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– Jim Broadway & Tom Redick
JB: Tom, it seems like only yesterday I was a first-year student and we started writing this column. Two years later, your old job in the lab has passed to me, my old job in the lab has passed to a new guy, and before you know it, we’ll be done with school! Then we can start paying back all of those loans!
TR: Get on with it Broadway, what do you have to say this time?
JB: I want to chat with our readers a little about James Deese. You know that shelf of “free books” in the Faculty/Grad Lounge (another misnomer, since we never “lounge” there)? Well somebody finally left something interesting there, a book by Deese, Psychology as Science and Art. I liked it so much I checked out another book by Deese, American Freedom and the Social Sciences. These polemics make good summer reading for grad students in experimental psychology. They provide a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the whole enterprise, and it is heartening to read such doubts expressed by someone who made eminent contributions to the field nevertheless.
Our readers probably know of Deese through the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) free recall paradigm. In this procedure “false memories” for words (extra-list intrusions) are elicited by presenting a list containing strongly associated words. The paper by Roediger and McDermott (1995) on producing “false memories” is now the most widely cited paper in psychology, but it seems that Deese was primarily interested in how the structure of language could be exploited to reveal the associative structure of memory, and the modern applications to things like eyewitness testimony probably never occurred to him (for an interesting and short sociological history of the DRM, see Bruce & Winograd, 1998). In fact, his later books suggest that the idea of applied psychology would be something of an anathema to him. But that doesn’t mean that basic researchers in psychology are somehow “better.” On the contrary, applied psychology is problematic mainly because, according to Deese, experimental psychology oversells its own status as science.
I guess I was struck most by the apparent contradictions in these later texts. Deese takes pains to make clear that he believes that experimental psychology is a worthwhile endeavor, but yet systematically demolishes its claims to being (just) scientific. He states that the output over a long history of cognitive psychology is “a huge wastepile of experimental problems that have not been solved but are now seen as irrelevant to any matter of importance” (1985; p 110). He also cogently destroys behaviorist pretensions to having founded “a science of behavior,” capable of “prediction and control.” Deese argues that both camps suffer from an unreasonable faith in, and fraudulent importation of, the scientific method.
Probably every grad student entertains such thoughts in despairing moments, and it is heartening to hear such words from a person with so illustrious a career in the field. No dichotomous argument in the literature ever seems to be settled. Experiments bear little resemblance to anything people do in real-life. We have only extremely limited control over anything that occurs in the lab. We invent theories that go far beyond the slim evidence obtained, and argue over the nature of ‘constructs’ like theologians disputing how many angels are on the head of a pin. I can’t go into a detailed re-telling of his arguments, but trust me, he makes a lot of valid points, and he knows what he is talking about.
TR: Jim, be careful, I don’t want you to get hurt if you fall off of your soapbox! All kidding aside, it can be useful to stop and think about what it is that we are doing as researchers on a daily basis. Hopefully as is the case with Deese, it will only strengthen our resolve to improve on the method going forward.
JB: I agree. Let’s admit it, grad school involves a lot of pointless suffering and drudgery, and a sane animal wouldn’t do it for a minute. But academic psychology also provides opportunities for the biggest intellectual kicks around. Hopefully this article will communicate to our readers that they aren’t alone in appreciating either condition. I recommend these books to any grad student or teacher who wants to get outside of the orthodoxies of our training, even if just for a quick exposure to the devil’s advocate.