Foreword: This article was first published as a letter in the January 2016 edition of The Psychologist: the monthly publication of the British Psychological Society; volume 29, no 1. (www.thepsychologist.org.uk)
I would like to add some philosophical observations to the recent contributions on the performance of psychological research.
There is a fundamental ‘uncertainty principle’ in psychology because the study of behaviour can change it, intentionally or not, whilst psychological research cannot control for the incalculable influences of its findings. In addition, psychology is open to the accusation of being subjectively invested in its subject matter to the detriment of ‘pure objectivity’ – after all, don’t we start with subjective premises like thoughts, feelings, memories, attitudes etc? And, despite the physical sciences being just as susceptible to ‘confirmation bias’ they seem better placed to get away with the trick of being ‘essentially objective’ – as if ‘objectivity’ is independent of the meaning we give to it. In fact, it may be fair to say that scientists are more like tinkerers than independent observers, and to make this point I take my cue from the works of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper.
Science faces a continuous challenge to determine the facts, which, aside from the most general of interpretations, are rarely conclusive. Indeed, the ideal of science – that the facts will speak for themselves – is a complete myth. Furthermore, every fact is a fact in multiple contexts and its isolation does not necessarily reflect its true nature. Evidence, such as it is, is a construct of the questions we ask, and is limited by all those we fail to ask. In general terms, there is no evidence without a mind to be convinced, and it doesn’t matter how objective we strive to be, we cannot escape the fact that there would be no objectivity without a subjective backdrop; indeed objectivity exists as a selective version of subjectivity. It is no wonder then that as the evidence accumulates, we find ourselves overturning or re-interpreting facts of prior investigations that were hitherto taken to be conclusive.
In reality, science remains a community of tinkerers. We like to think that our discoveries bolster our claims to have mastered the facts and that we know what we are doing because, like Little Jack Horner, we have managed to pull the plum out of the pie. And though we might have good reasons for selecting our pie, our generalisations don’t mean that the facts have told us what to think, or that that the ‘hard evidence’ runs our research – indeed it remains very much the opposite. Meanwhile, we strive to remain in control of our selections, so ensuring that the results remain subject to our foibles – which is why, as Karl Popper pointed out, we can always find confirmations of our pet theories and still be wrong.
A cynic might conclude that reliability and replication thereby serve to promote a line of research at the expense of the wider truth. But what kind of truth is to be found outside research? It would seem that the answer lies in our assessments of validity, so long as we remember that those assessments remain no more than that – since no fact speaks for itself whilst it requires a theory to speak for it. Nevertheless, there is one conclusion we are entitled to draw on the basis of our privileged position as subjective entities in an objective universe – that no matter how research proceeds and performs in the future, it remains relative to the unique ‘contamination’ of the mind in science, and necessarily so, albeit, paradoxically, not necessarily sufficient to convince us.
Mike Laidler MBPsS
Kuhn, Thomas S (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.
Popper, Karl R (1957). The Poverty of Historicism. Routledge & Kegan Paul