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Authority in Science
How science differs from religion

Copyright © 2010, Paul LutusMessage Page

 

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Thank you so much for the article "Is Psychology a Science?". You're welcome. I'm glad this article continues to inspire discussions and doubt. I shared it with an informal discussion group I attend, and it sparked one of the best debates we've had in a long time. The contrast between what psychology is and its fa├žade as a science is so obvious, it's hard to believe the issue isn't more deeply debated. Because of my extensive correspondence with both scientists and psychologists, I've been able to identify the problem. For a scientist, the only issue is evidence, nothing else has any standing. But for psychologists, not necessarily trained in science, arguing about things other than evidence seems to be second nature. My discussion boards include many exchanges with psychologists in which every imaginable aspect of an issue is discussed except evidence — psychology helps people, human behavior is too complicated to allow science, science has any number of definitions including subjective ones. I especially appreciate your explanation of the un-relationship between science and authority, though a question in my debate group came up which non of us has yet been able to adequately answer: Obviously, no one has the time or resources to reproduce every experiment that contributed to a particular body of knowledge (chemistry, math, etc). For some knowledge the learner relies on the cumulative efforts of past researchers. Actually, no, that would be a mistake. A properly written scientific result connects an outcome with a theory it is meant to test, and some experimental results meant to either break new ground or confirm prior results as in a replication. This divorces the outcome from the individuals responsible for it — scientists evaluate an idea on the basis of its connection with theory and its connection with evidence (both of which are open to challenge and further work), but not its connection with a particular source. If scientific research is conducted properly, its source becomes irrelevant to an evaluation of its meaning.

The demotion of authority in science has many roots:
  • The fact that results are not taken seriously until they have been replicated in independent experiments by people one may assume will not collude in covering up sloppy or fraudulent results.

  • The vital connection between theory and results. Shaping theories generalizes specific results and allows experiments using different methods to test the same claim, liberates the outcome from the biases of any individual, and ultimately creates a basis for distinct scientific fields (biology and chemistry are different fields not because of different names but because of different theories).

  • Statistical and mathematical analyses that are verifiable in their own right and that estimate the probability that a result arose by chance.

  • The innate skepticism and high standards of the scientists who read the result, e.g. the default assumption that an idea is false until and unless there is evidence to support it.
Because of these safeguards, and if the science is conducted properly, no single person can promote a result that merits the name "scientific". The best science depends on many experiments, conducted in different ways by different people, that confirm or falsify a theoretical claim. The worst science depends on a single result, emanating from a single researcher, that cannot be replicated and/or that doesn't assert or test a theoretical claim.

The history of psychology includes many examples where an entire subfield originates in the unevaluated beliefs of an individual but never leads to a testable, falsifiable theory, followed by a series of abuses, and eventual abandonment of the original idea without it ever being properly tested.

Here is a contrast between science and simple belief:
  • Critics of evolutionary theory often make the claim that it's all about Charles Darwin, and if Darwin hadn't had the idea, it wouldn't exist. But Darwin didn't invent evolution, he discovered it in nature. Many different kinds of evidence support the theory of evolution, and Darwin the man is irrelevant to the present standing of evolution the theory.

  • In 1944, pediatrician Hans Asperger noticed a set of symptoms in certain children and began to believe these symptoms represented a distinct condition. Psychologists accepted this assumption without any effort to study or explain it, Asperger's Syndrome was born, and clinical psychologists began diagnosing and treating the "syndrome", often with people whose only mental defect was a surplus of intelligence. The absence of evidence for, or a theory about, Asperger's has created widespread abuse, as a result of which Asperger's Syndrome is about to be abandoned — not because of scientific falsification or professional housecleaning, but because of public outrage.
The first of the above examples represents science — someone has an idea, the idea leads to experiments, the experiments lead to a testable, falsifiable theory, the theory is confirmed by experiments using different methods to test the same idea, and the idea's originator — and his authority — become irrelevant to the outcome.

The second example does not represent science — someone has an idea, the idea is never tested or generalized into a theory or explained on the basis of existing theories, it becomes popular by way of the presumed authority and expertise of its originator and advocates, and finally the idea is abandoned — without ever being scientifically tested — after the public calls shenanigans.

The first example is typical of science, and there are hundreds of examples. The second example is typical of psychology, and there are hundreds of examples.
Is the acquiring of second-hand knowledge a form of adherence to "scientific authority"? I've had a great deal of trouble finding any sources of information that can help me answer this. The point is that science is designed to dismiss the significance of any individual or authority and to focus on evidence. Science pays attention, not to eminence, but to evidence. Thanks again for the article. It gave us a lot to think about. You're welcome. I'm happy my article continues to provoke useful discussion and — most important of all — skepticism.
 

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