John H. Bryant – Lone Star College, Conroe, TX
“Is it time yet?” “Are we there yet?”
No, these are not questions of children eagerly waiting to leave on vacation or arrive at a valued destination. These are the questions for those who are wondering if we’ve spent enough time, effort, and money with pre-scientific jargon, agency, myth, and cha-cha to refocus on worn pseudo-science approaches.
So, “Is it time yet?”
When it comes to the mixed bag of psychology approaches, our current practices evolved more from philosophy and theology rather than chemistry and physics. Academic psychology (re: the study of behavior and mental processes) is not in isolation when it comes problems raised here, similar arguments hold for most of the social science disciplines. Yet if psychology is to be better understood and useful, more has to be done to communicate what is scientific about psychology rather than folk lore.
Now, according to some, psychology as a discipline has a “replication crisis” (The New York Times and elsewhere) that must be dealt with for the salvation of us all.
Perhaps it is time to examine some factors that make for a “replication crisis”. It’s likely that what sounds alarming is part of a continual reassessment that takes place regularly in sciences. However, now outside sources are asking for an accounting of why replications are so difficult in psychology.
There once was a time when things were based on dogma rather than data. When data came to be preferred over opinion and dogma, some thought that psychology would go in that direction. But, as it turns out, that position was a bit optimistic.
Some of the required changes to psychology’s approaches including math, chemistry, and cross-platform information methods that mirror established scientific approaches haven’t found much traction. And, rather than get immersed in more scientific pursuits, psychology’s focus remained non-science oriented contexts and continued to depend on private narratives, mental models and ‘thought experiments’ from non-scientific pursuits that were the genesis of much of psychology.
George E. P. Box
“Since all models are wrong, the scientist cannot obtain a “correct” model by excessive elaboration. On the contrary, following William of Occam, he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist, so over-elaboration and over-parameterization is often the mark of mediocrity.”
• Science and Statistics (1976) p. 792
Three major issues are relevant to the large historical comfort zone that promoted speculation, storytelling, and philosophizing not readily amenable to the disciplines of science.
Rather than measure behavior at all levels (social to biochemistry, for example) to discover what was going on in contextual sets, psychologists continued to continue to hypothesize an array of internal entities which cause behavior. Collectively, these are called “agency” and make up, self, personality, possession, mind, needs, drives, motives, and so on. Because each agent eventually fell short of the requirements to explain behavior, the notion of agency required additional theories and hypothesized more intervening variables, hypothetical constructs and new sets of agents. These processes came to create subfields within psychology which frequently submerged the original question that started the conversation of why organisms do what they do.
Reification generally refers to making something real, bringing something into being, or making something concrete when it is a concept or idea. Concepts and agency terms filled a void over the ignorance about behavior. Thus, if the populace repeatedly used a concept to explain or describe behavior, right or wrong, the concept frequently morphed into subsequent communication at the level of reification.
Psychologists came to lead the way in doing what scientific disciplines (mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and genetics) discontinued doing a century ago; using inference to assign causes. The evolution of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has provided a mushrooming array of mentalism geography, and agile agent gymnastics in internal workings of Homo sapiens in an effort to assign, align, and categorize “casual” attributes of behavior. As the size and scope of the DMS has grown, one might conclude that everyone has a ‘mental’ disorder. While this helps maintain a level of path dependency within psychology to its past, lack of correspondence just as often conflates any utility those terms, metaphors, and simalies provide.
Doing science is hard, agnostic, and unapologetic. As disciplines, social sciences treat information from the different scales (below) as if they were all the same. They are not. For some, technology has offered opportunity to empirically measure more and assess the results more accurately rather than assign labels arbitrarily. With methods based on science rather than received wisdom from anthologies and vignettes, it can be argued that psychology could move in a more scientific direction. Changes don’t come easy. Changes in the direction toward a scientific understanding for psychology won’t come easy as long as nominal labeling and ordinal counting grows faster than the experimental work required can yield reliable results. A “good story” with pseudo-scientific terms will win almost every time. Creating a larger lexicon of untestable hypothesis and jargon in the absence of solutions has had a good run.
“Are we there yet?”
There have been a few excursions to move toward empirical assessments and away from naming conventions in psychology, yet teleological and ontological explanations and “extrapolation beyond the data” remain as the currency of much of psychology and its proliferation of subfields.
These are substantial issues. Changes are processional. Some will take the challenge and entertain changes. Others will not. Each will have to show value if it is to reach the formal analysis that typically accompanies a ‘scientific’ endeavor. Each option includes steps that must be added to the discipline if embracing the standards of science is their objective. An equally daunting set of steps must be expunged from current practices if scientific research produced is to be reproducible, reliable, and relevant to the substantial number of issues that psychology is framed to address
For psychology and similar disciplines, every time the going gets tough requiring genetics, mathematics, neurochemistry, and the knowledge of the methods those disciplines use, psychology and the other social sciences crawl back to philosophical narratives and mental gymnastics.
It may appear to show understanding when someone posits that such and such are the ‘causes’ of such and such. However, when the “causes” are encased in made-up abstractions, non-observable internal body states, inside the neuron, inside the chemistry, etc., (you get the idea) the scaffolding of abstraction grow out of control rapidly. It all is really not ‘understanding’ or ‘explanation’. It is dogma.
Psychology has taken these strategies of the untestable to explain the unobservable as its very domain of expertise. Such talk, writings, lectures, that cannot be tested, monitored or independently verified come in as welcome guests but never leave. They have no anchors to anything and thusly the value of the information morphs when the data is interpreted with empirical tools. It’s easy, especially when whatever modulates the dependent variables is unknown to the lecturer, writer, observer or psychobiologist.
Only when the methods used in psychology begins to depend more on measurable content rather than pre-scientific or hypothetical concepts, agency, or reification, they will find greater amounts of correspondence with what is actually happening in nature. Of course, that isn’t the entire solution, but will have benefited their disciplines on the way to understanding current problems on the way to solutions as well as foundations for more complex behavioral properties like emergence, convergence.
There are no shortcuts. As a discipline, psychology can’t wear the science badge if it doesn’t self-correct when there is no link between what is hypothesized and what is actually going on in the world. Making conjectures without testable options is still philosophy.
“A new scientific ‘truth’ does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Max Planck, a Nobel laureate physicist
Yes, it is time consuming and a very inefficient set of contingencies. Yet, as long as those who are doing “psychological” research mix hypothetical internal agencies with hypothetical attributes and then interpret mixtures of data from different scales as equal, there will be a systemic lack of replication, accuracy and relevance to what psychology has to offer.
So now the initial questions remain to be answered: “Is it time yet?” “Are we there yet?”