Psychology wields a fair amount of power in our society - criminals are sentenced or released based on the evidence of psychologists. Employers often rely on psychological tests to determine whether you get the job or not.
As a scientific realist, this is concerning to me. I need to know whether psychology (especially cognitive psychology) is a method for determining facts about the world. And if it fails the scientific bar - should we not treat its results and recommendations with more skepticism?
The biggest argument I've heard in favour of considering cogntive psychology a good scientific field is that it relies heavily upon the scientific method for many of its results. Fair enough, but one can argue that you can apply the scientific method to the study of Star Trek - that surely does not make "Star Trek"-ology a valid scientific field. For something to be a science, you do not just need to use the scientific method (the semantic commitment of scientific realism) - the object under scrutiny needs to be a fact of the world too (the metaphysical commitment of scientific realism). And, as far as I'm aware, those results need to be generalised into a set of laws that provides predictive power.
Here are some of the arguments I've heard that disputes the scientific validity of psychology:
- Lack of predictive laws. I read somewhere that psychologists perform no better than chance to predict which criminals would re-offend upon release, even with good access to the individuals (*). Should scientific theories not result in falsifiable predictions? What is the use of knowledge if it does not aid us in prediction?
- Results in neuroscience are casting doubt on psychological assumptions about the reality of mental states and whether our brains work in terms of propositions. (**) If the mind is the brain, and the brain works fundamentally different from how psychologists claim the mind works, does that not provide a good reason to doubt the claims of psychology?
- Secretive practices. For example, the test for psychopathy is a secret test that is only available to registered psychologists (*). Even though this may be for good reason (to prevent psychopaths from cheating the test, I imagine), this does cast doubt upon the field's ability to provide objective measurements that are both indisputable and open to scrutiny. Even worse, this is a slippery slope to creating a "cult of authority" where it becomes difficult to argue against psychological diagnoses.
- Doubt about the efficacy of psychological treatments like talk therapy for common mental ailments such as alcoholism, depression and bi-polar disorder. It is now well-known that treating these mental disorders in the terms of the propositional language once favoured by psychologists are largely ineffective and have been replaced by psychiatric and neurological treatments.
As a scientific realist, it seems to me that psychology must fall into one of the following categories:
- A reliable method for establishing facts about the human mind. With further research and study, the methods will improve and the predictive laws will come.
- A useful fiction (like a Dennetian stance), that may not be grounded in physical reality but still provide us with enough useful practices and methods to improve our lives.
- A radically wrong discipline (like alchemy or homeopathy) that may on occasion stumble upon a "useful trick" but is never going to provide us with reliable knowledge about the human mind and its role in nature.
- Complete uncritical bunk.
I may be committing the fallacy of excluding possibilities here, but because of the arguments outlined above, I'm almost certain that there is something wrong with 1).
I suspect we generally assume that 2) is where psychology is at, but I wonder how sure we are about it. What research have been done to show the efficacy of psychological treatment of patients vs other forms (like psychiatric, neurological and even no treatments?). What are the standards of the psychological community in accepting a treatment as more than mere placebo? Do we have good reason to believe that psychology provides insights into the mind that are superior to other known methods?
3) and 4) provide me with the greatest concern - how certain are we that we are not just entertaining a deluded society and yielding a disproportionate amount of power to them?
(*) It is either "In Cognito: The secret lives of the brain" or "The Self Illusion: Why there is no you inside your head". Sorry for not being very specific.
(**) This view seems to be the basis of eliminative materialism, with the Churchlands being good examples of proponents.
(*) Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us