Home | Psychology |     Share This Page
Reddit: Psychology is a science!

Reddit's effort to censor psychology's critics

Portions Copyright © 2012, Paul LutusMessage Page

Introduction | Reddit/Psychology I | Reddit/Psychology II | Reddit/Psychology III | Reddit/Psychology IV | Reddit/Psychology V | Reddit/Psychology VI | Coda | Feedback

(double-click any word to see its definition)

As regular visitors may know, I'm a longstanding critic of the practice of psychology. I also post to the social news site Reddit. When I post something about psychology, there are often agreements and disagreements, for the reason that, at the time of writing, psychology is in a state of upheaval. And as with all controversial issues, people tend to take sides — psychologists in particular.

But today, a Reddit moderator wrote me directly, in a private communication, and demanded that I stop discussing the topic of psychology in the forum he runs (AskScience), or be banned.

On reading what follows, readers may object that I'm not being ordered not to post on the topic of psychology at all, only that I am forbidden from saying that psychology isn't a science. My reply is that, consistent with the principles of free speech, if I can't speak freely, then I can't speak at all — any posts I made under this prohibition would mislead readers that an open discussion was taking place — and the moderator who posted his censorship order obviously hasn't thought through the implications of his position.

Does Reddit have the right to do this? Yes, of course it does — Reddit isn't a public forum, all appearances to the contrary, and content is monitored and sometimes censored based on the personal tastes of the moderators, as in this case.

Don't get me wrong. There are legitimate reasons to exclude content — libelous remarks and medical advice are two examples — but censorship based on the specific views of a poster on a particular topic is not common. However, as the following exchange shows, it does happen.

The stated basis for the censorship is that psychology is listed as a science in the forum's sidebar, along with economics, anthropology and engineering, therefore ipso facto, it's a science, and anyone who asserts otherwise will be silenced.

In online discussions, people often describe engineering as unscientific, and on excellent grounds (engineering isn't a science), but without hearing from Reddit's censors. The reason? Engineers aren't defensive about their profession's standing as a non-science. But psychologists certainly are — I've been having conversations for years with psychologists who think saying psychology is a science is a reasonable substitute for making psychology a science.

But the exchange that follows raises the bar — open, vigorous disagreement is one thing. Censorship is another.

(To protect the responsible individual from further embarrassment, I have removed his identity from what follows.)
Reddit/Psychology I
In /r/AskScience, we accept psychology as a science. Whatever your personal opinion on the subject, don't argue this point in this subreddit. You can take it up with /r/Psychology or /r/PhilosophyOfScience or in any other forum of your choosing; I don't care who you are or what you do outside of /r/AskScience, and I don't care about your arguments of the merits and shortcomings of psychology.

I also don't care to explain to you (yet again) why it's regarded as a science in /r/AskScience.

The rule is: everything in the right side-bar (including the bright yellow item) is considered a science. Yes, that even includes economics, political science, mathematics, anthropology, and engineering. I can make well-founded and impeccable arguments against all of these being truly "scientific" or regarded as "scientific fields". But I don't. Why? Because it serves /r/AskScience much better to be able to include these fields as part of the discussion, when appropriate.

Consider this your final warning on this matter. If you find yourself unable to accept psychology (and other "non-core" fields) as a science in discussions on this subreddit, you will be banned from further contributions.

This would be unfortunate for both parties, because at times you do make positive contributions in aerospace or physics discussions.
Reddit/Psychology II
Whatever your personal opinion on the subject, don't argue this point in this subreddit. I am sorry, but that is unacceptable. Psychology is undergoing a major overhaul right now as part of the evidence-based practice revolution, and this is a legitimate topic of discussion. To attempt to conceal or censor this topic would represent a disservice to science and to psychology.

I have never raised this topic independent of a question by someone else and I never will, but when someone asks a psychology question, I happen to be able to answer from substantial personal expertise. For example, it seems that many people are unaware that Asperger's is being abandoned for excellent reasons by the APA. I ask you — how is that fact not an appropriate reply to someone who asks about the present standing of Asperger's?

I have never misstated any aspect of this topic, and I back up everything I say with literature references.
I don't care about your arguments of the merits and shortcomings of psychology. Fine. On that basis, if you mean what you say, then you should have no problem seeing this topic discussed fairly and appropriately here. Consider this your final warning on this matter. Consider this my final word on this matter. I have never, and will never, misrepresent or distort any aspect of psychology in this or any other forum.

Thanks for writing. I hope you understand now that you have suggested censorship of a legitimate science topic.

Choose your next move very carefully, and think about what "science censorship" means.
Reddit/Psychology III
In the comment that provoked my warning you directly state that psychologists are not scientists.

That is the position with which I have a problem. Your way of stating your opinion is offensive to the scientists who study psychology and it's not presented as part of a discussion about any overhaul.

I'm not censoring or concealing anything, and I don't appreciate accusations of "science censorship". It's ridiculous.

If there's an "overhaul" that is ongoing, it's the psychologists who are doing it because they are recognizing shortcomings in their field, and I'm sure they're more than happy to discuss changes that are happening that are relevant to them.

What they don't need is an engineer telling them that they are not scientists. If you classify psychology as something other than science, then you open the door for pseudoscience and corporate interests to influence the course of progress in the field, instead of the evidence-based methods of which you are a proponent.

I stand by my principles: if you keep insisting in this forum that psychology is not a science, then you will be banned.
Reddit/Psychology IV
In the comment that provoked my warning you directly state that psychologists are not scientists. Yes, and in due time, my opponent in that exchange agreed with me, saying (in this post) "I agree with you with the basic fact that psychology is not real science". The person I debated is a psychologist who feels very strongly about his field, and who argued vigorously for and against a number of issues. But as to my original claim, he doesn't regard it as in any way controversial, and went so far as to register agreement with it.

And not just him — in a recent Scientific American article, Thomas Insel, the sitting director of the NIMH, takes a similar view, saying, "Today scientific approaches based on modern biology, neuroscience and genomics are replacing nearly a century of purely psychological theories, yielding new approaches to the treatment of mental illnesses." In other words, and very diplomatically, the director is saying we need more science in psychology, or perhaps we should simply abandon it and move on.
If you classify psychology as something other than science, then you open the door for pseudoscience and corporate interests to influence the course of progress in the field, instead of the evidence-based methods of which you are a proponent. Actually, as Elizabeth Loftus has discovered, the opposite is the case. Loftus has been testifying against the claim that Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) and its practitioners are working within a scientific model. Loftus is trying to undo the injustices that were perpetrated by practitioners of this therapy in the 1990s, and she has discovered that she must testify in courts of law because (a) that's where most of the damage was done, and (b) she can't make any headway talking to psychologists.

In response to public pressure and Loftus' efforts, some U.S. courts have ruled that they will hear no more RMT cases. But this doesn't mean psychologists can't continue to practice RMT if they choose.
If there's an "overhaul" that is ongoing, it's the psychologists who are doing it ... On the contrary, psychologists have vigorously resisted this change. In 2005, former APA president Levant saw the danger of allowing things to go on as they have, so he began an evidence-based practice (EBP) campaign, using the same arguments that I do — psychology must adopt more scientific standards or it will be sidelined. Unfortunately, rank and file psychologists objected to his campaign and refused to go along. In his article, Levant said, "... psychology needs to define EBP in psychology or it will be defined for us. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines." But to no effect.

So it seems your objection, in essence that describing psychology as unscientific plays into the hands of Big Pharma and pseudoscientists, is contradicted by the statements of these people and others, people who are much more influential in the field than I am, and all of whom take positions similar to mine.

As long as psychological practice is allowed to go on without paying attention to evidence (something that is universally recognized to be so), Big Pharma will be able to prescribe drugs that have no known efficacy — depression drugs, which have recently been shown to be clinically ineffective, antipsychotics, and others, without having to first demonstrate their effectiveness in fair and rigorous clinical trials. And without reform psychologists will continue to offer questionable diagnoses like Asperger's, now being abandoned for cause by the APA.

When mainstream medicine was forced to reform in the 1920s and 1930s, the first essential step was to expose as many unscientific practices as possible, and require adoption of strict evidence-based practice — in essence, no therapy without evidence. Psychology is today at the same point that mainstream medicine was in 1920. In that bygone era, no one would have considered silencing those who criticized unscientific practices.

As I have shown above by quoting primary sources, the consensus is universal that psychology is not paying attention to evidence, and something must be done — and adopting evidence-based practice standards would be an excellent first step.
What they don't need is an engineer telling them that they are not scientists. Yes, I was an engineer 40 years ago — I designed part of the NASA Space Shuttle and played a theoretical part in the Viking Mars Lander program. But that was a long time ago. Is Albert Einstein still described as a patent clerk? And more to the point, do you really think science hinges on authority? I'm not censoring or concealing anything, and I don't appreciate accusations of "science censorship". It's ridiculous. Wait, what? Which is it? Either I am allowed to express views with which psychology's opinion leaders agree as shown above, or not. Either psychology is in the midst of a complete overhaul of its assumptions and methods as shown above, or not. If you insist on this course of action, a choice that would also ban the views of the sitting director of the NIMH (quoted above) and of past APA president Levant (quoted above), then you will certainly have engaged in scientific censorship. I stand by my principles: if you keep insisting in this forum that psychology is not a science, then you will be banned. The decision and the power are yours — you can silence any voice you choose. I just want to bring to your attention that this censorship threat, regardless of whether or not it is acted on, will have a chilling effect on open scientific discourse.

You must do what you think is right. And so must I.
Reddit/Psychology V

(This follow-up appeared unexpected, many months after the above exchange)

I was linked to your article here and decided to take another look at the issue of psychology and our discussion.

After reviewing your arguments and looking at things on my own, it's still my opinion that psychology should be considered a science.
Whether a field is or is not a science cannot be, and is not, a matter of opinion — yours, mine or anyone else's. It must be a matter of established standards and objective evaluation. On that topic, psychology cannot be considered a science unless and until it is defined by clearly stated scientific theories that it tests and whose results it accepts. This is not true now.

What do I mean by "defined"? Physics is defined by what it calls the Standard Model. If an experimental result should come along that falsifies the Standard Model, that would not just be the end of the Standard Model, it would be the end of physics as a science. That's the rule that governs all sciences.
More importantly, the actual state of psychology is irrelevant to my modest request as AskScience moderator from you as a participant in the forum. Can you translate that into English? Something is missing. My entire argument with you was specifically about how to approach psychology in AskScience, and only in AskScience. First, at this point it comes to me that you're the moderator who ordered me to stop expressing my views or be banned.

Second, don't you understand that the meaning of words doesn't depend on where the words appear? That "science" means (or should mean) exactly the same thing in the AskScience forum as it does anywhere else?

Here is how science is defined in courts of law (a ruling now in force to keep superstitious beliefs out of public school classrooms) — science must have these properties:

  • It is guided by natural law;
  • It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law;
  • It is testable against the empirical world;
  • Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
  • It is falsifiable.
Psychology doesn't meet these standards — it cannot be tested and compared to a defining theory of the human mind, for lack of any such theory, and it therefore is not falsifiable. Further, there are no natural laws by which psychology is explained, therefore if you were to look at the above list with an open mind and respect the rule of law and the meaning of science, it would dawn on you that psychology should be excluded from public school classrooms along with Creationism.

The only reason it won't be excluded is because psychology is regarded as relatively harmless, compared to, say, Creationism, the reason for the above legal ruling. But this toleration on the part of public schools doesn't help psychology's scientific standing.
While I consider your arguments concerning psychology being ‘non-science’ as specious, This is not about your opinion, sir, it is about whether psychology is a science. It is not. The law says so, scientists say so, the current sitting director of the NIMH says so (see below), I say so. you certainly have the right to express them. No, as a matter of fact, I do not have that right — not at Reddit. I have been told in no uncertain terms that I may not express my views on the topic we're discussing right now. Here is how the Reddit moderator (i.e. you) expressed his demand (this is a quote):

"Consider this your final warning on this matter. If you find yourself unable to accept psychology (and other 'non-core' fields) as a science in discussions on this subreddit, you will be banned from further contributions."

If you feel differently, you're addressing the wrong person, and you need to locate a mirror. My absence from Reddit is a matter of policy — an explicit Reddit policy that censors unpopular viewpoints.

Before you object that it wasn't Reddit that made that decision, it was just you, think again — it was Reddit, because you were acting on Reddit's behalf, and if I had ignored your ruling and continued to speak freely, I would have been banned as surely as though Reddit's stockholders voted for that outcome. Welcome to the concept of adult responsibility.
You've expressed your opinions very eloquently on your website, in fact, which I applaud. However, AskScience is a specific forum with a very limited format because it is nothing more than a small subset of reddit; there's only so much room for subtlety. What subtlety would that be? Psychology either does or does not meet the definition of a science. At the moment, for lack of a central, testable, defining theory, a property that all scientific fields have in common, it doesn't. There's nothing subtle about it. Most of psychology's content cannot be tested or potentially falsified, and with respect to the field's scientific standing, the seriousness of that issue cannot be overemphasized. In short, all scientific fields must be defined clearly enough that they can be falsified by new evidence, and psychology lacks this essential property. It just so happens that there are a TON of questions that come in, which can best be answered by experts who have gone through the trouble of studying psychology at length. Yes, just as with astrology — you don't want amateurs or dilettantes answering serious, well-intentioned questions about astrology when true experts are available. My point? Stick to one topic — the fact that people of differing degrees of expertise are answering questions about psychology is orthogonal to the question of whether psychology is a science.

Does psychology's present standing mean people should stop discussing psychology or using it in their daily lives because it's not a science? No, based on the precedent set by astrology, there's no reason to be rash — the fact that astrology is bunk hasn't had any serious effect on its public acceptance.
Your repeated hostile treatment of their chosen field of study, and those who study it, chases away the people most qualified to give the best scientific answers to these questions. What? How is saying that psychology isn't a science "hostile"? It's a fact and it deserves to be addressed. Are you similarly annoyed at Thomas Insel, sitting director of the NIMH, who in Scientific American has expressed views similar to mine?:
"In most areas of medicine, doctors have historically tried to glean something about the underlying cause of a patient’s illness before figuring out a treatment that addresses the source of the problem. When it came to mental or behavioral disorders in the past, however, no physical cause was detectable so the problem was long assumed by doctors to be solely “mental,” and psychological therapies followed suit.

Today scientific approaches based on modern biology, neuroscience and genomics are replacing nearly a century of purely psychological theories, yielding new approaches to the treatment of mental illnesses."
Are you planning to write Insel and accuse him of being "hostile" toward the present structure and practice of psychology? His wording is much more diplomatic and measured than mine, but when the facts are distilled from the prose, he's saying exactly the same thing I am, i.e. psychology doesn't work and is being replaced by more effective, more scientific, methods as we speak.
This leaves untrained "pop-psych" redditors to answer them. You're really not getting it. Until psychology adopts scientific standards, it's all pop psychology. Do you divide astrology into pop astrology and the "real thing"? Why not? — you've just done it with psychology. This is very clearly a terrible situation for AskScience, and especially for the individuals asking these questions. This is why the first thing I said is that I didn't care about your opinion of psychology; it's entirely irrelevant to the problem of moderating AskScience and maximizing the quality of the answers. I hope that makes sense to you. All except that you've contradicted yourself. If you really didn't care what my opinion was, we wouldn't be having this discussion. On the one hand you say you don't care what my opinion is, on the other you say I may not express that opinion at risk of being banned. Perhaps you should make up your mind. The reason I decided to write you today is that we have started a new subreddit called /r/AskScienceDiscussion. It is a place to talk about topics relevant to science, but which aren't "science questions" as such. In this subreddit, your comments would be appropriate, so I welcome you to join. Forget it. Now that I know that Reddit will censor viewpoints it regards as unpopular, I won't be coming back. Freedom of speech isn't about letting people express popular viewpoints, it is about tolerating any viewpoints people care to have. Please do remember to keep discussions civil Sir, you are in no position to lecture others about civility. Once a person crosses the line into open censorship, their subsequent use of the word "civil" represents the height of hypocrisy. if you feel the need to, you may attack psychology as a discipline, not those who study it. I can't believe I'm talking to someone who honors democratic values. Don't you understand that you can't tune the content of public discussions to suit your own tastes? I suspect you simply don't understand the standards of modern western civilization, and why those standards exist. Again, freedom of speech isn't tested by your acceptance of views you like, it's tested by your willingness to allow the expression of views you personally regard as deplorable. And I shouldn't have to explain this to an educated person.

Also, do you know what would happen in a debate about psychology if it really was a science and I claimed it wasn't? Any competent practitioner could (and would) promptly speak up and falsify my position by citing the central, falsifiable theory that (a) defines psychology and (b) is addressed by, and reinforced by, modern psychological research.

Unfortunately, there is no such theory.
If you feel personally attacked, report the offending comments and let the moderators know, so we can take appropriate measures to keep discussions amicable and productive. If you do decide to participate, please let me know so that I can tell the other moderators that I personally invited you, so that they won't judge your comments with prejudice. Don't worry about that — it's not going to happen. You are (a) in charge of a "public" forum, but (b) are clearly philosophically unprepared for the prospect of open public debate on any controversial topic.

Also, I've had enough debates along these general lines over the past ten years that I don't see the point of any more. When psychologists try to address their field's present standing, they get emotional, they get angry, they complain that by citing scientific evidence I'm not playing fair, or they get frustrated, abandon any pretense of fair play and demand that I be banned from the forum. Or all of the above. What they don't do is treat the debate as an opportunity to show that psychology is a science, for reasons that should be obvious.
Thanks for taking the time to read this through - it's a not a short letter, but I felt it was important to address the previous matter before extending the invitation. You may put it up on your website if you like, but I didn't write it for publicity or as a retort - I prefer to keep a low profile and I have an intense distaste for drama or needless debate. Perhaps you should have thought of that before censoring my contributions to the AskScience forum. In a western democracy, such censorship is by definition unacceptable and contrary to the values that define modern civilization.

You're obviously not a deep thinker, so to avoid any misunderstanding I'll explain this reply. In your post, you haven't addressed or retracted your original demand that I avoid saying psychology is not a science or be banned, therefore your original censorship demand is still in effect. Further, in asking that I return you've added some new requirements to your list of rules, as though you are director of a stage play rather than moderator of a public forum. And you clearly have no idea how your behavior looks.

So, on that basis, let me spell this out for you — no educated person would volunteer to participate in your dog and pony show. What you describe is not an open public forum in which people can express their views, it is an absurd, staged event masquerading as a science forum. It's not guided by the rules of open discourse, it's guided by people like you, pulling strings behind the scenes like the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz.

Do you know what science journals disallow? Almost nothing — if a letter or article libels someone, or is of such poor quality that it's embarrassing, it won't be printed. Everything else is fair discourse, and if truth be known, the more controversy, the better (it makes good science). The result is that scientists, aware of the high editorial standards in force, are willing to read such journals, confident that they're not falling prey to one or another variety of tendentious fiction.

You're not under any pressure to meet that standard, but in exchange, you can't expect people to don your dog collar and obediently march about on your stage.

I'll continue to conceal your true identity, not wishing to produce any more embarrassment than your actions ought to cause you.
Reddit/Psychology VI
... let me first clear up one thing: I'm only one moderator of AskScience, and also a very small number of very small reddits that are related. I don't speak for all of reddit, and certainly not "Reddit stockholders". I'm not an administrator and I'm not employed by the reddit company. Surely you see that, if you set policy in forums, the fact that you're not a Reddit employee doesn't matter. Yes? Secondly, do you not agree that some things are appropriate in some places, and other things are not? You need to understand how science works. When you use the word "science", as you are doing, and as psychologists do, you're assuming (or should be assuming) certain responsibilities in modern times, in particular among people who may not understand what science is. For example, those people who may think science is a collection of trustworthy facts (one of the more common misconceptions about science). AskScience is not a science journal, and does not pretend to be. In fact, it cannot be, because the reddit format and community doesn't allow for that possibility, even if we wanted it. Nonsense. The science subreddit presents a much more accurate picture of science by simply requiring high-quality submitted links and discarding those that fail this test. Not that there aren't problems with that approach (not all worthwhile science appears in refereed journals), but I'm only making a comparison — the science subreddit falsifies your claim. I'd also like to point out that I would be censoring you if I actually removed any your comments, which I did not. Okay, I don't know anything about your educational background, but surely you see that threatening banning is as much censorship as banning is. These actions censor content just as effectively, in different ways.

The Church didn't censor Galileo by putting him on the rack, they did it by showing him the rack. You, too, can study history, and thereby possibly avoid reliving it.
Asking you not to offend a certain group is well within reasonable limits of moderating a forum of this kind. Yes about Reddit in general, but it's fatal in a science context. Suppose astrologers petition to be listed among the sciences at AskScience, or Scientologists, or Christian Scientists, or those who practice "Creation Science"? You simply are not thinking very deeply, something I have reluctantly concluded is a general rule about you — how do you avoid offending all those "scientists"? "Further, in asking that I return you've added some new requirements to your list of rules" No, these are the same rules everybody abides by. Your retort doesn't even address my point, which is that you are reciting new requirements I have not heard before. And in any case, they're requirements that prevent anything resembling a useful scientific discussion. If somebody acts like a jerk, they are removed - it doesn't matter what their reasons are or what the point is they are trying to make. That has no bearing on the present discussion, since to get to where we are now, I stated the same facts that the director of the NIMH has stated in the pages of Scientific American. That means the problem you have with my views is that they are unpopular — period. Need I add that popularity means nothing in science. Thirdly, you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater here. "It's all pop psychology" Really? How about cognitive neuroscience? From the article, "Cognitive neuroscience is a branch of both psychology and neuroscience". That's false, the author of the article is mistaken. Psychology and neuroscience are utterly separate fields. One studies the mind, the other studies the brain. The mind is a philosophical abstraction, while the brain is a physical organ. People who realize they've wasted much of their adult life studying psychology want desperately to hear that they can cross over into a scientific field, and there are people willing to reassure them that this is so, but in fact, psychology and neuroscience are separate fields. This is not to say one cannot cross over from one to the other, but it's wrong to claim they're related fields. I can bring up more examples if you like. With all respect, you're out of your depth. Psychology focuses its attention on the mind, the mind is not a physical organ, therefore psychology cannot be described as an empirical field. I will leave the next logical step to your fertile mind. Looking at your article on your website, I can see (what I consider to be) the major fault in your reasoning. A mistake, but go ahead. Your strongest arguments against psychology as a science apply only to clinical psychology. False. Experimental psychologists also study the mind, they also have no falsifiable theories, and therefore they are not practicing science as it is defined (i.e. something that requires falsifiable theories). And finally, if experimental psychologists want to identify their field as a science, they first need to expel the clinical psychologists. The fact that they won't do this indicts the scientific standing of the entire field. It would be like a medical society not expelling witch doctors — how does that inspire public trust? The NYT article about Asperger diagnosis and the Scientific American article called "Faulty Circuits" by Thomas Insel are your main sources for the argument, and both are really about psychiatry or clinical psychology, and not the academic branches of psychology. This is nonsense. All fields that study the human mind have their roots in human psychology. If human psychology is not a science, then the derivatives are also not sciences. Human psychology is not a science. It's not a science because it doesn't craft and then test falsifiable theories. This defect deprives all the derivatives of the standing of sciences — all 55 subfields presently listed by the APA.

And to think you could have performed that trivial mental exercise all by yourself.
You quote Insel "Today scientific approaches based on modern biology, neuroscience and genomics are replacing nearly a century of purely psychological theories, yielding new approaches to the treatment of mental illnesses.", placing emphasis on "neuroscience and genomics are replacing nearly a century of purely psychological theories", whereas I would emphasize "the treatment of mental illnesses." That is to say, clinical psychology - Thomas Insel, director of the NIMH, does not say to disregard the field in its entirety. He also didn't say occupy Mars. I am beginning to realize you don't understand how to conduct a coherent debate, one in which the classic rules are obeyed, like not wandering away from the topic or introducing red herrings. I quote "In short, all scientific fields must be defined clearly enough that they can be falsified by new evidence, and psychology lacks this essential property." You are thinking of scientific theories, not scientific fields. What? In spite of the fact that I have provided you with copious examples of the distinction, you haven't bothered to grasp the connection between a scientific field and a scientific theory.

The standing of physics as a scientific field rests with its having crafted, and then tested, the Standard Model, a scientific theory. No Standard Model, no physics. Physics, the scientific field, has its standing because of its scientific theories. It's the same with biology, geology, and every other scientific field — each of them is a scientific field because of its theories. No theory, no field.
You can't falsify "physics", but you could falsify, say, the "theory of gravity". Untrue. If I falsified the Standard Model, I would have falsified physics. Not to say some other field might not spring up and take its place afterward, but a falsification of the Standard Model would falsify physics.

Phrenology, based on the theory that one can draw conclusions about personality by examining the surface of the skull, no longer exists as science because its theory has been falsified.

Ptolemaic celestial mechanics, based on epicycles and the central position of the earth, no longer exists as science because its theory has been falsified.

Alchemy, a time-honored field that preceded chemistry, one practiced by many including Isaac Newton, was based on the idea that one can transform base metals into precious ones. Alchemy no longer exists because its theory has been falsified.

In some fields, an aspect of its theory is falsified. Examples include the ether theory of light transmission, which injured physics but didn't kill it, and the transformations created by the germ theory in medicine and plate tectonics in geology. But in all these cases, if the field's basis theory is falsified, the field is disqualified as science. Example astrology, cast out and replaced by astronomy, and the other examples listed above.

Scientific fields are defined by scientific theories. No scientific theory, no scientific field.
In the reddit thread, you often linked to a PLOS ONE article called '"Positive" Results Increase Down the Hierarchy of the Sciences'. Notice it lists 'Psychiatry/Psychology' together - not a very fine-grained study. Covered above. All fields that study the mind are branches of human psychology, and all of them suffer from that same defect. Because of the unscientific basis for these fields, it's not at all unfair to address them as one, in particular if the topic is scientific standing or discipline. Also notice that Materials Science is only a few percentage points better than Psychology (figure 1). Finally, notice that psychiatry is an inherently 'human' discipline, and that the lower rating in figure 1 can be entirely explained by figure 5. That is to say, psychology scores poorly because it involves humans, not because it is unscientific. No, it is unscientific because it doesn't have a scientific theory as its basis. How many times do I have to repeat this uncontroversial fact?

Medicine involves human beings, but it's scientific. Neuroscience involves human beings, but it's scientific. And to think, you could have seen these obvious facts before posting.
I suppose you can make an argument that economics and other social sciences are also "nonscience" on the basis of this article, but then we throw out the possibility of studying humans (and our macroscopic behavior) scientifically, and that is a step I am unwilling to consider. So what? You don't understand science, and you seem to think the appearance of science is a suitable replacement for actual science. So forgive me if I don't rank your preferences too highly.

Also, your conclusion is false — we certainly can study human beings scientifically, and we are doing so. We do this by studying actual human organs, not philosophical abstractions, and by adopting the strictest scientific standards. In other words, by using the methods of neuroscience and/or medicine.
Also consider that medicine in a much broader sense is a field wracked with difficulty. Stop wandering away from the topic. Your digressions add nothing to your argument.

(snip digression)
You also argue that it is good for the field, to say that psychology is not a science. I have never said this anywhere. It's not good for the field, it's good for the public. I don't care about psychology, I care about the public and about episodes like the just-ending Asperger Syndrome fiasco, Recovered Memory Therapy, and many similar episodes that punctuate the history of psychology, each of which took place because psychologists have insufficient respect for science. While I understand your sentiment, and the evidence you present to support your argument, I believe it is much better for science as a whole, and for psychology in particular, to point out the specific difficulties that psychology faces, rather than writing off the entire discipline. Shall we try that with astrology, or do you think astrology has too many core beliefs that are contradicted by science? How about phrenology? Maybe we can repair phrenology?

My point is there's a point after which it's simpler to abandon a field than allow it to continue to masquerade as a science. And, since psychology is unwilling to clean its own house or adopt scientific standards, I think that moment has arrived. So does Thomas Insel.
And yes, whether or not it should be considered "science" really is an opinion. No, what constitutes science is not a matter of opinion, as I showed by quoting the law on this to you, apparently to no effect. "Science" is poorly defined in the first place, False — science is precisely defined, as it must be in modern times, because everyone wants the status of science without the discipline. Tell me — which part of this list of legal requirements, already provided to you, is "poorly defined":
  • It is guided by natural law;
  • It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law;
  • It is testable against the empirical world;
  • Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
  • It is falsifiable.
The above list is the present legal basis for excluding Creationism from public school classrooms. It also sets a standard that psychology cannot meet.
and there is a gradient along which different fields lie. I see there's no point in this exchange. You refuse to read what I post, you can't be bothered to educate yourself in science basics, and the fact that you're the moderator of a science forum is becoming increasingly funny. Unless I've missed a critical passage in the literature, philosophers of science haven't quite figured out where to draw the line. Philosophers no longer define science, for a number of important reasons, among which are that everyone wants to be able to call themselves a scientist, regardless of the facts. As a result, at present courts of law define science, with the assistance of expert witnesses, and the above list of legal requirements is the result.

The above legal definition prevents Creationism and other religious beliefs from being presented as science in science classrooms. It also demonstrates that psychology is not a science.
Also, please tell me THE "central, falsifiable theory" of Physics. The Standard Model, and I have already provided this fact. But guess what? I'm not going to indulge your penchant for wasting my time and then refusing to read what I post. The Standard Model defines contemporary physics, and if it were to be falsified, it would end physics as we know it. How about Marine Biology? Can't do it? Can't do what? Marine biology depends on biology. If one falsifies biology's theories, for example evolution or cell biology, then one has ended marine biology as a science. That's because fields are an enormous collection of theories, and you can't pick just one to represent the whole. Yes, as a matter of fact, you can, because in a scientific field, all legitimate theories relate to each other and to a central theory like the Standard Model. But you know what? I'm done with you. You're narcissistic, ignorant, incoherent and a total waste of an educated person's time. You can't be bothered to study before posting, your arguments lack any internal consistency, you can't be bothered to read what I post, and you have yet to begin learning about science.
Scientists, and those trained in science, may be astonished at the above exchange, but yes — such people exist. They are constitutionally unable to draw conclusions from readily available evidence, or understand the role played by science in the modern world, or detect the partition between science and non-science. For these people, it is as though the most recent 500 years of human history had never happened. They're unable to follow these elementary points:
  • If "philosophers can't decide what is and isn't science" and if philosophers were actually in charge of this issue, then, for lack of a demarcation line, everything is science.

  • Unfortunately, if everything is science, then nothing is science.

  • But in reality, science has a definite meaning and its meaning is accessible to anyone not brain-damaged.

  • Science differs from non-science by being willing to compare its ideas to reality — "reality-testing".

  • Those ideas that fail comparison with reality are cast out. This is called "falsifiability" — a scientific theory must be testable (comparable to reality) and a meaningful test must conclusively either support or falsify the theory.

  • If a theory cannot be compared to reality and possibly falsified, then that theory is not scientific.

  • Further, if a field's defining theories cannot be compared to reality and possibly falsified, then that field is not scientific.

  • This is what distinguishes astronomy from astrology — astronomy compares its defining theories to reality, the theories survive the comparison, astronomy is a science. Astrology's theories are compared to reality, the comparison fails, astrology is not a science.

  • The conclusion is that the word "science" actually means something, it's easy to define, and its requirements are non-negotiable.

  • A field that possesses no central defining, falsifiable theories — a field like psychology — cannot become a science unless and until it crafts and then tests such theories, and unless practical tests support the theories.

  • Neuroscience is defined as study of the brain (and the nervous system). Because the brain can be located, measured, and weighed, neuroscience has the essential prerequisites of a science.

  • Psychology is defined as study of the mind. But the mind is not a physical organ — the mind cannot be located, measured, weighed, and more important, its existence cannot be either confirmed or falsified in a scientific sense. This is why psychology is not a science.

  • The presence of scientists in a field, conducting scientific experiments, is not enough to make a field a science. Were this not so, astrologers — or Creationists, Scientologists, Christian Scientists, etc. — could simply hire some scientists, get them working in a laboratory, and their field would magically become a science.

  • Science has one more key property — skepticism. In science, an idea with no supporting evidence is assumed to be false.

  • To a non-scientist who doesn't understand the role of skepticism, Bigfoot's existence hasn't been conclusively disproven (an impossible evidentiary burden) therefore Bigfoot exists. So do fairies, UFOs, the Loch Ness monster, and recovered memories*.

  • To a scientist, for all such questions, without evidence, these things are assumed not to exist.

How hard is that? And yes, dear reader, the distinction between science and non-science is critically important — it's how we keep rank superstition out of public school classrooms. And when non-science is allowed to masquerade as science, this leads to tragedies like Recovered Memory Therapy, a bogus psychological practice in which thousands of innocent people were accused of imaginary sex crimes (reference) and any number of families were torn apart.

So Angry
I just wanted to say that I just read what happened in reddit and the discussion you had and it made my blood boil. I actually started sweating from being so angry at your interlocutor's stupidity and/or lack of honesty about how he handled the discussion. Thanks for writing. Your message is typical of a large number of responses I've received to that exchange. I was astonished that someone with no understanding of science whatever could attempt to run a science forum, and then censor any views he disagrees with. This level of science illiteracy is unfortunately present in a large subset of the population — people who see science as a suitable replacement for religion, complete with reverence for experts and vigorous suppression of dissent.

The moderator who decided to censor my views is absolutely unqualified to represent the interests of science. He thinks science is, not what the evidence says, but what experts say. During the exchange he even admitted that he decided what was, and was not, science, a job for which he is spectacularly ill-equipped.

Like many psychology graduates, he thinks his background makes him science-literate, but in point of fact he hasn't the slightest idea what constitutes science. This is why he thinks creating a panel of science experts, and banning anyone who disagrees with him, betrays anything but his complete ignorance of the topic. As Richard Feynman said, "Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion."

Meanwhile, in the real world, Thomas Insel, the present director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, agrees with my view of psychology — in a recent article saying, "Today scientific approaches based on modern biology, neuroscience and genomics are replacing nearly a century of purely psychological theories, yielding new approaches to the treatment of mental illnesses." In the full article Insel makes the same points I do about psychology: there's too much opinion, too little respect for evidence, and nearly no science.
I'm currently writing a letter and preparing to go to my university and have a discussion with some teachers about the fiasco that was my psychology studies. I doubt such an exchange will produce anything worthwhile. You need to understand that psychology isn't popular on college campuses because it's difficult and rewarding, it's popular because it's easy and useless. Student counselors do all they can to avoid mentioning that a psychology degree has almost no value in the real world — psychology degree holders appear at the bottom of the spectrum of academic status and income, alongside sociology and philosophy.

I'm sure you're aware that athletic programs are a typical university's embarrassing secret — people who have no business on a college campus are eagerly enrolled and given passing grades, just so they can play sports and make lots of money for the university. My point is that psychology is to the academic side of a university what athletics is to the business side. It's a dirty not-so-secret that psychology and sociology and a handful of other courses represent the majority of university income, but they have next to no value after graduation.

Because of this, student counselors face a conflict of interest — they appear to be representing the interests of the students, but they often recommend bonehead courses like psychology because that's easy money for the university. Students with no academic qualifications, who have no business on a college campus, can be enrolled in psychology courses — and pass — in a sham that only benefits the university.
You seem to be a very cool-headed person and it makes me wonder if you have any tips on how to stay calm during an argument like the one you had but face to face. Oh, I certainly have some advice about that — avoid face-to-face confrontations with such people. These people haven't been trained to think, as a result of which your most careful arguments, and your respect for their intelligence, will be misplaced. Even professional lecturers who regularly advocate for more science education and who fight the religious right's efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution (as just one example), know better than to debate such people — experience shows it's a pointless exercise when your opponent doesn't understand science or the role of evidence. Anyway, your writings are very appreciated and it is a shame that people can't keep up with some basic intellectual standards... Thank you. Eventually this Reddit moderator will be exposed for the incompetent that he is, and the charade he has created will disintegrate. But that will only happen when people realize that science doesn't mean choosing a single "expert" opinion, ignoring evidence, and censoring dissenting views. That's not science, it's religion.

Home | Psychology |     Share This Page