IS PSYCHOLOGY A SCIENCE? 80 SCIENTISTS SAY NO

                    Sigmund Koch was appointed by the American Psychological Association to plan and direct a study of the scientific status of psychology.  The study was subsidized by the National Science Foundation.  It brought together 80 scholars to assess the facts, theories and methods of psychology.  The results appear in six volumes, entitled Psychology:  A Study of a Science, (McGraw Hill, 1959).

    An article appeared in Psychology Today (September, 1969), ‘Psychology Cannot Be A Coherent Science’ written by Dr Koch and started with this searing indictment: 

    “The idolatry of science in our age has insured that this phony knowledge be taken seriously by people everywhere – even by sensitive, creative or sophisticated people.  Such ‘knowledge’, when assimilated, is no neutral addition to a person’s furniture of confusions.  It has an awesome capacity to bias the deepest attitudes of man toward Man, to polarize sensibility.”

    “My findings over the years suggest that while symptoms may vary, one syndrome is widely evident in modern scholarship.  I call it a meaningful thinking.  The prefix has the same force as the a in words like amoral.” 

    “A meaningful thought or inquiry regards knowledge as the result of ‘processing’ rather than discovery.  It presumes that knowledge is an almost automatic result of a gimmickry, an assembly line, a methodology.  It assumes that inquiring action is so rigidly and fully regulated by rule that in its conception of inquiry it often allows the rules totally to displace their human users.” 

    “Presuming as it does that knowledge is generated by processing, its conception of knowledge is fictionalistic, conventionalistic.  So strongly does it see knowledge under such aspects that at times it seems to suppose the object of inquiry to be an ungainly and annoying irrelevance.  Detail, structure, liquidity are obliterated.  Objects of knowledge become caricatures, if not faceless, and thus they lose reality.  The word, or any given part of it, is not felt fully or passionately, and is perceived as devoid of objective value.  In extreme forms, a meaningful thought becomes obsessive and magical.” 

    “Prior to the late 19th Century, there are no precedents in the history of ideas for creating great new fields of knowledge by edict.  Sciences won their way to independence by achieving enough knowledge to become sciences.  By the late 19th Century, these justly discriminated fields of science had given such food to man’s cognitive and material hungers as to make his appetite insatiable.  At the same time, inquiry into the nature and trend of science itself began to focus into an apparently wholesome Victorian vision:  that of a totally orderly universe, totally open to the methods of science, and a totally orderly science, totally open to the stratagems – and wants – of man.  It was against this background that psychology was stipulated into life.” 

    “At the time of its inception, psychology was unique in the extent to which its institutionalization preceded its content and its methods preceded its problem.  Never had thinkers been given so sharply specified an invitation to crate, or been so harried by social wish, cultural optimism, and extrinsic prescription into the advance scheduling of ways and means.” 

    “The 19th Century program for a science of psychology seems rational enough.  It asks man to entertain a high and wholly open hypothesis:  Can the methods of natural science be adapted to the backward studies of man and society:  to the analysis of man’s experiences, his actions, his artifacts, his values, his institutions, his history, his future?” 

    “No wonder that many inheritors of this awesome challenge have protected themselves from its ravages by reinterpreting the hypothesis as an a priori truth.  For close to a century now, many psychologists have seemed to suppose that the methods of natural science are totally specifiable and specified:  that the applicability of these methods to social and human events is not only an established fact but that no knowledge is worth taking seriously unless it is based on inquiries saturated with the iconology of science.  Thus, from the beginning, respectability held more glamour than insight, caution than curiosity, feasibility than fidelity.  The stipulation that psychology be adequate to science outweighed the commitment that it be adequate to man.” 

    “The 100-year course of ‘scientific’ psychology can now be seen to be a succession of changing doctrines about what to emulate in the natural sciences – especially physics. Each such strategic doctrine was entertained not as conditional upon its cognitive fruits but functioned rather as a security fetish bringing assurance to the psychologists, and hopefully the world, that he was a scientist. The broad role-playing paradigms regulating 19th Century experimental psychology, and the various phases of behaviorism, succeeded each other not by virtue of differential productivity, but rather because of the dawning recognition that significant problems and segments of subject matter were being evaded – or because of boredom with the old paradigm.” 

    “As we proceed through eras of ‘classical’ behaviorism, neo-behaviorism, deflated neo-behaviorism, ‘liberalized’ neo-behaviorism, ‘subjective’ neo-behaviorism, we see successive efforts to salvage an epistemological judgment that condemns an entire ‘science’ to evading, or, at best, mis-phrasing its subject matter in the interest of enforcing an apparent objectivity.  Those who would argue that the behaviorisms have nevertheless been richly productive of research should be reminded that research is not knowledge.” 

    “Consider the problem of ‘learning’, which was the central empirical area of all that effort.  Consider the hundreds of theoretical formulations, rational equations, mathematical models of the learning process that have accrued:  the thousands of research studies.  And consider that there is still no wide agreement on the empirical conditions under which learning takes place, or even on the definition of learning and its relations to other psychological processes or phenomena.  Consider also that after all this scientific effort our actual insight into the learning process – reflected in every humanly important context to which learning is relevant – has not improved one jot.” 

    “The idea that psychology – like the natural sciences on which it is modeled – is an accumulative or progressive discipline is simply not borne out by its history.  Indeed, the hard knowledge gained by one generation typically disenfranchises the theoretical fictions of the last.  Psychology’s larger generalizations are not specified and refined over time and effort.  They are merely replaced.  Throughout psychology’s history as ‘science’, the hard knowledge it has deposited has been uniformly negative.” 

    “A century and a quarter ago, John Stuart Mill argued that the backward state of the social sciences could be remedied only by applying to them the methods of physical science, ‘duly extended, and generalized’.  His strategy has now been applied in billions of man-hours of research, ardent theoretical thinking, scholarship, writing, planning and administration in hundreds of laboratories by thousands of investigators.  (There are over 25,000 members of the American Psychological Association alone).  It has generated a vast literature and attracted generous support.  Federal sources alone provided $328 million for ‘social science’ research in 1967.” 

    “The test of the Millian hypothesis has not been a sleazy one.  In my estimation, the hypothesis has been fulsomely disconfirmed.  I think it by this time utterly and finally clear that psychology cannot be a coherent science, or indeed a coherent field of scholarship, in any specifiable sense of coherence that can bear upon a field of inquiry.  It can certainly not expect to become theoretically coherent.” 

    A lengthier article by Dr. Koch along the same lines, ‘The Nature and Limits of Psychological Knowledge’ was originally his presidential address to the Divisions of General Psychology and Philosophical Psychology at the meeting of the American Psychological Association in New York, September 3, 1979.  Dr. Koch was honored in the May, 2001 issue of  The American Psychologist. 

    David Rappaport (1959) was most knowledgeable in the methods and theories regnant in psychiatry and psychology.  He was asked by Sigmund Koch to participate in the study of psychology as a reputed science along with 80 other scholars and scientists.  The essence of Koch’s conclusions are contained in the paper preceding this.  Here are the last few pages of Rappaport’s observations: 

     “Now, the obstacles to theoretical progress in psychology:  the “scientific method”, the addiction to a single method (or limited set of methods), and the measuring rage stand out.” 

     “Theory making, i.e., theoretical progress, begins in familiarity with phenomena and in thinking about them (or about the theories pertaining to them).  It continues in hunches and speculations, some of which are amenable to empirical test; others, which spin relations between concepts and theories, or restructure and systematize them, are not and need not be, though they may well lead to conclusions which again can and must be subjected to empirical test.” 

     “The “scientific method” is the canon by which that record is made which we call science the codified, interconnected body of accepted knowledge.  But it is not the canon for making discoveries, nor the canon for making theories.  Nor is the canon, by which the scientific record is made, unique and static:  it changes with the change in the methods, subject matter, and aims of research.  Dingle, the British historian of science, had harsher words about the “scientific method”, or “methodology” as it is often called now”:

            …a discipline conducted for the most part by logicians unacquainted with the practice of science, and it consists mainly of a set of principles by which accepted conclusions can best be reached by those who already know them.  When we compare these principles with the steps by which the discoveries were actually made we find scarcely a single instance in which there is the slightest resemblance.  If experience is to be any guide to us at all – and what scientist can think otherwise – we must conclude that there is only one scientific method:  produce a genius and let him do what he likes…the best we can do is to learn to spot natural genius…and protect it, by fiery dragons if need be, from the god of planning.” [46, pp. 38-39].           

    “Beveridge [24] described scientific investigation as an art.  Theory making may be described as a work of imagination; the “scientific method” comes into play only in testing the theory and in making the record.  But even there, however much the scientific method can help to design economic and valid tests, the essential ingredient is still the ingenuity in inventing a method which connects the phenomena and the theory.” 

     “The stress on the “scientific method” becomes an obstacle to theoretical advance in several ways.  First, the stress on teaching the scientific method and the design of experiment diverts attention from training in observation.  Second, it discourages the budding investigator’s interest and trust in his own hunches and speculations.  Third, it makes the “scientific method” and the “design of experiment” appear as a sure-fire way to produce “research findings”.  The findings thus produced clutter our literature and crowd out the interest in methods of experimenting and observing.  Fourth, it leads to a publication policy (and, through it, to a training by precept) such that the publications conform to the “scientific method” and cover up the actual tracks of the investigator even when by chance his tracks would be worth knowing.  The publications read as though investigation consists of nothing but the application of the scientific method.  Thus to the novice, our (and what is more important, his own) actual disorderly ways of productive thinking appear as an inadequacy.  His self-observations, which show him that his thinking does not follow the “scientific method”, become the sources of a gnawing self-doubt, which in turn only too often leads to a sterilizing discipline of thought.  No wonder that in our literature few authors are surprised, few things are surprising, and a deadly boredom prevails, aided and abetted by what the given journal considers to be the form of scientific reporting.” 

     “The bane of the “single theory and single method” is in part synonymous with the plague called “schools of psychology”.  The investigator uses a method and becomes its captive.  So do his students.  He develops a theory which can only predict phenomena elicited by that method or a closely related one.  What is not amenable to study by those methods ceases to influence the theory.  In turn, all theories whose methods do not apply to the realm of phenomena in question are somehow considered “wrong”, and if they are tested at all, it is by methods alien to them, and so they are obviously found wrong.  Usually, however, they are ignored altogether.  As a result, certain methods become “canonized”, the study of a limited range of phenomena becomes the only “proper study of man”, and those who try to reunite the field of psychology, so fragmented by a few methods, are regarded as “philosophers” in the pejorative sense of the word.  To be a theorist becomes an opprobrium:  this is the particular form of anti-intellectualism which is endemic in present-day psychology.  No new methods (i.e., ways of experimenting, in contra-distinction to designs of experiment) are sought to break the splendid isolation of the self-encapsulated realms of phenomena thus created.  Methodological thinking, which deals with the relation of method and theory, and attempts to establish what is an artifact of the investigative method and what is “the nature of the beast”, remains mostly beyond the ken of the psychologist. 

   The “measuring rage”, already discussed, is particularly characteristic of the experimental work in clinical and personality psychology.  It expresses and fosters a disregard for theory, and is thus a major obstacle to theoretical advancement.  But it also distracts attention from the general problem of mathematization and the specific problem of dimensional quantification.  We may not be too far off the mark in suggesting that the malaise of psychology which is manifested in the “measuring rage” is the same as the one responsible for the epidemic-like popularity in psychology of “information theory”, “open systems”, “stress syndrome”, and other extra psychological achievements.  Conceptions and methods can be borrowed from other sciences:  all that is useful should be used.  But the epidemic of grasping at every likely new achievement of other sciences seems to be a symptomatic giveaway:  salvation is expected from the outside and not from results achieved by the sweat of our own brows.  At the root of it is a lack of self-confidence:  the lack of assurance that psychology knows where it has come from and where it is going.” (pp. 165-7) 

    Allport (1968) concluded his evaluation of ‘six decades of social psychology’ with, among other observations, this reference to E. B. Holt’s expressed sentiments: 

   “Toward the end of his career E. B. Holt was mightily fed up with the pretensions of academic social psychology.  He warned the student against it, saying that the student will find any textbook “a farrago of vague, pedantic, and utterly useless abstractions.”  He goes on to say, “The mental blindness of nearly every academic social psychologist for any observable fact of human nature is so unfailing and complete as almost to compel admiration.”  (p. 39)

 

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