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Bumble-bees can’t fly, and psychologists aren’t scientist

March 20, 2013

Xkcd’s cartoon from a while ago featured the bumblebee myth. With a great mouse-over as usual. Matt Francis, who was the first in my tweet stream to link it in (that I saw, I have such a babbling brook of a stream these days I miss things) said that, as a physicist, the bumblebee thing annoyed him.

Every once-in-a-while I hear people saying that psychology is not a science. Usually they say it will be a science once one can see something in the brain. Because, well, the brain, that is science. That one has been covered before. When I am charitable, I will explain why measuring the brain won’t finally make a honest science out of flighty psychology. Usually I throw my head back and go “ha ha ha ha ha ha ha”.

This time, it wasn’t the brain thing. It was, well…something else. From Rupert Reed. In his debate with Keith Laws (see last post for a storify). He wrote up his argument.

I’m usually fond of philosophers. Especially some big white silverbacks who have for the moment left the net (please come back, John Wilkins). I find them very valuable for my thinking, because, well, I think differently. And, frequently, we seem to be in the same area of discussion. Perhaps that is because the philosophers I read and meet are the ones in Cognitive Science. Like, well, Dennett, and Clark, and the Churchlands, and some of my buddies here.

So, this one is weird, and reading through his blog-clarification made it even weirder. Because it seems like he has just the flimsiest acquaintance with psychology.

You get a degree in psych/cog you are just forced to take at least a little bit of philosophy. Usually theory of science. I have way too wide interests, so I read some of this stuff in my spare time for fun. I also teach in the advanced class on philosophy of science for our masters levels. Not that I consider myself a philosopher, but I’m not totally ignorant of the field.

I assigned a rather interesting/quaint exchange of papers between Popper (or Sir Karl) and Kuhn to my students. One of my philosopher friends suggested it. And it is fascinating (one of my students thought it was stupid. I pointed out it was historical, and wasn’t it good to have some clue on some of the ideas behind falsification that we kind of learn through osmosis). But, it touches on the issues that Rupert brings up. Kuhns puzzle solving. Poppers radical falsificationism. It was very interesting.

Of course, as things are when you try to do science, you read, reflect, and then go by your old business, trying to ask questions of mother nature, who usually says, well. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Kuhn or Popper be damned.

But, where I think I gather that he has, well, no clue of what a working gal or guy does in our labs is when he brings up Nassim Taleb, finance, economics and black swans.

I mean, nobody in psychology has anything near anything like a black-scholes or Garch formula to use to extract riches before blowing up the economy. And, nobody in math psych would ever be near believing that they had hit on anything but a hopeless simplification about rather complex systems. I rember watching Ethibar Dzhafarov throw up his hands over the assumptions on a math model way over my head and laughing “in other words, we have no idea what we are doing”. Math psychologists KNOW that we don’t know. Because they try to model the assumptions.

I think psychological science is very low power when it comes to destroying the world, or having any real life consequences for most people outside. (Well, maybe my teaching of Cialdini will eventually lead to world dominion…). It does have impact within clinical. But, you know, that won’t bring down the economy.

Nassim Taleb is also very knowledgeable about psychology as a science. (Interesting watching him with Danny Kahneman – thanks to Jason Collins). The comment just seems plain weird.

There are some interesting discussions, I guess, but, I just wonder what kind of psychology he has observed and read (or participated in. I’m big on participation. Psychology is not a theoretical thing. You have to be practical).

Ah, well. Perhaps some sociologists of science will come in and explain it all. Like Steven Yearly, who I also have taught from (alas, I think I was the only one that really liked it. People in psychology are so narrow minded…).

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