Friday, August 10, 2012

Psychology is science. Duh.

So, sorry to burst the ignorant haters' bubble, but psychology is indeed science.  All of my lovely and brilliant readers already knew that, I'm sure.  Seeing as brains and minds and behavior are all natural processes that can be studied through emprical means, n'at.  Unlike what FL governor Rick Scott believes, psychology should SURELY be considered a STEM field.

This is something that I used to believe back when I was young, stupid, and just starting my neuroscience degree - as I thought at the time, real science!  And then I actually learned some psychology.

Alex Berezow posted this embarassingly-poorly-researched article, which brought the debate up again amongst some people I know who, unsurprisingly, don't know psychology past the Intro to Psych stage.

Berezow's complaint is that "psychology often does not meet the five basic requirements for a field to be considered scientifically rigorous: (1) Clearly defined terminology, (2) Quantifiability, (3) Highly controlled experimental conditions, (4) Reproducibility, and (5) Predictability and testability."  He goes on to make a strawman argument about some invented version of "happiness research" without citing any sources, because that's how real scientists act, apparently.

The thing is, some of these criticisms are valid of certain psychological paradigms - but psychologists go to great lengths to address these, because that's what the scientific method is about.

For an example of (1), some emotion research does sometimes have trouble with the "clearly defined terminology" thing, because we all know what anger feels like, but defining it in a concrete way involves a paragraph, if not a page.  For a good example of this, check Wikipedia's page on anger.  It's long, and it includes multiple definitions from different scientists, all of which are a little bit generic.  (Of course, that never happens in real sciences like biochemistry, where basic and relatively familiar concepts like the acid-base reaction are clearly and concisely defined.  Ahem.  But I digress.)

So that's a problem, right?  Or at least it seems like one, until you scroll down a bit to the section about the cognitive effects of anger, or the one about the physiology of anger... or go all the way down to the citations and start digging around in the literature.  For such a poorly defined concept as "anger", we seem to have been able to figure out a lot about how it works!

This is the point where I should introduce you to a basic psych research methods concept called operationalization.  And HEY LOOK WIKIPEDIA HAS IT COVERED!  It even uses the example of anger!  So I'm just going to quote it, with emphasis added by me:
In humanities, operationalization is the process of defining a fuzzy concept so as to make the concept clearly distinguishable or measurable and to understand it in terms of empirical observations. ...  For example, a researcher may wish to measure the concept "anger." Its presence, and the depth of the emotion, cannot be directly measured by an outside observer because anger is intangible. Rather, other measures are used by outside observers, such as facial expression, choice of vocabulary, loudness and tone of voice.
So let's say you want to study anger, which is a wibbly-wobbly concept.  You can do something like Alex Berezow proposes, and ask people "How angry are you, on a scale of Piglet to Mel Gibson?"  And yeah, that has problems, especially because psychologists (like most scientists) are boring as fuck, and instead of letting me answer something like "I'm just about at the Doctor at the end of Family of Blood", they make me say something like 8 on a scale of 10.  But also because your "8" and my "8" don't necessarily match up, and neither of those might match up with what the researcher thinks is an 8.

As Alex Berezow points out, we can't use a ruler or a microscope to measure anger.  So instead, we might measure someone's blood pressure.  Or skin conductance, which basically measures sweating.  Or facial expression.  Or we might give them an implicit association task, or a word-stem completion task, and see how much their behavior changes.  Or we might ask them to do a physical task that involves grip strength, punching a bag, or other physical force and see how that changes.  Or we might stick electrodes on their head and look at their brainwaves, or put them in a magnetic field to look at how their brain is using oxygen.

Go back and look at the physiology of anger section on Wikipedia, and you'll start getting a feel for what I mean.  There's a lot of crap that we can do to measure anger or happiness that doesn't involve arbitrary number scales.

And oh look!  In responding to (1), it seems as though I've covered (2) as well.  Five minutes on wikipedia, and I've already dealt with 40% of that bullshit.

Alex Berezow didn't really challenge (3), but in case that's a real issue for you, I recommend using Google scholar and looking at the methods section of any psychological paper.  Here's an example, if you'd like, that I got from the first page of that linked search.  Go on, I'll wait.  Yeah, that looks real uncontrolled to me.  Anyone who is curious can go to their local University, walk into the Psychology building, find a flyer for a psychological study (won't take long), and participate in one.  If the controls aren't obvious to you, you could ask any psychologist what kind of experimental controls are typical in their field.  Or take a research methods class, which is a required major course in every Psych department I've ever seen.  Learn a thing.

As for (4) and (5), I predict that inducing anger will raise participants' blood pressure.  In case you were wondering, I would induce anger in participants by asking their political preferences in two or three categories, then showing them an extended ad for the political opposite of whatever they prefer, then asking them to ruminate for two minutes on how wrong that opposition is.  This is highly testable.  But I don't actually have to test this, because it's already been tested, many times... which makes it highly reproducible as well.

If you don't think that's representative of psychological science as a whole?  Go educate yourself.  Do some reading - not crap articles by people who don't know a lick of psychology, but actual peer-reviewed papers.  If that's too challenging, take a damn research methods class.  Learn a thing.  It's good for you.

Now, I know I've done a lot of moaning in this about wrongness, and what's the point of that if I'm not going to take some positive steps?  So in the spirit of positive action and learning things, I am going to start a regular blog feature about specific tasks and measurements used in the psychological sciences, with an emphasis on psychophysiological methods, because those are what I think are the coolest.  So if you're too busy/cheap/lazy to actually take a research methods class, just stay tuned here.


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