Term Paper: Is Psychology a Science?

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The Science of Psychology

Various subjects have been studied scientifically since the 17th century. As science developed, it came to be considered as the only valid way to understand the world and its workings. However, trying to understand the world based only on science is also limiting. This is true because not all subjects can be studied scientifically. Psychology is one of the important subjects where the value of scientific study is limited. Certainly, it is still useful and provides valuable information. However, the nature of psychology makes it a difficult subject to study scientifically. The difficulties in studying psychology scientifically will now be considered in detail, with this used to show that psychology is not studied as a science. However, this is not presented as a flaw. Instead, it will be shown that it is valid and useful to study psychology using nonscientific methods.

One of the qualities of science is that suggested hypotheses are presented and then experiments are completed to find the evidence that will either support or disprove the theory. This is part of the scientific method. The scientific method is described as a series of steps that scientists use (Brown, LeMay, & Bursten 1994, p. 7). The first step is the collect information or data. The second step is to find patterns in the data. The next step is to develop and test hypotheses. The final step is to develop a theory from the tests and their results. One of the important parts of this process is related to the ability of scientists to isolate factors during the test process. For example, if a scientist wants to develop a theory on how heat affects a certain substance, the scientist can keep all aspects of the experiment the same except for the temperature. The observations and data are then indicators of the impact of heat. To take an example from psychology, a scientist might want to find out how a dog responds to stimuli. Psychologist Ivan Pavlov completing this experiment by placing a device in the dog's mouth that measured the output of its salivary glands. This was used as the measure of the dog's response to food. The dog was then classically conditioned by providing it with a stimuli and then providing a food reward shortly after. This resulted in the dog beginning to respond to the stimuli as if it was the food reward. Pavlov used the results to conclude that a conditioned response can be created by linking a neutral stimulus to a desired response (Pavlov 1927). This is an example of how a psychological experiment can be designed with all factors held constant except for the stimuli provided to the dog. However, one can also consider how much more complex the experiment would be if it involved people, rather than an animal. As soon as human beings are introduced as test subjects, it becomes almost impossible to hold all factors constant. This is partly due to the fact that people are aware of the experiment being completed. It is also due to the fact that people can respond in ways related to their emotions as well as their ability to think logically. The question this raises is how an experiment involving people can ever hold all factors constant so that the results can be considered as being due to one single factor. It is this that makes the scientific method difficult to apply in theory.

Another important quality of science is that it is based on observation. This means that whatever scientists are stating or concluding needs to be proven by some form of measurement or observation (Appiah 1989). The problem this creates is that much of psychology is based on data that cannot be observed. For example, Freud's theories are critical ones in psychology. They all have at their basis the idea that people are driven by their subconscious (Freud 1991). In considering Freud's theories, it must be noted that the subconscious he considers as driving people is not even something that people are consciously aware of. This means that the subconscious driving a person cannot be felt by the person driven by it and cannot be measured or observed by scientists. How then, can these factors ever be proven if they cannot be observed? The answer is that they cannot. However, this does not mean that Freud is not correct. This can be understood by considering something more obvious such as gravity. The law of gravity has been proven and is accepted scientifically. However, it is not possible to actually see the force of gravity. Instead, it is only possible to see the effect of gravity. If one drops an item, they can see gravity in action. It is these observations that allow scientists to conclude that gravity exists and is the force that makes the world act as it does. The same could be true of Freud's forces, with it possible that they are the forces that drive people. Importantly, one cannot actually observe the subconscious forces that Freud discusses. However, one can observe the effects of these forces in the way that people act and what they do. In this way, human behavior is the effect seen and the effect that can be used to prove the forces that are at work. The difficulty though relates to the fact that people are infinitely more complex than any object. People are impacted by a range of forces. They are impacted by their emotions, their rational thought, their own self-control, as well as their subconscious factors. This means that while Freud may be correct in his assumptions, it may never be possible to prove that he is right. In short, it may never be possible to give a full explanation as to why a person behaves in a certain way. It is even less likely that it will ever be possible for to determine why all people act the way they do.

The next important point that makes psychology less like a science than other areas of science is also related to human factors. The problem is that a large portion of the kind of data used in psychological experiments is internal data. This means that it is an internal response that a person has and not something that can be observed externally (Seamon & Kenrick 1994). For example, a study might consider how people respond to a stressful situation and compare people who become angry with people who remain in control. How does the study determine which people are angry? This could be by observation, but observation is not always a valid indicator of how a person feels. The observation could also be impacted by how the observer feels about each subject. It could also be done by asking people how they feel. However, people may not be telling the truth. In another example, a personality study may be completed to find out whether certain people share certain characteristics. How does the study determine the personalities of the subjects? It could do so by a survey, but would the people be answering questions based on their real personalities or based on how they want to be seen? These two examples show just some of the issues that make measuring internal data difficult. In turn, these difficulties make psychology a subject that is studied less scientifically than other science subjects.

It must be noted though that there are some approaches to psychology that are based on scientific study. The main one is behaviorism, which is an approach based on observing people's behavior. This approach was developed at the start of the twentieth century as a way of making the study of psychology more scientific (Seamon & Kenrick 1994). It rejected the methods of studying psychology that used introspective data and focused only on observable behavior. While this approach has continued to be used and has had considerable impact on psychology, it did not replace other methods completely. The main reason is that it is only able to be used to prove what people are doing and is not able to prove why they are doing it. In this way, it is a study of effect rather than cause. As psychologists wants to go beyond understanding what is happening and wants to understand why, approaches that are less scientific have continued to be the most important to the study of psychology.

The final issue that is worth considering is whether it matters that the study of psychology is not a science. The simple answer is that it does not matter. The second answer is that it may actually be appropriate that psychology is not studied as a science. The reason for this is that people may not be able to be understood in scientific ways. After all, a person's actions, thoughts, emotions, personality, and behaviors all may not be created based on purely scientific factors. What makes an object fall when it is dropped or what makes a chemical react… [END OF PREVIEW]

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