Chapter 1: Psychology is Alive and Well

The first chapter begins with where we all hate to begin, but we must: The Freud problem. Despite having loosed his grip on the world of psychological science many decades ago, Freud’s hold on the collective imagination and definition of psychology persists. Stanovich points out that fewer than 10% of members of the American Psychological Association identify as Freudian, and half that in the Association for Psychological Science. Further, Freud’s methods are completely unrepresentative of modern psychology. Freud’s approach was heavy on theory and story, and very light on data. His “database” was primarily case studies of his own patients. Stanovich tries to remedy the Freud problem in this chapter by documenting the diversity of psychology, as well as addressing what methods have replaced Freud’s: the methods of science. In this way, the book becomes just as much a philosophy of science book as it is a psychology book, because in addressing whether psychology is a science (really, the central question of the book) it is necessary to correct certain misconceptions about the other “hard” sciences.

Freud casts his shadow on the popular conception of psychology

Freud still casts a long shadow on the popular definition of psychology, even as modern scientific psychologists have long moved on.

Here is the logic for the rest of the chapter:
Psychology is Diverse —-> Diversity is not a Problem —> Other sciences are not as unified as you think they are —> What is science anyways?

Psychology is diverse
Psychology includes many many subfields, from social psychology to cognitive psychology, from vision science to psychology and law. My favorite example of this is that the APA has both a division of peace psychology (Division 48) and a division of military psychology (Division 19). Now that’s a big tent! Many outside the discipline point out that this seems like un-disciplinary chaos, with no single unifying paradigm, or principle, or whatever you want to call it.

Lack of Unity is not a problem
While a single unifying theory (like, say, evolution) does not exist in psychology, this does not necessarily stop progress in the science of psychology. Indeed, other fields of science also “suffer” from diversity. Chemistry includes biochemistry, physical chemistry, inorganic and organic, which communicate as little. Of course, there is a coherence at the level of the physics that underlies each of these chemistries, just as there is a coherence at the level of the neuron for psychology. But in the day to day operations of a psychological scientist, it is not always necessary to keep in mind how neurons work, just as in observing the behavior of a molecule, it is not always necessary to keep in mind how many electrons orbit the atom.

What is a science?
Stanovich describes science as containing three critical elements: systematic empiricism, publicly verifiable knowledge, and testable hypotheses. This is relatively standard philosophy of science from Karl Popper. I think Stanovich does a good job allowing for some of the practical nature of science is actually done, while laying out the logic of how it should go. For example, in describing publicly verifiable knowledge, he discusses the process of peer review as a minimal criterion; a low bar. There are many many journals, and many studies get published in some fashion, but peer review sets a low bar. If someone is trumpeting some amazing new claims, but has no peer reviewed study, then they are surely full of it. However, if someone DOES have a peer reviewed article (or 5, or 30) that is no guarantee that it is grade-A super-valid science. Peer review is not perfect, and it could certainly use improvement. For me, the critical elements are making as much information as possible public and transparent, but also making the interpretation of that information go through a process where expertise gets to weigh in. Having a place online where anyone can post their data (e.g. Dataverse) is great, but to interpret the data you need generally need some graduate training in statistics as well as background in that field. I have witnessed a few online discussions where generally very educated and smart people make simple mistakes in reasoning about areas of science they don’t know enough about. I’m pretty sure I have been that too, but no one has pointed it out.

Stanovich illustrates the value of testable hypotheses by contrasting folk wisdom with scientific psychology. Because there is folk wisdom supporting both sides of every situation (“two heads are better than one,” but “too many cooks spoil the broth”, “look before you leap” but “he who hesitates is lost”) folk wisdom makes no predictions. But sometimes folk wisdom is wrong, and Stanovich cites an excellent example: nerds. From Stanovich:

For example, children high in scholastic achievement are more likely to be accepted by their peers than children low in achievement. People who are avid readers are more likely to play sports, jog, camp, hike, and do car repair than are people who do not read very much.

For example, look at this nerd, who also happened to play competitive soccer, baseball, a whole lot of pickup basketball as well as run a reasonably fast marathon in college.

I’ll close chapter one there. Next up: falsifiability


About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in bookreview, education, science, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Chapter 1: Psychology is Alive and Well

  1. Pingback: Chapter 1: Psychology is Alive and Well | Cedar's Digest | Social Fobi - Det Du Behöver Veta

  2. Rich Meagher says:

    I like D.M. Thomas’s take on Freud – psychoanalysis is not exactly science, but mythology.


  3. Cedar Riener says:

    Yeah, pretty good mythology, to be sure, but still mythology.

    Love the profile pic, by the way.
    “A man gotta have a code”

  4. Jeanine Stefanucci says:

    Cedar- you’ll be excited to learn that I REQUIRE my 300 person intro to psychology as a science class to read this book! 🙂 I’ll think of you when I’m teaching/lecturing from it next semester. Maybe I’ll get some new perspectives and examples from you that I can use too. I agree though, this book is the best.

  5. Hi, just wanted to say thanks for writing this series! I got hold of Stanovich’s wonderful book only last week, and I planned to do a blog series on the chapters just like what you did here. However, the book wasn’t mine and I had to return it before I got to finish it (I want to get a copy of my own, though). I haven’t checked yet if you wrote about all the chapters, but this one’s a great start and I intend to read the rest of your posts on this. Thanks again! 🙂

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