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Is Psychology Really a Science?

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

Psychology’s constantly evolving theories aren't a flaw but a reflection of humility and earnest scientific enquiry.

Psychology is very much a science, but one that values flexibility and change over rigidity and permanence.

In a 2012 L.A. Times article, microbiologist Alex Berezow argued that psychology was not a real science. Berezow claimed, “psychology often does not meet the five basic requirements for a field to be considered scientifically rigorous: clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and, finally, predictability and testability.” Like Berezow, many “hard scientists” such as chemists and physicists have dismissed psychology as a legitimate science because they believe much of the field’s research lacks empirical validity.

This poor view of psychology has shaped public opinion too, and I’ve heard many regular folks deriding psychology as fluff or wishy-washy – a subject full of “possiblys” and “perhaps”. These criticisms were the main reason why I put off studying psychology – a subject I’ve been interested since I was twelve – until recently. Now, as I’m working towards getting my Masters of Science in Psychology degree from the University of Leicester, I’m beginning to see that the criticisms are unfounded. Psychology is very much a science, but one that values flexibility and change over rigidity and permanence.

The Cambridge dictionary defines science as “the careful study of the structure and behaviour of the physical world, especially by watching, measuring, and doing experiments, and the development of theories to describe the results of these activities.”

For the last twenty years, I’ve made my living as a journalist and writer where I spend much of my time thinking about people. When writing a biography, personality profile or even creating a character sketch for a fictional story, I need to get a realistic and accurate understanding of why people do what they do and feel what they feel. I need to discover what drives people; I need to learn how they solve their problems and live with the consequences of their actions. Psychology seems a logical career progression for someone who spends as much time as I do trying to decipher the workings of the human mind.

Being a student of psychology is changing the way I think about people, but not in the way I feared it might. Before embarking on my course, I was worried that an academic perspective might cause me to oversimplify the experience of being human, pigeon-hole individuals or make assumptions about my world based on theories formed by great minds in the field. But this hasn’t been the case at all.

The theories I’ve learnt – the scaffoldings of the human mind as proposed by psychologists such Thorndike, Freud, Skinner, Horney, Rogers, Ellis and many others – have helped me make better sense of the chaos, frustration, irrationality, “madness” and existential difficulties that I face in my day to day life. It’s helped me to become a better problem solver both in my personal and professional life, and it’s help me to see the paradox – that while we are all so very different, we are all very much alike.

Berezow is correct that there is a lack of certainty in psychology, but I see the field’s self-doubting stance not as a flaw but as an asset that reveals a spirit of humility and earnest scientific enquiry. Perhaps rather than chiding psychology for not being able to stand firmly enough on its statistical legs, we can be grateful that we have a robust body of knowledge that enables us to improve our mental health, live more meaningful lives, and be of help to others.

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