Question Steph Social Sciences

Psychology, Karl Popper and the definition of science

Can and should Psychology be a science?

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Answer Internal Staff

The question of what does and does not count as a science is hotly contested, and there are a number of different competing criterion on which a classification can hinge. One of the most influential approaches to the problem was advanced by a philosopher named Karl Popper. He argued that for a statement to be scientific, it had to be ‘falsifiable’. What this means is that the statement must be such that there is a possibility of refuting that statement by presenting some contrary evidence. This draws a sharp distinction, separating empirical statements from those which are more metaphysical in nature. For example, the claim that we are all living in The Matrix cannot be tested, since any result could derive from the simulation. Therefore, any theory based on such claims is not falsifiable and cannot be considered science.

One insight that Popper’s ideas bring to the fore is that it may not be possible to judge an entire branch of study as being either science or pseudo-science. This judgement needs to be made on a theory-by-theory basis. Thinking in these terms, it seems clear that psychology is at best a mixed bag when it comes to falsifiability. While there are clear examples of scientific theories in parts of psychology, there are also some approaches to the discipline which are much more difficult (perhaps even impossible) to test. One such example is that of Freudian psychoanalysis and its derivatives – a body of theory which has been highly influential in the field. Such theories, that deal with the internal (perhaps unconscious) workings of individuals’ mental lives, can often not be proved right or wrong. According to Popper’s criteria, these are clearly not scientific, and there are various degrees of this type of theory throughout the discipline.

Based on the above, psychology can be a science. Whether it should exclusively produce scientific theories, however, is a question of whether non-scientific theories can be valuable in their own right.