Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sham Psychology or Scientific Psychology

by Jamie Hale

The news media, television shows, movies, and the internet are saturated with psychological topics- mental illness, brain imaging, forensic psychology, psychics, recovered memories, polygraph testing, parenting, heinous crimes, psychotherapy, intelligence tests, child sexual abuse, hypnosis and so on (Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio & Beyerstein, 2010). Bookstores generally have hundreds of books on psychology. Self-help and motivational books, which are generally stocked in the psychology department, are often best sellers. These books often provide information that contradicts scientific evidence. Other best sellers associated with psychology include books on ESP and other psychic abilities, even though psychology has probably done more than any other field to refute psychic claims. Psychology’s association with the self-help industry, the supernatural, and a variety of other nonscientific claims have lead some people to believe psychology is not a science.

Before determining whether psychology is a science, it is important to understand the central tenets of science and psychology. After acquiring a basic understanding of science and its methods you will be able to determine psychology’s scientific status.

What is Science?

Science is a specific way of analyzing information with the goal of testing claims. Keith Stanovich (How to Think Straight About Psychology, p.9) says, “Science is … a way of thinking about and observing the universe that leads to a deep understanding of its workings.” Contrary to popular belief, science is not about a specific subject matter, but is applicable to various aspects of the observable universe. Science is not defined by test tubes, electronic equipment, or the researcher’s white lab coat (Stanovich, 2007). Claims that are considered scientific must meet the falsifiability criterion; that is, they must be stated in a way that their predictions can be tested and potentially falsified.

What sets science apart from other modes of knowledge acquisition is the use of what is commonly known as the scientific method. Giving a precise definition of the scientific method is difficult as there is little consensus in the scientific community as to what that definition is. Although the scientific community has been slow to agree upon a clear definition, the scientific method is rooted in observation, experimentation, and knowledge acquisition through a process of objective reasoning and logic (Hale, 2009). If you asked a panel of scientists to define the scientific method you would receive a large array of answers. This is what Michael Shermer had to say about the scientific method (Why People Believe Weird Things 1997, p. 19). “A sizeable literature exists on the scientific method, but there is little consensus among authors. This does not mean that scientists do not know what they are doing. Doing and explaining may be two different things. However, scientists agree that the following elements are involved in thinking scientifically:

Induction: Forming a hypothesis by drawing general conclusions from existing data.

Deduction: Making specific predictions based on hypotheses.

Observation: Gathering data, driven by hypotheses that tell us what to look in nature.

Verification: Testing the predictions against further observations to confirm or falsify the initial hypotheses.”

When using the scientific method one of the primary goals is objectivity. Proper use of the scientific method leads us to rationalism (basing conclusion on intellect, logic and evidence). Relying on science also helps us avoid dogmatism (adherence to doctrine over rational and enlightened inquiry, or basing conclusion on authority rather than evidence).

Scientific Theory

In science the word theory is used differently than it is in everyday language (Johnson, 2000). To a scientist, the word theory represents that of which he or she is most certain; a hypothesis or set of hypotheses that has been proven successful time and time again (Shermer, 2002). Scientific theories are provisional. The provisional nature of science is one of its most important and distinctive characteristics. The willingness to modify theories promotes scientific progress.

In everyday language the word theory implies a guess (not sure). This often causes confusion for those unfamiliar with science. This confusion leads to the common statement “It’s only a theory.”

What is Psychology?

Webster’s New World Dictionary (2003, p.520) gives two definitions for psychology:
“1. the science dealing with the mind and with mental and emotional processes. 2- the science of animal and human behavior.” L, Sdorow (Psychology 1990, Glossary G-11) defines psychology as “the science of behavior and mental processes”. Another commonly cited definition of psychology is the science of human behavior. Even though definitions vary, most people in the psychology field will probably agree that psychology involves the study of behavior and to a degree the cognitive processes that influence behavior and thinking. Modern psychology is composed of an enormously diverse set of investigations (Stanovich, 2007), which has led to many branches within the discipline.

Within the different branches come different areas of research and study. Some of these branches are rooted in science while others are not. For example, Freudian psychoanalysis does not meet the criteria to be called science, while cognitive psychology and experimental psychology are scientific endeavors. When determining whether a specific branch is scientific it is generally more important to address the methods used than the research topic.

Psychology’s Superstar

When most people think of psychology they think about Sigmund Freud. “The notoriety of Freud has greatly affected the general public’s conceptions about the field of psychology and has contributed to many misunderstandings”, says Keith Stanovich (How to Think Straight About Psychology 2007, p.1). Sigmund Freud, Austrian physician and physiologist, is the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud believed human beings were primarily motivated by unconscious, and often sexual motives (Sdorow 1990). In addition he believed that early childhood experiences were the main factors in the development of personality. A 1981 survey of chairpersons of graduate psychology found that the respondents considered Freud the most influential figure in the history of psychology (Davis, Thomas, & Weaver, 1982). Times have changed. According to Keith Stanovich (How to Think Straight About Psychology 2007, p.1), “[I]f all the members of the American Psychological Association (APA) who were concerned with Freudian psychoanalysis were collected, they would make up less the 10 percent of the membership. In another major psychological association, the Association for Psychological Science, they would make up considerably less than 5 percent.”

Modern psychology pays little attention to the ideas of Freud. Freud’s methods of data collection are different than those used by modern psychologists. Freud based his theories on case studies, not controlled experimentation. His theories lack scientific support and rely on a database of unreliable, unreplicable behavioral relationships (Stanovich, 2007). Psychology is not synonymous with Freud.

Media Psychology and Hearsay

In addition to the Freud problem the media’s promotion of psychology has distorted the layperson’s image of the field. A common misconception is that psychology deals only with mental illness and therapy. When I was attending college, as a psychology major, my family and friends often asked what type of mental facility I planned on working in when I graduated college. Contrary to popular belief, psychology encompasses more than the study of mental illness; not all psychologists are shrinks or therapists.

Psychologists featured on radio and television shows often offer common-sense advice about personal problems. These types of programs contribute to the idea that psychology is only concerned with personal problems and that psychology is merely common sense. Both of these assumptions are incorrect. To reiterate, psychology investigates a wide variety of topics not only mental disorders and personal problems. Furthermore, psychological science is not synonymous with common sense (Flagel & Gendreau, 2008; Cacioppo, 2004). Common sense is often common nonsense. To illustrate the point consider the common-sense idea that children who read a lot or excel academically are socially or physically under developed (Stanovich, 2007). This idea is often perpetuated by society, although contradictory to scientific evidence (Gage & Berliner, 1984, pp.18-19; Zill & Winglee, 1990). The idea of common sense is a fallacy found in various fields, not only psychology.

Bookstores often place paranormal books in the psychology department. This leads the layperson to believe psychologists’ agree with the reality of paranormal claims (e.g. telepathy, remote viewing, psychic surgery, psychokineis etc.). In reality, psychologists’ second only to professional magicians “have clearly done the most to expose the fraudlent nature of most purported demonstrations of paranormal abilities” (Stanovich 2007, p.186).

Shelving the self-help literature in the psychology section has furthered blurred the general perception of psychology. The quality and diversity of the self-help literature is enormous, containing good and bad information. Even if the book contains accurate information, will reading it have a positive impact on people’s lives? Will their lives get better (PSYBLOG, 2010)?

Most of the self-help literature found in bookstores provides advice on eating disorders, relationship mal-functions, sexual disorders and so on. This leaves an impression that psychologists only deal with abnormal behaviors (Stanovich, 2007). Another problem arises when psychology’s research methods are confused with those promoted by the self-help literature. The self-help database is derived from testimonials and case studies, while the database for scientific psychology is based on a rigorous scientific process. Bookstores or popular book publishers are rarely concerned with accurate representations of science, but more with book sales, which often means selling books that have little scientific value.

Modern Scientific Psychology

Psychologists often contribute to other fields of science yet receive no credit. Psychologists have made contributions to the fields of evolution, exercise science, biology, computer science, neuroscience, engineering, business, ethology, nutrition science, and so on. The involvement of psychologists in a variety of scientific endeavors is testament to psychology’s wide diversity. One of psychology’s top researchers, Daniel Kahneman, received the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics (Stanovich, 2007).

In a recent interview (www.knowledgesummit.net Thinking Straight About Modern Psychology), I asked Keith Stanovich- What branches of Psychology or rooted in science? Which ones are not? He said, “Virtually all areas of modern psychology are scientific, except for certain subsegments of clinical psychology and a good deal of clinical psychological practice.”


Is psychology a science or a sham? If you associate the entire field of psychology with media psychologists, self-help gurus, or anyone whom wears the title psychologist then you may be able to say psychology is not a science, however this would be a logical fallacy- Hasty over generalization. The fallacy of judging the entire industry based on a few bad apples happens in all scientific endeavors. What if you were to base the scientific status of exercise science on popular exercise literature or base the scientific validity of nutrition science on claims made supplement companies and popular diet plans? What if you were to base physiology’s scientific status on assertions made by physiologist Sigmund Freud? Modern psychology takes a scientific approach to knowledge acquisition. Psychologists whom gather data else wise should not be seen as representatives of modern psychology.


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Flagel, D.C. & Gendreau, P. (2008). Sense, common sense, and nonsense, Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35, 1354-1361.

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