"Skinner did not reject internal representations or mental processes as many have suggested. Rather, he simply assumed them to be inaccessible and not the proper object of study for a scientific psychology." (Uttal, 2003)
The Psi Chi Constitution states explicitly that one purpose of the organization is to advance the science of psychology. Yet, at a recent meeting of the APA Board of Scientific Affairs, I observed some expressed sensitivities that suggested some things about psychology are not as scientific as others. In addition, at the first annual APA Science Leadership Conference in Washington, DC (December, 2005), one speaker asserted that psychology should adopt the position that it is a behavioral science and that it should stop calling itself a psychological science. Interest-ingly, at just about that same time, the American Psychological Society (APS) changed its official name to the Association for Psychological Science. So, it appears that the splits that have characterized the history of psychology (Kimble, 1984, 1996) are alive and well. In fact, it may very well be that psychology is marked by system-justifying ideologies wherein certain professionals defend and justify one brand or another of psychology.
In 2003, William R. Uttal published a book entitled Psychomythics: Sources of Artifacts and Misconceptions in Scientific Psychology.
The book represents a critique of psychology's attempts to unravel the nature of human mentation. Uttal believes that the ways that psychologists do things can promote mistakes, incorrect ideas, incorrect concepts, and incorrect theories that "become entrenched in psychological thinking" (p. ix ). He calls these erroneous beliefs about the nature of the mind psychomyths.
Uttal (2003) writes that some psychologists are enamored with fallacious assumptions tied to beliefs about mind-brain relationships. He addresses the issue of metaphors being adopted and treated as if they were facts. For instance, if one uses the terms "information processing" or "cognitive complexity," one can come to believe that science really knows what these words actually refer to in terms of some equally mysterious neural substrate. Uttal (2003) warns that such transformational language leads to explanatory fiction.
Uttal (2003) makes the point that he believes "that scientific psychology is arguably the most important science of all" (p. 177). Yet, he sees psychology as a field that is often recalcitrant with respect to scientific rigor. He points out that he has reached a point in his career where he does not have to fear being both an iconoclast and a gadfly. Uttal's (2003) goal is to "filter out" of psychology "the mythical, the untenable, and the unsupportable, as well as, to identify those conundrums that are not likely, for practical or theoretical reasons, ever to be answered" (p. 178).
Uttal (2003) summarizes the forces that he sees as contributing to the creation of psychomyths.
Here is a cursory list of the factors that Uttal sees as problems.
- A priori assumptions or prevailing theories can bias the variables and/or the variable parameters that researchers choose to study.
- A focus on things that have extremely limited, if any, accessibility is a situation replete with ambiguity and prime for explanatory fiction.
- Psychology should avoid adopting principles and criteria that might work well for say the field of physics, but are not suitable for psychology.
- Physicists seem to know their limitations, psychologists generally do not.
- Psychologists do not attend sufficiently to the Heisenberg principle that experimenter intervention changes things with a resultant basic indeterminancy of measurements.
- No matter how careful one is, there are fundamental limits to what psychological research can reveal about mind-brain relationships.
- Experimental designs can produce misleading results.
- A strong bent for "fame" or money can bias a researcher's criteria used to declare "progress."
- Theological doctrine can conflict with scientific objectivity.
- Too many so-called psychological entities "are more manifestations of the operations involved in an experimental protocol than valid psychoneural realities" (p. 183 ).
- There is a fundamental overestimation of the power of mathematics to reveal the actual underlying mechanisms of cognitive or other internal processes.
- Psychology has largely become the science of small problems that are of interest to relatively few people. And, statistically, 1 of every 20 published reports in psychology could be spurious based solely on the significance criteria used to reach conclusions.
- Contentious dichotomies like nature versus nurture, and so forth, often overshadow more reasonable compromise positions.
Uttal (2003) believes that speculations about inaccessible variables have "little more credibility than those of some nonscientific enterprises" (p. 186). Scott O. Lilienfeld, who will be the Psi Chi/ Frederick Howell Lewis Distinguished Speaker at the 2006 APA Annual Convention, also addresses the issue of pseudoscience and the importance of distinguishing science from fiction (Lilienfeld, 2005a, 2005b; Lilienfeld, Lynn, & Lohr, 2003). Erroneous beliefs must be recognized and removed from work in the field of psychology if one seeks to advance psychology as a science.
In 1996, a conference entitled "The Science of Self-Report: Implications for Research & Practice" was held at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. That conference resulted in an edited volume of the proceedings (Stone, Turkkan, Bachrach, Jobe, Kurtzman, & Cain, 2000). This work brought together professionals to talk about developing ways to improve the accuracy of self-reports. The dialogues underscored the fact that a healthy skepticism about self-report accuracy is needed. More recently, Blanton and Jaccard (2006) write about the "Arbitrary Metrics in Psychology" and how applied psychologists pay "scant attention" to the metrics of measurement. The January 2006 issue of the American Psychologist
has five articles about the meaningful interpretation of scores used to make inferences.
Sternberg (2005) talks about psychology becoming more and more specialized and more and more fragmented. He personally aspires to see there be a unified psychology. But, the effort requires the acknowledgement of differences and rising above them. In this context, Sternberg (2005) does not see contemporary psychology as moving fast towards building a more coherent science. Uttal (2003) states that psychologists have not honored the parsimony criterion. This is a key source of division in the field. Uttal (2003) writes that "constructs are endlessly created and each experimental outcome seemingly leads to a new theory or a reification of a new cognitive entity rather than convergence onto a unified, if not universal, understanding of the problems of cognition and behavior ... Anti-parsimonious proliferation rather than simplification has been the archetypical characteristic of all-too-much of modern psychological theorizing" (pp. 158-159).
The writings of William Uttal are not always easy to read. Yet, his words are important to try to understand if you are concerned that psychology is moving away from being a "hard" science to become something less. The aim of this President's Message is to remind members of the Society that Psi Chi is supposed to be dedicated to the advancement of psychology as a science. The job of advancing science requires scientists and students of science to know when they are "moving across the line" from measurement to inference. The job of advancing science requires resisting the fabrication of entities for the sake of so-called theorizing. It is too easy to become a science fiction writer if fabrication regularly exceeds observation in the work that we do.Note:
Dr. Youth would appreciate your contacting him with your views about Psi Chi's mission to advance the science of psychology. Contact: email@example.comReferences
Blanton, H., & Jaccard, J. (2006). Arbitrary metrics in psychology. American Psychologist, 61,
Kimble, G. A. (1984). Psychology's two cultures. American Psychologist, 39,
Kimble, G. A. (1996). Psychology: The hope of a science.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lilienfeld, S. O. (2005a). The 10 commandments of helping students distinguish science from pseudoscience in psychology. APS Observer, 18,
Lilienfeld, S. O. (2005b). Challenging mind myths in introductory psychology courses. Psychology Teacher Network (PTN), 15,
1, 4, 6.
Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., & Lohr, J. M. (2003). Science and pseudoscience in clinical psychology.
New York: Guilford.
Sternberg, R. J. (Ed.). ( 2005). Unity in psychology: Possibility or pipedream?
Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Stone, A. A., Turkkan, J. S., Bachrach, C. A., Jobe, J. B., Kurtzman, H. S., & Cain, V. S. (Eds.). (2000). The science of self-report: Implications for research and practice.
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, Inc.
Uttal, W. R. (2003). Psychomythics: Sources of artifacts and misconceptions in scientific psychology.
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, Inc.
Spring 2006 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 4, 13), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 2006, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.