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Vol. V • 1982

Psychology as a Science
Paul D. Ackerman

Psychology is a discipline which seeks to study the thoughts and actions of man (as well as the behavior of animals) in a scientific way. If one is to understand exactly what this means a clear definition of science is required. Science is a marvelous development in the history of human thought. It has wrought amazing benefits and wonders for the modern world. Using science as a tool man has been able to unlock innumerable mysteries. In turn these discoveries coupled with reflected technological advances have allowed a tremendous degree of dominion over the physical world. It is indeed an age of miracles. In diverse areas such as medicine, agriculture, information processing, transportation, personal comfort and energy saving devices and most recently space exploration, we have come to routinely accept a myriad of wonders undreamed of in ancient times. What is that tool called "science" which has allowed such developments?

In a word it is actually something quite simple. Profound things often are. Stated in its most basic form science might be defined as a "closer and more careful look." Abraham Kaplan has defined it as follows:

There are a number of advantages of this relatively simple definition. For one thing it covers the domain of activities in disciplines as diverse as chemistry and astronomy which are normally called scientific. More conservative definitions which limit the term "science" to research involving controlled manipulation and experimentation do not achieve this match. Observational astronomy for example is normally thought of as science yet in this field controlled experiments are seldom possible. It is also clear that under the Kaplan definition, psychology could qualify as a science,

More importantly, this definition puts scientific endeavor clearly on a continuum with other human endeavors. All of us engage in careful observation at various times. "Scientific" observation is an extension and systematization of normal everyday observation.

When science is viewed as basically involving a "closer look" some of its characteristics become apparent. For one thing there are some things that scientific observation is well suited for and some things it isn't. One might illustrate with an analogy of normal vision as compared to the view of things through a powerful telescope. The telescopic view stands for that view provided by science. It is marvelous for certain kinds of jobs. It enables us to see things that would otherwise go completely unnoticed. Yet there are obvious limitations. Telescopic visions complements and enriches normal vision it doesn't replace ft. No one would suggest either that all the telescopes should be destroyed or that everyone all the time should walk around with telescopic glasses. So it is with science and the view of the world it supplies. The limitations, uncertainties, pitfalls inherent in man as man are still irrevocably and inevitably present in all his inquiries including those which we call scientific. Wise human decisions will of course take into account all pertinent facts provided by science, but nevertheless the prime focus for the decision maker will be man's "ordinary vision-" Science viewed in this way does not really threaten the domains of common sense, art, religion, etc. though it may enhance, improve and even correct them. There is nothing magic about science. There is nothing to worship in science.  

Limitations of Science

There are two basic limitations in the scientific enterprise. The first relates to the limits of science itself. The second relates to the limitations of the individuals who conduct scientific investigations. Science itself is limited in the sense thai it requires repeated, controlled observation. Thus there can be no scientific knowledge about things which cannot be observed in a repeated and controlled manner. This requirement might be called the "contact control principle". The scientist must have contact control with the object of his inquiry either in the sense of being able to manipulate occurrences of the phenomenon to be studied or in the lesser sense of being able to reliably predict the conditions under which it can be passively observed. Without this contact control there can be no science.

To appreciate this limitation consider the following situation. Assume that a group ofthe world's greatest scientists are relaxing on a fishing trip in a small boat on the lake at Loch Ness, Scotland. Further assume that the Loch Ness Monster suddenly and unexpectedly rises up out of the deep right beside their boat and gobbles up the morning's catch. We have assumed that the monster is quite real. The scientists are not hallucinating. Their fish are really gone.

Nevertheless, in a scientific sense the monster does not exist, and the enterprise of science would continue to be conducted as though there were no monster. In order to prove and studythe existence of the monster in a scientific sense contact control would have to be established. In fact, the scientific expeditions to Loch Ness have always been geared to accomplish that very thing. Remember that some expeditions have brought back what appear to be photographs of the monster. Yet its existence is not scientifically established until we not only have photographs but also enough information so scientists can reliably get additional photos if not whenever they wish at least at predictable times or intervals. When this can be done contact control has been established, and scientists can proceed at will to engage in repeated and controlled scientific observation of the Loch Ness Monster,

Because of this need for contact control many areas of psychology are questionable as science. When the person as a whole becomes the focus of study there is a very real doubt as to whether contact control is possible. The subject maytryto disguise himself and reveal only what he chooses. Psychologists, of course, do what they can to insure contact control of the subject, but it can never be certain. In many areas of personality research and social psychology the psychologist cannot be sure the subject is being open and candid. In applied settings the situation can be much worse. Criminals, for example, may try to `con" a psychologist into believing a very self-serving view of the criminal's personality. A recent dramatic example occurred in Wichita, Kansas where a respectable, middle-aged woman led police on a three year wild-goose-chase looking for a man who was supposedly threatening her life. A psychologist examined her on a number of occasions and even hypnotized her to produce a composite drawing of the attacker. It turned out there was no attacker. The woman had tooled the police, her own husband, neighbors and friends for over three years. She had also completely fooled her psychologist. If contact control with persons as persons is not possible, then a science of persons as persons is not possible.

The second fundamental limitation of science relates to the fallibility of the individuals who practice it. The factor of human error, bias and general fallibility cannot be removed from the scientific enterprise. The research literature of psychology abounds with examples of how values, beliefs, culture, etc. can all work to bias and distort a person's perception andiudgement. Such evidence relates, of course, to all individuals including those who practice science. In fact, the history of research on perceptual bias can be traced back to an event in 1796 in which a famous astronomer named Maskelyne found he was unable to attain observational agreement with a research assistant named Kinnebrook.2 They were recording stellar transits for purposes of clock calibration, so the utmost accuracy was mandatory. Nevertheless, and in spite of their efforts, a systematic discrepancy of about a halfsecond persisted between their observations. The unfortunate Mr. Kinnebrook lost his job.

About 20 years later another astronomer named Bessel heard of the Maskelyne-Kinnebrook incident and began an investigation which established that such discrepancies were typical and unavoidable for all observers. Mr. Kinnebrook had been dismissed unjustly. This difference between observers became known as the "personal equation", and it is as important in the history of psychology as it is in the history of astronomy.

Modern psychological research has gone far beyond the narrow focus ofthe "personal equation" in establishing the wide range of ways perceptual judgements can be affected by personal biases and idiosyncrasies. In one famous experiment a psychologist had subjects from different cultures wear special stereoscopic glasses that presented a completely different scene to each oftheir eyes.3 One picture was familiar and relevant to the subject's own culture and the other wasn't. What would the subjects report seeing?Answer: The scene from their own culture. Most subjects were aware of the other picture and could describe it if given time, but a few did not even report an awareness of the culturally discrepant picture.

In another perception experiment Ivo Kohler had subjects wear special prism glasses that distorted vision such that a straight line would appear curved.4 After a time the subjects' perception adjusted so that the curved lines appeared straight. Later when the glasses were removed straight lines now appeared to be curved in the opposite direction for a period of time until the subjects were able to readjust to normal vision. Similarly Stratton5 and later Snyder and Pronko6 had subjects wear inverting lens glasses that made the world appear upside down. After a period of adjustment the world began to appear normal to them. In the Snyder and Pronko study a man wore the inverting glasses for an incredible 30 days. When the glasses were finally removed the subject had to endure an uncomfortable period of adjustment back to normal vision in the same way he had earlier experienced in adjusting to the upside-down world of the special glasses.

More directly focused on the scientific enterprise itself, Robert Rosenthal conducted a famous series of experiments that documented the effect experimenter bias and expectancy can have on the actual results of experiments.7 For instance, rats randomly assigned to groups designated as "bright" actually learned to run a maze more rapidly than identical rats designated as "dull." Other studies documented similar influences of expectations on results obtained in judgment task studies with human subjects. Although the danger of expectancy bias effects is no doubt greater in social science as opposed to natural science disciplines, there is evidence that the problem exists there as well.

This lament is reminiscent of a classic memory experiment by Carmichael, Hogan and Walter in which ambiguous pictures were given alternate labels.9 Later when subjects were asked to draw the simple original stimulus figures it was found that there was a tendency to diston the drawing in the direction of the label that had been paired with it. Thus a figure which was drawn somewhat ambiguously between a four and a seven was redrawn to look more like a seven if it had been labeled as such originally.

Finally, psychological research documents that peer conformity pressure can be a very potent influence on all manner of human activity including scientific research. Classic studies by Solomon Asch10 and later David Crutchfield'1 presented subjects with simple line judgement tasks. After a number of easy and apparent problems in which the subject found himself in agreement with supposed other judges, he was suddenly confronted with a surprising dilemma. The answer to the line judgment task again appeared completely obvious but now the other judges were unanimous in selecting an incorrect alternative. In a surprising percentage of cases (about 2/3 of all subjects at least once) the subjects yielded to the conformity pressure and went along with the spurious majority. Cases of actual misreporting of evidence and data fraud have been uncovered a number of times in recent years. There was for example the celebrated case of the Piltdown man. Piltdown is a place in England where a skull was reportedly discovered. Hundreds of doctoral dissertations and studies were conducted on these few bones purported to be an evolutionary "missing link." It turned out that the skull was a total fraud. More recently there has been the sad case of falsified data in the work of the famous British psychologist Cyril Burt.12 Over many years of what had been thought an illustrious research career, Cyril Burt apparently falsified data in support of widely accepted scientific views regarding the inheritance of intelligence.  


A definition of science has been given which is simple, true to what practicing scientists in all fields including psychology actually do, and humble or "down to earth." Science is basically a method of careful and systematic observation by which man has learned and accomplished through God's grace many wonderful things. Science is a tool for man to use and not a god to he worshipped. The use of science as a tool is also a completely human enterprise and as such is subject to all the limitations and pitfalls of other human endeavors. Errors are often made. Sins are often committed.

1 Kaplan A., The conduct of inquiry Methodology for behavioral science. San Francisco: Chandler, 1964.
2 Boring, E.G. A history of experimental psychology, 2nd edition. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950, pp.134-138.
3 Baghy. J. A cross-cultural study of perceptual predominance in binocular rivalry. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 1957, 54, 331-334.
4 Kohler, I. Experiment with goggles. Scientific American, 1962, 206, 62-72.
5 Stratton, G.M. Some preliminary experiments on vision without inversion of the retinal image. Psychological Review 1896, 3, 611-617.
6 Snyder, F.W. and Pronko, N.H. Vision with spatial inversion. Wichita, Kansas: University of Wichita Press, 1952.
7 Rosenthal, Robert. Experimenter effects in behavioral research. New York: Appleton-Century-Crorts, 1966.
8 Garner, H.F. The Origin of Landscapes: A synthesis of geomorphology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
9 Carmichael, 1., Hogan, H.P., & Walter, A.A. An experimental study of the effect of language on the reproduction of visually perceived forms. Journal of Experimental Psychology 1932, 15, 73-86.
10 Asch, S.E. Effects of group pressure upon the modifications and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, leadership, and men. Pittsburgh: Carnegie, 1951.
11 Crutchfield, RA. Conformity and character. American Psychologist. 1955. 10. 191-198.
12 Kamin, L.J. The science and politics of IQ, New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1974.

"Psychology as a Science"
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