Saturday, May 21, 2016

Is Psychology a Science?

I was recently involved in a conversation on Facebook where we entertained a suspected diagnosis of "narcissistic personality disorder" on the part of one of the presidential candidates (I will leave it to your imagination as to the identity of the candidate in question).  My opinion as a psychologist was requested and I concurred, with the caveat that of course I had not examined the person and, in any event, "I do not regard psychology as science."  What I meant to say, or should have said, is that psychological diagnosis is not scientific, as I will discuss further, below.  This comment resulted in my being un-friended by a Ph.D. psychologist who replied that if I were to go on for my Ph.D., I would change my perspective about psychology being a science, because "it is based on scientific studies" and moreover, graduate schools in psychology are strict about "the scientific method" because "they want to be taken seriously as a science."

The implication was that psychology at the Ph.D. level is vastly different from my experience in the Master's program at the small private college in California where most of my fellow psychology students were there to obtain the MFCC counseling license.  Apparently the doctoral level is a kind of occult society in which the secret "scientific" knowledge is revealed to only the most advanced initiates.  I also got the impression that my comment was taken as an insult.

I did not intend to hurt anyone's feelings or to disparage the discipline of psychology or its practitioners.  And while I lack a Ph.D., I think my educational background makes me reasonably well qualified to have an opinion about psychology and science.  I have always loved science and originally wanted a dual major in philosophy and physics.  There was a waiting list for the math minor classes required for a physics major and I already had a double minor in German and Russian languages.  Since I couldn't afford to stay in school that long, I foolishly opted to get my B.A. in philosophy, took physics classes as electives and read a lot of books on the subject.  In retrospect I wish I would have done it the other way around, gone ahead with the B.S. in physics and read philosophy books on the side.  

Note, I would strongly discourage anybody from majoring in philosophy unless you are independently wealthy, your spouse can support you, or your career goals specifically include either 1. law school, 2. college professorship, or 3. a job involving, "Do you want fries with that?"  I went on to get a more "practical" Master's degree in clinical psychology with emphasis on the Jungian approach.  I later went back to school to become a medical language specialist with postgraduate courses in pharmacology and worked in mainstream medicine including psychiatry for 22 years, and finally returned to counseling full-time as a Spiritual Advisor, my current occupation.

Despite my unfriend's emphatic insistence that psychology (at least at the doctoral level) is indeed a "science," the issue is by no means resolved and certainly not a personal opinion that I randomly pulled out of my ass.  There has been lively debate around the topic since the 17th century and it was an issue for Carl Jung, William James and others.  The L.A. Times published a couple of excellent articles in 2012 presenting both sides of the debate:
"Stop bullying the 'soft' sciences" by Timothy Wilson, Ph.D. psychology and
"Why psychology isn't science" by Alex Berezow, Ph.D. microbiology.
"A Biologist And A Psychologist Square Off Over The Definition Of Science," by Hank Campbell, founder of Science 2.0, evaluates the debate and includes insightful rebuttals by scientists and psychologists on both sides in the comments below the article.

I am not going to summarize the above articles here, but suggest that the readers make up their own minds.  A case could be made either way, depending on which schools of psychology and what you mean by "science."  From my own unique point of view, I initially joined Dr. Berezow in questioning psychology as an "actual science" because I use the term in the more limited and old-fashioned sense than how it is often used today.  From this perspective and per the first definition in the online dictionary, "science" is "the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment."  Science in this sense requires the acquisition of concrete objective data by means of which a falsifiable hypothesis can be evaluated.

However, the secondary definition of "science," and the one that is most often used by people including Dr. Wilson who want to apply it to psychology, is "a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject."  Some have further suggested that "science" refers not to any particular subject, but rather, the way in which one approaches it, by "the scientific method."  If we remove the objective physical criterion and go with the general sense of collecting and analyzing data, then nearly anything can be "science" if approached in that manner.  

I asked my friends with relevant educational backgrounds whether they thought psychology is a science.  Gerry Tedesco, who is trained in Behavioral Analysis/ Forensics and has degrees in Social Science and Public Health, replied:  "I think Psychology has a number of incarnations and expressions today. Depending on how it is being used, it can be a behavioral science, philosophy, a business method, and even a junk science."  Lori Newlove, who has degrees in Biology and Psychology, replied:  "I do. There are parts that are. That's as much as I am comfortable committing to.  There is a field that wasn't named as such when I was in school called 'psychobiology' that is science."

Dr. Carolyn Buck-Gengler, a Cognitive Psychologist, gave me a great deal of useful feedback on the topic.  She has indeed conducted rigorous and [mostly] reproducible experiments involving the collection and analysis of data on perception, cognition and memory funded by NASA and the U.S. Army, agencies known to be sticklers on "science."  She kindly provided me with examples of her impressive research in linguistics and information processing.  While I am not a scientist, it sure looks "scientific" to me, at least in the secondary sense described above.  With regard to Dr. Berezow's position I would conclude that either:  1.  He was not aware of such research, or 2.  He was aware of it but, like me, thought it was being done by a different department such as Neuroscience or Linguistics, or 3.  It doesn't meet his strict criteria for "science."  

If we take the word "psychology" at its most basic meaning, it is the scientific study of the "psyche," the soul or mind, a non-physical entity whose existence the term presupposes.  But, this presents a problem because we cannot study "the mind" directly or, for that matter, even confirm its existence objectively.  We can only infer its existence and properties from observation of behavior and from people's accounts of their subjective experiences which, again, cannot be externally verified, let alone quantified.  With materialism being the current fashion, many today would argue that just as there is no God without evidence to the contrary, there is also no soul or mind, and the burden of proof is on those who propose the existence of such entities.

Dr. Mario Beauregard says in his book "Brain Wars":  "Mind, as most people think about it, does not exist in conventional science because the expressions of consciousness, such as choice, will, emotions, and even logic are said to be brain in disguise."

No doubt you have heard the old saying, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."  My husband is fond of joking, "A mind is a terrible thing [period]."  LOL!  But, in all seriousness, and forgive me for being nit-picky, from a philosophical standpoint I don't think this is an unreasonable argument:  If the mind is not in fact a "thing" that exists, then by definition it cannot be the subject of scientific investigation, at least in the strict sense of science as the study of the physical and natural world.  If what we call "mind" is merely a subjective manifestation of brain activity, then what we are really studying is the brain.

I argued with Dr. Buck-Gengler that if the materialists are right and there is no "mind," only brain, then neuroscience - which  the dictionary defines as "any or all of the sciences, such as neurochemistry and experimental psychology, which deal with the structure or function of the nervous system and brain" - can explain conditioned response, memory, learning and other cognitive activities as a function of the brain.  We can perform experiments and studies like the ones she has done without the need to postulate the existence of a "mind," i.e., "psyche."  My friend patiently explained that cognitive psychology as she practices it involves multiple levels of linguistic analysis.  Using the analogy of computer programming, her work addresses the upper levels of multi-layered software (cognition), not the hardware (brain), which remains the jealously guarded territory of the neuroscientists.  Like others in her field, she equates the "psych" in the title with the software and does not worry about its ontological status.  Essentially, research psychologists don't give a rat's ass about my philosophical dilemma as to the existence of the mind, they just study its behavior.

When I asked Dr. Buck-Gengler about the point that Dr. Berezow raised regarding the vague nature of things like "happiness," she replied "I don't study happiness; we look at basic cognitive issues of training, memory and learning."  The "psyche" has been compartmentalized into various departments, most of which have hardly anything to do with what I studied in clinical psychology at the Master's level in the 1980s.  There is a huge leap from the study of particular brain functions in an academic or scientific sense, to something as vague and subjective as, e.g., happiness, sadness, fulfillment, emptiness, loneliness, fear, love, self-esteem, shyness, the aspects of human consciousness which I as a counselor address every day.  My unfriend was absolutely right when she suggested that my work is not a science, but an art.  I am actually dealing with the individual and collective "psyche":  the human soul, mind, personality in all its messiness, chaos and poetry.  

My clients often present with existential malaise, asking questions like, "Why am I here?  What is my purpose?  Is this all there is?"  These are not scientific questions, although if I were to answer them "scientifically," from the materialistic standpoint, my admittedly cynical answer would be:  "You are here because hormones induced your parents to breed.  Your purpose is to be a laborer, a cog in the wheel, a consumer of goods and services, and to produce offspring for the benefit of the ruling class.  Yes, this is all there is."  But, that is not really the point of such questions.  Rather, it is philosophical.  The clients tell me they feel adrift in a meaningless universe and wonder what is their place in the Big Picture.  How do we accurately define or quantify, let alone medically treat "symptoms" like that?  

Some clients are already taking medication, e.g. SSRI, for depression, and when I ask if it's working, they reply hesitantly, "yeah, I guess so...  I'm not as depressed anymore...  but still, something is missing."  There may be a sense of emptiness and while the degree of angst is reduced, the existential questions remain.  If the client goes back to their physician with these vague complaints, the doctor may well conclude that the SSRI isn't sufficient and an antipsychotic medication may be added to the regimen which will often numb the mind enough to quell these existential complaints.  

Medical treatment is socially useful because persistent discomfort can lead to challenging the status quo and even doing something about it.  Depression, if analyzed closely, gives rise to inconvenient questions such as, "Is the purpose of my life really to spend most of my waking existence working for low wages at a soul-sucking job merely in order to survive?  Is it just me, or maybe our system is unjust and ought to be changed?"  Potential revolution may even be averted by perpetuating the myth that depression is always simply a chemical imbalance, a defect in the brain of the individual, as opposed to a perfectly normal and appropriate response to unjust political or socioeconomic conditions.  

Vivek Datta, M.D. states that mental illness is a social construct, not a scientific diagnosis.  We "medicalize" behaviors that society finds objectionable. He gives the example of homosexuality, which was listed as a mental illness in the DSM until 1973, at which point it was downgraded to "sexual orientation disturbance" and then removed entirely in 1987.  It was not removed from the DSM as a result of scientific research but rather, the changing social climate.  I would not be surprised if, as the social fashions continue their current trend, religion were to be classified as a "mental illness," especially if the pharmaceutical industry manages to come up with a profitable medication to "treat" it.  And this brings us back to the political candidate whose potential "diagnosis" started this whole argument.  Perhaps he is "mentally ill," or maybe we just find him exceptionally arrogant, rude and obnoxious.  Human behavior is a continuum, after all; where do we draw the line?

The reason I said that psychology in this respect is decidedly not science is because the diagnoses in the DSM are not based on any consistent scientific method and do not involve empirically verifiable data.  In fact, with rare exceptions like epilepsy and other identifiable organic (physical) processes such as brain tumors, most mental disorders are to a certain extent subjective and cultural.  For example, "hearing voices" or being plagued by "demons" is a subjective experience on the part of the client; we would not know about it unless we were told; we cannot record imagined sounds or photograph invisible entities.  And schizophrenia presents differently depending on the cultural context.  Likewise, contrary to popular belief, there is no blood test whereby we can document "low serotonin level" or other chemical imbalances in the brain allegedly causing conditions like depression or ADHD.  At the present time, brain chemistry can only be ascertained via autopsy, and most university ethics committees frown upon dissecting human test subjects.  The diagnosis of these mental disorders is made based on the client's expressed thoughts and feelings - the subjective contents of their "mind" - and observation of their behavior.    

My belief that DSM diagnoses are unscientific is not some wild personal opinion.  In fact, in 2013 the National Institute of Mental Health announced that it was shifting its diagnostic criteria away from the DSM because,  "The weakness [of DSM] is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure."  The new approach, the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) will "transform diagnosis by incorporating genetics, imaging, cognitive science, and other levels of information to lay the foundation for a new classification system." 

Subsequent to these conversations with friends and unfriend in the field, and reading the arguments and comments on the LA Times debate and related articles, it has become very clear that the "psychology" I learned years ago in my Master's program is indeed quite different from that of Ph.D. psychologists in the research branches today.  It is so very different that I really question whether it is the same field at all.  "Psychology" as a discipline has mostly moved on to claim its place within Science, and the shift from DSM to RDoC at the NIMH illustrates this trend.  Since the late 1990s, Psychology departments in many schools have been changing their names accordingly to "Psychological and Brain Sciences," "Psychology and Neuroscience" (including my friend Dr. Buck-Gengler's school), "Behavioral Science," or "Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences."  Some have dropped the label "Psychology" entirely and replaced it with "Cognitive Science."  Likewise, the American Psychological Society changed its name to "Association for Psychological Science."  

The branch that I practice, Clinical/Analytical has been left behind and perhaps should be renamed.  I don't so much "study" the mind as provide therapy, hence I am less a "psychologist" than a "psychotherapist."  But I can't call myself that, for reasons I will explain later.

So, as we have seen, the determination as to whether or not psychology is a "science" depends upon the definitions of "psychology" and "science," whom you ask, and whether you think the existence or nonexistence of the "psyche" or "mind" is even relevant to the argument.  But, as a counselor, I have an additional question for those who want psychology to be taken seriously as a science:  Why is it important to you?  Is it only a practical issue in terms of funding, i.e., the "sciences" receive more government grants than the humanities, and insurance companies are increasingly reluctant to reimburse claims for "talk therapy" as opposed to much cheaper medical therapy?  Or, is it rather the modern prejudice that science is the only valid source of knowledge and information (a statement which is, itself, metaphysical in nature)?  To put it simply, financial considerations aside, science is en vogue and scientists are respected by society.  We want to be respected.  We want to sit at the big kids' table.  

As for me, I have pretty much given up seeking social respect.  Due to licensing restrictions I cannot legally practice "psychology" or "counseling" in the state where I now live.  The word "therapy" also is illegal unless you have a specific "therapist" license, as I discovered when I wanted to offer "equine therapy" at my farm and ended up having to call it "equine assisted learning."  Since retiring from medicine I employ my psychology education working as a Tarot reader in the most reviled and "unscientific" role of "Psychic" or, as I prefer to call myself, "Spiritual Advisor."  The fine print at the bottom of our t.v. ads is required by law to state "for entertainment only," and I file my taxes as an "entertainer."  

Famous psychic Mark Edward has said, "a sideshow tent is never far from a psychiatrist's couch; there's just more sawdust on the floor," and this job is a good fit for me as a Jungian counselor.  Discussing the archetypal images on the cards and how the universal themes apply to their particular situation enables the clients to invite me into their subjective inner world, where they share with me their past hurts, their hopes and dreams for the future, literal dreams (to be analyzed), fantasies, fears and challenges.  I help them sort through their difficulties, examine their thoughts and feelings, find the strength and courage to face their real or imagined demons, navigate their relationships and responsibilities, reach their full potential as individuals and, dare I say it, find happiness.

Part of the job requires making predictions about the future, which I am able to do with surprising accuracy merely by my knowledge of human behavior and the ability to quickly analyze many different variables and data to ascertain the most likely outcome, but that doesn't make it "science."  If I were so inclined, I could probably do some kind of "research" by analyzing the outcomes of hundreds of Tarot readings and how often the analyses and predictions were correct and formulating and testing an hypothesis as to how it was accomplished.  The mechanism doesn't particularly interest me, but I suspect it is the sort of thing that my friend Carolyn B-G could explain very well from the perspective of cognition and information processing.

I do want a Ph.D., though, if only because all the other kids have one.  A lifelong yoga practitioner and part-time teacher for over 30 years, I would follow up my Master's [of Arts] thesis, "The Psychology of Nonattachment in the Bhagavad Gita" with a study of Jung's warnings about yoga.  I could make it sciencey by defining exactly what he thought the danger was and finding objective ways to measure that.  I would interview practitioners, subject them to tests assessing their mental health, compare them with non-yogi controls and analyze the data to determine whether or not Jung's fears were founded.  That might be fun.  I would also very much like to hook up meditators to machines such as biofeedback and brain imaging modalities to see what happens in the brain when people are in a deep state of meditation or "God intoxicated."  Meanwhile I am content to remain an "entertainer," a fortune teller, a sideshow freak, grateful and humbled to have this opportunity to help the people who often queue up for hours waiting to talk to me.  And it definitely beats the hell out of "Do you want fries with that?"


"a sideshow tent is never far from a psychiatrist's couch; there's just more sawdust on the floor." - Mark Edward

A discussion of Jungian psychology vs. behavioral science:

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