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Despite What You Might Have Heard, Psychology is Science

A commentary on social psychology's recent spate of bad press.

The field of psychology, and especially the field of social psychology, has gotten quite a bit of bad press lately. We’re still reeling from the Diederik Stapel debacle, an isolated case of outright fraud that, while impressive in its scope, was no different than cases of fraud in other fields. Nonetheless, it sparked a public interest in how psychology operates as a science, and threatened public funding for research. Around the same time, a paper by Simmons, Nelson & Simonsohn (2011) attempted to establish standards for journals in evaluating research by highlighting some bad research practices, such as not fully reporting the methods or results, which are apparently fairly common in psychology. Going a step further, one of that paper’s authors, Uri Simonsohn, has been applying a statistical technique he developed to look for anomalies in published papers indicative of such bad practices, and two researchers have already resigned and retracted papers as a result. (I’d like to point out that the vast majority of the psychologists I’ve talked to were shocked that anyone would consider most of these practices acceptable. Hopefully these practices are a lot less common, and therefore the impact is a lot smaller, than people suspect.) On the whole, we would all like to see such false positive results purged from the established psychological literature, but the resignations still came as a shock, and undermined the credibility of the field.

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But the bad news didn’t stop there. Next came a piece by well-respected psychologist Tim Wilson in the LA Times defending psychology as a science. He pointed out that, although psychology doesn’t have quite the predictive power as the "hard sciences," its achievements should still merit consideration as a real science. The LA times then published a pretty brutal rebuttal by a microbiologist, stating in no uncertain terms his belief that psychology is not science. I have very strong feelings about this, but it’s hard to engage in a reasonable debate in this format. I’ll just say that most people (especially other academics) have a very limited (and largely incorrect) understanding of what psychological researchers actually do. Their claims that psychology is not a science are understandable based on those incorrect assumptions, and perhaps rectifying those misconceptions would resolve much of the problem. (I'd recommend reading Dave Nussbaum's excellent and more thorough response.) Still, that’s the public perception, and it’s up to us to change it.

And then just this week comes news of a new paper by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers about political bias in social psychology – not just that social psychologists tend to be liberal, which is true of the vast majority of academic fields, but that a non-trivial percentage of social psychologists report that they would use a colleague’s political views as part of hiring and editorial decisions. I haven’t personally witnessed any political discrimination, but it is true that conservative psychologists are rare and almost certainly feel sheepish about sharing opinions with which most of their colleagues would disagree. It certainly doesn’t speak well of a field that studies bias to have such a strong bias of their own.

All of these recent events point to a field that’s in a state of flux, and all things considered, I think that’s a good thing. If we’d like to be taken seriously as a scientific field, we need to recognize and correct the flaws in our methods as they are now. It will undoubtedly take some time for the field to make the necessary adjustments, establishing the methodological rigor present in other fields as standard practice in our own, but we’ve got to start somewhere, and perhaps there’s no better way place to start than by exposing ourselves to very reasonable criticism.

I realize that all of this may be a bit too much inside baseball, but here’s the real point: we want people to trust the findings from psychological studies they see in the media, and despite these recent anomalies, you generally should. We base our assertions on real data, which is a lot more than you’ll typically get from the “self-help” field (which is far too often equated with field of psychology – ever seen the “psychology” section of a bookstore? It makes me shudder). However, psychologists are placed in the extremely difficult position of trying to measure and quantify concepts like happiness or anxiety, which, although very abstract, are nonetheless very real. Palpable, in some cases. That’s precisely why people care about our findings, and precisely why they get media attention: because they can prompt new ways to see the world, or suggest small things that will make you happier. But because we are dealing with abstract concepts and behaviors that have many, many different contributing factors, the predictive power of any one finding is almost always going to be less than we’d like. Even more importantly, because we are largely ignorant of the actual workings of our minds (let alone the minds of others), it’s really hard to witness any of these effects in action. We can never directly see what the man behind the curtain is doing, and must instead make inferences about it based on what we can see. That’s what psychologists do: we collect a lot of data based on what we can see, make inferences, and then test those inferences to see if they hold up to scrutiny. This is the scientific method, and it’s the best way to find out what’s true. Psychologists are certainly striving to correct our flaws and improve our science, but you can still have some faith in what we have done so far.

Travis J. Carter, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. He studies decision-making, motivation, and cognition.

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