The formal study we call psychology today is just over a hundred years old. In its infancy, its theories were often based on observation and deduction, but over the years, it turned instead to evidence, experiment and the rigors of the scientific method. Contemporary psychology stands up well to any criteria for defining science. So if there are any remaining doubts about psychology’s status as a science, where might the confusion come from?
It’s been popular to divide sciences into hard and soft, or physical and social, with “hard” physical studies seen as scientifically superior to their “soft” social cousins. But these distinctions might be more arbitrary than they seem, especially when it comes to psychology.
We think of hard science as being based on physical evidence. Yet it’s easier to prove the existence of psychology’s neurotransmitters or REM sleep, for example, than physics’ superstrings. Lines are also drawn between social and natural sciences leaving psychology on one side and zoology on the other despite their obvious similarities. How can studying the behaviour of ants or whales be more scientific than applying the same process to Homo sapiens?
When it comes to research, every scientist must ensure that his or her results are replicable, and that experiments actually test what they say they do. A chemist might only need a handful of trials to establish that his findings are consistent. Psychologists need to use a much larger sample to reduce the effect of personal variations and take greater care to factor out extraneous influences. The fundamentals and validity of the scientific method are present in both cases. Research in the social side of psychology is not less scientific, it only needs a more intricate design to fit its subject matter.
As we learn more about our world and all its rich complexity, lines between different disciplines themselves are becoming more permeable. Scientists today often work together in multidisciplinary teams where their studies overlap and cross-fertilize. The nature of human behaviour and internal processes means that psychology has to consider both the physical and non-physical, straddling traditional categories. As such it was one of the first of this new breed of science which redraws old scientific boundaries, not science itself.
Times have changed considerably since psychology was limited to personality theories based on anecdote and observation. Its findings inform the worlds of medicine, business, education and criminal justice, to name but a few. Those who would doubt its status as a science might also remember that science is a method which can be applied to all subjects. And we’re no exception.