Psychology and Science

Roughly a year ago, Alex Berezow argued that psychologists should be kicked out of the science club. According to him, psychology is not a legitimate scientific endeavour, and calling it a science only serves to dilute the meaning of the word. It’s not “real science”; it’s merely an unstable edifice of murky and ineffable concepts masquerading in scientific dress.

There are certainly areas of psychology that could benefit from taking this criticism seriously and working to address it. Yet Berezow’s critique was not directed at a particular area of psychological inquiry, but at psychology as a whole. The entire endeavour of inquiring into the nature of the mind is, according to this view, unworthy of being considered a legitimate scientific pursuit. This conclusion should surely worry many psychologists who, up until now, have been working under the apparently false impression that a science of the mind is possible, at least in principle.

The ambitious breadth of Berezow’s critique deserves to be emphasised because it seems to have escaped even him. In declaring all psychology unscientific, Berezow is making a blanket claim that covers every area of psychological inquiry, regardless of how it is studied or what knowledge has been gained. This is incredibly misguided. The methods used in happiness research (Berezow’s example) differ from those used in the study of auditory perception or memory consolidation. And yet, from Berezow’s view, neither is a scientific pursuit. The limitations and imprecisions of one set of measures, in one area of psychological interest (e.g., happiness), is apparently enough for us to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

Had Berezow narrowed his criticism to those areas of study where they are most appropriate he would not have raised any eye brows. Indeed, he probably would have been expressing similar concerns to those shared by psychologists working in those areas. But the moment he sought to sink the entire intellectual enterprise on the back of one topic in one area of study was the moment he stretched the argument too far to be credible.

Devising clever ways of probing the workings of the living brain can be challenging. Some tools are far less precise than others. Psychologists are aware of these issues. It’s not as though Berezow has suddenly made the entire field cognisant of something that, up until now, it has either forgotten or ignored. However, the answer is not to abandon the enterprise, but to develop better ways of studying the phenomena of interest.

Critics like Berezow want us to view the limitations of our field as an impenetrable wall. This is a defeatist view from which no new knowledge can spring. Psychologists typically view limitations as something to overcome with the development of better and more sophisticated methodology. Ultimately, that is how any science, psychology included, grows and matures.

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The eReading Experience

It’s not surprising that many readers have traded in weighty tomes for Kindles and iPads. eBooks offer a number of practical advantages over hard texts. On account of their weightlessness, for example, it is possible to carry around a miniature library’s-worth of books. Many ebooks are available free on the web (i.e., works in the public domain) and those that aren’t can easily be purchased from any number of ebookstores. Of course, that’s not to say that ebooks are unequivocally better than their paperback/hardback cousins. They just offer a different kind of reading experience that many people find appealing (myself included). And that’s what interests me in this post: the reading experience.

Readers are not just passive content consumers. They actively engage with the text, and part of that engagement often involves marking the text: inserting comments or scribbles in the margins, highlighting or underlining pertinent passages, drawing lines connecting different paragraphs or circling whole sections of text, etc. Unfortunately, this aspect of the reading experience is not emulated all too well by current ereaders. Apps like iBooks offer only basic annotation features (coloured highlighting and notes). For digitized texts to be maximally useful, in addition to being mobile, they must lend themselves to the kind of annotation that books have permitted for centuries.

That said, ebooks have the potential to innovate further. Whereas the margins of hard books provide only limited space for readers to add their own marks, digitized texts exceed this limitation by a great magnitude. Readers can do more than just add their own notes to virtual margins; they can append other types of content as well – images, audio, video, links to websites and PDFs, etc. Those all sound like great features, but no ereader app (that I am aware of) currently offers any of those functions. Future versions of Kindle or iBooks perhaps?