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1.2 Understanding Science

Learning Objectives

  1. Define science.
  2. Describe the three fundamental features of science.
  3. Explain why psychology is a science.
  4. Define pseudoscience and give some examples.

What Is Science?

Some people are surprised to learn that psychology is a science. They generally agree that astronomy, biology, and chemistry are sciences but wonder what psychology has in common with these other fields. Before answering this question, however, it is worth reflecting on what astronomy, biology, and chemistry have in common with each other. It is clearly not their subject matter. Astronomers study celestial bodies, biologists study living organisms, and chemists study matter and its properties. It is also not the equipment and techniques that they use. Few biologists would know what to do with a radio telescope, for example, and few chemists would know how to track a moose population in the wild. For these and other reasons, philosophers and scientists who have thought deeply about this question have concluded that what the sciences have in common is a general approach to understanding the natural world. Psychology is a science because it takes this same general approach to understanding one aspect of the natural world: human behavior.

Features of Science

The general scientific approach has three fundamental features (Stanovich, 2010)[1]. The first is systematic empiricism. Empiricism refers to learning based on observation, and scientists learn about the natural world systematically, by carefully planning, making, recording, and analyzing observations of it. As we will see, logical reasoning and even creativity play important roles in science too, but scientists are unique in their insistence on checking their ideas about the way the world is against their systematic observations. Notice, for example, that Mehl and his colleagues did not trust other people’s stereotypes or even their own informal observations. Instead, they systematically recorded, counted, and compared the number of words spoken by a large sample of women and men. Furthermore, when their systematic observations turned out to conflict with people’s stereotypes, they trusted their systematic observations.

The second feature of the scientific approach—which follows in a straightforward way from the first—is that it is concerned with empirical questions. These are questions about the way the world actually is and, therefore, can be answered by systematically observing it. The question of whether women talk more than men is empirical in this way. Either women really do talk more than men or they do not, and this can be determined by systematically observing how much women and men actually talk. Having said this, there are many interesting and important questions that are not empirically testable and that science is not in a position to answer. Among these are questions about values—whether things are good or bad, just or unjust, or beautiful or ugly, and how the world ought to be. So although the question of whether a stereotype is accurate or inaccurate is an empirically testable one that science can answer, the question—or, rather, the value judgment—of whether it is wrong for people to hold inaccurate stereotypes is not. Similarly, the question of whether criminal behavior has a genetic basis is an empirical question, but the question of what actions ought to be considered illegal is not. It is especially important for researchers in psychology to be mindful of this distinction.

The third feature of science is that it creates public knowledge. After asking their empirical questions, making their systematic observations, and drawing their conclusions, scientists publish their work. This usually means writing an article for publication in a professional journal, in which they put their research question in the context of previous research, describe in detail the methods they used to answer their question, and clearly present their results and conclusions. Increasingly, scientists are opting to publish their work in open access journals, in which the articles are freely available to all – scientists and nonscientists alike. This important choice allows publicly-funded research to create knowledge that is truly public.

Publication is an essential feature of science for two reasons. One is that science is a social process—a large-scale collaboration among many researchers distributed across both time and space. Our current scientific knowledge of most topics is based on many different studies conducted by many different researchers who have shared their work publicly over many years. The second is that publication allows science to be self-correcting. Individual scientists understand that, despite their best efforts, their methods can be flawed and their conclusions incorrect. Publication allows others in the scientific community to detect and correct these errors so that, over time, scientific knowledge increasingly reflects the way the world actually is.

A good example of the self-correcting nature of science is the “Many Labs Replication Project” – a large and coordinated effort by prominent psychological scientists around the world to attempt to replicate findings from 13 classic and contemporary studies (Klein et al., 2013)[2]. One of the findings selected by these researchers for replication was the fascinating effect, first reported by Simone Schnall and her colleagues at the University of Plymouth, that washing one’s hands leads people to view moral transgressions—ranging from keeping money inside a found wallet to using a kitten for sexual arousal—as less wrong (Schnall, Benton, & Harvey, 2008)[3]. If reliable, this effect might help explain why so many religious traditions associate physical cleanliness with moral purity. However, despite using the same materials and nearly identical procedures with a much larger sample, the “Many Labs” researchers were unable to replicate the original finding (Johnson, Cheung, & Donnellan, 2013)[4], suggesting that the original finding may have stemmed from the relatively small sample size (which can lead to unreliable results) used in the original study. To be clear, at this stage we are still unable to definitively conclude that the handwashing effect does not exist; however, the effort that has gone into testing its reliability certainly demonstrates the collaborative and cautious nature of scientific progress.

For more on the replication crisis in psychology see: http://nobaproject.com/modules/the-replication-crisis-in-psychology

Science Versus Pseudoscience

Pseudoscience refers to activities and beliefs that are claimed to be scientific by their proponents—and may appear to be scientific at first glance—but are not. Consider the theory of biorhythms (not to be confused with sleep cycles or circadian rhythms that do have a scientific basis). The idea is that people’s physical, intellectual, and emotional abilities run in cycles that begin when they are born and continue until they die. Allegedly, the physical cycle has a period of 23 days, the intellectual cycle a period of 33 days, and the emotional cycle a period of 28 days. So, for example, if you had the option of when to schedule an exam, you would want to schedule it for a time when your intellectual cycle will be at a high point. The theory of biorhythms has been around for more than 100 years, and you can find numerous popular books and websites about biorhythms, often containing impressive and scientific-sounding terms like sinusoidal wave and bioelectricity. The problem with biorhythms, however, is that scientific evidence indicates they do not exist (Hines, 1998)[5].

A set of beliefs or activities can be said to be pseudoscientific if (a) its adherents claim or imply that it is scientific but (b) it lacks one or more of the three features of science. For instance, it might lack systematic empiricism. Either there is no relevant scientific research or, as in the case of biorhythms, there is relevant scientific research but it is ignored. It might also lack public knowledge. People who promote the beliefs or activities might claim to have conducted scientific research but never publish that research in a way that allows others to evaluate it.

A set of beliefs and activities might also be pseudoscientific because it does not address empirical questions. The philosopher Karl Popper was especially concerned with this idea (Popper, 2002)[6]. He argued more specifically that any scientific claim must be expressed in such a way that there are observations that would—if they were made—count as evidence against the claim. In other words, scientific claims must be falsifiable. The claim that women talk more than men is falsifiable because systematic observations could reveal either that they do talk more than men or that they do not. As an example of an unfalsifiable claim, consider that many people who believe in extrasensory perception (ESP) and other psychic powers claim that such powers can disappear when they are observed too closely. This makes it so that no possible observation would count as evidence against ESP. If a careful test of a self-proclaimed psychic showed that she predicted the future at better-than-chance levels, this would be consistent with the claim that she had psychic powers. But if she failed to predict the future at better-than-chance levels, this would also be consistent with the claim because her powers can supposedly disappear when they are observed too closely.

Why should we concern ourselves with pseudoscience? There are at least three reasons. One is that learning about pseudoscience helps bring the fundamental features of science—and their importance—into sharper focus. A second is that biorhythms, psychic powers, astrology, and many other pseudoscientific beliefs are widely held and are promoted on the Internet, on television, and in books and magazines. Far from being harmless, the promotion of these beliefs often results in great personal toll as, for example, believers in pseudoscience opt for “treatments” such as homeopathy for serious medical conditions instead of empirically-supported treatments. Learning what makes them pseudoscientific can help us to identify and evaluate such beliefs and practices when we encounter them. A third reason is that many pseudoscience’s purport to explain some aspect of human behavior and mental processes, including biorhythms, astrology, graphology (handwriting analysis), and magnet therapy for pain control. It is important for students of psychology to distinguish their own field clearly from this “pseudo psychology.”

The Skeptic’s Dictionary

An excellent source for information on pseudoscience is The Skeptic’s Dictionary (http://www.skepdic.com). Among the pseudoscientific beliefs and practices you can learn about are the following:

  • Cryptozoology. The study of “hidden” creatures like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, and the chupacabra.
  • Pseudoscientific psychotherapies. Past-life regression, rebirthing therapy, and bioscream therapy, among others.
  • Homeopathy. The treatment of medical conditions using natural substances that have been diluted sometimes to the point of no longer being present.
  • Pyramidology. Odd theories about the origin and function of the Egyptian pyramids (e.g., that they were built by extraterrestrials) and the idea that pyramids in general have healing and other special powers.

Another excellent online resource is Neurobonkers (http://neurobonkers.com), which regularly posts articles that investigate claims that pertain specifically to psychological science.

Key Takeaways

  • Science is a general way of understanding the natural world. Its three fundamental features are systematic empiricism, empirical questions, and public knowledge.
  • Psychology is a science because it takes the scientific approach to understanding human behavior.
  • Pseudoscience refers to beliefs and activities that are claimed to be scientific but lack one or more of the three features of science. It is important to distinguish the scientific approach to understanding human behavior from the many pseudoscientific approaches.


  1. Practice: List three empirical questions about human behavior. List three nonempirical questions about human behavior.
  2. Discussion: Consider the following psychological claim. “People’s choice of spouse is strongly influenced by their perception of their own parents. Some choose a spouse who is similar in some way to one of their parents. Others choose a spouse who is different from one of their parents.” Is this claim falsifiable? Why or why not?
  3. Discussion: People sometimes suggest that psychology cannot be a science because either (a) human behavior cannot be predicted with perfect accuracy or (b) much of its subject matter (e.g., thoughts and feelings) cannot be observed directly. Do you agree or disagree with each of these ideas? Why?
  4. Watch the following video by PHD Comics for an overview of open access publishing and why it matters:

QR code that links to PHD Comics video

Reading in print? Scan this QR code to view the video on your mobile device. Or go to https://youtu.be/L5rVH1KGBCY

  1. Stanovich, K. E. (2010). How to think straight about psychology (9th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  2. Klein, R. A., Ratliff, K. A., Vianello, M., Adams, R. B., Bahník, S., Bernstein, M. J., . . . Nosek, B. A. (2013). Investigating variation in replicability: A “many labs” replication project. Social Psychology, 45(3), 142-152. doi: 10.1027/1864-9335/a000178
  3. Schnall, S., Benton, J., & Harvey, S. (2008). With a clean conscience: Cleanliness reduces the severity of moral judgments. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1219-1222. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02227.x
  4. Johnson, D. J., Cheung, F., & Donnellan, M. B. (2013). Does cleanliness influence moral judgments? A direct replication of Schnall, Benton, and Harvey (2008). Social Psychology, 45(3), 209-215. doi: 10.1027/1864-9335/a000186
  5. Hines, T. M. (1998). Comprehensive review of biorhythm theory. Psychological Reports, 83, 19–64.
  6. Popper, K. R. (2002). Conjectures and refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge. New York, NY: Routledge.