Why ‘psychology’ fails Popper’s falsifiability tests and isn’t a science

A doctor I consulted for a while in another town and time had the dynamite combination of incompetence, ego and an ability to intellectualise his ineptitude in a way that threw people on to the back foot.

If he couldn’t diagnose something – which was just about everything – it was due to ‘psychological’ problems on the part of the patient, and there was no defence because he was the doctor and obviously anybody accused of faulty character would object, proving he was right to assign it. So I’d go away, still suffering from the flu or whatever I’d gone to see him about, but now knowing it was my fault for being psychologically weak.

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The tale underscores the fact that ‘psychological’ diagnosis relies on subjective opinion. And that’s a problem, because it means ‘psychology’ fails the scientific litmus test of falsifiability.

I don’t have a problem with psychiatry, which is about genuine medical issues. However, ‘psychology’ is another matter. If viewed as a ‘science’ the problem is its failure to meet falsification criteria, because the evidence is subjective – therefore the conclusions can only be inductive. This means it cannot be a science.

Let me explain.

Falsifiability was (re-)invented for modern science by Sir Karl Popper and – despite efforts to dispute or refine it – remains a definition of scientific method. His principle states that conclusions produced by inductive logic cannot be shown to be untrue by finding an exception (‘falsifiability’). Therefore such conclusions cannot be tested. To Popper, anything that couldn’t be subjected to falsifiability (‘testing for an empirical counter-case’) wasn’t science.

I studied, post-grad, under one of Popper’s students – and I ‘get’ (as Heinlein might say, ‘grok’) what he was about, although Popperian thinking doesn’t exclusively define mine. The way we think about how we think must not stand still.

Still, Popper’s principle reasonably defines ‘scientific proof’. To highlight that in terms of ‘psychology’ we need go no further than its corporate form, ‘psychometrics’. On my experience, psychometrics consists of a total stranger making me answer arbitrary questions where none of the answers represent my views, but where I am forced to answer according to one of the choices. This failure to capture true data, by nature, means quality of result is meaningless. It also means the answer, by definition, is empirically falsifiable and therefore fails the test for ‘scientific’.

But psychometric tests aren’t about quality or accuracy of data – they’re about slotting arbitrary answers into a simple matrix so a total stranger, who doesn’t know me from Adam, can (deep breath) inform me what sort of person I really am. There’s no protesting because – as I was told, ‘that’s just soooo what your type would say, isn’t it.’

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There was the time I ended up doing the same psychometric test twice with the same corporate ‘psychologist’. The test was built around a childish pop-sci metaphor in which personalities were reduced to a carbon isomer, ‘proving’ that personalities were defined by the ancient Greek elements of Earth, Air, Fire or Water, via a few leading multi-choice questions which told the ‘psychologist’ conducting the test who the subjects really were. Quite.

It was trivial to reverse-engineer this intellectual botty-dribble. So when I hit the test a second time I gamed it. That puzzled the hell out of the ‘psychologist’, who couldn’t figure out my magic transformation and kept hammering at me to confess that I was really the person in the original result. You know…really.

That mindless faith even after the test had been falsified rendered it an epic failure in Popperian terms. Now, while psychometrics is the corporate-kiddie version of real ‘psychology’, I think the same is true of the wider discipline, which was pioneered at the end of the nineteenth century as a culturally-framed pseudo-science by people given asymmetric power by the doctor-patient relationship. Sigsmund Freud and his disciples thought they had discovered an absolute human truth without realising how far they were imprisoned by their own cultural frameworks.

One result was their supposition that humanity was defined by ‘repression’ of what middle-class Western society of the late nineteenth century happened to demonise: sex. This was something their middle-class subculture of the day indulged in anyway. But it wasn’t meant to be discussed, and the apparent way in which ‘psychology’ had escaped the constraints of its pioneers’ specific sub-culture gave it an illusion of ‘progress’ in the Western period sense of movement towards a culturally-defined end point. ‘Look! I’m psychologically advanced! I can talk about penises!’

Although ‘psychologists’ eventually realised that the human condition was defined by more than the social hangups of bourgeoise Vienna, nobody questioned the supposition that everybody – presumably with the exception of the ‘psychologist’ – was ‘neurotic’ and therefore failed to be ‘normal’. From this emerged Carl Jung’s ‘archetypes’ and, from that, the ‘science’ of ‘psychometrics’ -Myers-Briggs, Luscher Colour Tests, Szondi Tests, and others, all personal to their creators and over which proper science has raised question marks. That’s especially so of the ‘inkblot’ test invented by Swiss national Hermann Rorschach in 1921, which was utterly subjective and has been long shown to be pseudo-science.

All this made their emerging doctrine a recipe for massive injustices because the early twentieth century was the age of certainties, slotting things into boxes, and eugenics. If somebody didn’t fit ‘normal’ it wasn’t that the framework was wrong, it was because they were wrong, therefore had to be ruthlessly smashed at until they chose to conform, or were broken. And if they broke, well, that proved how weak and wrong they were. Take introversion, for instance, which the APA once tried to classify as a psychological disorder.

All this flowed from an age when conviction, masquerading as scientific rationality, had buried moral compass, a human flaw that has had many expressions. To my thinking, ‘psychology’ was given power by that mix and became an intellectualised bullying device, wide open for abuse by ‘professionals’ who used the power it gave them to validate themselves at the expense of the well-being of their patients.

I know ‘psychology’ has moved on since. But as far as I am concerned it’s still not science, by definition, because it fails the first hurdle of the first test. More soon. But for now – any thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


9 thoughts on “Why ‘psychology’ fails Popper’s falsifiability tests and isn’t a science

  1. https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2016/01/karl-popper-on-science-pseudoscience/

    Here’s a good essay on Popper as well.

    I bit of Google search will reveal counter-arguments to Popper’s and they’re interesting too.

    Becoming aware of Popper’s thinking on scientific falsification as a criterion for science vs. pseudoscience years ago, I found it on surface to be jarringly non-intuitive and somehow disturbing. So I thought about it for a long time and found it to be far more subtle than I originally thought.

    1. Thank you!🙂 I put quite a bit of work into this post – it’s something I’ve been considering for quite a while. To me one of the reasons why ‘psychology’ has always had the illusion of credibility has been its pretensions to ‘science’ – which is weird, because it certainly isn’t!

      1. I know. Back “in the day” I studied psychology to try to understand myself and all the horrible things that happened to and around me. Then I saw a few, and decided that I was much better equipped to deal with my monsters than any of them every were!

  2. Had a psychology professor, Dr. David Centa, Columbus State University, in college who failed me because I answered all of his objective test questions correctly, therefore, must have been cheating. Appealed to the department of science and received the right to retake the class, free of charge, under a different professor and received an “A” for the class. Then, years later, my son took the same course under the original professor, despite me warning him not to. Son was acing the class as I told him the answers are right in the book. Read the book. Professor blew his brains out during class in his office. I worked as a psychiatric nurse for years, but saw numerous psychologists seriously more disturbed than the patients.

    1. Astonishing! Apropos your observation of psychiatrists being more disturbed than their patients, I’ve got a post coming up on Wilhelm Reich, who seemed to oscillate between being a ‘pioneering psychologist’ and ‘total looney’ as far as I can tell.

      1. Excellent post!

        I’ve worked in several hospitals, and it was a truism amongst staff that psychiatrists are more disturbed than their patients.

        I’ve had a similar experience to Matthew with a doctor in another town too – my one thought that every illness was caused by stress.

        My personal situation and medical condition are extremely difficult ones. Oftentimes when I have to consult a different doctor/other medical professional than usual, they assume I must be depressed by the situation. These people either think I’m hiding how I really feel or that I’m faking my medical condition. It’s impossible to argue with their prejudices, and has led to more suffering on my part as a result. It’s extremely frustrating.

        I think psychology has its place, but it fails to acknowledge its limits, or that it even has any. Of course, it’s difficult to test the limits when there’s so much subjectivity involved.

        1. I agree – psychology has always presented to me as being somehow ‘above’ fault, presumably because it purports to present the ‘deeper’ explanation of the human condition – whereas in fact the field is deeply faulty because of its pretensions to science. To me that deeper human reality is something slightly different – and if we understand it, we also understand how ‘psychologists’ managed to deceive society so thoroughly with their pretensions.

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