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Confronting the critics of “soft” science


Source: http://xkcd.com/435/

Fellow Scientific American blogger Melanie Tannenbaum is flustered by allegations that psychology is not a science and I can see where she is coming from. In this case the stimulus was a piece by Alex Berezow, a microbiologist, who in a short and provocative piece in the LA times argued the case that psychology is not a real science. I think he’s right. I also think that he misses the point.

Berezow’s definition of science is not off the mark, but it’s also incomplete and too narrow. Criticism of psychology’s lack of rigor is not new; people have been arguing about wishy-washy speculations in fields like evolutionary psychology and the limitations of fMRI scans for years. The problem is only compounded by any number of gee-whiz popular science books purporting to use evolutionary and other kinds of “psychology” to explain human behavior. Neither is the field’s image bolstered by high-profile controversies and sloppy studies which can’t be replicated. But it’s hardly fair to kill the message for lack of a suitable messenger. The same criticism has also been leveled at other social sciences including economics and sociology and yet the debate in economics does not seem to be as rancorous as that in psychology. At the heart of Berezow’s argument is psychology’s lack of quantifiability and dearth of accurate terminology. He points out research in fields like happiness where definitions are neither rigid nor objective and data is not quantifiable.

Happiness research is a great example of why psychology isn’t science. How exactly should “happiness” be defined? The meaning of that word differs from person to person and especially between cultures. What makes Americans happy doesn’t necessarily make Chinese people happy. How does one measure happiness? Psychologists can’t use a ruler or a microscope, so they invent an arbitrary scale. Today, personally, I’m feeling about a 3.7 out of 5. How about you?

This is absolutely true. But you know what other fields suffer from a lack of accurate definitions? My own fields, chemistry and drug discovery. For instance there has been a longstanding debate in our field about how you define a “druglike” molecule, that is, a chemical compound most likely to function as a drug. The number of definitions of “druglike” that have sprung up over the years are sufficient to fill a phonebook. The debate will probably continue for a long time. And yet nobody will deny that work on druglike compounds is a science; the fact is that chemists use guidelines for making druglike molecules all the time and they work. In fact why talk about druglike compounds when all of chemistry is sometimes regarded as insufficiently scientific and rigorous by physicists? There are several concepts in chemistry – aromaticity, hydrophobic effects, polarizability, chemical diversity – which succumb to multiple definitions and are not strictly quantifiable. Yet nobody (except perhaps certain physicists) denies that chemistry is a science. The accusation that “softer” fields are less rigorous and scientific than your own is common enough to be captured in this xkcd cartoon, but it’s more of an accusation than, well, a quantifiable truth.

Click here to read more from this August 13, 2013 Scientific American blog by Ashutosh Jogalekar.


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