|Students see test tubes as more scientific than questionnaires|
Despite over 130 years passing since the opening of its first laboratory, psychology still struggles to be taken seriously as a science. A new paper by psychologists in the USA suggests this is due in part to superficial assumptions made about the subject matter and methods of behavioural science.
Douglas Krull and David Silvera asked 73 college students (49 women) to rate various topics and pieces of equipment on a 9-point scale in terms of how scientific they thought they were. On average, the students consistently rated topics from the natural sciences (e.g. brain, solar flares), and natural science equipment (e.g. microscope, magnetic resonance imaging) as more scientific than behavioural science topics and equipment (e.g. attitudes and questionnaires) – the average ratings were 7.86, 5.06, 7 and 4.34, respectively.
A follow-up study involving 71 more college students was similar but this time students rated the scientific status of 20 brief scenarios. These varied according to whether the topic was natural or behavioural science and whether the equipment used was natural or behavioural (e.g. “Dr Thompson studies cancer. To do this research, Dr Thompson uses interviews” is an example of a natural science topic using behavioural science methods.) Natural science topics and equipment were again rated as more scientific than their behavioural science counterparts. And this was additive, so that natural science topics studied with natural science methods were assumed to be the most scientific of all.
A third and final study was almost identical but this time the 94 college students revealed their belief that the natural sciences are more important than the behavioural sciences. “Even though the scientific enterprise is defined by its method, people seem to be influenced by the content of the research,” Krull and Silvera concluded. They added that this could have serious adverse consequences including students interested in science not going into psychology; psychology findings not being taken seriously; and funding being diverted from psychology to other sciences. “Misperceptions of science have the potential to hinder research and applications of research that could otherwise produce positive changes in society,” they said.
Unfortunately for a paper on the reputation of psychological science, the paper contains a series of serious scientific limitations. For instance, not only are all three samples restricted to college students, we’re also told nothing about the background of these students; not even whether they were humanities or science students. There is also no detail on how the students construed the meaning of “scientific”. If students assume the meaning of scientific has more to do with subject matter than with method then the findings from the first two studies are simply tautological.
Apart from a couple of exceptions, we are also given no information on how the researchers categorised their list of topics and equipment as belonging either to natural or behavioural science. Sometimes it’s obvious, but not always. For instance, how was “computer programmes” categorised? Where the categorisation is revealed it doesn’t always seem justified. Is “the brain” exclusively a natural science topic and not a behavioural science topic? In truth psychologists often make inferences about the brain based on behavioural data. Obviously carving up scientific disciplines is a tricky business, but the issue is not really addressed by Krull and Silvera. In terms of terminology, their paper starts off distinguishing between natural and behavioural science, with psychology given as an example of a behavioural science. Their discussion then focuses largely on psychology.
Lastly, it’s unfortunate that Krull and Silvera more than once refer to the seductive allure of brain scans as an example of the way that people are swayed by the superficial merit of natural science. Presumably they wrote their paper before the seductive allure of brain scans was thoroughly debunked earlier this year. They can’t be blamed for not seeing into the future, but it was perhaps scientifically naive to place so much faith in a single study.
Douglas S. Krull and David H. Silvera (2013). The stereotyping of science: superficial details influence perceptions of what is scientific. Journal of Applied Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12118
Child’s play! The developmental roots of the misconception that psychology is easy
From The Psychologist magazine news archive: A US psychologist has urged the psychological community to do more to challenge the public’s scepticism of our science.