Science Directions

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In celebration, the editors of Science magazine put together an illustrated timeline showing 129 milestones of scientific innovation over the past 2,600 years. In looking forward, the editors also posed 125 hard questions to which science is one day expected to provide the answers.

Where is psychology?

The AAAS milestones of science features the familiar and famous innovations. From Archimedes to Einstein, the timeline marks the beginning and expansion of mathematics, physics, biology, engineering, genetics, astronomy, and practically every other discipline we ordinarily associate with science.

For chemistry, there is Mendeleev's publication of the periodic table of the chemical elements in 1869. For biology and medicine, there is Jonas Salk's development of a polio vaccine in 1952. And science is still coming to grips with the significance of Watson and Crick's explication of the structure of DNA, first published in 1953.

I eagerly scanned the timeline for the milestones that have advanced the science of psychology. The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle is certainly important to psychology, but not uniquely psychology. Most of our work depends on the theory of probability, but that branch of mathematics and statistics was not inspired by the questions of psychology. It is hard to imagine where psychology would be today without the invention of microprocessors, but the same could be said about every field of science.

I studied all the milestones chronicled by the editors of Science magazine, from Pythagoras to the Mars rovers, and not a single one represents a milestone that can be claimed by psychological science. I suppose I should not be surprised--our science is still young, and perhaps some distance is required before we can fully separate the true milestones from the small incremental steps along the way.

Yet, surely the great discoveries of B. F. Skinner and the development of the experimental analysis of behavior ranks up there with the cloning of a sheep. I like to think that the discovery of human memory capacity has had just as much impact on science as the discovery of a duck-like dinosaur fossil in China will have. Perhaps we simply need to wait for the 150th or 200th anniversary of AAAS before the milestones of psychological science rise to this level.

Psychology is the future of science

My suggestion of waiting it out for another few decades is not made in jest. When we turn to the 125 hard questions that AAAS expects will occupy science for the next century, the science of psychology is featured very prominently. Nearly 10 percent of the major scientific challenges fall squarely within the domain of psychology:

  • What is the biological basis of consciousness?

  • How are memories stored and retrieved?

  • How did cooperative behavior evolve?

  • Why do we dream?

  • Why are there critical periods for language learning?

  • Do pheromones influence human behavior?

  • What causes schizophrenia?

  • What causes autism?

  • What is the biological basis of addiction?

  • How much of personality is genetic?

  • What are the roots of human culture?

  • What are the evolutionary roots of language and music?

To this list, we could easily add several dozen more. From these questions emerges a strong indication that the true frontier of science puts psychology and the behavioral and cognitive sciences at center stage. The past has paved the way for science to turn its attention to the truly challenging, difficult and hard questions.

People sometimes label psychology as a "soft" science, as compared to the "hard" sciences of physics, chemistry, biology or mathematics. Why has it taken so long, then, for science to finally come around to the really hard questions posed above? I would suggest that psychology is actually the hardest science of all, and that it has taken so long because science has needed the time to mature to the point where it can finally tackle questions like these.

Psychology is the future of science. In another 125 years, we can look forward to the AAAS milestones of science featuring dozens of major advances coming from psychology.