Psychology and Scientific Method

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 31 October 2016

Psychology and Scientific Method

There are many arguments that debunk the idea that psychology could ever be a ‘pure science’. In any event, psychology has been touted by many a philosopher as a pseudo-science. This is primarily because science itself has a fixed method by which they conduct scientific experiments. We discuss precisely what it is that makes a theory scientific, how theories can be related to evidence and the principal issues involved in evaluating a theory. We also look at what it is that a science of psychology should study.

What aspects of psychology can be defined as scientific and what aspects are thoroughly based on conjecture? Can we really call psychology a scientific medium? The observable is what science studies. Freud was initially concerned with studying the unseen, while observing behaviors (Hays, 1964: 27). He believed that the insanity that is presented to the outside world was due to a complex internal mental mechanism (Hays, 1964: 27). However, Freud also fell short of one thing, hard evidence that these mental processes existed.

Scientific method determines that there are 4 or 5 steps the researcher has to take in order to make the experiment valid in the eyes of the scientific community. Physics lecturer Jose Wudka states that these steps include: 1. Observation; 2. Hypothesis; 3. Prediction; 4.

Test the prediction with experiment (Wudka, 1998). The last step may be that the prediction needs to be retested and the hypothesis revisited. If we take Freud as an example, his experiments were based almost entirely on observation with no empirical data to either prove or disprove his hypotheses.

Theory remains just a theory until is proved as fact. Theories are therefore related to evidence in a crucial way. Firstly, there has to be evidence of something that can be studied: for instance in criminal justice we have a bullet cap left behind at a crime. This bullet may be lying in a certain way and with the added presence of gunshot residue (cordite) can help investigators to formulate a hypothesis about what happened with the particular crime. With the case of Freud for instance, we can observe behaviors of children or even adults, but we cannot say where it comes from without getting inside the head.

This makes the evidence inadmissible and the theory remains just that – a theory. Secondly, evidence that is presented, has to be tested. This means that the evidence must relate to the theory it is trying to legitimate. In this case, the evidence either proves the theory or it forces the experimenter to return to the theory and rework it. A theory can be evaluated by means of this same testing procedure, key issues being predominantly about validity, verifiability and reliability.

Take for instance the normal experimental procedure for empirical research that includes the presentation of a valid sample group that is anonymous and whose records are either thus or confidential. An example of theory testing in psychology that does follow the scientific method is that of medical and electrical testing. One particular research example in psychology is that of Electro Shock Therapy. In this case the treatment studied is reversed in that the EST was used to treat asthmatics, successfully.

This case studied asthmatics brought in for EST after intense supervision prior to hospitalization. The patients were monitored before, during and after the treatment to see whether there is a relationship between hysteria and asthma (Cohen and Holbrook, 1947: 213). In this case the patients themselves provide the data necessary for testing the hypothesis. The hypothesis was that there was a relationship between hysteria and asthma. The results showed not only a relationship, but I significant reaction to Electro Shock Treatment (Cohen and Holbrook, 1947: 214).

In other research, EST is studied for its effect on schizophrenia rather than the usual bipolar disorder. This research revealed that EST may be useful in the treatment of this psychotic illness. This especially when combined with medication (ScienceDaily, 2005). These research projects were conducted under strict supervision and with documentation the entire process. On the other side of the coin, there are arguments that also dispel scientific method. William McComas of the Rossier School of Education cites 15 myths about scientific method that he considers to be principal issues.

In the scope of this paper we cannot discuss all of McComas’ issues but a few will be discussed. The first of these is that hypotheses become theories and then become laws. This is not always the case since sometimes the evidence does not uphold the hypothesis. He also says that theory is not always absolute. Theory can only be absolute if there are no exceptions and in psychology particularly, there are almost always exceptions. Science and scientific method are also not always absolute proof, nor does it always answer all the questions (McComas, 1998: 2-9).

In tune with the fact that the evidence does not always support the hypothesis, science does also not always represent reality but functions as a model around which scientific developments can be made (McComas, 1998: 9-18). Furthermore and specifically in psychology terms, these theories are flouted by the presence of some elements in a patient that do not fit the ‘textbook’ description of a certain ailment. For instance, it could be said that most cases of borderline personality disorder come from upper to middle class sectors and develop this type of disorder as a textbook concern, not all BPD patients are upper to middle class.

This is merely an example of the type of issue that faces the social sciences where individuals cannot be controlled in the way that plant slides or blood tests can be. The science of psychology is about people and the nuances thereof. It is aware that humans are temperamental and also subject to the actions of other people. This means that psychology can be studied as an observation, by viewing the behaviors of people and documenting them. Psychology cannot be studied in the same way as other sciences can be, despite the fact that in empirical sciences there are also issues of compliance.

If we consider that communicable diseases such as HIV/Aids can be physically examined, that blood cells and antibodies can be made visible and studied in their physical form, psychology is not the same. Inroads have been made to attempt to clarify tests done decades earlier, such as Pavlov’s conditioning studies, but unless a method becomes available to view thought processes, these theories remain unproved. The visible is the first step to studying science, but psychology hits a wall after that.

We know certain aspects of psychology, such as schizophrenia is as much a neurological disorder as a psychiatric one, but there are other psychological issues we do not know. This means that psychology has to be studied in a multidisciplinary way, rather than as purely scientific. In qualitative research as in quantitative, issues of evaluation are the same. In some psychiatric cases, a patient may also have medical problems, such as diabetes, epilepsy or malnutrition and these can be physically seen.

There are indeed ways in which psychology fails the test of scientific method, and therefore falls into the category of ‘pseudo science’. However, there are issues in pure sciences that also fall short of the elitist idea of science. Films such Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” explore the idea of experimentation with the human brain, but to undergo such testing even with the consent of volunteers, would be considered inhumane. It seems to be ethical to test chemicals on animals or to test explosives in remote areas, but not ethical to perform potentially dangerous tests on human brains.

This leaves psychological testing with the likes of psychometric testing and theories, yet again. As discussed, scientific method is reliant on having the evidence to back it up, whereas psychological is based on assumption to a large extent. Psychological profiling is an example of this in that given the evidence presented, a criminal can be profiled by the marks he leaves behind. Seldom is this knowledge enough to prove someone is guilty of not.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 31 October 2016

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