Is psychology a science? - summary of chapter 10 of Historical and conceptual issues in psychology, by Brysbaert, M and Rastle, K (second edition)

Foundation of psychology
Chapter 10
Is psychology a science?

Reasons why psychology is claimed to be a science

The foundation of psychology as an academic discipline was legitimised on two pillars

Psychology has a long, respectful past and uses the scientific method

Steven Ward
Makes the case that a new branch of knowledge can establish itself and survive only if it succeeds in convincing the ruling powers of the need for such knowledge as well as reassuring them that it is no threat to their prosperity.

The founders of psychology promoted it as a new academic discipline by stressing two messages

  • Psychology was the continuation of the old and respectful tradition of mental and morel philosophy, going back to Aristotle
  • The new element was the scientific method, so successful in other disciplines, would be applied to the study of the human mind

Consequences for the psychology curriculum

Because psychology was promoted on the basis of its long past and its sound method, both ‘history of psychology’ and ‘research methods’ were major components of the curriculum.
These books on history were self-legitimisation as much as essential stepping stones for a good psychology education.

Science is defined by its method rather than by its subject matter

Every topic studied within the scientific method is a science

To be accepted as a science, psychologists had to make the case that what differentiated sciences from non-sciences was the way in which problems were investigated, and not the type of problems addressed.
Although few people spontaneously associated the study of mental life with scientific research, the first academic psychologists maintained that there was nothing inherent in the subject matter that prevented it from being studied using the scientific method.


Because of its emphasis on method in the definition of science, academic psychology invested heavily in developing appropriate research designs and analysis techniques.

It has been argued that psychology throughout its existence has overplayed the role of research methods at the expense of theory building.

Methodolarty or methodologism: tendency to see methodological rigour as the only requirement for scientific research, at the expense of theory formation.

The shadow of positivism

One reason why psychologists tended to stress valid testing rather than theory formation was that they tried too hard to be good scientists.

  • Science proceeds from facts to knowledge on the basis of observation, inductive reasoning and verification
  • Non-observables must be excluded, unless they have an operant definition
  • Theories are limited to descriptions of observed facts, preferentially in the form of a mathematical law, by no means must they include speculation

The scientific method has not let psychologists down

Systematicity and cumulativeness of knowledge

Science stresses the requirement that knowledge builds on existing knowledge.
New findings and explanations must be coherent with existing information.
Therefore, previous knowledge should be available and new knowledge must be made public.

Science is meant to be cumulative. Researchers consult what has been found before with respect to a particular topic, so that they can build on it and avoid previous pitfalls.

The use of well-defined methods

Information must be gathered in line with agreed methods that are clearly outlined.
There is systematicity in the collection of observations.
The methods used must be accepted by the existing research community and be described in such detail that the observation can be replaced by others.


The findings are stated in such a way that they are interpreted in the same way by different readers.


Science stresses the importance of prediction.
It is not enough to explain phenomena post hoc. A scientist must be able to predict what will happen in the future.
Such prediction enables control of the event

Knowledge is revisable

Scientific knowledge is open, and can be revised at all times.
Trying to falsify existing convictions is central to science, to make sure that no wrong beliefs are perpetuated.
Knowledge is not person-bound.

Comparison with pseudoscience

Pseudoscience: branch of knowledge that pretends to be scientific but that violates the scientific method on essential aspects, such as lack of openness to testing by others and reliance on confirmation rather than falsification.
Pseudoscience violates the scientific method on essential aspects such as:

  • The use of vague, exaggerated or untestable claims
  • A tendency to invoke ad hoc hypotheses as a means to immunise claims from falsification
  • Personalisation of issues
    Intuitions rather than data
  • Over-reliance on confirmation rather than falsification
  • Excessive reliance on anecdotal and testimonial evidence to substantiate claims
  • Lack of openness to testing by other experts and scrutiny by peer review
  • A tendency to place the burden of proof on sceptics, not proponents, of claims
  • Failure to connect with the existing scientific knowledge
  • Use of misleading language

Acceptable progress thus far

Psychological research remains largely scientific because psychologists themselves are nut unhappy with the progress they have made in the past 150 years.

Relationships to other sciences

By looking at cross-references it is possible to position psychological research relative to the other research sciences.
Psychology does not form an isolated island only referring to itself.
It is one of the seven major areas of research, forming a hub for a series of other disciplines related to human functioning.
Psychological research is well embedded within the sciences.

Interim summary

Reasons why psychology is claimed to be a science

  • The founders have defined psychology as the study of the human mind with the scientific method
  • They further argued that whether or not a discipline is a science depends on the research methods used and not on the topic investigated: psychology used the scientific method and, therefore, was a science
  • The scientific method has proven to be a fruitful approach and is fully integrated within mainstream psychological research
  • Psychological research is fully integrated within other scientific research. It is one of the seven major areas with strong links to two other major areas. It forms a hub for a series of less central sciences related to human functioning

Reasons why psychology is not seen as a science

There is little overlap between the stereotypical view of a scientist and the stereotypical view of a psychologist

Lack of overlap between the stereotypical image of a scientist and a psychologist

The fact that a psychologists is spontaneously associated with the image of a practising clinical psychologists means that there is virtually no overlap in the stereotypical images of scientists and psychologists.
Whereas the former are essentially depicted as loners obsessed with their investigations, the latter are nearly always seen in interaction with other people.
There is some overlap in the negative traits, but these are more part of the effort to keep the image of one’s own group high by attributing negative features to other groups rather than essential characteristics of scientists and psychologists.

Given the small overlap in the stereotypical views of scientist and psychologists, it should come as no surprise that the general public does not spontaneously associate psychologists with scientists.

Psychology researchers vs. psychology practitioners

Professional psychologists largely outnumber psychology researchers

Practitioners strongly outnumber the researchers is another feature that distinguishes psychology from other sciences.

Practitioners, both psychological and medical, rarely see themselves as (stereotypical) scientists.
They are users of scientific information, but do not consider it as part of their job to generate new knowledge on the basis of the scientific method.
The fact that psychological and medical practitioners are users of science rather than scientists means that there is quite some variety in the scientific standards to which they adhere.

The differentiation between researchers and practitioners has been a strength of psychology.
Each approach meets different needs in the population.

Psychology practitioners often forget their scientific education

Dawes (1994)
After graduation clinical psychologists have a tendency to forget all they have learned and to return to ‘clinical intuition’, which is not much better than that of untrained people.

Ways in which psychology researchers have tried to distinguish themselves

Because psychology researchers saw the natural-scientific status of psychological research constantly being misunderstood, they repeatedly tried to distinguish their own work from the mainstream image of psychology.

  • Adopt a new name
  • Creation of their own societies

Unlike scientific results, psychological findings are easy to understand

Everybody understands worthwhile psychological findings

Science is perceived as difficult, a challenge many people try to avoid.
In contrast, psychology is seen as accessible.
Because we are all humans interacting with others, we all have experience with what works and what does not work in our daily life.
Psychological research can give us new insights, but if these insights are worthwhile we will have no difficulty relating to them.
There will be a resonance between our own intuition and the new knowledge.

  • Positive
    Most people are much more interested in psychological findings than in findings form other sciences
  • Negative
    The public in general does not believe psychologists have much specialised knowledge

Not all psychologists are convinced of the added value of the scientific method

The hermeneutic alternative

Psychology should stay within the humanities and in particular adopt the investigation approach of history.
Hermeneutics: approach in psychology according to which the task of the psychologists is to interpret and understand persons on the basis of their personal and socio-cultural history.

Throughout the history of psychology, the hermeneutic approach has coexisted with the mainstream natural-scientific approach, often on not every friendly terms.

Unravelling how the human mind functions vs. understanding what the human mind comprises

The main criticism of the proponents of hermeneutics against the experimental study of the human mind has been that it is too much geared towards unravelling the processes of the mind.
What the experimental psychologists overlooked, according to hermeneutists, was that understanding a person involves not so much knowing how the person functions, but what the person thinks, believes, feels and wants.

Interim summary

Reasons why psychology is not seen as a science

  • The stereotypical view people have of a psychologists is that of a clinical psychologists treating patients. This view does not overlap with the stereotypical view people have of a scientists as a loner who is obsessed with his work and which he studies in an uncreative way, making use of instruments.
  • Professional psychologists largely outnumber psychology researchers, and they are users of scientific knowledge rather than creators of such knowledge. There is even evidence that many practitioners return to their intuition once they have finished their studies
  • People are convinced that they have as much knowledge about psychological issues as psychologists, or at least that they can keep up with psychologists as long as they pay attention to the psychological research that is described in the media
  • Next to the mainstream scientific tradition in academic psychology, there is a hermeneutic approach that is more in agreement with the public’s view of psychology as non-scientific

The critique of scientific psychology

Dilthey: Naturwissenschaften vs. Geisteswissenschaften

Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911)
One of the first authors to openly criticise psychology’s turn to the natural sciences.
Distinction between:

  • Naturwissenschaften
    Natural sciences
    Sought to distil universal laws from a limited set of observations
    Main method is the experiment
  • Geisteswissenschaften
    Mental sciences
    Aimed at understanding and interpreting the individual person by an analysis of his or her personal and socio-cultural history
    Main research method is understanding

According to Dilthey, the human mind should be understood, not explained

The four elements of Dilthey’s approach

There were four elements in Dilthey’s approach

  • Psychology should be content-based
    It should focus on what the mind comprises
  • The subject matter of psychology was the human experience in its totality
  • A person’s life was embedded in a context
  • The natural-scientific research method with its experimentation and bias towards measurement could never grasp the totality of the mental life within it context
    Therefore, the appropriate method for psychology was understanding
    Three levels of understanding
    • Elementary forms of understanding used to solve the simple problems of life
    • Empathy through which an observer can re-experience someone elses experiences
    • The hermeneutic level of understanding, by which an observed person can be better understood than the person understands him/herself

Psychoanalysis and related schools


Freud’s method was in line with the hermeneutic approach because it aimed at understanding the contents of a person’s mind and was based on the interpretation of visible human products with the use of psychoanalytic theory.

Related schools

In the twentieth century, Freud’s ideas inspired a series of other theorists to come up with alternative theories of what constitutes the core of the human mind and how it develops over time

  • Carl Jung
    Made a distinction between the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious
  • Alfred Adler
    The most important motive for a human being was a feeling of inferiority, originating form the sense of dependence and helplessness felt by infants.
  • Erik Erikson
    Developmental stages
  • John Bowlby
    Attachment styles

Rogers and humanistic psychology


Carl Rogers
Started to question the Freudian therapy and promoted an alternative form of therapy.
Rogers emphasised the empathic form of understanding, whereas Freud chose the hermeneutic level.
Therapist in Rogers’s view had to share the client’ experiences but not interpret them.

Rogers combined the hermeneutic approach with the natural-science approach when he insisted that the efficacy of his therapy be tested.


Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)
One of the founders of humanistic psychology.
Humanistic psychology: psychological movement promoted by Rogers and Maslow as a reaction against psychoanalysis and behaviourism. Stressed that people are human, inherently positive, endowed with free will and living within a socio-cultural context.

Maslow did not conclude that science was worthless for the study of the whole person.
He stressed the need for a new type of science, which was not exclusively based on Descartes’ mechanistic world view.

Neglect of individual differences

Another criticism against experimental psychology was that it ignored individual differences and tried to understand the functioning of the ‘average’ person.

Research methods govern research questions

The method of determined the research questions to be addressed.
Research questions that did not fall within the realm of the natural-scientific approach were not examined and, by consequence, were not thought to be of interest.

  • Facts: objective statements determined to be accurate through empirical study
  • Values: personal statements that cannot be considered true of false
    Cannot be proved or disproved by science.
    • All science can do is provide facts that help people select their values

The direct impact of experimental psychology on everyday life is limited because many human choices and interactions are centred on values rather than facts.

Psychology has been confined too long to white Western males

Scientific psychology has been criticise for being interested only in topics and research approaches that were of concern to Western males.

Feminist psychology: movement in psychology aimed at understanding women; is particularly concerned with the way in which women are treated in mainstream psychology.
Postcolonial psychology: movement in psychology addressing the issues of racism and the ways in which dominant groups treat other groups.
Say that science is not an objective and value-free enterprise, but a value-laden approach related to the socio-cultural context in which it occurs.

Scientific claims of objectivity and universal validity are exaggerated

A criticism of the natural-scientific approach in psychology is that it promises more than it can deliver.

  • Evidence-based opinions are guaranteed to be true
    This is not so, all scientific research is embedded in a paradigm

Critical psychology

Critical psychology: movement in psychology that criticises mainstream psychology for failing to understand that knowledge does not refer to an outside reality (realism), that scientific knowledge is not cumulative but consists of social constructions, and that psychological theories and claims have an impact on the world in which people life.

Idealism instead of realism

There are two opposing views in philosophy about the nature of human knowledge

  • Realism
  • Idealism

Critical psychologists believe that scientific psychology wrongly beliefs in realism.
According to them, human language does no represent things in the world but is meant to facilitate social interactions.
What matters is the person as a social being.

Science is a social construction

Science is not a progressive uncovering of reality, but a social construction in which scientific statements are primarily determined by the language and the culture of the scientists.
Scientific statements are not ‘fixed truths’ but ever-changing stories that reflect the socio-political and cultural world of the scientists.
Scientific writings must be read like history texts, as one of the possible accounts of what is/was going on.

Psychologists have a moral responsibility

Because the (social) reality is constantly changing as a function of what happens, critical psychology urges psychologists to be aware of the fact that their research affects reality.
Psychology research can condone a social injustice and promote its continuation by giving it a ‘scientific’ justification.
According to critical psychology, psychologists cannot pretend they are studying their subject matter in a detached way from the outside, they are part of the subject matter and have to act accordingly.

Interim summary

The critique of experimental psychology

  • Dilthey: psychology belongs to the Geisteswissenschaften (mental sciences) because

    • It deals with the content of the human mind
    • It describes the human experience in its totality
    • It sees a person’s life within its context
    • Only the method of understanding can study the full human experience
  • Psychoanalysis used the hermeneutic approach because it tried to understand the content of the human mind through interpretation on the basis of the psychoanalytic theories
  • The client-centred approach also stressed the importance of understanding the other in psychotherapeutic relations.
  • Allport criticised experimental psychology because it ignored individual differences
  • In the natural-scientific approach the interesting research questions are too much defined as a function of what can be examined with the scientific method
  • Experimental psychology is partly the result of the dominance of white Western males in psychological research. Gave rise to feminist and postcolonial psychology
  • The natural-scientific approach ignores the fact that all knowledge is relative, depending on the prevailing research paradigm and influences from society
  • The strongest criticism of experimental psychology currently comes from critical psychology
    • Knowledge is not a mirror of reality
    • Science is a social construction
    • Psychologists have a moral responsibility because their research changes the social reality
  • Criticisms of experimental psychology has had an influence on mainstream research, but mostly indirectly (through unconscious plagiarism)

Focus on: can the history of psychology be taught by psychologists?

Interim summary

  • Each history is relative and conveys only part of the rich raw material that is available
  • In the history of psychology a distinction is often made between the traditional approach (largely seen as a legitimisation of the current state of affairs) and the new approach (more critical, has an eye for the relativity of knowledge, tries to expose the assumptions that have rise to current opinions).
  • An extra problem is that book authors and lecturers may have vested interests, which bias the coverage of history
  • The history described in the present summary is not the history of psychology. It is only one of the possible stories, which we hope will not be perceived as being too biased
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