Thursday, December 18, 2008

Is Psychology a Science?

Arachnoid | Since its first appearance in 2003, this article has become required reading in a number of college-level psychology courses. Because this article is directed toward educated nonspecialist readers considering psychological treatment, students of psychology are cautioned that the terms "psychology" and "clinical psychology" are used interchangeably.

The field of human psychology is a powerful force in modern society, and its influence is widespread – in language, law, the social contract, and in our perception of ourselves. Because legal decisions are sometimes made based on psychology, decisions that might cause someone to be incarcerated or freed, it is important to establish whether psychology is a science or a simple belief system. We should determine whether psychology can be relied on to objectively support the social and legal policies that are based on it. In modern times, such a serious public burden can only be borne by a field that is based on reason, on science. Which leads to our question: is human psychology steered by science?

Conclusion: At this point it must be clear to the intelligent reader that clinical psychology can make virtually any claim and offer any kind of therapy, because there is no practical likelihood of refutation – no clear criteria to invalidate a claim. This, in turn, is because human psychology is not a science, it is very largely a belief system similar to religion.

Like religion, human psychology has a dark secret at its core – it contains within it a model for correct behavior, although that model is never directly acknowledged. Buried within psychology is a nebulous concept that, if it were to be addressed at all, would be called “normal behavior.” But do try to avoid inquiring directly into this normal behavior among psychologists – nothing is so certain to get you diagnosed as having an obsessive disorder.

In the same way that everyone is a sinner in religion's metaphysical playground, everyone is mentally ill in psychology's long, dark hallway – no one is truly “normal.” This means everyone needs psychological treatment. This means psychologists and psychiatrists are guaranteed lifetime employment, although that must surely be a coincidence rather than a dark motive.

But this avoids a more basic problem with the concept of “normal behavior.” The problem with establishing such a standard, whether one does this directly as religion does, or indirectly as psychology does, is that the activity confronts, and attempts to contradict, something that really is a scientific theory – evolution. In evolution, through the mechanism of natural selection, organisms adapt to the conditions of their environment, and, because the environment keeps changing, there is no particular genotype that can remain viable in the long term.

The scientific evidence for evolution is very strong, and evolution's message is that only flexible and adaptable organisms survive in a world of constant change. Reduced to everyday, individual terms, it means no single behavioral pattern can for all time be branded “correct” or “normal.” This is the core reason religion fails to provide for real human needs (which wasn't its original purpose anyway), and this failing is shared by psychology – they both put forth a fixed behavioral model in a constantly changing world.

The present atmosphere among many psychologists and psychiatrists can only be described as panic. This panic is clearly shown in the rapid, seemingly purposeful destruction of the DSM, the field's “bible,” as a legitimate diagnostic tool (because if everything is a mental illness, then nothing is). This panic arises in part from a slow realization that many conditions formerly thought to be mental conditions amenable to psychological treatment, turn out to be organic conditions treatable with drugs (or, like homosexuality, turn out to be conditions not appropriate to any kind of treatment). Further, many traditional clinical practices have been shown to be ineffectual and/or indistinguishable from ordinary experience or nothing at all.

In the final analysis, the present state of psychology is the best answer to the original inquiry about whether it is scientific, because if human psychology were as grounded in science as many people believe, many of its historical and contemporary assertions would have been falsified by its own theoretical and clinical failures, and it would be either replaced by something more scientifically rigorous, or simply cast aside for now.

But this is all hypothetical, because psychology and psychiatry have never been based in science, and therefore are free of the constraints placed on scientific theories. This means these fields will prevail far beyond their last shred of credibility, just as religions do, and they will be propelled by the same energy source — belief. That pure, old-fashioned fervent variety of belief, unsullied by reason or evidence.