17 November 2011

from Lawrence, Sunday PhiloMadrid meeting: Is psychology a pseudo science?

Essay by Simon
Dear Friends,
This Sunday we are discussing a rather challenging topic: Is psychology a pseudo science?
Fortunately, Simon has written a short essay for us and he has also sent us an article from The
Guardian that links very well with our subject.
Whilst confessing that this is not a subject I have given much thought about, the question I would
explore is this: is it possible that the more we learn about the human body and especially the human
brain, the more psychology seems to deal with superficial issues or seem to be lose its relevance?
So, although, what we call psychology is a science, its mission is either being eclipsed by emerging
sciences such as genetics and neurology, or maybe the issues in psychology can be solved by non
traditional methods.
Indeed, maybe psychology is just one of those activities, like politics and religions, where it is
more susceptible to evolutionary change than say philosophy and mathematics.
See you Sunday,
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
PS don't forget that Ignacio and friends are now meeting at Triskel Tavern (San Vicente Ferrer 3) on
Thursday at 7:30pm.

I am including a article from the Guardian below.
I will shorten this "essay" with minimal definitions:
"SCIENCE", as we have discussed this recently, we can take a sort of vague consensus view that it
must include experimentation as a means to test theories, with peer review of the results......
"PYSCHOLOGY". Its definition and exact borders are not of specific interest for the purposes of this
discussion, I suggest, as our conclusions may be applied to related disciplines. I point instead, at
an example, SEE BELOW, at a piece of work generally described as "Psychology" (article published in
today's "Guardian" 15 November 2011). This is more interesting, anyway, as we can discuss these
"PSEUDO SCIENCE". I think there are 2 strands of meaning. Firstly as a generally derogatory term
implying unreliability or the trivial nature of the subject matter.
Secondly there is a more technical definition based on the lack of falsifiability of its
propositions. Famously, the philosopher Karl Popper labelled psychoanalysis as "pseudo science"
because he believed that no experimental or clinical outcomes would require the theory to be
amended. (Some philosophers and scientists have subsequently complained that things are not so
simple - that falsifiability can be almost as elusive as "verification", that contrary data must
sometimes be sidestepped when building a new theory...and others). Nevertheless the lack of
"falsifiability" remains one of the main criteria when accusations of "pseudo science" are made. I
use the word "accusation" as it is generally used to try to disqualify the field of supposed
knowledge, although some philosophers of science have recognised that "pseudo science" may develop
into "real science", for example alchemy to chemistry.
So, in a minute, we can decide whether "unreliability", "triviality" or "unfalsifiability"...or any
other supposed hallmarks of pseudo science can be discerned in the work described below.
But first I put forward some personal opinions (3)
-Triviality is not a "technical" objection to research; there are many "real science" Phd s on very
narrow areas sitting on dusty shelves of little or no interest to anyone. On the other hand
triviality or irrelevance is a fair criteria for general criticism. Above all
all findings should be aware of their limitations and specificity; for example it seems to me that
much of the original theorising around IQ and other aptitude tests was over ambitious, and probably
-One of my objections to much written in the social sciences is not just that it is not
"falsifiable" but that it hardly says anything at all. To say that people with few resources are
likely to suffer "feelings of relative depravation" does not take us very far down the road of
-Finally I return to an obsession of mine with language use, specifically for words related to
"inner states", intentionality etc. It seems to me that this category of words can cause massive
confusion if used in experimental language - as conditions, predictions, postulated causes or
whatever - because they follow a different dynamic. For example I do not believe that the statement
"A good family life makes people feel more fulfilled" can be tested in the same way as " X % of the
population say they sleep badly after watching a horror film". If falsifiability in the social
sciences is our main concern then our subject matter should be behaviour (including "verbal
behaviour" ie speech) and not "inner states" or other such psychological entities.
That's all from me. Here is the article......
To see this story with its related links on the guardian.co.uk site, go to
Daniel Kahneman: 'We're beautiful devices'
Called the world's most important psychologist, Daniel Kahneman inspired the trend for
pop-psychology books, won a Nobel in economics and has devoted his life to studying the logic
of irrationality
Oliver Burkeman
Tuesday November 15 2011
The Guardian


The Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman lives in an airy penthouse on the 14th floor of
an apartment block in downtown Manhattan, not far from the Eighth Street subway station. But never
mind that for a moment. Instead, without thinking too hard about it, try answering the
following question: roughly what percentage of the member states of the United Nations are in
Africa? (I'll wait.)
The correct figure isn't what's important here. What matters is that your answer is likely to be
lower than if you had first been informed that Kahneman is 77 years old, or if I had claimed his
apartment? where he lives with his wife, the British-born psychologist Ann Triesman ? was
60 floors up, and near the 86th Street station. This is the phenomenon known as the "anchoring
effect", and it is typical of Kahneman's contributions to psychology in that it suggests something
rather disturbing about the human mind: not just that we're susceptible to making skewed judgments,
but that we're influenced by factors more subtle and preposterous than we could ever imagine.
Kahneman's new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a meaty memoir of his life's work that describes
countless such cognitive quirks ? but don't imagine that reading it will cure your irrationality.
"It's not a case of: 'Read this book and then you'll think differently,'" he says. "I've written
this book, and I don't think differently." Kahneman, whom Steven Pinker calls "the most important
psychologist alive", is twinkly and energetic. But beneath the surface, he is a pessimist. And he is
allergic to the notion that his book might be mistaken for self-help. It's his first work aimed at a
mass audience, and he hated writing it: "I really did not want to disgrace myself in front of my
colleagues, and I worried the public wouldn't like it if it read like a textbook. Also, I really
don't like old men's books, and I felt I was writing an old man's book." Eventually, in despair, he
arranged to pay four younger psychologists $2,000 each to review his manuscript anonymously, and to
tell him the brutal truth: should he bother finishing?
They liked it. So did I. It's hard not to: Kahneman's approach to psychology spurns heart-sinking
tables and formulae in favour of short, intriguing questions that elegantly illustrate the ways our
intuitions mislead us.
Take the famous "Linda question": Linda is a single 31-year-old, who is very bright and deeply
concerned with issues of social justice. Which of the following statements is more probable: a) that
Linda works in a bank, or b) that Linda works in a bank and is active in the feminist movement? The
overwhelming majority of respondents go for b), even though that's logically impossible. (It can't
be more likely that both things are true than that just one of them is.) This is the "conjunctive
fallacy", whereby our judgment is warped by the persuasive combination of plausible details. We are
much better storytellers than we are logicians.
If any of this sounds familiar, it's because Kahneman and his collaborator Amos Tversky, who died in
1999, are the primary inspiration for many of the past decade's pop-psychology books ? the
publishing phenomenon that brought you tipping points and freakonomics, the wisdom of crowds, black
swans, and "predictable irrationality". It is a trend that one unimpressed reviewer of Kahneman's
book labelled "the effect effect". In the early days, academics took a similarly sniffy view of
Kahneman and Tversky's research: Kahneman recalls one well-known American philosopher turning his
back on him at a party with the disdainful words: "I am not really interested in the psychology of
stupidity." That soon changed, though, as the pair's influence spread rapidly throughout the social
sciences, culminating in 2002, when Kahneman became one of a handful of non-economists to win the
Nobel prize in economics.
"The psychology of stupidity" is not, in any case, a very apt summary. Kahneman's point isn't that
we're all wildly bizarre or idiotic, but that our mental apparatus, which works so well most of the
time, sometimes leads us astray in predictable ways. "We're beautiful devices," he says. "The
devices work well; we're all experts in what we do. But when the mechanism fails, those failures can
tell you a lot about how the mind works."
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, he presents this as a drama with two "characters": System One, which is
the domain of intuitive responses, and System Two, the domain of conscious, effortful thought.
System One ? the kind of mental ability celebrated in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink ? kicks in
without our needing to think about it. The problem is that it always tries to help, even when it
shouldn't, and that it works with whatever it's got, which isn't always the most sensible information.
The biggest challenge this posed was to economists, most of whom assumed that people were basically
rational and selfish and acted in their own best interests. The work that won Kahneman the Nobel
showed otherwise. For example, we hate losing things more than we like gaining them, which is
why people refuse to sell their home for less than they paid, even if it makes financial sense to do
so. Similar biases make us behave strangely where risk is involved, too: if forced to choose between
being given ?500 for certain, or a 50% chance of winning ?1,000, most of us will opt for the sure
thing. But if the choice is between losing ?500 for sure, or a 50% chance of losing ?1,000, most of
us will take the gamble.
Then there's the much-cited thought experiment involving tickets to the theatre. Suppose a woman
plans to buy a ticket for a play costing ?40, but en route to the theatre she realises she has lost
two ?20 notes in the street: would she still buy the ticket? Most people, when asked this question,
assume that she would. But what if she bought the ticket in advance, then arrived at the theatre to
find she'd lost it? In that case, people assume she'd go home without buying another ticket ? even
though the scenarios are financially identical. As Richard Thaler, another leading light in the
revolution that became known as behavioural economics, told an interviewer, Kahneman and Tversky's
research meant that "rationality was fucked". Kahneman, on the other hand, likes to say that you'd
need to study economics for years before you'd find his research surprising: it didn't surprise his
mother at all.
Kahneman was born in 1934, the son of Lithuanian Jews, and grew up in France. Life was generally
good until 1940, when German forces swept in. He recalls drawing, around that time, "what was
probably the first graph I ever drew", showing his family's fortunes over time ? "and around 1940
the curve crossed into the negative domain." His father was captured during a large-scale sweep of
Jews in France, but somehow escaped being sent to a concentration camp and was let go instead. ("The
story of my father's release, which I never fully understood, also involved a beautiful woman and a
German general who loved her," he wrote.) The family kept moving across France. "The feeling was of
being hunted," Kahneman recalls. At one point their home was a chicken coop at the back of a pub. In
1944 his father died of insufficiently treated diabetes, six weeks short of D-day. As soon as the
war ended, his mother took the family to live in Palestine, in what would soon become Israel.
Kahneman was drafted into the Israeli army in 1955, where he served as an infantryman for a year ?
"it was a very tense time, but I never fired a shot in anger" ? then worked as a military
psychologist. One of his roles was to evaluate new recruits by watching them perform the "leaderless
group challenge", in which teams of eight men had to transfer themselves, and a large log, over a
6ft-high wall, without anybody, or the log, touching the wall. The task was designed to reveal the
participants' true character, and thus demonstrate who had the making of a future leader. As a
method of psychological evaluation, it wasn't much good: Kahneman made predictions, but follow-up
research revealed them to be little better than guesses. What the experience taught him, in the end,
wasn't how to spot a future hero, but rather how hard it was to expunge his own confidence in his
predictions. "We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random
guesses," he writes. "But we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid."
Confidence is a feeling, not a logical conclusion reached after analysing statistics. Kahneman would
later encounter the same phenomenon among investment advisers, who clung to their belief in their
abilities even after it was demonstrated that their stock-picking skills left their clients
no better off than rolling dice.
The intellectual relationship that defined his career began in the late 1960s at Hebrew University
in Jerusalem, when he met Tversky, a young colleague. Kahneman describes their bond as "magical",
and it sounds much more like a loving friendship than a scholarly collaboration. For several years,
the two spent hours every afternoon in freewheeling conversations, examining their own hunches and
intuitions, gradually developing the list of biases and fallacies for which they became famous. "He
got up late, and I was a morning person, so we started with lunch, and took it from there," Kahneman
remembers. "This kind of collaboration is very unusual in science. We were just extraordinarily
lucky, and we knew it." The editor of the journal to which they submitted their first major paper
rejected it; their work seemed too frivolous for the academic establishment. "Psychologists really
aim to be scientists, white-coat stuff, with elaborate statistics, running experiments," Kahneman
says. "The idea that you can ask one question and it makes the point ... well, that wasn't how
psychology was done at the time."
With hindsight, however, those single questions seem anything but frivolous. The irrational traits
they uncovered are, to pick one notable example, hugely important in understanding the causes of the
current economic crisis, which has its roots in (among others) the overconfidence bias and the
illusion of skill. If we can't hope to correct such biases in any lasting way, we can perhaps seek
to cultivate some humility about the limits of our mental powers. Being the puppet of subtle
psychological influences we cannot even recognise is annoying. But at least we can try to remember
that that's what's likely to be happening. Well, it's a start.
from Lawrence, Sunday PhiloMadrid meeting: Is psychology a pseudo science?

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