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Barbara Oakley - Social Psychology, Genes and Human Evil
Posted: 19 January 2009 10:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 31 ]
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Chris, I think you bring up something interesting about the issue raised. Your pointing out the Wiki statement: “The experiment was widely criticized as being unethical and bordering on unscientific.” is more true than an exaggeration. However, the criticism was often viewed coming from elements within social science that were less than willing to open up to a more scientific approach to social science. People I’ve read over the years in the skeptical movement seemed much more open to the experiments, with only limited criticism of the conclusions offered. Oakley, to me anyways, seems to be one of the few I’ve seen to actually come from the “skeptical community” that has raised such criticism so directly. The “unethical” argument, which lead to further restrictions on such research, have at times been portrayed as more concerned with how participants were treated and any psychological effects possibly imposed. Oakley’s open accusation that some of these conclusions are basically unfalsifiable from more that just the “unethical” restrictions imposed and stem from the onset of the research protocol, is interesting to me. As to the wider debate on social science, it is to me a welcoming sign to be open to skepticism and acceptance that there are possibly wide ranging problems within the field itself.

For anyone who is aware of what I am talking about, I’d truly welcome any correction or clarification. It’s been a while since I’ve listened to this podcast and I haven’t the time right now to go through reams of research to make my arguments or comments any more exact.

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Posted: 19 January 2009 10:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 32 ]
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Has anyone seen Zimbardo’s talk at last year’s Beyond Belief. There he talks about the test where four-year old kids who were offered a marshmallow and told if they don’t eat it right away they will get an additional marshmallow later. When the psychologist left, some kids didn’t wait (Zimbardo calls them “present oriented”) and other did wait (“future oriented”). And how does Zimbardo explain the difference in the four-year old kids? Cultural and other environmental differences, like religion, geographic location, etc. In four-year old kids? So, I guess being a four-year old Christian from Nicaragua will result in eating the marshmallow and being a four-year old Muslim from Saudi Arabia will make you to wait. Right? Zimbardo is a joke.

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Posted: 19 January 2009 11:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 33 ]
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The conflict between the “hard science” people and the “soft science” people in the social sciences has been going on at least since the 1950s. The hard science people want the social sciences to emulate the methodologies of the hard sciences; the soft sciences people maintain that useful insights can be gained from material that does not conform to rigorous scientific methods. The hard scientists have been steadily advancing as they have developed techniques that permit the utilization of rigorous scientific methods to ever more subtle questions. However, I reject the assertion that “if it’s not scientific, it’s useless”. Sure, you can’t prove anything with soft methods—but then, you can’t prove anything with rigorous methods. You can DISPROVE things with rigorous methods, but the fact that information was not derived by rigorous scientific methods does not render it useless. The field of history, for example (NOT archaeology, history!) has an enormous amount of useful information, despite the fact that it is utterly lacking in scientific method.

I believe that we should accept the sad truth that we can’t nail down everything with scientific rigor. Some issues just have to be handled using unscientific methods. And I think there’s lots to learn by these methods.

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Posted: 19 January 2009 11:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 34 ]
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Chris Crawford - 19 January 2009 11:09 AM

The conflict between the “hard science” people and the “soft science” people in the social sciences has been going on at least since the 1950s. The hard science…

I believe that we should accept the sad truth that we can’t nail down everything with scientific rigor. Some issues just have to be handled using unscientific methods. And I think there’s lots to learn by these methods.

My axis for disagreement over the state of social science is not so much about the “rigorous scientific methods” so much as it is taking up truth and objectivity as cardinal values whatever way you run your research. In hard science these are cardinal values but not in soft science. The difference is not that one is possible and the other is not.. its a question of attitude not protocol. People like Zimbardo are not interested in accuracy. They have a message they want to get out. They abuse “science” as a vessel for doing so because anyone can dismiss you opinion but fewer can dismiss your shiny new “scientific fact”. This is why Zimbardo invited a news crew. This is why he did not care if anyone could verify his subjects were statistically average/normal. This is why researchers merrily cite technical terms (narcissism) that don’t even exist. This is why a day never went by in anthropology class where I did not feel like I was being sold political (not factual) points. This is why I emphasized that one bad study was not surprising but the numerous and brazen nature of the flaws was- uh don’t you expect more from a Yale grad? No one else did.. he went on to author textbooks and serve as president of the APA despite his awful “research” a year before receiving an Ig Noble award.

I happen to think the study of societies is both scientifically doable, and important. Certainly you can ask a question like why is race X overrepresented in prison or in college and find useful answers regardless of whether or not this meshes with physics-level certainty. Some social scientists I know of are of the highest integrity.. they’re just closer to being the exception than the rule.

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Posted: 19 January 2009 11:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 35 ]
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Chris, in a way I hope you see the slight paradox in what I wrote. As an example to how interesting this issue is to me, let me use your statement of; “The field of history, for example (NOT archaeology, history!) has an enormous amount of useful information, despite the fact that it is utterly lacking in scientific method.” Take Michael Shermer, who from my indication has been supportive of Zimbardo’s research in way where it appears he accepts the conclusions without consideration to the concerns raised by Barbara Oakley (anyone who has any information that would show Shermer is aware of Oakley’s criticisms or his reaction to them would be fantastic - he might be helped by being aware of them). However, Shermer has written fairly extensively on the issue of making history more scientific - this also goes for social science. In fact, I would highly recommend his essay History at the Crossroads - Can History Be a science? -  Can it Afford Not to Be?” (can anyone locate a free online version of that essay? - if you have access to a research database, such as Academic Search Premier - they have have the entire issue for reading). To answer his title question, he uses examples of what has happened to researchers such as Frank Sulloway in that his scientific approach to history was nearly rejected out of hand by historians, I’ve seen much of the same complaint lodged toward others such as Jared Diamond and David Sloan Wilson. 

It’s a rather long essay, but here’s an idea of the direction:

The NSF (National Science Foundation) panel turned him down flat. Testing historical hypotheses? Using science to analyze history? Was he (Frank Sulloway) joking.* They rendered their judgment in no uncertain terms:

‘One of the most pervasive issues discussed by the panelists was the approach the Principal Investigator was taking toward history. Many panelists thought that applying a heavy-duty statistical analysis to history is naive, inappropriate, and even peculiar. Is it really the case that generalizations in history should be tested with statistics, rather than be tested through a detailed examination of the sources? Some noted that it seemed as if the Principal Investigator was going back to 19th-century beliefs that history is a science which could uncover laws. Panelists were opposed to such a narrow view of history.’

Sulloway was shocked. How could a panel of scientists think that using statistics to test hypotheses is “naive, inappropriate, and even peculiar”? Then he remembered, these were not scientists. They were historians and philosophers. “Besides being an odd response to receive from the National Science Foundation,” Sulloway recalled with some dismay, “where the principal criterion of grant evaluation is supposed to be ‘scientific merit’, this panel’s criticisms confuse a method of research (hypothesis testing) with a theory of history. Testing is what makes an approach scientific, not the particular viewpoint that is endorsed.” And to emphasize the point, Sulloway pointed out that “Even the claim that history can be studied scientifically can only be evaluated properly through hypothesis testing” (1996,p. 539).

How did we get into a situation where a highly respected scholar such as Frank Sulloway—working at one of the world’s preeminent scientific institutions and applying standard scientific techniques to test historical hypotheses—could be so coldly rejected by the one of the nation’s chief science granting agencies? This seems paradoxical. But then, to most people the idea of history as a science seems paradoxical. To resolve the apparent paradox we need to understand the history of the profession of history, how and why historians came to reject science, and how Sulloway and others are working to create a science of history. Can history be a science.* I submit that it cannot afford not to be.

[ Edited: 19 January 2009 12:11 PM by Robert Buhn ]
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Posted: 19 January 2009 11:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 36 ]
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sate,  you suggest that social scientists as a group are not primarily interested in truth, yet your prime example was roundly condemned by social scientists. That doesn’t add up.

And I’d like to tack a qualifier onto your statement that social science is scientifically doable. I’d argue that SOME social science is scientifically doable—and some is not. For example, what if we were to consider one of the most important questions facing humanity: why do societies fight wars? I have seen some quantitative studies of war, and they’re not very useful. Indeed, one of the most useful comments about the causes of wars was made by the first historian, Thucydides: “It was the growing power of the Athenians, and the fear that this caused among the Spartans, that made war inevitable.” It’s a completely unscientific statement, utterly untestable, without any quantitative data, and yet I consider it to be one of the most important truths of history. Or how about Santayana’s statement: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Are these statements without intellectual utility?

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Posted: 19 January 2009 12:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 37 ]
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Chris Crawford - 19 January 2009 11:58 AM

sate,  you suggest that social scientists as a group are not primarily interested in truth, yet your prime example was roundly condemned by social scientists. That doesn’t add up.

Zimbardo is like brief Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He was most likely appointed in order to illegally “clean house” for the Bush administration. He got caught doing so. Subsequently, everyone disclaimed relations with him. Here the faithful says SEE! The administration is anti-corruption! But it isn’t. It just got caught in such an egregious act that no defense of it can be publicly rendered. In the case of Zimbardo, the skeptics-for once-had a clear shot.

If you want to know how the social science establishment truly reacts to criticism, read up on Derek Freemon having his work voted as “unscientific” by enraged jackals at the annual American Anth. Assoc. meeting. Look up Herbert Terrace who was hit with a lawsuit when he used a frame of video from a study he helped conduct in order to author a critical paper. Only in a social science can you vote down ideas you can’t debate and file a lawsuit to prevent the public from finding out you’re a sham.

I will stipulate to your point about some things being scientifically accountable and not others.. in fact some things can’t really be studied at all, ever. What color was a t-rex? who knows.

I’m not an expert so I defer a bit to the likes of Oakley and here, to Anthropologist Donald Brown.

It is wrong to think that there is some zero-sum game-or even worse, a winner-takes-all game-between universals and the culturally particular or between biological and sociocultural approaches to anthropological problems. The notion that it is such a game has been a major contributor to producing a blinkered and shackled anthropology, an anthropology unable or unwilling to see the relevance of human nature, and thus severely handicapped in solving anthropological problems. The time is upon anthropologists to take off those blinkers; to rise above the self-serving motives and honest mistakes that put the blinkers on in the first place.
(p.156, Human Universals)

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Posted: 19 January 2009 01:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 38 ]
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sate, after reviewing some of your references, I am coming to the conclusion that you are smearing an entire profession based on a few untypical cases. I looked up the case of Herbert Terrace. Yes, his research associates threatened to file a lawsuit to prevent his use of the imagery they owned. On that point they were absolutely justified. Their motivation for doing so is the questionable part: they didn’t want their research criticised. I don’t think this constitutes any kind of scientific censorship; it looks like a typical scientific dispute where somebody doesn’t like having their work criticized. It happens all the time. It does not suggest any grand agenda.

I also looked up the case of Derek Freeman and again, I think you are misinterpreting the behavior. Yes, anthropologists did not accept his research—at first. All scientists resist challenges to their fundamental tenets—but they also come around as the weight of evidence builds up. Wegner’s theory of continental drift was rejected by geologists when first proposed in 1915. But in the 1950s evidence in favor of his hypothesis began to build up, and by the 1960s it was accepted. Do you maintain that geologists aren’t honest? Freeman’s work has gained support from the anthropology community as evidence supporting it has accumulated. How does this differ from the history of other scientific hypotheses?

I do agree with you that politics intrudes into the social sciences too often. The nature/nurture debate has been badly affected by political preferences. Evolutionary psychology gets kicked around for exactly these reasons. And I further agree that the soft sciences are more vulnerable to political interference than the hard sciences—but that’s largely because the work of the social sciences often has political implications! Yes, the social sciences would be improved by a stricter standard on political influences. But I categorically reject your condemnation of this entire field of human inquiry.

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Posted: 19 January 2009 01:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 39 ]
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Robert, I failed to address your point about the rejection of Mr. Sulloway’s proposal. I was unable to find much on the question other than his own representations, so I’d prefer to know exactly what he was proposing. I will acknowledge that there’s a Two Cultures problem that sometimes fouls this kind of work. I just don’t know whether that’s what happened in this case.

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Posted: 19 January 2009 02:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 40 ]
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Chris Crawford - 19 January 2009 01:04 PM

sate, after reviewing some of your references, I am coming to the conclusion that you are smearing an entire profession based on a few untypical cases. I looked up the case of Herbert Terrace. Yes, his research associates threatened to file a lawsuit to prevent his use of the imagery they owned. On that point they were absolutely justified. Their motivation for doing so is the questionable part: they didn’t want their research criticised. I don’t think this constitutes any kind of scientific censorship; it looks like a typical scientific dispute where somebody doesn’t like having their work criticized. It happens all the time. It does not suggest any grand agenda.

So you’re saying it ‘happens all the time’ that scientists use lawsuits in order to avoid peer-review? I hadn’t heard. Please provide 10,000 examples to establish this, as that seems to be the standard you apply to me.

I also looked up the case of Derek Freeman and again, I think you are misinterpreting the behavior. Yes, anthropologists did not accept his research—at first. All scientists resist challenges to their fundamental tenets—but they also come around as the weight of evidence builds up. Wegner’s theory of continental drift was rejected by geologists when first proposed in 1915. But in the 1950s evidence in favor of his hypothesis began to build up, and by the 1960s it was accepted. Do you maintain that geologists aren’t honest? Freeman’s work has gained support from the anthropology community as evidence supporting it has accumulated. How does this differ from the history of other scientific hypotheses?

“did not accept” is a laughable euphemism. In fact it isn’t a point about accepting or rejecting.. no one ever really said Freemon was wrong. They couldn’t.. he was both correct and meticulous. The point is the rage.. and the attempt to shut him down regardless of the quality of his research. And hey why not ask, why didn’t one of those clever honest anthropologists point out Freemon’s conclusion 80 years ago? Some did- brave or stupid they were ignored until someone came along willing to brave the trials required to speak an honest word against an uninterested establishment. You think a hundred good men in the field watching what happened to Freeman, even after he has been grudgingly vindicated, aren’t dissuaded from a similar course publicly disagreeing with Correct Dogma? You’d be naive to think so.
Interesting you bring up Wegener.. I wrote an essay about him once. A shameful chapter in geology, to be sure. What’s the difference between the two cases? Maybe nothing but time and frequency. I know of no other such example in geophysics. Moreover it’s a fantastic vital discipline.. productive and fecund.. a comment not well aimed at any purely social science. You said you disapprove of political interference in science as well, I merely see much of social science IS that political interference in and of itself.

So I am unfairly branding over a few bad apples? Is that what Donald Brown was doing? In his book he uses words like “all but banned the idea…” and “taboo to..” in describing his entire discipline. Does he not understand his own field? Derek Freeman would largely agree with my perspective.. is his multidecade career too short? Is the entire generational insurrection lead by people like Steven Pinker railing against nothing and no one? They’re all lost and mistaken? The fact that my own experience in every social science classroom strongly reinforced all of the above? Prior to stepping into a soc science classroom, I was certain Brown, Freeman, etc.., were greatly exaggerating. They weren’t. I was taught madness and force-fed political bullshit. America is not becoming less religious, its wrong to judge other cultures, apes can learn to talk, Margaret Mead’s work was important and studious, Ruth Benedict’s work was important and astute, the incest taboo is arbitrarily culture, primitive peoples are more peaceable, the sapir-whorf hypothesis is viable and important, civilization is a corrupting influence, language has no principle base in biology, etc.., all of this is total bullshit in my brand new textbook and it was supported with bullshit arguments and statistics. Tell me Chris- how high does the bullshit pile need to be before we can agree there is a big systemic problem in this field? How many Freeman’s, how many Meads? How many empty, nonsensical and political claims shoved down students’ throats? How many exceptions ‘till it is the rule?

I’m not anyone anyone should listen to- I’m just a DoD mailman with a gun. So don’t. Listen to Oakley, Brown, Freeman, Pinker, John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, Marc Hauser, Donald Symons, Napoleon Chagnon, Noam Chomsky. Listen to your own conscience when you try to answer Darwin’s ghost asking, why did it take over 100 years for my theory to revolutionize psychology?

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Posted: 19 January 2009 03:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 41 ]
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So you’re saying it ‘happens all the time’ that scientists use lawsuits in order to avoid peer-review?

No, I’m saying that scientists get mad over criticisms of their work all the time. Does that seem odd to you?

I know of no other such example in geophysics.

How about Thomas Gold’s Deep Origins Hypothesis?

sate, if the social sciences are so corrupt, then why are you citing renowned people like Cosmides, Tooby, and Pinker as examples? These people are not victims being crucified—they are respected scientists. Yes, of course there is controversy: do you expect science to proceed without disagreement?

I’d like to ask exactly what behavior you find so objectionable. So far, you have only argued that some scientists don’t accept the work of other scientists—and then you use wild words like “taboo”, “banned”, and “rage”. So let’s examine your words, starting with “Taboo”. You maintain that the work of Mr. Freeman is taboo. Yet I can easily find items on the Internet from reputable sources that discuss Mr. Freeman’s work in the open. If Mr. Freeman’s work were taboo, there would be no such discussions. So you are wrong in claiming that Mr. Freeman’s work is taboo.

Next we turn to “banned”. From where has it been banned? Can you cite any forum or publication which has declared that arguments sympathetic to Mr. Freeman’s work will not be tolerated? I doubt it. So your use of the term “banned ” is incorrect.

Next, let’s talk about “rage”. I’m happy to stipulate that some scientists reacted to Mr. Freeman’s work with rage. How does this injure anybody else? I’ve known a lot of scientists and I have found them to be emotionally less mature than most people. So what? Does a scientific result require articulation by a suitably emotionally balanced person in order to be acceptable to you? If so, you’d better wipe out a lot of scientists. Newton was a pretty vicious character, and he demonstrated rage on a number of occasions. Are you therefore going to dismiss Newton’s Laws of physics?

As to the material you cite as being taught in your course, I am surprised that you took such a lousy course; certainly many the statements you attribute to this course are not representative of the social sciences as I know them. Let’s go through them:

1. America is not becoming less religious. That statement is difficult to assess because it’s unclear whether it applies to people or the political system.
2. It’s wrong to judge other cultures. Actually, I’ll agree with this, to some degree. I’m happy to judge specific aspects of specific cultures, but the starting point of any assessment of another culture is the assumption that the culture evolved in response to environmental pressures, and without knowing those pressures it’s impossible to form a rational assessment of any culture.
3. Apes can learn to talk. Gee, I never saw this claim anywhere. I did see claims that a few carefully educated apes appeared to be able to manipulate symbols. Perhaps you misunderstood what was being taught?
4. Margaret Mead’s work was important and studious. Well, it was certainly important. And she was a scholar. It appears that she screwed up badly with the Samoa work. Does that disqualify the entire body of her work?
5. Ruth Benedict’s work is important and astute. I won’t offer a judgement here.
6. The incest taboo is arbitrary culture. Gee, that’s not what I have read. Everything I’ve seen suggests that the incest taboo is almost universal and certainly not arbitrary.
7. Primitive peoples are more peaceful. Again, this isn’t what I have read. You must have gotten a strange textbook.
8. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is viable and important. Be careful here—I’m well versed in Sapir-Whorf and it is the strong interpretation of the hypothesis that has been discredited. The weak interpretation is almost universally accepted.
9. Civilization is a corrupting influence. Boy, you REALLY got into a weirdo course! I’ve never seen anything remotely like that in all my reading.
10. Language has no principle base in biology. There are some people who still hold onto that view—and they’re a diminishing minority. Chomsky dealt the death blow to that idea 50 years ago.

I too would react negatively if all this stuff were dumped on me in a course. I suspect that the course you are taking, or the instructor of the course, is pretty wacko. But that’s one of the things about the social sciences: there are all kinds of people out there with all kinds of different views. Have you run into any Marxist historians yet? They’re quite distinctive and they can make a pretty impressive case (although I don’t buy it to the extent that they’re selling it). If you want to see some really wild differences of opinion, try poli sci: a good poli sci degree will have you spinning in every different direction.

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Posted: 19 January 2009 05:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 42 ]
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Chris Crawford - 19 January 2009 09:26 AM

Here’s our problem: you make a generalization that applies to tens of thousands of instances. You support this generalization with three examples. You point out that you could offer more examples. How do we know that your three examples are representative of the tens of thousands of other instances?

We do have one indirect indicator: how well received were these examples? Did other social scientists ignore the many flaws in them? Where was it published?  I did a quick search and discovered that Wikipedia has an article on the Zimbardo experiment; the Wikipedia article states that “The experiment was widely criticized as being unethical and bordering on unscientific.” If this statement be true, then it is unfair to condemn social science for an experiment that social scientists themselves condemn.

The internet has changed the lives of skeptics—it is much easier to locate info about Zimbardo Milgram etc. than at the time they did their studies.  I wasn’t aware of the critiques until this podcast (though I never looked up these guys on the internet). 

In response to Chris, one would have to dig into this fairly deeply and determine if the criticism was by social scientists and whether it was timely. In Zimbardo’s case, it might indeed be that his study entered popular culture, took off as a meme, and that regardless of the critiques of true scientists it became common knowledge….

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Posted: 19 January 2009 08:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 43 ]
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Although I’m not inclined to wade too deeply into this interesting discussion, I do have a question and a few references to share.

QUESTION: Could someone kindly explain what’s considered a “social science” in the context of this discussion?  More specifically, what’s considered “social-science research”?  Some particular broad disciplines have been mentioned in this thread (e.g., anthropology, history, psychology); in the interest of being able to find relevant evidence to support (or refute) claims being made, however, a well-defined set might help ensure we’re all referring to the same thing.  When specifying this set of objects (or phenomena), bear in mind that some disciplines are rather heterogeneous w/r/t their topics and methods (e.g., APA has over 50 divisions, ranging from some very like biology to some very like anthropology or sociology).

REFERENCES: Seeing as this discussion seemed to be started by comments about psychology as a specific example of a social science, below are three articles about the scientific “status” of psychology.  One involves empirically assessing college students’ perceptions of psychology as a science, and the other two include attempts to objectively assess scientific features of psychology (and other disciplines).  (These may not be immediately available to everyone.)

  Friedrich, J. (1996). Assessing students’ perceptions of psychology as a science: Validation of a self-report measure. Teaching of Psychology, 23, 6-13.
 
Abstract: Training in psychology emphasizes the scientific method as the basis for knowledge claims about thought and behavior. Students are regularly evaluated in terms of their mastery of methodological and statistical Principles, bur little attention has been paid to assessing the degree to which students endorse the notion that psychology is, indeed, a science. Several studies are reported that validate a self-report measure of this construct. The Psychology as Science Scale is shown to be a reliable measure that predicts a range of construct-relevant attitudinal and performance criteria. Possible research uses of the measure, as well as broader issues surrounding the general public’s epistemological assumptions concerning psychology, are discussed.


  Hedges, L. V. (1987). How hard is hard science, how soft is soft science? The empirical cumulativeness of research. American Psychologist, 42, 443-455.

Abstract: This article notes the parallels between methods used in the quantitative synthesis of research in the social and in the physical sciences. Essentially identical methods are used to test the consistency of research results in physics and in psychology. These methods can be used to compare the consistency of replicated research results in physics and in the social sciences. The methodology is illustrated with 13 exemplary reviews from each domain. The exemplary comparison suggests that the results of physical experiments may not be strikingly more consistent than those of social or behavioral experiments. The data suggest that even the results of physical experiments may not be cumulative in the absolute sense by statistical criteria.


  Simonton, D. K. (2004). Psychology’s status as a scientific discipline: Its empirical placement within an implicit hierarchy of the sciences. Review of General Psychology, 8, 59-67.

Abstract: Psychology’s standing within a hypothesized hierarchy of the sciences was assessed in a 2-part analysis. First, an internally consistent composite measure was constructed from 7 primary indicators of scientific status (theories-to-laws ratio, consultation rate, obsolescence rate, graph prominence, early impact rate, peer evaluation consensus, and citation concentration). Second, this composite measure was validated through 5 secondary indicators (lecture disfluency, citation immediacy, anticipation frequency, age at receipt of Nobel Prize, and rated disciplinary hardness). Analyses showed that the measures reflected a single dimension on which 5 disciplines could be reliably ranked in the following order: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology. Significantly, psychology placed much closer to biology than to sociology, forming a pair of life sciences clearly separated from the other sciences.

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Posted: 19 January 2009 10:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 44 ]
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Very interesting stuff, Adam. I’m surprised, though, at the very notion of “scientific status”. I would not expect any kind of “status system” for any area of human inquiry. Let’s contrast two extremes: physics, about as hard a science as there is, and history, about as soft a field as there can be. Does physics have higher status than history? Not in my book. Yes, it’s more “hard sciency”—but that doesn’t mean anything. History is a lot more “historistical” than physics, and that doesn’t make history any better or worse than physics. Indeed, if history were to try to use the methods of hard science, it would produce garbage results.

The argument can be made that physicists can build big bombs and historians cannot. I would counterargue that historians can show us the path to peace, something that physicists cannot do. Let me relate an interesting story. Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August, about the launching of World War I, was published in 1962. Later that year came the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy had just read the book and recommended it to other members of his Cabinet so that they might better understand the dynamics. Indeed, one of the crucial moments in the crisis came when Kennedy hammered home his insistence that the Navy remain within the constraints he had specified. Tuchman’s book had emphasized that, in August of 1914 the generals exacerbated the crisis with overly aggressive behavior, and the politicians had been unable to control their own generals. Kennedy made certain that this did not occur in October 1962. So physicists can boast that they bestowed atomic weaponry upon the world—but how many of them can claim, as historians reasonably could, that they prevented a nuclear war?

Every field has its own methods and its own value. I find it rather childish to set up some sort of ranking system based on use of quantitative methods and the scientific method.

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Posted: 20 January 2009 05:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 45 ]
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Chris Crawford - 19 January 2009 10:58 PM

Every field has its own methods and its own value. I find it rather childish to set up some sort of ranking system based on use of quantitative methods and the scientific method.

Not every field ... psychic research? Cereology? Phrenology?

Clearly there are some fields that have little or no value; clearly there are fields that are proto-scientific (here one thinks, e.g., of studies in sociobiology, perhaps economics). Clearly also there are some fields that have methods and value but aren’t scientific—perhaps history, but more clearly liberal arts fields like english, drama, painting, etc.

One way to make a rough delineation has to do with predictive capacities. To what extent do the studies provide predictions which are accurate, and to what degree are they accurate? Liberal arts fields don’t even try to make predictions. That’s not the point. Psychic research and phrenology made predictions that turned out false.

One concern about making these sorts of rankings is the implication that (e.g.) psychologists just aren’t doing their jobs very well. They should buckle down and do good work like the quantum physicists are doing. This clearly isn’t a fair critique—the subject matter of psychology involves large systems which are inherently many orders of magnitude more complicated than the systems typically studied in physics class. In other words, physics gains in predictive adequacy by narrowing and simplifying its focus. But that doesn’t mean there is no value to a rough ranking of this sort. To take an example, it should lead us to believe that if psychology asserts something which is physically impossible, we should expect that it’s the psychologists who’ve made the mistake and not the physicists.

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Doug

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