Many undergrad psych textbooks do a poor job of describing science and exploring psychology’s place in it

GettyImages-3429097.jpgBy guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski

Psychology as a scientific field enjoys a tremendous level of popularity throughout society, a fascination that could even be described as religious. This is likely the reason why it is one of the most popular undergraduate majors in American and European universities. At the same time, it is not uncommon to encounter the firm opinion that psychology in no way qualifies for consideration as a science. Such extremely critical opinions about psychology are often borrowed from authorities – after all, it was none other than the renowned physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman who, in a famous interview in 1974, compared the social sciences and psychology in particular to a cargo cult. Scepticism toward psychological science can also arise following encounters with the commonplace simplifications and myths spread by pop-psychology, or as a product of a failure to understand what science is and how it solves its dilemmas.

According to William O’Donohue and Brendan Willis of the University of Nevada, these issues are further compounded by undergraduate psychology textbooks. Writing recently in Archives of Scientific Psychology, they argue that “[a] lack of clarity and accuracy in [psych textbooks] in describing what science is and psychology’s relationship to science are at the heart of these issues.” The authors based their conclusions on a review of 30 US and UK undergraduate psychology textbooks, most updated in the last few years (general texts and others covering abnormal, social and cognitive psych), in which they looked for 18 key contemporary issues in philosophy of science. 

Almost a quarter of the sampled textbooks explicitly and boastfully stated that there is no difference between psychology and other “hard” sciences such as chemistry and physics. Yet only one textbook discussed “methodological freedom” – the idea asserted by the philosopher-critic of science, Paul Feyerabend, that all scientific techniques are different. Only one textbook mentioned the issue of improper use of ad hoc hypotheses, a characteristic of pseudoscience. Similarly, there was only one reference to the ideas put forward by Feyerabend and Alan Gross that persuasion and rhetoric are a key part of science – i.e. that the scientific endeavour is not merely about “the dispassionate evaluation of evidence”. 

There were also just three mentions of such important issues as “evolutionary epistemology” (how knowledge accumulates), “social constructionism” (how social context shapes our scientific understanding), and “Kuhnian paradigms” (a discussion regarding Kuhn’s idea of paradigms, including that knowledge is only interpreted within a certain paradigm and how Kuhnian paradigm shifts occur), and the question of whether psychology is a pre-paradigmatic science or mature science. Only four textbooks contained any sort of discussion regarding whether or not the definition of science itself is a controversial topic. The roles of competing theories and evaluations in science were mentioned only six times.

“… [U]ndergraduate psychology students are not being provided a clear sense of what science is as well as its complexities,” the researchers concluded. “[The] data also generally suggest that students are being presented a simplistic notion of science as having a relatively straightforward and settled characterisation. Few texts mention that science is difficult to define, or that there are multiple proposed accounts of science. This is concerning, especially given the continual debate regarding psychology’s (and other social sciences) relationships to the natural sciences …” O’Donohue and Willis said. 

On the plus side, there was a far more exhaustive treatment by textbook authors of some meta-science issues (the question of how science should be practised). Most frequently – in 16 textbooks – there was discussion of the crucial role of theory in forming and testing hypotheses. Among other topics that O’Donohue and Willis looked for, those mentioned most frequently included the tentativeness of scientific facts and whether science is deductive or inductive (seven books argued for it being deductive, three against). However, only eight of the sampled books identified pseudoscience as a concern and discussed how to differentiate pseudoscience from legitimate science.

The new findings confirm other unfavourable assessments of the value of psychology textbooks, such as their involvement in spreading pop-psychological myths and liberal-leaning biasgiving a misleading view of intelligence; ignoring modern criticism of such famous studies as Milgram’s experiments, or the Stanford Prison Experiment; and being misleading about evolutionary psychology. 

A simplistic notion of science presented in undergrad textbooks is not only a problem for the image of our discipline in the eyes of the public. O’Donohue and Willis rightly point out that covering issues such as “logic, definition of knowledge, bias in science, how to evaluate theories and other topics that can apply to the informed citizen’s appraisal of important issues ranging from human contributions to climate change, to the legitimacy of research involving Big Pharma, to understanding whether evolution is ‘just a theory’,” are also relevant for the general goals of a liberal education. 

Unfortunately, the content of textbooks in undergraduate psychology suggest that they serve not only to instruct, but also to essentially indoctrinate students into a particular way of thinking. A pity that this new study and others have so far not answered the question of how much content has been omitted by authors because they disagree with it, and how much because they are ignorant of it. Perhaps this is a significant research problem that should be explored in the future? 

Problematic images of science in undergraduate psychology textbooks: How well is science understood and depicted? [open access]

Image: 24th February 1930: Film actress Helen Ruth Mann reads a hefty book on Psychology. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Post written by Dr Tomasz Witkowski for the BPS Research Digest. Tomasz is a psychologist and science writer who specialises in debunking pseudoscience in the field of psychology, psychotherapy and diagnosis. He has published over a dozen books, dozens of scientific papers and over 100 popular articles (some of them in Skeptical Inquirer). In 2016, his latest book Psychology Led Astray: Cargo Cult in Science and Therapy was published by BrownWalker Press. He blogs at Forbidden Psychology.

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