Psychology: the struggle towards objectivity
December 7, 2014 § 2 Comments
The field of psychology influences just about every element of our lives. Business, government and educational organisations rely on psychological studies to form their methods and approaches. Not only that, the media – be it broadcast journalism, informative articles or opinion pieces – greatly rely on the field for support and evidence. It is inherently the study of us; our mental processes and behaviours. As such, there is no overestimating the importance and potential of the field. When psychology is so heavily influential, then, it proves extremely worrying when we find out how it is conducted.
A recent article indicates that 83% of experimental psychology studies in the esteemed journal ‘Science’ are unreliable. Not only that, 82% of studies in ‘Psychological Science’ were also found to be unreliable. While the article concluded that the data in these studies is not always purposefully manoeuvred, and the inaccuracy often merely poor practice and misinterpretation of statistics, these results present a worrying image of scientific practice within psychology, possibly extending to other fields of science. Psychology has historically received a poor reception; it has been criticised as a pseudo-science, and many of the methods of the field’s pioneers, such as the likes of Freud, have been completely discredited.
However, since the early 20th century, psychologists have struggled towards a more quantifiable, scientific method. Behaviourists such as John Watson and B.F. Skinner distinguished themselves from the previously popular psychoanalytical, introspective approach of Freud and Jung, believing that psychology should be empirical and scientific, and the only way to do so was by observing quantifiable behaviour. Seeing the limitations of behaviourism in narrowing the scope of focus, Noam Chomsky sparked the cognitive revolution with his criticism of B.F. Skinner’s work in 1959. Since then, cognitive psychology, the scientific study of mental processes, has dominated the field.
The Problem: How and Why
Why is it that we’re still seeing such a lack of reliability in psychology? Scott Lilienfeld, a psychology professor, says “virtually all psychological phenomena hinge on unknown contextual variables”. It goes without saying that we are all unique, hugely complex, and unpredictable. Combine that complexity with an ” abundance of positive results (due to) questionable practices, selective reporting, as well as data fabrication“, and it comes as no surprise that we see such a large majority (83%) of publications as inaccurate. Authors will also often subconsciously select data that is in harmony with their theory, known as confirmation bias.
The main fault within psychology is that it is conducted by humans. How very droll…maybe in a couple of hundred years, we’ll have sentient robots do our scientific research for us. The thing is, humans make mistakes and bend truths, especially those with ambiguous data at their hands, and pressure from those who provide the funding. No one wants to publish something inconclusive. As Nassim Taleb says, “The same past data can confirm a theory and its exact opposite! If you survive until tomorrow, it could mean that either a) you are more likely to be immortal or b) that you are closer to death“.
Implications and Solutions
We simply need a more rigorous publication process. Scientists hold such an important role in our society, and that importance should be respected in authoring potentially deceptive studies, and letting said studies make their way past the peer-reviewing process. Psychology is a very young science. If psychologists wish to gain the respect of the scientific community, as well as the public, standards need to raised. Combined with pioneering technologies posed by the cognitive and neurosciences such as brain imaging, psychology has the potential to make some truly ground-breaking discoveries and revelations.
Finally (wait, you read all of that?), what does this really mean for me and you? I’d use this article as an opportunity for a call to action. Scientists not only have the potential to be very wrong, they often are. Inform yourself with a wide range of sources and question information that is fed to you at face value. I’m not asking you to study scholarly articles on every opinion piece or news item, but remain sceptical. The truth is bent, brushed over or treated subjectively, and information can influence every element of our lives. Something that has such powerful potential should be treated accordingly.