“Psychology’s Starting Positions”

Here are the slides from my lecture from the other week to the Psychological Society at the National University of Ireland, Galway. It’s all about how psychologists — academics in the main — take up biased starting positions in processes of evaluation that are supposed to be objective. Generally speaking, much of academic psychology falls short of the standards typically sought by mainstream scientific scholarship.

In some ways psychology is a victim of its own success as a discipline: with students turning up in their thousands at university psychology departments, and an emotion-obsessed public only too ready to swallow whatever opinion-presented-as-fact their local psychogurus have to offer, it’s little surprise to see epistemological standards slide and mediocrity take over. By constrast, academic subject areas that have to sing for their supper are more accustomed to investing real effort in making their views cogent and convincing, and so are usually much more practiced at backing up their declarations with meaningful facts.

Much of what damages psychology is a type of appeal-to-common-sense thinking that risks straying into prejudice. For example, ideas like “psychotherapy is always preferable” or “interventions aimed at promoting productive outcomes do no harm” are regularly endorsed, either implicitly or explicitly, in academic psychology. While appearing to champion noble humanitarian principles, such philosophies actually seek — usually without much evidence — to undermine the credibility of alternative views simply by stigmatising them.

For example, the claim that “psychotherapy is always preferable” is little more than an attack on the view that pharmacotherapy is a perfectly legitimate and reasonable treatment for many, if not the majority, of cases. It stigmatises not only those health professionals who recommend pharmacotherapy, but also those clients who rely on it to live their lives.

(The same can be said of other common therapy claims: “complementary therapies are harmless” [i.e., it is wrong to criticise quackery]; “laughter is the best medicine” [i.e., if you don’t have a sense of humour, you’re weird]; “you shouldn’t bottle up your emotions” [i.e., if you don’t cry, there’s something wrong with you]; and “electroconvulsive therapy is inhumane” [i.e., both providers and recipients of ECT should be ashamed of themselves].)

The idea that “psychotherapy is always preferable” would be a good position to take if there was strong evidence to support it. However, the empirical evidence is very patchy. And one of the main reasons for this is that the research methodologies used to study the issue are often poorly equipped to test the question. Why? Well, in my view, it is because researchers so frequently adopt optimistic starting positions when it comes to psychotherapy that they don’t see the need to come up with strong research designs. Very rarely does a psychotherapy trial include a placebo condition based on a bogus form of the target therapy. And as for double-blinding, well…

Another way in which starting positions undermine psychology relates to the way psychology itself is conducted. Psychology is a research science that uses empirical data to resolve uncertainties in our understanding of human thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. It is a ‘science’ in every sense of the word. It is much more ‘scientific’ than many other fields that are regarded, uncontroversially, as sciences. And yet, psychology is often affected by the type of postmodernist turn that demands a kind of epistemological self-loathing.

Regularly, psychology students are forced to write essays with titles like “Is Psychology a Science?” I don’t think students of fields like meteorology or paleontology have to write essays called “Is Meteorology a Science?” or “Is Paleontology a Science?” even though, by conventional standards, they are much less ‘scientific’ than psychology. Hell, in terms of the ability to conduct experiments or to use generalisation to extrapolate from samples to populations, even astrophysics is less scientific than psychology.

Such guilt-laden Oedipism can lead to perverse feedback-loops. Take the claim that certain research methodologies are ‘gendered’. By claiming this, it is implied that some methodologies are more suited to one gender than to the other. This is itself a claim regarding subject matter in psychology — namely, the hypothesis that there exist gender differences in the pertinent cognitive attributes — and so is itself amenable to empirical scrutiny. Of course, the research shows us that men and women do not actually differ in the relevant cognitive attributes, and so research methodologies are not ‘gendered’ after all. Therefore, to claim that, say, quantitative (i.e., statistical) methods reflect a masculinist bias in science is little more sophisticated than declaring “Wow, girls suck at math.” And yet the idea that qualitative (i.e., non-quantitative) methods are particularly suited to women researchers is regularly offered from within psychology itself (e.g., here).

Here's where the idea of 'gendered' science can lead (Prepare to cringe)

Many areas of academic psychology are replete with off-the-cuff folk assumptions that are not in themselves based on empirical evidence (“social support is good“, “optimism is productive“, “depression is a problem that requires a solution“, “empowerment is noble“, “screening should be universally promoted“, “humans are logical“, “religion does no harm“, “once a study has returned a significant result, we don’t really need to replicate the finding“, etc.). All this raises the likelihood that audiences will either (a) come to assume that many of these subjective starting positions are in fact evidence-based or (b) come to the conclusion that psychology, as a discipline, is unconvincing.

Scientific and academic psychology has produced much that is profoundly good in the world today. Its methods have helped humanity dispense with arcane prejudices about the nature of morality, intelligence, and mental well-being. We have developed detailed understandings of the ways psychological factors impact upon decision-making, social cohesion, child development, and even physical health. Most of these contributions are derived from methodologically complex studies that employ ruthless empirical rigour and sophisticated statistical techniques.

The human condition is certainly complicated for psychologists, not least by the fact that psychologists are themselves human.

But that is an argument for more scientific rigour, rather than less.

Thank you to the NUIG Psychological Society for celebrating the 2nd anniversary of The Science Bit with the following cake. This is not a joke. They’re just good people.


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