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Water Cooler: What makes psychology a science?

April 16, 2021 Updated Sun., April 18, 2021 at 9:37 p.m.


Public awareness about the field and practice of psychology has proliferated in recent decades, and along with it, misconceptions about what it is and how it works. What differentiates psychology from something like astrology? To answer that, it is helpful to understand its relationship with the scientific method, the rigorous philosophy to which all STEM fields are held accountable.

Think of the scientific method as a specific process of science. It is largely tied to empiricism, which is the theory that all of human knowledge is derived from our sense perception. The term scientific method emerged in the 19th century and its development is usually credited to the work of European philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume. However, the history and development of empiricism can be found in writings from ancient civilizations.

For example, an Egyptican medical textbook, named the Edwin Smith papyrus for the man who bought it, is dated to 1600 BCE and contains strong parallels to empirical research methods. Empiricism is also found in the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle and Epicurus, as well as the Islamic Golden Age physicist, mathematician and astronomer, Alhazen.

The work of thinkers around the world and across time would eventually provide us a model of the scientific method which is both profound and simple.

It all begins with asking a question. Next, background research is conducted in order to inform the researcher of the acquired knowledge of the subject. From this a hypothesis or a proposed explanation is formed. This is the jumping off point for experimentation, data collection and analysis. The results are compared to the hypothesis to see if any conclusions can be made.

Psychologists do just this, but it is a bit trickier. It is very difficult to observe the complex functions of the mind with only our senses. Similar to particle physicists, psychology has to work around the fact that our sense perception can only take us so far in understanding cause and effect. Other data points must be relied upon.

To study the mind, psychologists usually look for patterns of behavior in order to figure out which variables trigger them. Because the variables of life are essentially infinite, psychologists can do a few things to narrow them down. They can observe subjects in uncontrolled circumstances such as a typical day and record which variables were associated with which behaviors. This helps develop a correlation, or the recognition of a relationship between two or more things.

Even though a correlation is recorded and observed, the lack of strictly controlled variables usually means direct cause and effect, also known as causation, cannot yet be determined. Causation can only be determined through highly controlled and repeatable experiments. Scientists collect the data and repeat the exact same conditions of the experiment in order to have multiple sets of data. It is compared and analyzed, usually using statistics.

Many of the concepts psychologists test for can seem abstract, such as trying to measure or quantify happiness across generations and cultures. Psychologists do their best to account for that. They often create and test functional definitions of such terms, or they may track behaviors like smiling or biological substances like endorphins. Sometimes they provide subjects with questionnaires for more nuanced and direct data.

Psychology retains the essential elements of the scientific method, but unlike other scientific fields, its nature does not really allow for the creation of laws or universal truths like in physics or chemistry. This is largely due to the fact here is no one universal human experience. The challenge of psychology is to better understand it through the scientific method, while accepting every conclusion must take into account every person is different.

Rachel Baker can be reached at (509) 459-5583 or

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