Is Psychology a Science?

Over at Philosophy Now, Peter Rickman argues no:

Many students of the mind sought the remedy for their failures and their lack of public esteem in modelling the methods of psychology on the physical sciences. An extreme example of this is behaviourism. Why not focus on studying observable human behaviour, as you can study the movements of falling bodies and theorise on that evidence? After all, humans are behaving bodies. There are various flaws in this approach, and one of them is illustrated by a well-targeted joke. Two behaviourists spend a night passionately making love. In the morning, one says to the other, “It was good for you. How was it for me?”

A proper starting point is to recognise the disciplines which study human nature as a distinct group which require, if not a complete alternative to the scientific method, at least some essential supplementary methodology.

The fact is that the bulk of the evidence given to the student of humanity on which to theorise, are not observable facts, but communications. These do not correspond to anything observable. In other words, what is in front of the psychologist are statements from interviews or completed questionnaires (eg, I am afraid of dying, I was abused in childhood, etc), responses to tests such as the Rorschach pictures, diaries, and the like. Similarly, sociologists use interviews, questionnaires and legal documents, while historians use biographies, letters, inscriptions on gravestones, eyewitness accounts of battles and revolutions and similar material. The same is true of other human studies such as social anthropology or politics.

All this is pretty obvious and non-controversial. It needs mentioning because of widespread error of taking what is communicated in this material as simple data whose meaning is transparent. What is thus ignored is the immense complexity of the process of communication.

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