Is psychology a science? PY4 WJEC

Made for WJEC PY4 controversies. 


What is science?

Science is the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the biological and natural world through observation and experiment. (Eysenck and Keane 1990). Science has the features...

·         Controlled observations

·         Objectivity- it is important for data to be collected in a way close as objective as possible.

·         Testing theoretical predictions- experiments are carried out to test to theory

·         Falsifiability- disaproved by evidence

·         Paradigm- generally accepted theoretic orientation within a science; no central 'point'

·         Replicability- findings by researchers need to replicable to be classified as a science.

However, they point out that the division between science and non-science is not as clear cut as it used to be believed.

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At least some levels of psychology are scientific.

Other established sciences are reductionist to a certain degree (physics) it is considered desirable because more complex phenomena are best understood in simpler terms. Psychology is broadly reductionist, as they explain complex behaviour in simpler terms e.g. the multi-store model (Atkinson and Shiffri)

However, reductionist theories are falsifiable. Popper (1969) argues that the main defending point of science is that we do not seek to find data that confirms a theory but rather disprove a theory. Theories that are non-falsifiable are non-scientific.

Psychodynamic approach is unfalsifiable.

Issues with reductionism

If lower levels (e.g. psychological or behavioural explanations) are taken in iscolation then the meaning of behaviour may be overlooked. This may lead to fundamental error of understanding,

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Counterargument- Psychology lacks objectivity and

Popper (1972) argued that it is impossibl to observe something and remain completely objective. He argues that no-one ever observes without some idea of what they are looking for. Thus, scientific obervation is always driven by hypotheses and theories.

Psychology has a unique position of being humans studying other humans. This can make objectivity difficult as Popper argues that we all see the world from our own viewpoint or biases.

Heather (1976) was very dismissive of laboratory experiments. He argued that they were artificial, and that all that can be learned from them was how strangers interact in an unusual situation. External validity.

Heisenberg uncertainty principle-   In the quantum world, the accuracy with which we can know the position and momentum of an object such as an electron is limited by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  This introduces a reciprocal relationship between position and momentum.  Thus, if the position of an electron is known to a high degree of accuracy, then the momentum of the electron will be very uncertain, and vice versa.

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Psychology shares the goals of science

Allport (1947)- Science has three aims

  • Prediction- scientist put forward theories which can generate hypotheses (predictions of what will happen in certain situations/circumstances). These predictions can be tested to disprove or support a theory.
  • Understanding- using results from prediction to gain deeper understanding. However, even if a theory several accurate predictions it does not give a full understanding.
  • Control- after the above two have been achieved, it is sometimes possible to move on to control. Gained knowledge to try and alter some aspect of the world


  • Some parts achieve the goals of science and some don't. Can we accurately call the entire subject scientific?
  • However, in some cases goals have not been reached, will this always be the case. Do researched have the goals of science but unable to reach them at this point in time.
  • Miller (1983) - suggests that psychologists who attempt to be scientists are doing no more than "dressing up". He suggests that psychology is a pseudoscience. However  psychologists claim their findings as 'fact'.
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The goals of science may not be appropriate for ps

Humanistic psychologists argue that psychology should not be a science whereas social constructionists state that it cannot be a science

Humanistic approaches, Maslow (1968) said "The uniqueness of the individual does not fit into what we know of science". If we really want to investigate and understand human behaviour, we must use more idiographic than nomothetic methods.

Non-scientific theory from humanistic approach= Maslow's heirarchy of needs (1943).  This theory states that for an individual to become "self actualised" they must meet the demands of the lower levels of need. 

  • Produces few if any testable predictions
  • Limited scope of scontrol
  • However, it does focus more on the understanding of human experiences 

Humanistis favoured the use of phenomenology where individuals report their concious experiences in as pure and undisorted way. Rodgers (1959) justified this, as it gives the deepest insight into experiences. It can be argued that te data would be much more valid than traditional scientific methods, however, there are issues of reliability.

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Psychology should not be a science

Laing (1965) argued that by using scientific explanations to explain and treat schizophrenia, important factors where being miss out on such as distress and suffering. Each patient needed to seen as an individual. ECT and drugs have had limited sucecess therefore scientific method not always appropriate.

Social constructionist approaches; psychology cannot be a science.

-based on the assumption that our knowledge of ourselves and of others are social constructions. Thus there is no objective reality for research.

If social construction is true then in psychology there is no objective reality waiting to be discovered; impossible for psychology to be a science.

Social constructionists argue that observations made by psychologists and the way which they are interpreted are determined in large measure by the cultral and historical forces influencing them.

Burr (1997) argues that since there is no ultimate knowledge of human beings that we call a final truth, what must be done instead is to understand where current ways of thinking hav come from.

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Psychology has no paradigm

Kuhn (1962) the most essential ingredient in science is a paradigm.

A paradigm is a set of assumptions which can govern the subject (what is to be governed and scrutinized). The questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject.

He argued that there are three distinct stages in the development of a science:

Pre-science: no paradigm exists, and there is much debate about what the subject is and its theoretical approach.

Normal science: A generally accepted paradigm that can account for all the phenomena related to the subject. and can explain and interpret all the findings.

Revolutionary science: Evidence against the old paradigm reaches a certain point and there is a paradigm shift (old paradigm is replaced by a new one)

Paradigm shift in physics. Copernicus showed that the earth revolved around the sun, which replaced the old paradigm that the sun revolved around the earth. 

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Aarti Patel


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