Is Psychology a Science?

By Silverman, Robert E. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Is Psychology a Science?


Silverman, Robert E., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


THE AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION'S spokes-persons have a number of favorite phrases when they discuss psychology. They often refer to the "the basic science of psychology," or to the "scientific research" that helps to provide the foundations of the discipline. Somehow the term science has become linked to descriptions of what psychology's researchers and practitioners do. However, there are skeptics who wonder about the accuracy of these descriptions. Are they reasonable representations stemming from the time in 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt ushered psychology into the family of sciences in Leipzig? Or are they ways of paying lip service to the discipline's desire to appear scientific when in fact the field has a long way to go to achieve scientific status?

When Wundt, a physiologist by training, took the position that the centuries-long philosophical disputes about the nature of mind needed to be set aside and replaced by the approaches favored by the natural sciences, he asked: Why can't the study of mind be based on observation? Just as physics observes the events of the physical world, why shouldn't psychology observe the events of the mental world? (1)

These were good questions and the emphasis on observation was a positive step, but Wundt and his followers were handicapped by the methodology they chose to use and by their lack of appreciation of the whole of science. They were right about the importance of observation and could have moved mental science forward if they had not been stymied by their reliance on the technique of introspection, a form of disciplined, self-observation aimed at looking at mental activity. Such self-reports, even under the most stringently controlled conditions, did not have the kind of repeatability and reliability on which science depends. Moreover, while it is true that the scientific method relies on observation, more is involved. Knowledge is not advanced by the mere collection of facts. The facts have to be systematized and ordered in a way that helps to generate hypotheses (or questions) that can lead to more research. Although Wundt and his student E. B. Titchener (at Cornell University) were interested in analyzing mental experiences into their elemental components as well as in finding out how these elements combine, they did not have a well-ordered, systematic position in which their observations tended to produce hypotheses or call up new questions. Even if introspection provided data, they needed something more to give their findings the kind of structure that had the potential to lead to more knowledge.

While a number of researchers were turning their attention to the new mental science emerging from Wundt's laboratory and were acknowledging the view that objective observation had much to offer, there were scholars who preferred to work from a theoretical base. For them, mind was not merely a concept or a shorthand term for mental processes; it was the controller, the process that managed to organize the input from the outside. Just as Immanuel Kant argued in 1781 that the human mind imposes order on the sensations it receives, so did the triumvirate of Gestalt psychology, Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang K6hler take the position that the brain organizes incoming stimuli into wholes, or "gestalts. (2) With this preconception as their guide, they set out to find ways to demonstrate how the principle of organization affects perception. While they did perform something like experiments, the observations they sought to make were primarily designed to demonstrate the worth of their ideas. It was not science, but it did keep alive a viewpoint about what the mind does that would provide a basis for the development a few decades later of cognitive psychology.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, when the gestaltists were working around the edges of science and Wundtian laboratory work still had its adherents, William James was emerging as a major influence in American psychology. …

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