Psychology is a science because as a field it relies upon scientific principles in order to better understand how human beings think, feel, and behave. Mainstream perspectives may suggest that psychology is just common sense, equating psychological knowledge with intuition. However, psychology recognizes that intuition does not necessarily equate to truth, and in order to truly understand psychological processes we must use scientific principles to test our ideas.
For many, talk of science brings to mind images of Bunsen burners and lab coats, but science is more than that; science is a way of thinking. By thinking scientifically we come up with testable ideas that bring us greater understanding about how the world works. We develop theories to explain things that happen in our lives, then seek evidence that either supports or disproves those theories. It is important to note that we never use the term “prove” with regard to scientific theories, as science is an ongoing process. Psychologists (as well as other scientists) are continually gathering more data, collecting evidence to further test the boundaries of existing theories.
Science as we think of it today is a combination of the empirical method and the hypothetico-deductive method. The empirical method consists of two stages: gathering data and induction. With induction, we determine patterns of relationships that exist in the data. The empirical method is based upon the idea that knowledge can be obtained through personal experience of the world, and emphasizes the importance of observation without preconceptions. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to be fully objective and judgement-free in our observations. We all have prior experiences and expectations that colour our views.
The hypothetico-deductive method seeks to evaluate theories (their usefulness, applicability, etc.) by creating testable hypotheses. Whereas a theory is a broad, generalized belief about how the world works, a hypothesis is a more specific application of theory, a precise statement about the relationship between variables. In the hypothetico-deductive method, we start with the observation of a phenomenon, and then consider what laws or generalizations might explain this phenomenon, which leads us to develop a theory. Based upon this theory, we deduce a more specific hypothesis that we can test. The results of these tests then provide support for or challenge the limits of our theory.
An important part of the scientific method includes replication. This allows for a degree of protection against false claims. In psychology, we seek to generalize phenomena from small samples to larger populations of people; therefore, it is important that we refrain from making broad claims about humanity without being certain that the effects are broadly applicable. Oftentimes, replication does not consist of repeating an exact copy of an original study, but slight variations. This allows researchers to test the limits of an original effect.
This process of testing limits of theories is important to the scientific process; some have even said this is the purpose of science. This view might be seen as extreme, but one of the hallmarks of a good psychological theory is its falsifiability. By regularly subjecting our theories to rigorous tests that might prove them false, we can have greater confidence in the strength and precision of those that pass.
Additional Online Resources
“How To Be A Critical Thinker: Information about critical thinking skills as they directly relate to psychological research.” By Charles Barker, Ph.D., based on Critical and Creative Thinking by Carole Wade and Carol Tavris: http://faculty.olympic.edu/cbarker/psychology/CriticalThinking/CriticalThinkinginPsychology.htm
“Psychological Science Is Important.” Video produced by the Association for Psychological Science: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/video/psych-science-important.html
“Replication Studies: Bad Copy.” By Ed Yong: http://www.nature.com/news/replication-studies-bad-copy-1.10634
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