critical questions about data collection were not encouraged in the discussions at lab meetings. Mr Stapel
            was always clear in his communication that someone was required to stop asking questions. Several PhD students also stated in interviews with the Levelt Committee that Mr Stapel misused his position of power
            in order to silence them. Mr Stapel told a research Master’s student who found suspicious patterns in the data: ‘If you want to be taken on here you will have to demonstrate that you can get something finished, so just write up the results.’ A PhD student from another department was required to tidy up her room. Mr Stapel saw boxes of completed questionnaires and wanted them to be thrown away. The PhD student said she had to keep them for five years. Mr Stapel contradicted her, adding: ‘If you want to commit fraud, you could do it anyway”

            Funny thing about some of Stapel’s comments is that I think he was being truthful and right on point. Apparently, with all these issues and “publication pressure”, he might have been totally correct by saying “‘If you want to be taken on here you will have to demonstrate that you can get something finished”.

            You can think about these issues, and maybe also think about the fact that journals make lots of money (by having scientists do all the work for free) with regard to the “slave”-part of your comment.

            Maybe you guys are already there, but you just don’t see it yet 😉

          • Stan Klein

            You might just consider the lack of coherent theory and mission.

            As Sigmund Koch long ago noted, psychology is one of the few disciplines for which method preceded substance.

    • Blake Okafor

      Hi, This is an old comment but just to clarify you’re saying psychology should be considered a science so it can get more money?

  • Jake Westfall

    This is more or less how I feel about it too. Over the years I have almost totally lost interest in the question.

    Asking “is psychology a science?” is rather like asking “is Bob a patriot?”

    The first major problem with this is that it is totally unclear just what exactly is at stake when we ask whether Bob is a patriot. What are the actual *implications* of deciding that Bob is or is not a patriot? Similarly, what are the actual *implications* of deciding that psychology is or is not a science? Why should we care about the answer to the question at all? Would psychology *not* being a science imply, for example, that governments should not fund psychology research? Why can’t we just ask about funding of psychology directly, rather than indirectly through this question about psychology being “a science”?

    The second major problem with the patriot question is that it requires us to pin down exactly what a “patriot” is. This is difficult news, as it seems to me the concept of a “patriot” is a totally vague hodge-podge of ideas and hunches that we could probably never hope to reach a full agreement on. The concept of “a science” is pretty much the same way. There are entire sections of libraries filled with tomes examining the question of what “science” is, and no real sign that we’re any closer to a consensus. Serious attempts to answer either of these questions will very quickly devolve into arguments about how best to define some totally abstract notion.

    The third major problem with the patriot question is that it is incredibly loaded. There is an implicit value judgment going on here; we all know on an intuitive level that it is *good* to be a patriot and *bad* not to be one. I may not know what exactly a patriot is, and I may not know just what actually happens if I am or am not a patriot, but by God, I sure know that I am one — and furthermore how dare you question my patriotism! Again, it’s pretty the same with the psychology-as-science question. Asking it at this broad level and in these loaded terms puts all parties involved on the defensive. And look, you just aren’t going to have a productive argument when everyone is on the defensive. If you want to actually get somewhere by posing the question — instead of just striking out a provocative stance for all to see — leave the broad, abstract, loaded terms at the door, and instead ask about *specific* aspects of psychological practice and theory. My experience is that psychologists actually love talking about these details.

  • smurfshoy

    That’s a nice junior high essay you have there, Mr. journalist.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      How dare you, sir. I am not a journalist.

  • Tiziana Metitieri

    In my view those questions are cool but too general. We should ask every time we read an article if these results / theories have received ‘sufficient’ and necessary proofs from experimental conditions/studies? Then we can define what we mean by ‘sufficient’.

  • noorty

    Psychology is vapid, dribbling cock snot.

    Of course it isn’t a science.
    And if the majority of psychologists are like the author (not bothered if psychology isn’t a science or not) then they won’t mind if they stop being awarded Bsc/ Msc & Dsc. degrees. They can have a chocolate watch instead or a NVQ II qualification in Harry Potter Studies.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      This would be an excellent comment if I had written the post that you seem to think I wrote. But I didn’t. So read it again.

    • Buddy199

      A chocolate watch? That would go great with my bacon pants.

    • Nobel

      Social psychologist faudulent ex-professor Diedrik Stapel handed out chocolate to his non-existent participants, maybe he was on to something :)

      That gets me thinking: what if Stapel faked his data to show how unscientific (parts of?) the field of social psychology is? Would that merit a nobel prize for science? I would think so.

      Did somebody already ask Stapel if he did because he wanted to make something clear, wanted improvements? (just like why Bem could have published his article on pre-cognition in the “top tier” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology)

  • Remco Havermans

    “Is psychology a science?” is a poor question because ‘science’ is hard to define. So according to neuroskeptic we should focus on the question whether psychology is true. That’s a much more sensible question, isn’t it? Well, no. Defining ‘true’ or ‘truth’ is also pretty tricky and best left to philosophers. Nonetheless, it is clear that science cannot unveil any absolute thruths. Scientists can only hope that their theories work. A scientific theory allows for hypotheses. Scientists test these hypotheses and revise or abandon the theory that generates these hypotheses if they turn out to be false. If a theory generates lots of predictions that are not falsified by research then this is great. We then have a theory we can use and apply in predicting and controlling the environment. At its core, the theory might be completely wrong, but who cares. As long as it has ‘cash value’, we can treat it as ‘truth’. The method outlined above applies to physics, chemistry, biomedical sciences, and – yes – even psychology. In its method of inquiry, psychology is very much a science. But does psychology render any theories or models that have any ‘cash value’? Does psychology research work in the real world? Does it have any external validity? Note, psychology should have no or very poor external validity if its research is mainly confabulation inspired by shoddy subjective data. Gregory Mitchell from the University of Virginia recently addressed this question (again; Psychological Perspectives, 2012, 7, 109-117) and found (again) that, overall, psychology has pretty decent external validity. True, some lab findings are more easily replicated in field research than others, but the fear that much of psychology is untrue is unfounded.

  • Franck Ramus

    Asking whether a given discipline is “science” seems completely pointless to me. Science is not a property that a discipline has, or does not have. It is an approach, a method, that can be followed in any area of knowledge. There is a lot of scientific research in psychology, there is a lot of non-scientific stuff as well. There is non-scientific stuff in physics too, by the way (some people would name purely speculative ventures such as string theory, I don’t have the capacity to judge).
    Then you might say that one can compare the proportion of scientific stuff between disciplines. It’s probably lower in psychology than in physics, although perhaps not as low as it looks. The problem is that psychology is a subject on which everybody has opinions (more so than on quantum mechanics), so that much of the public discourse is drowned in non-scientific stuff. But that doesn’t mean that the real research that is carried out (and that gets much less public attention) is not scientific.

    • Kalera Stratton

      Thank you for saying this! I was just thinking the same thing. I find it far more useful to think of science as a verb than as a noun… is science used in psychology? Absolutely! Is psychology “a science”? That question makes as much sense, to me, as “is medicine a science?” Science is used extensively in medicine, but it is nonsensical to say that medicine is a science.

  • Amir Astro

    History is a science as well: it explains the facts by theories. since the Physical tests are repeatable for any body all over the world from any culture, historical facts as well are textual evidences which are available for every body all over the world and their reliability is recognizable for everyone from any culture.

  • Amir Astro

    History is a science as well: it explains the facts by theories. Physical tests are repeatable for any body all over the world from any culture, and historical facts as well are textual evidences which are available for every body all over the world and their reliability is recognizable for everyone from any culture.

  • Christophe Michel

    I see no differences between the two pictures.
    In both case Biology/physics/chemistry are in the “science” and the rest isn’t.

    For me the solution is simple: Psychology is a science when it is based on studies that follow the scientific method (confrontation with reality), and it is not when it doen’t use (psychoanalysis, NLP, new Age alternative therapies)

    This is the case for any discipline. It may well make history scientifically, or not.

    I made my own picture. What do you think about that ?

    • ultimativity

      astrology, bad astronomy . . . That’s funny.

  • reasonsformoving

    I wonder whether the critics of psychology would consider quantum theory science. My guess is that they probably would, even though it really is just philosophy as many quantum physics readily admit.

  • Amir Astro

    History is a science as well. it explains the facts by theories as well as physics or chemistry.

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  • Ralph E Kenyon Jr

    The term ‘true” is just as ambiguous as the term “science”. It is no longer operative in any “strong” sense in “science”. We speak instead of corroboration (by observations) or disconfirmed (by observation contrary to prediction). We can not say what is (or is not); we can only say what is observed (or is not observed). In physics observations is more prevalent than theory; whereas, in psychology, “theory” abounds while “observation” is sparse.

    • Tim

      -We can not say what is (or is not); we can only say what is observed (or is not observed).

      Yes, this makes sense to me. What I subsequently wonder is why it seems to me that strong generalising conclusions are often stated in some psychological papers. This is especially strange to me, since you would expect psychological scientists to be aware of, and take into account, all the many things that could account for the findings, and all the many things that are not yet investigated (i.c. replication of primary finding, replication of primary finding using a different population, testing the hypothesis of primary finding using a different methodology, etc.).

      This is also strange to me given the type of psychological findings the media often seems to prefer to write about (which are often about “surprising discoveries” regarding the
      unconscious, and behavior which supposedly shows that humans don’t think
      about things and are simply influenced by their environment).

      this because they think that the general public could find these
      “surprising discoveries” interesting, and would therefore want to buy
      the journal or that specific paper? (which lets the journals make
      money). Or is it because the media thinks the general public finds these
      “surprising discoveries” actually interesting to read in the first place? (which lets the
      media-outlet make money).

      If psychologists/ journals are so interested in sharing their results with the press, and subsequently with the general public, why don’t they use, and emphasize the importance of, careful statements, and conclusions? That would seem appropriate, and scientific.

      In fact: if psychologists/journals are so interested in sharing their findings with the general public in the first place, why don’t they just make their papers freely available (i.c. open access), and not even use simplistic press-reports describing single paper findings ? (which are often about “surprising discoveries” regarding the unconscious, and behavior which supposedly shows that humans don’t think about things, and are simply influenced by their environment).

      When did the media ever describe findings about a particular
      meta-analysis for instance (which could be seen as more valid
      information than any given press report about a single study)?
      I don’t see the use of the media mentioning any psychological finding based on a single paper (which findings are probably not replicated enough to even take seriously in the first place). I especially don’t see the use of the media mentioning these types of findings without stating the appropriate reservations about them. I think, if the media writes about psychological findings, that they should only write about meta-analyses, or something like that, which discusses aggragated findings, and nuanced conclusions. Otherwise, it’s all just non-scientific tabloid junk to keep the masses quiet and entertained.

  • Imad

    As a psychology graduate student, I always here this claim but unfortunately from people outside of the field who demonstrate almost complete lack of knowledge of psychology (except for the one study that really makes them mad and they want to use as their target for psychology is not a science). So a random microbiologists made the claim psychology is not a science? Who cares, should I name others famous biologists to the contrary?

    Are there problems and methodological advances needed in psychology? Are there specific parts of psychology that are very soft and others questionable (social psychology)? Sure but to make the grand claim that psychology is not a science and be too lazy to back it up with any argument or academic work that is longer than a page long rant simply won’t do.

    And it’s the reason why NSF and NIH and IES and other organizes will not suddenly stop funding psychology either. At least in my field, we are working to help people with various mental health problems and you know why we get our multi-million dollar grants refunded, because we produce results. NIH doesn’t respond to my grant application with “Oh but your going to use psychological research, can you show us how you meet the standards of science?”. It’s already built in, psychology has had tremendous impact in society and as such will continued to be funded.

    Also, while I can understand why “Melanie Tannenbaum” rightly defends psychology here, I would suggest not being so defensive. The evolutionary biologists get mad too at the creationist who claim evolution is not a science and guess what, they also don’t have support for their claims. And when it comes to really putting their claims to the test (in research, in court rooms, in classrooms), they fail to meet their burden. If people want to question psychology as a field and science, provide constructive criticisms and not ignorant rants from one study you read somewhere that makes you think you understand the field.

    Finally, I think anyone seriously interested in this topic should read more on it and not random posts online. This is a great place to start http://web.missouri.edu/~segerti/1000/Lilienfield.pdf

  • Roy Niles

    As sort of an aside, I’m asking, is there such a thing as evolutionary science? I ask because every version I’m aware of has a magical element to its explanation.

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  • figuurka

    When confronted with a question of “what
    “is”/”is not” science” I usually read or watch again
    some thoughts of Richard Feynman, a well known theoretical physicist. I highly recommend
    the same thing to everybody. The way how he summarizes and explains what is the
    difference is so intuitive and simple that you can hardly find a better one.

    this short video is very instructive


    you can read transcription of his speech from 1974


    mentions there psychology research too, and criticize its lousy work standards

    you can extract even more from collected essays in his book
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Meaning-It-All-Citizen-Scientist/dp/0465023940 or in
    a book by another physicist Leonard Mlodinow. It is called Feynman`s rainbow and
    it is a collection of personal discussions between young Mlodinow and old
    morose Feynman.

  • figuurka

    When confronted with a question of “what “is”/”is not” science” I usually read or watch again some thoughts of Richard Feynman, a well known theoretical physicist. And I highly recommend the same thing to everybody here. The way how he summarizes and explains what is the main difference is so intuitive and simple that you can hardly find a better one.

    e.g. this short video, it is very instructive

    or you can read the transcription of his speech from 1974
    as i remember, he talks there about psychology research too, and criticizes its lousy working standards

    and a bit more you can find in his essays collected in this book http://www.amazon.com/The-Meaning-It-All-Citizen-Scientist/dp/0465023940
    or in a book by another physicist Leonard Mlodinow. It is called Feynman`s rainbow and it is a collection of personal discussions between young Mlodinow and old morose Feynman. “What is science?” question is there too, of course :)

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  • Imad

    Richard Feynman also criticized psychology in his cargo cult paper, for some good reasons and other bad ones. For example, he criticized experimental animal researchers for not citing a study he had read, in which an experiment systematically controlled for confounding variables that could be used as cues for a rat to navigate the maze. Feynman said this was a good study but other psychologists never cited it. Off course, Feynman, like many outside the field didn’t bother to do is research and realize the study he had read was a replication and so people were much more likely to cite the original work and not the replication done by some graduate student.

    This is not to say Feynman doesn’t know science, off course he does but he should stick to physics or do his due diligence when he steps out of his physics lab. Also, if you want to look for science and psychology, there, are plenty of psychologists that write and address that issue, most famously people like B.F. Skinner. Makes little sense to ask the question to physicist who have very little knowledge of psychology (in my experience).

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  • Andrew Cole

    I’m sorry, but I completely disagree with this. There are several things that distinguish science from other areas of study. First, it must be about the natural world. Second, you must be able to make a falsifiable claim. Third, you have to actually be able to test that claim. Science doesn’t prove anything, instead, it weeds out all the possible explanations that don’t work, leading us a little closer to the truth.

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  • DoT

    The point is not whether psychology is science or not. It certainly isn’t, as it does not comply with scientific method. The point should be more about the effect it can have on us due to its unscientific nature. While fields like history and economics are not sciences, they are accepted as such, by the practitioner and others alike. That is not true with psychology. The opinion is divided among psychologists and it is widely held belief among common people that it is a science.
    So now you can say how does it matter. To answer that lets go into details of the scope each of these non-scientific knowledge covers. History deals mostly with fact finding and influences policy making and politics. But no one is under impression that whatever was done 100 years ago should be true or even relevant now. So it does not have much impact on our lives.
    Economics is slightly more involved than history as it deals with money and economic policies of governments across the globe. It acts as the justification of policies of banks, some of which are really bad and creates global economic catastrophe. But we have improved it over the time significantly. Also money movement is not as complicated as the brain functions.
    So now coming back to psychology. It has affects people greatly. It is used to provide evidence in law suits. It sometimes justifies the ill treatment of individuals under psychiatric help. It even justifies certain innate qualities, like homosexuality, as a mental disorder. As it is widely considered as a science, it is almost immediately associated with all the qualities of science, e.g, it is true (although this perception about science is itself not true, but it is a belief held by masses). So the implication is that even though psychology is not a science, its theories are treated as such, which is wrong.

    So it does matter whether Psychology is a science or not.

  • Sam18828

    The issue with psychology as compared to other social sciences is that the economist does not put on a white coat and tell you that they can cure, or at least treat, your medical ailments. Psychology must be held to a higher standard than the rest of the humanities and social sciences because they want to call themselves medical professionals. If you are going to call yourself a medical professional and have people put their care in your hands, you had better be able to provide solid predictability of the treatment results. Do x and y will occur 98% of the time with these potential side effects.

    It is fine to say that psychology provides some nuggets of ‘truth’, even if they are not scientific all the time, but that is not what the clinical psychologist is telling patients.

  • Blake Okafor

    I wonder, are the people that say psychology isn’t a science trying to say that we can’t learn anything from it or that it’s not a noble or worth while field of study? Or are they just caught up in the semantics and technicalities?

    The human mind is an abstract thing(as far as we know). People are all different so of course there isn’t going to be a broad stroke of facts like the laws of thermodynamics, but can’t goo reads not come from it?

  • Jacob Chacko

    There is no scientific method now?

    You knew w the same thing that despite your babble here is true of all sciences?

    Ask A Question > research > Hypothesis > Test hypothesis through experiment > collect and organize data > do results match hypothesis?

    Your hypotheses must always be falsifiable as well, use clearly defined terminology, experiments must be reproducible with the same outcome. If you have this process, it’s not an area of scientific study. It’s science in the way that “Christian Science” is.

    That’s not to say that psychology/sociology is useless nor that it’s even always pseudoscience. It’s to say that the level of skepticism is going to be larger on any purported conclusion that does not adhere to these things.

    Essentially the bs scale for skeptics goes like this:
    Language/mathematics (because all conclusions can be generated by anyone as this is a priori knowledge)


    Biology (most of it is on par with chemistry and physics, it’s the practice of medicine that isn’t as reputed)

    Psychology (note this does not include psychiatry)



    The further you get down doesn’t mean it’s not knowledge it’s that the side of error or methodology for testing is less and less accurate.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      There are no experiments in astronomy so by your definition it’s not science.

      Also, your definition of science is so broad that it encompasses what I do when I’m debugging code (I have a theory as to the cause of the bug, I change something accordingly, I execute the code again, that’s an experiment. If the bug is now fixed then my hypothesis is confirmed by data.)

      • Jacob Chacko

        Computer programming is considered a bridge of mathematics. I have no idea where you’ve come to these conclusions.

        Does astronomy not ever have experiments? Lol

        • Jacob Chacko

          Research nature am science versus

      • Jacob Chacko

        Except there are… Albeit mostly in the realm of astrophysics. I think I’m done trying to explain this.

        Astronomy experiments can include things like: rebuilding the materials of a comet, building devices to make an eclipse safe to view, etc.

        Take the word skeptic out of your name.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

          Building a device to safely view an eclipse would be optics, not astronomy! Just like building MRI scanners is physics not biology even though they are used to study biology.

          • Jacob Chacko

            Then computer science is physics because you’re just manipulating electrons.

          • (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

            One correction: psych ≠ sociology.

            Psychology is the obtaining of facts through the scientific method (empirical).

            Whereas sociology is the study of the functions of society through logical theories (theoretical).

          • Jacob Chacko

            Upon further research of the subject it would seem this same dichotomy already exists and I was erroneous because I was making astronomy and cosmology synonymous.

            It would seem there is cosmology, astrophysics, theoretical astronomy, and observational astronomy.

            The latter 2 becoming more and more synonymous (since they seem to be intrinsically dependent on each other). From which… yes, these are two fields of study that have far more control over their predictions, points of research, and clearly defined language. They are also all observing natural phenomenon with high degrees of certainty (in terms of predictions) and thus building reliable theoretical models.

            They also do not appear to be (outside of climate science and funding requests) trying to shift public policy on suspicious foundations.

            I will give you the simple thing that keeps running through my mind, I am going to be skeptical of any claims made about a subject if the exception disproves the rule.

            The amount of how many exceptions there seem to be is going to determine the level of skepticism.

            I am not sure you can call researching, “happiness” equal to other, more physical subject matters without clearly defining what it means (and making sure anyone who comes across your research knows it). Like if I were to say that happiness is when a specific threshold of serotonin/dopamine/endorphins were visible in the brain that is a bit more objective than someone telling me they are happy. This objectivity or the search to stay objective is the core of the problem.

            If you are using a nebulous definition for happiness you would need to constantly use qualifying statements to retrace this point (saying 50% of those surveyed stated they were happy vs. 50% of Americans are happy). It’s only when you are encroaching on pseudoscience territory where the latter seems to become the norm.

            I hope some of this is coming through.

  • History repeats

    Psychology has stepped away from the medical model. That is a fact. Without the medical model its comes down to opinion and touchy-feely mumbo jumbo BS. The field has lost a lot of credibility.

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  • Stuart Filson

    Before seriously intermingling with chemistry and statistics, biology’s predecessor was not scientific. To me, judging if a field is scientific is largely indicated by whether it’s intermingling with other fields.

    With higher levels of abstraction, a field needs to account for more factors. Biology is more abstract than chemistry or physics, so biologists often speak in tendencies rather than predictable outcomes. Psychology is even more abstract and is a newer field.

    Social sciences should strive to be scientific. Linguistics is a great example of such a field that has come to emphasise the “science” in social science. Psychology is becoming evermore scientific by increasingly acknowledging the importance of the underlying machinery that is biology.

    Early psychologists used to mind-numbingly ignore the importance of biology, and some still do. Through neuroscience, psychology can actually be quantified in some form. Through evolutionary biology, the origins of the mind can be further conceptualised. Developmental biology, biochemistry, physiology, among others are also important. As psychology becomes more interdisciplinary, it should become more scientific.

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  • lexi

    The author claims that there is no singular “scientific method.” There, in fact, is a singular scientific method called the “scientific method.” Also, there is a certain set of criteria that defines a field as scientificly rigorous: clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and, finally, predictability and testability.

  • IdPnSD

    We do not have a definition of truth in our world. Nobody realizes that there is no truth in the mainstream. Ayn Rand correctly said – “Truth is not for all men, but only for those who seek it.” Laws of nature are the only truth. These laws are created by the objects of nature and their characteristics. Nature always demonstrates its laws, and therefore only way to learn about truth is to observe the nature, just like Galileo did. Take a look at https://theoryofsouls.wordpress.com/ for more details and examples.

    “Few fields are 100% true or false.” – Truth must be unique and universal. What is true in USA must be true in China also. What is true on earth must be true on mars or in any other galaxy. Similarly, what was true million years back, must be true now, and will remain true million years in future. Things are either true or false. There is no middle ground.

    “Different branches of science use different methods to uncover the truth” – This proves that we do not have a definition for truth. If truth is unique then the methods must converge.

    “I am concerned that much of psychology (and other fields) is not true.” – Your concern is correct, there is no truth in the mainstream. This is so because they are all controlled by money, and money is false, because money is not an object of nature. You cannot create anything true using something false like money.

  • bevofox

    My God, how many times must we listen to a whiny butt-hurt psychologist whine about the TRUTH that psychology is not a science? Nobody is saying that makes it worthless, nobody is saying that we don’t learn from it. Psychologists love saying that it doesn’t matter — then fine, why are you crying and so upset when a chemist says psychology isn’t a science? Maybe a psychologist ought to study why psychologist are so concerned with being considered “scientists”? Why do psychologists think their field not being a hard science makes them lesser?

    Psychology is not a science mostly because the subject matter (humans and the mind) does not lend itself to heavily controlled experiments. And, human subjects suffer from the problems of subjectivity, biases, and lying. Because of the biases, subjectivity, the possibility of lying and also the myriad of ethical concerns involved with experimenting on humans, psychology is limited in the experiments it can design, the measures it uses and the reliability of those measurements. That is what makes it different from the “hard” sciences. Psychology is unable to reach conclusions of the same weight, certainty and reproducibility because it is limited in its means of data gathering… due to the subject matter.

    The same can be said for many social sciences/pseudo-sciences and the same truth remains. Not being a science doesn’t render your field less valuable… it is simply an acknowledgement (mostly for lay people) so that the media and laypeople don’t think we “know” things about psychology with the same certainty as we know the atomic weight of elements and how fast an object falls to earth.

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  • s klein

    You are right. It is Not the correct question. The correct question actually is “Should psychology be a science?”

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  • Bryce Springfield

    Lol astrology is pseudoscience, not science.

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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