Fixing Psychology

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Digital Humanities and Darwin on Psychology... Cheiron Day 3

Talks on Digital Humanities and Evolution in Psychology
Eric Charles, Ph.D.
This post is a response to Phrenology, Criminal Insanity, Marshmallows: Cheiron, Day 1 by Eric Charles, Ph.D

The morning of Cheiron, Day 3 contained a fascinating panel using "Digital Humanities" methods to study the history of psychology. And some interesting coverage of evolutionary and epigenetic topics. Digital Humanities methods were first. These methods do complex textual analysis, and have great potential to provide insights into changes in psychology's history that are simply too dispersed across texts to be observed in any other way.  I suspect that, when better developed, these methods will also find niches in non-historical empirical work in our field.

Chris Green and Ingo Feinerer started things out with an analysis of three journals that were crucial "The Monist", "Philosophical Review", and "Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Method". Chris does Digital Humanities, using complex computer-assisted analyses to draw patterns out of texts. He analyzed the first two journals both before and after the launch of JPPSM. That journal played a huge role in the launch of James's Radical Empiricism and later the New Realism. The Monist manages to keep a foot in psychology, and continues to play an important role in publishing Peirce's work (at that point "Pragmaticism").  In contrast, Philosophical Review contains little psychology after that time, and seemed to be struggling for coherence.

Jeremy Burman did more digital history, focused on Piaget. He did sophisticated analyses to show which of Piaget's works were most influential in English, French, and German, and spoke a bit about how that (along with quirks of translation) affected the view of Piaget most common in speakers of those languages. The selective emphasis of these writings and the quirks of translation mean that Piaget has been "indigenized" to be understood in line with "native" aspects of English/American and German culture (e.g., the idea that Piaget was talking about "cognition" rather than "knowledge", and that he was talking about DNA-related "genetic epistemology" rather than the more "developmental epistemological")

Ingrid Farreras and Randolph Ford, showed an incredibly ambitious study using natural language analysis on 66 Introductory Psychology textbooks spanning over 100 years. The scanning, data analysis, and pre-processing of the data was impressive enough.They ran some interesting analyses, such as a variety of readability indices, confirming what one might expect, that the language of Intro textbooks has been dumbed down significantly over the decades.  They demonstrated that earlier authors used more particular examples, while more recent authors used more general statements, and the topics were discussed in greater depth. This is the first application of this type of analysis for psychology texts, and so they also included some nice demonstrations of the software. It was clear that this work was just beginning, and that as it becomes more sophisticated it will be able to reveal many detailed insights about how our field has changed. This is really important, as I have argued that problems with Intro Psych become problems for our field as a whole, and need to be fixed.

As Vinney Havern summarized, these new efforts to do digital humanities are rapidly becoming powerful, but there is much work to be done determining the best uses of that analytic power and finding the right theories for it to test.

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Next up was a session that, loosely speaking, was about evolutionary psychology. Alas, these discussions will be a bit more cursory.

Ben Bradley started out by explaining that Darwin said little of psychology, and instead he let it over to Spencer and Romanes, and, further, what little Darwin said was non-empirical, circular, and racist... or so it is commonly claimed! Wallace had indeed thought that physical evolution stopped when mental evolution began, and that the tribes of man with better mental and moral qualities beat out other tribes through some crude group selection. But Darwin had much more to say. Darwin loved Wallace's idea at first, but as he wrote "The Descent of Man" he reconsidered. Darwin indeed had an approach to psychology, which was discussed in context of the time. Darwin's approach was about people being group-oriented, but it was not a group-selection model.There were too many intriguing details for me to say much more here, but Ben is now on my reading list. (And many of his papers are available online.)

John Greenwood laid out the variety of ways in which crucial philosophers navigated the four options of their being continuity or discontinuity between "associative" and "cognitive" processes (a distinction philosophers were working on hundreds of years before Pavlov) between and continuity or discontinuity between humans and non-human psychology (e.g., a continuum between the minds of man and beast). It was a nuanced analysis, with good examples of how prominent people, including those working within a Darwinian tradition, had taken all different sides of the issue.

Anne Rose took on the myth of behaviorism dominance of early psychology by looked at a lot of changes in the field in the time between the World Wars and the instinct wars afterwards. She showed that, despite there indeed being a rise in nurture-oriented work, there was also a growth of interest (including many high profile hires) by those who believed strongly in human instinct. As she says in the summary "The academy in wartime was a confusing place: the employment of pacifists was jeopardized, while other faculty were rewarded for suspending laboratory investigations and serving stateside as military advisers. Whether the war was a disturbing revelation about animate nature, a professional dilemma, or both, it was intensely personal for Americans intent on understanding what motivates organisms."

Sam Parknovinick gave an excellent talk about George Herbert Mead's Social Psychology, including how it developed with regard to the notion of Instinct. I won't say more because Sam will get his own post later. I managed to sit down and interview him during Day 2 about E. B. Holt, and I will hopefully have an edited version ready soon.

Eric Charles, Ph.D., runs the research lab at CTRL, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, at American University.

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