Amateur Egghead - Why is psychology a science?

In this series, Amateur Egghead, I examine a range of different subjects on which I have no formal education or expertise of any kind. The opinions and thoughts within are my own and will likely piss a bunch of people off, mostly the ones who benefit from the things I talk about. -Ed.

It's difficult to start this without getting directly to the point; why is psychology still a science when the only thing we're learning about the human mind is all about the mechanics of the brain? The brain is the medium in which the "mind" resides, but it is not the mind itself without the person attached to it and the experiences that person has had. Science, as defined by Oxford, is:

"the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment..."

The world, as we know it, is already astonishingly complex, so much so that we don't know more than a fraction of what constitutes knowledge, and we've been hammering away at this ever since we became sentient. Hell, we don't even really know when that happened (though there are some really good guesses out there). Our universe, that which we can perceive and surmise from observation, is immensely enormous and, from our perspective, has no end. How do we even fathom that concept? 

There's a bit in Douglas Adams' wonderful Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy trilogy where protagonist Arthur Dent ends up in a cave on Frogstar World B. There he meets Gargravarr, the custodian of the Total Perspective Vortex, a device so hideous that it can destroy your mind.
When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it there's a tiny little speck, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, "You are here."
The device works by extrapolating the existence of everything by scanning a piece of fairy cake (smaller cupcakes made by Brits using sponge cake). Even fictionalizing the entirety of the cosmos as a way of getting back at your nagging wife who complains that you lack perspective is just too big to grok (and I use this term on purpose, as you'll see if you click the link). Existence itself is simply too vast to completely understand beyond our less-than-subatomic little sphere of influence, perched on a tiny speck, floating in a dust cloud billions of times our size, which in turn is a speck that is one trillionth of another larger dust cloud.

It's no wonder people believe in gods.

Even on Earth, life is extraordinarily complex without even discussing the human factor. There are countless billions of all manner of life above and below the water. We discover new species almost every year. This planet, this tiny ball of rock and lava spinning in space, is literally teeming with life. Then there's us. Humans. People.

We, unlike any other species, have evolved the most, at least within terms we can understand (or grok, if you desire a deeper meaning). We alone have progressed beyond the mere simple acts of survival that differently evolved forms of life engage in. Thanks to our opposable thumbs, soft skin, and lack of significant offensive or defensive qualities, we came to develop a range of cognitive defenses that have proven formidable, especially when used against our own kind. Over millions of years and through several different iterations, we became sentient.

Once that happened, all hell broke loose. As soon as people started to understand that they were a "they", we began to develop everything we are today. We look at things and make decisions about them based on prior experience, whether that be where we were born and raised, who are parents were, who are friends were, the good and bad things that happened to us, education, food, sex, trauma, pain, love, everything. All of these have a basis in instinctual behaviors, but are mostly, significantly shaped by our experiences in life. We barely understand our place on Earth, much less in our galaxy in the even more incomprehensibly immense universe, to the point where we still believe in myths like Santa Claus and gods. 

So, please excuse me if I'm more than a little skeptical about people who call themselves scientists walking around telling others they can help them with their psychological issues if they just submit to years of costly psychotherapy. Is that snake oil I smell or are you blatantly bullshitting me? 

There is no question that there is real science being performed around a wide range of brain and mind related subjects. We're actually getting rather good with some of the mechanics of how the human mind works, but psychologists would have us believe that, with sufficient training, they can help people sort out the bits that you can't see or poke with a stick. My skepticism might have something to do with the fact that I, myself, was in therapy for well over a decade and find myself little different as a person for it. And yet, it's not personal. I never felt any ill will towards my therapists. In fact, most of them I liked quite a bit and one of them I can count as a friend, but they didn't help me, and that, I believe, is for a very specific reason. 

They don't know me. 

How could they? In order to effectively know someone, you must have shared their experiences. How can a person who has not been raped ever relate to someone who has undergone that horrifying experience? What could any therapist ever do to know what an individual who has a history of torturing cats to death is going on inside their mind? How could the person sitting across from me ever understand what it was like to attend nine different schools before graduating and spending years on Ritalin for ADD and hyperactivty? I'd have to talk to a trained therapist who had ADHD, took badly misdosed Ritalin, was raised in an Episcopalean household (I'm a PK), experienced his parents divorce at the age of five, and learned he was adopted, not to mention the nine schools, many of which were private boarding schools. 

Without direct experience, we can be empathetic if we are so inclined, but we can't relate in any meaningful way. I understand the urge in some to help others, and it does help to talk to someone without being judged, but it doesn't take years of intense study, a Master's degree, and an enormous, international organization to offer a kind, non-judgemental ear to someone in need. In fact, in American society, there's quite the stigma that goes along with getting therapy for mental health, so I think it might actually do more harm than good. 

Ultimately, I think it remains a science because of the discipline required to become a psychologist, and not so much the "practice" of psychology. Medical doctors can practice medicine, and get better at it. The human body, after all, is just so much intricate plumbing and organic bits and bobs. The human mind, on the other hand, is infinitely more complicated, a multi-faceted riddle, wrapped in a sheath of millions of neurons, all firing in amaing ways to produce individual human beings, each with our own personalities, convictions, desires, fears, dislikes, and pleasures. 

Without a great deal more study, how can we ever hope to claim that psychology is a real science? 
2 responses
I love this write up Tyler! I would love to engage in duel of wits Brother! Awesome Awesome Awesome!
Thanks, Dan :)