There is currently much talk about the ‘crisis’ in psychology, arising from the growing realisation that many psychological findings, published in scientific journals, are unreplicable. This bout of self-criticism by psychology is a good thing, and is already leading to better practice. However, those with a philosophical perspective on psychology will find more of interest in the present crisis than a failure of replication to which there are technical solutions.
The present crisis calls into question the very idea of scientific psychology. Some would say that the present crisis is one that should always have been expected, and that psychology has been naïve about the ways in which it is a science.
The concept of science is itself problematic, and the first point to make is that there are a series of sciences(plural) which have things in common, but which also differ significantly from each other. The concept of science as a standard, monolithic enterprise that could be applied in the same way to many different subject matters, was always suspect. There are ways in which psychology is a science, but it cannot be the same kind of science as biochemistry, or cosmology, or earth science.
To press the point further, different areas of psychology are not sciences in the same sense. The psychology of vision and hearing is scientific in a different way from social psychology. The key point here is that psychology has to grapple with massive individual and cultural variation in a way that other, more exact sciences do not. Physicists do not have to worry about individual differences between atoms in the way as psychologists have to worry about differences between people.
When psychologists study vision and hearing they have a chance of finding near-universal laws that apply to almost everyone, apart from a minority who have identifiable peculiarities in their vision and hearing. However, when it comes to many other areas of psychology, including personality and social psychology, there is no chance of finding universal psychological laws that apply regardless of individual and cultural variation. To imagine otherwise is hopelessly naïve. In as far as psychology has been guilty of such naivete, it is now realising the error of its ways.
Interpretation and Emotion
There is a related point about interpretation. Some areas of psychology are interpretive or hermeneutical sciences to a more radical extent than others. The interpretation of data is always a significant issue, and the extent to which that is the case is sometimes underestimated in what appear to be the ‘harder’ areas of psychology. However, when it comes to areas of psychology, such as emotion, the problems surrounding interpretation are much more serious.
As anthropologists have found, it takes considerable emotion in an unfamiliar culture to understand what emotions are occurring. Similarly, in studying mental health, it takes immersion in an unfamiliar culture to recognise whether particular patterns of thinking or behaviour are abnormal, or not.
I am not arguing that the psychology of emotion or mental health cannot be scientific. Different areas of psychology are scientific in different senses, but we need more alertness to those differences. That should lead to good practice about how best to be scientific in a particular area of psychology. In some areas of psychology, the cultural background and assumptions of the psychologist are much more significant than others.
My hope is that the present crisis in psychology will lead to better awareness of the diversity of subdisciplines within psychology, and of variations in the ways in which they are ‘scientific’. I hope that psychology won’t focus only on technical solutions to the crisis of replicability, but will also rise to the challenge of achieving greater philosophical awareness of the ways in which different areas of the discipline are scientific at all.