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Can Psychology Be Considered A Science?

How the "hard sciences" view the "soft sciences"

physics cat hard sciences versus soft sciences physics versus biology

My wife is a doctor of pharmacy student at the number-two-ranked school in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report. Her professors are some of the most famous names in their fields who direct laboratories with multi-million-dollar grants. These fields fall squarely in the hard sciences (at least I think they do). Occasionally, her professors will ask what her husband does. Here is a partial transcript from one of those conversations:

Famous professor: "What does your husband do?"

My wife: "He's a research scientist at Duke University."

Famous professor [now somewhat impressed]: "What field is he in?"

My wife: "He's in psychology."

Famous professor [with bewilderment]: "Is he smart?"

My wife: "Yes."

Famous professor: "Is he smarter than you?"

Now, I used to be insulted by these conversations. And my wife has told me what's truly priceless is the expression on their faces when they hear I'm a psychologist. Over time I've grown used to conversations like this, and in fact I've even published some data that empirically supports the view that social scientists have lower average ability than hard scientists (see my article How Brainy Is Your Major?). The rank order of the disciplines based on average general ability level is roughly as follows:

1. Engineering
2. Physical Science
3. Math/Computer Science
4. Biological Science
5. Humanities
6. Social Science
7. Arts
8. Business
9. Education

What's interesting about the conversation above is that iterations of this script have occurred multiple times at multiple universities. And this hasn't just happened when I'm not around. It also occurs when I meet some of these professors in person. After I tell them I'm in psychology, oftentimes what follows is a sudden and awkward silence.

I often like to say that I'm a scientist who just happens to be in the field of psychology. And to be perfectly honest, that's the way I think of myself. I sincerely believe I'm a scientist and I definitely think psychology can be a science. And I'm quite certain my colleagues would agree. After all, we have a journal in our field titled Psychological Science which is the premier journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

So on the one hand, sometimes I shake my head and just think to myself: "Man, these hard scientists just don't know what they're talking about."

Yet over time I've stopped taking offense and have started to wonder: Well, why is it that the hard sciences look down on the soft sciences? Perhaps hard scientists are arrogant and they don't know what they're talking about? Or perhaps there's some truth to the hard scientist's view that the social sciences just aren't on the same level? Of course, there are certainly hard scientists that would agree with me that psychology is a science, but I'm guessing those folks would be in the minority. And I also think that the idea that psychology is not quite a science is in fact a common belief among the public, not just among the hard sciences elite.

I tried to find some thoughts that might give insight into why hard scientists hold the view that social science just isn't up to par. I found a couple quotes, which may or may not provide clues. I thought I would share them, perhaps to provide a starting point for some conversation on this topic.

Paul Halmos, speaking about the field of mathematics, wrote:

"Sloppy thinking, verbosity without content, and polemic have no role, and-this is to me one of the most wonderful aspects of mathematics-[mistakes] are much easier to spot than in the nonmathematical fields of human endeavor (much easier than, for instance, in literature among the arts, in art criticism among the humanities, and in your favorite abomination among the social sciences)."

John Kenneth Galbraith, himself an economist and social scientist, wrote:

"A lot of the writing in the social sciences is bad writing, is unnecessarily obscure. A lot of it is designed to give the impression that the individual so writing has a level of sophistication which separates him from the masses, and possibly separates him from his colleagues. And quite a bit of it is just unnecessarily verbose."

Luis Alvarez, the famous physicist, noted:

"The world of mathematics and theoretical physics is hierarchical. That was my first exposure to it. There's a limit beyond which one cannot progress. The differences between the limiting abilities of those on successively higher steps of the pyramid are enormous."

Steve Hsu, commenting on the Alvarez quote, writes:

"People who work in 'soft' fields (even in science) don't seem to understand this stark reality. I believe it is because their fields do not have ready access to right and wrong answers to deep questions. When those are available, huge differences in cognitive power are undeniable, as is the utility of this power."

Or perhaps Ed Yong's interesting article in Nature has pinpointed the problem: "In the wake of high-profile controversies, psychologists are facing up to problems with replication."

So what do you think? Do the above criticisms hold any merit? Can psychology be considered a science? Why do you think the hard sciences look down on the soft sciences? And if you're in the soft sciences, what do you think we can do to persuade the hard sciences that we're worthy of the title "scientist"?

And in case you were wondering, here is how the conversation between the famous professor and my wife ended:

Famous professor: "Is he smarter than you?"

My wife [with sincerity]: "I think so."

Famous professor: Awkward silence...then laughter.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

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