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Challenging public scepticism on science
A US psychologist has urged the psychological community to do more to challenge the public's scepticism of our science. Writing in American Psychologist, Scott Lilienfeld, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Emory University, outlines the evidence that this scepticism exists, explores the possible causes, and offers some recommendations for how to rectify the situation. His article also includes a valuable series of rebuttals to common criticisms of psychology, such as that 'it's all common sense' (tinyurl.com/5smwwgq).
So, what's the scale of the problem? Unfortunately, surveys of students and the wider public continue to reveal a sizeable minority of people who doubt the scientific status of psychology. Among the papers Lilienfeld cites is a 1997 survey of British students, which found on average, across disciplines, that students tended to view psychology as a social science, but not a genuine science.
Perhaps most worrying, Lilienfeld says, is the public's ignorance of the contribution psychology has made to confronting social problems. For example, the most recent large-scale survey - the APA Benchmark Study - which sampled 1000 adults across the USA, found that just 1 per cent of respondents selected psychologists as the profession best suited to confronting the problems posed by climate change, versus 44 per cent who chose engineers, and 11 per cent economists.
As we know, and as Lilienfeld points out, psychology has in fact contributed to many applied fields: for example, in aptitude tests, eye-witness testimony, human memory and economics.
Lilienfeld outlines several sources of the public's persistent scepticism, including: a failure of the field to police itself; the problematic face of public psychology; the illusion of understanding; and people's failure to distinguish basic from applied research (see the paper for a full list).
The first of these refers to the persistence of unscientific practices, such as facilitated communication for autism. 'Our field has been slow to police its own questionable practices,' Lilienfeld says. The second concerns the prominent media profile (in the USA) of people like Dr Phillip McGraw ('Dr Phil'), who has a record of making unscientific pronouncements, such as that the polygraph is reliable. The third relates to people's general over-confidence in their understanding of psychological concepts, a bias that emerges in childhood (as reported on the BPS Research Digest: tinyurl.com/yfbcnw9). Finally, the failure to distinguish basic from applied science refers to people not appreciating that psychologists often study particular phenomena (.e.g. Japanese quails in a classic work published in 1986: tinyurl.com/64y3m4p), not because they're interested in quails per se, but because they're interested in the underlying mechanisms, in this case the mechanisms of classical conditioning in sexual behaviour in general.
Lilienfeld also tackles head-on six common criticisms of the scientific basis of psychology, including that it's all common sense and uses unscientific methods (this section is a great read for arming yourself against such criticisms). His recent book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology in fact features a list of over 300 findings that violate popular wisdom. Lilienfeld also explains in his new article how psychology uses scientific methods as rigorously as other fields, including 'randomised controlled trials, placebo control groups, and blinded designs... [and] sophisticated statistical methods, including correlational, multiple regression and structural equation modeling techniques'. And he rebuts the claims that psychological generalisations lack meaning because each person is unique (unique attributes often do not interact with powerful main effects), and that psychological findings are not replicable (an analysis by Larry Hedges in 1987 found the replicability of many psychology findings matched those in particle physics).
So what to do about psychology's public reputation? Lilienfeld calls on individual psychologists to do more to communicate the value of psychological science to the public, and he urges institutions to play their part: to help psychological scientists and practitioners engage with the media; to educate the public about professional distinctions between psychology and other less scientific professions; and for institutions like the BPS to be much clearer about what they're against, not just what they're for, '...to play a more active public role in distancing themselves from the plethora of therapeutic and assessment fads that are poorly supported by scientific evidence or that blatantly contradict such evidence'.
But in conclusion, Lilienfeld says we should view public scepticism as an ally. A better understanding of this scepticism can help reveal the 'deep-seated misconceptions' people have about human nature. 'Finally,' he says, 'public skepticism of psychology may provide us with a much needed impetus toward getting our clinical house in order and winnowing out the elements of our profession that are scientifically dubious, some of which have tarnished our hard-fought credibility. In this respect, public skepticism may be an imperfect but nonetheless informative barometer of our field's scientific status.'
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