In a previous entry, I discussed Sharon Begley’s Newsweek article titled “Ignoring the Evidence; Why do psychologists reject science?”  It nettled a perennial sore spot for me, which is the culture of Psychology and the role Psychology plays in the family of sciences. An issue I often wrestle with is the widely held disbelief in the merit of a psychological science. Some of this animosity is of course well earned. The annals of Psychology are replete with crackpot ideas, the infant crawl and first steps of ascendancy to legitimate science, and a number of discredited ideas remain endemic in both popular culture and myriad dark corners of the discipline.  Recently perusing the Psychology section of a local Borders’ bookstore, I was able to find several titles like “The Promise of Energy Psychology,” “The 33 Strategies of War,” and “The Seat of the Soul.” This is the public’s impression of Psychology.

(Side note: The Seat of the Soul is just one in a long line of self-help books from Gary Zukav extolling personal transformation by alignment of one’s eternal soul with one’s material body. I found this description of the book online: “Using his scientist's eye and philosopher's heart, Zukav shows how infusing the activities of life with reverence, compassion, and trust makes them come alive with meaning and purpose.” Nearly all of the biographies I found online conspicuously note that he is a graduate of Harvard University. That’s fine, except few disclose that his degree was in International Relations. His scientist’s eye? Just to make sure it was not some case of misplacement (perhaps these books really belonged in the New Age section but mistakenly mingled with Psychology), I searched Borders’ Psychology titles online. Sure enough, Seat of the Soul, Heart of the Soul, Mind of the Soul, Thoughts from the Seat of the Soul, Soul Stories, and Soul to Soul are all available by searching the General Psychology section.)

I have also collected my own fat purse of anecdotes over the years. As an undergraduate Psychology student, I often became perturbed by both the silent condemnation of my physical science friends and the lackadaisical (dare I say lazy) attitude of some Psychology peers. Later, as a Research Assistant in a psychophysiology lab at a different university (considered the best Psychology program at any public university in the country), I once overheard a potential undergraduate research assistant express his interest in Psychology (as opposed to a pre-med track) because he was not that interested in all the “science stuff.” I then quietly collected the pieces of my exploded head.

There exists an enormous gap between the current sophistication of the best experimental psychology research and popular understanding of the field. Great advances in the study of cognition and behavior have been made, including the integration of disparate domains of
inquiry like biology, chemistry, and physics. I think the closer Psychology comes to a science of the brain, the better it will fare. Indeed, the future of psychological science is most likely assimilation into the interdisciplinary field of Neuroscience (though for a slightly opposing and more nuanced view than my clumsy ontological reductionism, see Barrett’s elegant and insightful paper, “The Future of Psychology: Connecting Mind to Brain,” in the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science).

The difficult truth is, sometimes Psychology is a science and sometimes it is not a science (depending on the methodology employed). Psychology is possibly the most difficult science to practice as it seeks to unravel the most complex systems and in the process, must sift through an enormous amount “noise.” However, an absolute rejection of Psychology as a science is essentially an implicit acceptance of the profound failure of science to address something as deceptively mundane as human behavior (real phenomena in the material world). It’s an astonishing admission. And yet, I have never met anyone (including the “hardest” of scientists) not ready with an opinion about the nature of the behavior they observe in themselves or others.

I compare my relationship with Psychology to the relationship between siblings. There are often aspects about our siblings that can drive us crazy and provoke harsh criticism, but when others unfairly bully our siblings we are immediately compelled to rush to their defense. I suppose I am especially sensitive to common perceptions of Psychology given that my interests also include some socially awkward, yet otherwise scientifically legitimate, areas of inquiry like emotion, mindfulness, and empathy. However, I am often embarrassed by some like-minded practitioners’ lack of objectivity and eagerness to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid. It seems to me what is really
needed is a bit of tough love. The entire Psychology community (research scientists and practitioners alike) has some house cleaning to do. So, I would like to answer the question, “Why do some psychologists reject science?” with another question. “How do we, as a community of researchers, best communicate advances in psychological research to the public and more effectively criticize insidious, pseudoscientific entrepreneurs?”