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Psychology is Not a Science—But Fear Not

Psychology is not a science. This claim has been made before. And it is a controversial statement. It is made here not to alarm, but to inform. I’ve thought long and hard about this idea after a colleague said something that really caught my attention. We both work in special education, and one day she said to me: “Once you know one person with autism, well, you just know one person with autism.” This led me to start thinking that the work that we were doing wasn’t actually scientific research so much as anecdotal observation, which is to say, not scientific at all. This led me further to a big-picture problem: individual anecdotal assessments of people are not science because they don’t lead any of us to an understanding of “the mind,” only of the mind of that particular person. No greater understanding of the world is conveyed, just that small sliver, which isn’t indicative of the world at all. How could this type of psychology be scientific? After a long time contemplating the matter, I do not think it is.

Science has developed a system that allows us to explain and understand the world around us. It provides us with knowledge that we can use to validate truths about our world. Psychology has other issues to attend to. The human mind might be the one “object” that cannot be duplicated by a computer. It might be too complex to understand, requiring immeasurable data as inputs in order to produce a response. The human mind might simply be too complex, or near infinite, and this issue is only exacerbated by the concept of free will. This has been an ongoing debate, and numerous examples have been given for why psychology fails to meet the requisite criteria to constitute a genuine science. Psychology invokes terms that are not clearly definable or quantifiable, such as happiness or sadness. And it lacks testability. How can psychologists test or quantify why someone is a serial killer? To be sure, psychologists use vigorous scientific methods; but so do ice cream tasters. And while I do think that there is science behind taste testing ice cream, I would certainly not call it a science.

What psychology cannot do is simple—it cannot reproduce the necessary conditions of an experiment to arrive at a meaningful or reproducible conclusion. If I stand in my kitchen, I can add vinegar to baking soda to get a result. I can always take vinegar and add it to baking soda and get a result, because the conditions of both vinegar, baking soda, and adding them do not change. I can completely reproduce this experiment and get the same result every time if I choose to. This experiment can be reproduced with the correct conditions when needed. This is crucial to science.

However, an experiment utilizing a human being as a condition and his/her response as a goal will not be scientific because it does not employ the scientific method. The ‘nature and nurture’ that create an individual person are impossible to reproduce. In an experiment, if I take 100 people and add a challenge to their life, I could receive up to 100 different results; or for 1,000 people, perhaps 1,000 different results. The reason why is because no two people will come with the same antecedent conditions. These nonreproducible conditions eliminate psychology as even a potential candidate for a science.

To state it plainly again: the most important criterion that psychology cannot meet is that its results be reproducible, for the condition of the experiment is not reproducible. You cannot ever duplicate the same conditions that influenced a person before an event or experiment. You can never say that because a person was beaten as a child, they will be abusive when they are older. People are never the same, and different people will always give different results.

I cannot help but think of studies that have been conducted on identical twins for just this reason. How do genetically identical people act when faced with a certain situation? That is, regardless of whether twins were raised together or separately, how do genetically identical individuals approach a situation, and what are their responses to it? Most twin studies rely on getting to the bottom of the extent of environmental versus genetic influences. Nonetheless, these studies offer an insight into the main idea that you must have the same antecedent conditions for an experiment in order to reach a meaningful conclusion.

On one hand, psychology might seem like a science because it is structured in ways that are scientific. It uses the scientific method to collect valuable data about the world around us in order to find truths, and it has been successful in that sense. But it falls short of providing actual scientific knowledge. Psychology does not offer a true glimpse of how the world actually works in the sense that other sciences do.

But fear not. Psychology is still a crucial discipline, and one especially worthy of study. It just needs to be labeled as a field of mathematics—more specifically, of statistics. Psychology can thrive as a collection and analysis of data collected by psychologists. A psychologist can have success in the sense of being able to reliably tell you the probability that someone who was abused as a child will turn violent when they reach a certain age. They can rely on statistics to increase predictability and measurability. I’m not saying that statistics is an empirical science, but it does give a clearer picture of how the world works. Psychology changes over time, cultures, religions, and geography. Focusing psychology more on statistics to predict trends and forecasting can help psychology become more scientific and put it on a more academically sound footing going forward.

For Aristotle, a thing’s virtue is what gives it the ability to complete what it is designed for. A knife’s virtue is its sharpness. Its sharpness is what allows it to cut, which is the knife’s purpose. For psychology to have virtue in this sense, it needs to be better able to understand the world. In order to better understand the world, psychology must adapt a more empirical data-centered approach, one which cannot rely on anecdotal observations alone.