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Feb 16

Confession

Today at work I was thinking about something and I thought I would like to share. It is something I have been tossing around in my brain for a couple of weeks. Before I get into it, which will probably be tomorrow, I would like to get one thing out of the way. I know it’s popular to think that other people have biases and preconceptions that cloud their judgment. It’s almost as popular for someone to believe that they are immune to bias or that somehow their own is more justified than that of anyone else. I want to take a few moments to draw your attention to a bias of my own.

I am an empiricist at heart. I love science. Biology is one of the great loves of my life. Occasionally I have a tryst with the physical sciences but I always come back home to biology. I detest pseudoscience and I have been known to go on forum sprees for days, even weeks, tearing down some nutjob peddling woo. If a discipline cannot stand up to basic requirements of empirical evidence I don’t think it should be taken seriously. So for many years I had a strong sense of animosity toward the field of psychology.

I think part of my problem arose from the way many psychology books began by tracing the history of their field. I have no problem with introducing a field with a survey of its early history. It can make the struggles of those seeking that knowledge more real to the reader and it helps people understand how far a particular discipline has come. The first textbooks on psychology I read did this but they seemed to give a lot of attention to the psychological “theories” of the early pioneers. These wild conjectures by Freud and Jung and others were not scientific. There was nothing empirical or falsifiable in them.

That wasn’t my problem. They were working with what they had. In their defense there were no methods or data for them to refine at the time outside of philosophy. I could understand their dilemma. They were what the alchemists were to the field of chemistry. And that is my point. Can you imagine a chemistry text that spends a great deal of time detailing the sophisticated mythical systems of alchemical properties and magical transformations? Of course not. The purpose is to illustrate how chemistry began and how much empirical methods transformed something from superstition into science. The fact that these texts paid so much lip service to conjecture began to turn me off right away.

The way psychology was misused by the public also hardened me against the field, though I do admit it shouldn’t have. People misuse legitimate science all the time. Psychology is just easier to misuse by the layperson than most other disciplines. This kind of early exposure biased me against psychology and for years it was easy to find evidence to support my bias. I didn’t take the field seriously enough to study it in any more depth or to keep up with its modern developments. Psychology is an easy target for an empiricist most of the time.

In recent years the intersection of neuroscience and psychology have drawn me closer to the field again and I have come to see that the modern incarnation can be far removed from the mumbo jumbo of the past. Because I enjoy both physics and biology I can see how the level of strict empiricism available to a researcher is determined by the complexity and uncertainty of the subject being studied. A biologist cannot control the variables of an organism or an ecosystem to the extent that a physicist or a chemist can control some physical systems. Biology in that sense is a softer science than physics. Many physicists actually have a similar bias against biology, saying it conjectures too much or isn’t empirical enough.

This has helped me to realize that psychology is just further down the spectrum. Constraints are placed on what can be conclusively known by both the complexity of the system being studied and the technology and methods available to study it. The human brain is an immensely complex set of mechanisms and phenomena. It gets even more peculiar when we consider that the field of psychology is itself an example of a phenomenon (the human mind) trying to understand itself.

Before I start waxing philosophical I will draw this little rant to a close by saying that I still have some cognitive bias against psychology but I’m working on it. I could go on about the details for days. The reason I tell you this is so that it can be out of the way before I tell you the rest of what I was thinking about today. That will have to wait though. Until then.

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