The debate rages on - psychology: science; art; or pseudoscience? Despite the field of psychology ever-increasingly gaining recognition as a Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics (STEM) discipline, some commentators still claim therapeutic methods do not hold up to scrutiny, and that social topics such as creativity and self-esteem are too subjective for accurate scientific study. So what holds it back?
In other portions of the scientific spectrum – chemistry and physics, for example – emerging theories enhance or support each other. In psychology, however, theories often contradict or compete with one another, struggling to sufficiently convince or satisfy those working in the field. Events such as this prevent psychology from being ranked amongst the hard sciences, with some even considering it a belief system akin to religion.
Reasons for this often relate to empiric proof, and inconsistent results: two reacting chemicals will always behave in the same manner, however human decisions cannot be accurately predicted when presented with choice – the evolutionary instinct of fight or flight being a key example.
Whilst human behaviour cannot be fully and conclusively predicted in each environment, situation or individual, there are strong, general trends which often relate to our evolutionary and cultural histories. One such example is that globally, we all correlate facial expressions with the emotions that incite them.
Despite any actual or perceived differences between fields of psychology and other branches of science, psychologists do rely on scientific methods. This is important for both practitioners and researchers in the field, generating new knowledge about behaviour and its causes, and using this research to benefit people’s lives.
Mind the gap
Be it human or animal behaviour, psychology deals with the mind, focussing study on what it is that makes us “tick”. This includes influences on our day-to-day life and our unconscious processing of it. Most people are unaware what actually influences their behaviour, and how their behaviour is impacted.
Practitioners in the field have been keen to distance their occupations from the realm of pseudopsychology. Psuedosciences lack key, distinguishing features which categorise a science, such as empirical evidence, objectivity, and consideration of alternatives and it is important to make this distinction.
Humans are known to be fallible; our common sense and intuition have obvious limitations and cannot be relied upon for all the answers. Without careful investigation, many myths and opinions would remain as the popular antidote. In fact, research conducted in the varied branches of psychology – both basic and applied - is generally done so by people with doctoral degrees or other qualified practitioners exhibiting clear scientific attitudes of curiosity, scepticism, objectivity, and critical thinking.
Modern psychology seeks not simply to observe, but to explain. In their quest for answers, researchers challenge commonly held beliefs, and counter confirmation bias through objectivity. By considering alternatives before accepting a claim as true, researchers are able to give strength to their argument and establish a clearer picture of the rich tableau of behaviour.
Do the math
The clinical practise of psychology aims to aid society to function better through application of scientific research. Scientific research helps establish whether or not treatments in clinical practice are effective using mathematics – the language of science. As a “hub science”, findings within this field link often with others, including natural sciences, medicine as well as social sciences.
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