WJEC Psychology PY4 - Controversies - The Status of Psychology as a Science

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  • Created by: Alice
  • Created on: 04-05-13 14:48


Psychology is often described as 'the science of behaviour and experience', which straightaway defines psychology clearly as a science. This, however, is only a claim. There is an argument about whether the technicalities of science allow psychology to qualify, as it were, hence why the issue is a controversy at all.

What is 'science'?

  • Science is defined as 'a branch of knowledge conducted on objective principles involving the systematised observation of and experiment with phenonmena'.
  • Basically, this means that science aims to gain knowledge about the world around us by being objective and systematic, while also trying to find general laws that allow us to predict and even control the world around us. (e.g. allowing us to build dams, create vaccines, etc.)
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Arguments For Psychology as a Science

Scientific Research is Desirable.

  • Early psychologists aimed for a science of psychology to verify the claims they made.
  • The origins of such developments can be traced back to Wundt, a German psychologist, who set up the very first psychology lab in 1879. He used it to study mental processes systematically using introspection. He trained psychology students to make objective observations of their thought processes, and used the results to develop a theory of conscious thought.
  • Some psychologists, however, disagreed with the theories of introspection. Watson (1913) recognised that the work of Pavlov could be used to create an objective, and therefore scientific, psychology called behaviourism.
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Arguments For Psychology as a Science

Psychology shares the goals of all science.

  • Psychology uses the scientific method of research, and therefore shares the goals of all science. Psychologists aim to generate models that are falsifiable, and are the result of well-controlled experiments.
  • However, Miller (1983) suggested that if psychologists choose to use the scientific method of research, then they are doing no more than simply 'dressing up' their findings with useless statistics and quantified analysis.
  • Psychology may be, at best, a pseudoscience, but a dangerous one; if psychologists claim their findings to be fact, despite them actually being so, they will be believed regardless. For example, one psychologist found a correlation between the MMR vaccine and development of autism and aspergers syndrome, which caused parents to believe that it was best for their children to not receive the vaccine, thus putting the health of their children, and others, in serious danger.
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Arguments For Psychology as a Science

At least some 'levels' of psychology are scientific

  • The concept of 'levels' of psychology comes from reductionism (complex phenomena being reduced to simpler levels of explanation).
  • The 'lower' levels of psychology are scientific, and include genetic and behaviourist explanations ('hard' science).
  • The 'higher' levels of psychology are more complex, and thus arguably less scientific. They include social and psychological explanations, and are a generally more holistic approach to understanding human behaviour ('soft' science).
  • However, if only lower levels of explanation are considered, then an incomplete picture of behaviour may be represented, with some vital details missing. For example, hyperactivity could be seen as purely a biological issue and treated with drugs only.
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Arguments Against Psychology as a Science

Psychology has no paradigm

  • Kuhn (1962) claimed that psychology could not be a science because there is no single paradigm (i.e. a shared set of general assumptions). Psychology, unlike the other sciences, has a number of paradigms, each with a number of their own assumptions (e.g. psychodynamic, behaviourist, cognitive, etc.). Therefore, it is said that psychology is a 'pre-science'.
  • This is an issue because it may lead to psychologists to falsely claim that their findings are fact.
  • However, it may simply be that psychology has no unified paradigm because it is a much 'younger' science that the others, it is still a 'pre-science'. This status doesn't mean that the scientific method isn't used in some areas, though.
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Arguments Against Psychology as a Science

Psychology lacks objectivity and control

  • Some psychologists claim that human behaviour can be measured as objectively as the measurement of physical objects, but this is controversial. In psychology, the thing being researched is able to react to the researcher, which may lead to issues concerning validity if demand characteristics and experimenter bias become issues.
  • However, validity problems are still a risk with the 'hard' sciences. Heisenberg (1927) said it is impossible to even measure a subatomic particle without altering it's behaviour somewhat during the measurement. This uncertainty principle is a type of experimenter effect in that the presence of the experimenter changes the behaviour of the observed phenomena, even in physics.
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Arguments Against Psychology as a Science

Are the goals of science appropriate for psychology?

  • Some psychologists don't see the value of using scientific methods for gaining insights into behaviour. For example, Laing (1965) said that 'scientific' explanations for schizophrenia (chemical systems 'gone wrong') missed important elements of the disorder, such as the distress of the patient. Laing also said that the aim of the scientific approach to research is to make generalisable claims (a nomothetic approach) about behaviour, whereas he felt that treatments could only succeed if each patient was treated as an individual case (an idiographic approach), thus suggesting that the scientific method may not be 100% relevant to all psychological research.
  • Looking at the results of research may help to determine whether science is suitable to psychology. For example, scientific approaches to treating mental illnesses, such as using psychoactive drugs, have had only modest success, which suggests that the goals of science may not be entirely appropriate.
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Writing the essay

When writing an essay on evaluating the status of psychology as a science, try to include around 500 words of description, and 300 words of evalution. Remember that it is not about trying to come to a conclusion as such, but more just a general discussion about the controversy as a whole. It is impossible to come to a definite conclusion as this argument is still thriving in the world of psychology. Include as many examples to help explain your points as you can (use studies from your AS modules!), and try to ensure that you include all the keywords and detail that you can.

I hope these cards helped aid your revision. Good luck! x

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