In assessing psychology as non-science I am not dismissing its usefulness. While I have also claimed that medicine and technology are not sciences, it would be ludicrous of me to say that they are useless. Until we scientifically understand the material basis of the mind – the brain, its billions of neurons, and the electrochemical processes that take place among them – psychological and psychiatric therapies are our only hope of treating mental illness.
Social investigators should not be offended if they are not called “scientists.” Many human endeavors are necessary and useful even though their practitioners are not labeled “scientists.”
No musician, artist, or poet is expected to be called a “scientist” even though their discipline is indispensable for human intellect and pleasure.
Psychology started as the discipline that studied the mind. Wilhelm Wundt, considered the father of psychology, created the field of experimental psychology in 1879 in a laboratory devoted exclusively to psychological research. Some psychologists argue that psychology is too young to be dismissed as a science. After all, it has been only 135 years since Wundt created the field. So, let’s compare the progress in physics in its first 135 years with that of psychology. One can argue that physics started with the publication of Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in 1687. Add 135 years to this and you get 1822. I’ll simply list some of the most important discoveries in physics that occurred prior to 1822:
- integral calculus was discovered and used to prove the exactness of the universal law of gravity;
- laws of motion were applied to fluids and the mathematics branch of partial differential equations was created;
- the universal gravitational constant was accurately measured, making it possible for physicists to “weigh” the earth and the sun.
- conservation of matter was discovered in chemistry;
- mathematical law of electrostatic force was discovered;
- the wave nature of light was demonstrated;
- atomic theory was proposed to explain chemical reactions;
- laws of motion and gravity were applied to the motion of the dwarf planet Ceres to predict its reappearance after it was sighted for a brief period in the night sky;
- mathematical formula for kinetic energy was discovered;
- further proof of the wave nature of light was verified experimentally by interference;
- connection between electricity and magnetism was discovered and initial mathematical formulation of electromagnetic theory was made.
The important fact about these discoveries is that
Each new discovery is heavily dependent on some of the discoveries made earlier. Physics is an unbroken chain of discoveries, each link held tightly to the previous and next links.
This cannot be said about psychology. Wundt and his student Edward Titchener believed in structuralism, which is based on the notion of introspection: self-reports of sensations, views, feelings, emotions, etc. No sooner had structuralism been created than another “school” of psychological thought came into being called behaviorism, with the specific purpose of breaking the link to structuralism. There are now over thirty schools of psychology, some of which advocate ideas which are 180 degrees away from some others! Some psychologists even admit that “psychology has its fair share of pseudo-science.”
This medley of contradictory – even pseudo-scientific – ideas in and of itself should prove that psychology is not a science.
Nevertheless, as an exercise in the application of the list of the characteristics of science, I’ll examine if psychology passes any of those characteristics.