WJEC A2 Psychology PY4 - Controversies: Status of Psychology As A Science

Controversy Essay: Status of Psychology As A Science




  • The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines science as:

"A branch of knowledge conducted on objective principles involving the systematised observation of and experiment with phenomena"

  • So science is concerned with what we know to be true as opposed to what we simply believe to be true. This is all in order to predict and control the world. A science can also be regarded as a science if it uses the scientific method
  • example: in psychology, the use of the laboratory expt in Loftus and Palmer's study of leading questions
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Not a Science

1. Paradigms: A paradigm is a shared set of assumptions/beliefs, terminology, vocab about what should be studied (subject matter) and how (methodology). Kuhn (1962) states that "a field of study can only be properly considered a science if a majority of its workers subscribe to common global theory or perspective and subject matter"

  • POINT = Psychology is not a science because Kuhn (1962) argues it does not have a single unified Paradigm. Progression of science takes place in 3 stages: PRE-SCIENCE (no universally accepted paradigm), normal science and revolutionary science. Kuhn believes we have mini or partial paradigms that co-exist
  • Psychology is at pre-science stage with no overall paradigm for 3 main reasons:

1. Many conflicting approaches (psychodynamic, behaviourist, humanistic etc)

2. Subject matter of psychology is so diverse, ranging from topic areas bordering on sociology (society), cognition (mind and thought), biology, biochemistry and behaviour, researchers in different fields have little in common.

3. even though the experimental method dominatesnot all psychologists use this method or agree it is appropriate for human study 

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Not a Science

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) however it may be that psychology has yet to identify its paradigm ie it's a pre-science - however this current status should not detract from the use of scientific method in some areas of research.

Also, Campaniro + Martin (2004) argues that in cutting edge physics there is also a wide division over subject matter (Astro/Quantum) and methods, fundamental assumptions and terminology, perhaps divisions are just more open in psychology than in hard sciences. In physics, also arguably divisions within paradigm, so perhaps Psychology is no less scientific than Physics or such hard sciences

2. Lack of Objectivity

POINT = Psychology not a science because it tries but fails to investigate behaviour objectively

EXPLANATION = Human pps are conscious unlike chemicals in test tube that hard sciences study, pps may try to guess aim of study which can lead to experimenter effects like Demand Characteristics + experimenter bias. These threaten internal validity of research as may prevent researcher from measuring what they intend to

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Not a Science

EXAMPLE = Orne's (1962) study involved pps taking part in series of utterly pointless and boring tasks for many hours, simply because it was a psych expt. Happily added up strings of randomly generated numbers, writing answers on pieces of paper and were instructed to tear into 32 pieces - repeatedly did this for 5 1.2 hours

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) however, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle suggests this isn't necessarily just a problem for psychology, but all sciences, even hard Sciences like quantum physics also experience lack of objectivity. For example, in physics, argued that there is no truly objective way of observing behaviour of a sub-atomic particle (act of measuring something changes measurement intended) Therefore, no science is truly objective and therefore Psych is no less scientific in comparison to other hard sciences

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Not a Science

3. Not Falsifiable

POINT = scientific theories have to be falsifiable. Any theory has to generate a set of hypotheses that could be tested and thus provide the opportunity for theory to be refuted (if hypothesis turned out to be false)

EXAMPLE/EXPLANATION = concepts within the psychodynamic approach are notoriously unfalsifiable. Classic example is Freud's concept of id, ego and superego, which are unfalsifiable since it is not possible to imagine any findings would refute. Also Freud claims absence of a same sex parent during certain stage of childhood can cause child to be gay, but if an adult with absent same sex parent is not gay, Freud would claim they're in denial or they don't know they are - therefore impossible to disprove these claims

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) on other hand, in cognitive development many of Piaget's theories and concepts (like object permanence) were testable and could be proven wrong as some indeed were, just as hypotheses in hard sciences like Biology are refutable, so one can undoubtedly say certain aspects of Psychology are falsifiable

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Is a Science

1. Is a Science : High Levels of Control

POINT = high levels of control + manipulation of variables in research means results allow a high degree of predictability of future events, and if necessary control them

EXAMPLE/EXPLANATION = Loftus and Palmer (1970s)'s EWT and memory research into leading qs has led to predictable possibility of distorting effects of wording of qs which has led to them being banned in courtrooms, which controls the number of miscarriages of justice. Demonstrates that scientific methods used in psych research successfully prevent negative impacts on real life situations, by using high control and variable manipulation

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) however these studies may actually be victim of their own tight control as studies may not predict and control real world behaviours, only think they do based on controlled artificial environments. Raises bigger qs of whether scientific methods are appropriate for Psych. Eg Yuille and Cutshall's study of real life EWT to a violent armed robbery in Canada suggested that in real world, people weren't fooled by leading qs

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Is a Science

2. Replicable

POINT = according to physicist and chemist Robert Boyle (1686), scientific research should have replicable methods and results

EXAMPLE/EXPLANATION = most commonly used methods in Psych are controlled methods such as controlled observations and lab expts that permit good replicability as can be seen in eg of Milgram's (1963) research into obedience (repeated his expts with consistent conditions and therefore results) which shows how these studies can be applied to real life surroundings due to replicable conditions

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) but do replicable methods tell us much about ordinary human behaviour? Heather (1976) argues all they tell us is how strangers act in unusual situations. Methods such as case study or naturalistic observation are not replicable at all, yet provide invaluable info about human behaviour. Some argue Psych would be a far less valid means of finding out about behaviour if lab expt was only means of investigation. Many researchers argue inappropriate to use replicable scientific method in Psych, or indeed attempt to make Psych a pure science

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  • since psych has many diff theories, approaches and methodologies, argued that it does not as yet constitute a science status. However, some areas do fulfill criteria of science, with falsifiable theories and research findings that are replicableNevertheless, this certainly does not apply to all aspects of Psych. What needs to be considered is whether it could and whether it should be a science
  • Laing (1965) part of anti-psychiatrists believed scientific method was inappropriate for studying humans with mental illness and so rejected the medical model of abnormality. Felt it appropriate to reduce person experiencing distress as a complex physical-chemical system gone wrong
  • therefore at present, not only is there argument concerning whether Psych is science but a more deep-seated philosophical one concerning whether or not Psych should ever attempt to be a science. Psychologists are clearly divided in their views on this
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