Is psychology the other-than-science science?
By Bernard C. Beins, PhD
Most colleges and universities have a psychology department. It is often located in the school or division of social sciences. Similarly, most colleges and universities have a biology department. It is often located in the school or division of science. In high schools, psychology is considered one of the social studies, occasionally a social science; biology is considered one of the sciences.
Nothing in the statements above seems the slightest bit controversial. In fact, those statements are pretty obvious. However, the implication of those statements is significant and relates to the status of psychology among the varied disciplines.
Psychology teachers are well aware of the power of language to shape thought. We all know that the way you frame a question influences the response. So when we distinguish between the sciences and the social sciences, we are sending the message that we are qualifying our status: We are not quite a science; rather, we are a something-other-than-science science.
This everyday use of language about psychology (i.e., it is a “social” science — you can often hear the quotation marks) belies the actual impact that psychology has on other medical, social and natural sciences. Psychology’s impact is considerable.
Boyack, Klavans and Borner (2005) examined a million scientific research articles to identify the interrelation among the various sciences. They identified seven areas of science designated as hubs of influence: mathematics, physics, chemistry, earth sciences, medicine, social sciences and psychology. Psychology’s actual position among the varied scientific disciplines is clear. Our discipline influences a wide array of other scientific disciplines. Cacioppo (2007) has outlined some of the implications for psychology.
Other good news is that we have evidence that psychology courses foster scientific literacy, a prominent goal of the National Academies of Science. My colleague Jeff Holmes and I assessed scientific literacy among our psychology majors as they progressed through the psychology curriculum. There was a clear upward trend. In contrast, the degree of scientific literacy was unrelated to the number of natural science courses that the students had completed (Holmes & Beins, 2008).
In addition, among graduate students a few decades ago, psychology students showed greater skill in formal, logical reasoning and in statistical and methodological reasoning than chemistry graduate students (Lehman, Lempert, & Nisbett, 1988). This is not to say that chemistry students were less adept in their discipline than psychology students were in theirs. Rather, these results indicate one of the notable strengths of education in psychology — fostering complex, critical thought.
The data are incontrovertible. Psychology is an excellent discipline for learning to think critically and scientifically. Unfortunately, people are usually not persuaded to change their minds on the basis of data (unless they are trained in psychology, of course).
So what can we do?
We can take the route that a number of former psychology departments have. We can use language to frame the discussion. Dartmouth University changed its departmental designation to the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the 1990s. Since then, quite a number of departments have taken similar steps. There are numerous departments of psychological science around the country (Jaffe, 2011).
We should also use this idea in our everyday conversations. When our friends and colleagues discuss the sciences, we should make sure that they talk about the kind of science. There are biological sciences, physical sciences, and certainly not least, psychological sciences. It is no longer acceptable to be that other-than-science science.
Barney Beins is professor of psychology at Ithaca College. He was recipient of the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching Award and is a Fellow of APA Divisions 2 (Teaching of Psychology), 3 (Experimental Psychology) and 52 (International Psychology), APS, and EPA. He was president of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) in 2004 and director of precollege and undergraduate education at APA from 2000 to 2002. He authored "Research Methods: A Tool for Life and Research Methods and Statistics" with Maureen McCarthy, "Effective Writing in Psychology" with his daughter Agatha Beins and "APA Style Simplified."
Boyack, K.W., Klavans, R., & Borner, K. (2005). Mapping the backbone of science. Scientometrics, 64, 351-374.
Cacioppo, J.T. (2007, September). Psychology is a hub science. Observer, 20(7).
Holmes, J.D., & Beins, B.C. (2009). Psychology is a science: At least some students think so. Teaching of Psychology, 36, 5-11. doi:10.1080/00986280802529350
Jaffe, E. (2011, September). Identity shift. Observer, 24(7).
Lehman, D.R., Lempert, R.O., & Nisbett, R.E. (1988). The effects of graduate training on reasoning: Formal discipline and thinking about everyday-life events. American Psychologist, 43, 431-442. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.43.6.431