Exploring the Nature and Consequences of Overreach in Psychology (Edwin E. Gantt & Richard N. Williams) Book Review & Summary
This slim, engaging, and valuable book belongs in the book series, Advances in Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, edited by Brent D. Slife. It consists of eight chapters by various authors, in addition to a foreword by the series Editor, a preface by Daniel Robinson, and the Editors’ Introduction. In this review, I shall provide brief summaries of the eight chapters and point out why the book is an important contribution.
Chapter 1 (by Daniel N. Robinson) is concerned with the relationship between scientific claims and phenomena of the everyday life. The ability to make scientific claims depends on everyday life and on the non-scientific experiences and activities of scientists, just as it depends on the cooperation between scientists and non-scientists. Psychological scientists, in their attempt to build a flattering self-image (of authority and expertise) might deny their dependence on everyday phenomena and disown their reliance on non-scientific domains and discourses. For example, a scientist who claims to have found the neural basis of “empathy,” “friendship,” or “spirituality,” might forget that these very concepts–and any call for their clarification–have their roots in ordinary language. In trying to replace ordinary language, the hyper-technical scientist isn’t just cutting ties with the origin of their work. They are cutting ties with the source of life and inspiration of science.
This sentiment applies not only to the relationship between psychological sciences and everyday life, but to the relationship between psychological sciences and their philosophical foundations. This is expressed the Series Editor (Brent Slife) in his Foreword:
… psychologists themselves, are divorced from the people who formulate and reformulate the conceptual foundations of that work. This division of labor would seem dangerous to the long-term viability of the discipline.
Chapter 2 (by Richard N. Williams) builds upon a recollection of two key essays in philosophy of science, relevant for understanding the distinction between scientism and science. The first of the two, titled “Studies in the Logic of Explanation” was written by Carl Hempel and Paul Oppenheim (1948) and the second was a three-part essay, “Scientism and the Study of Society” written by Friedrich Hayek (1942, 1943, 1944). Hempel and Oppenheim’s essay was about the task of science and the kinds of statements that count as scientific (i.e., those about general laws and and those that describe antecedent conditions). Their aim was to constrain scientific expressions, according to a specific set of metaphysical commitments about lawfulness, causality, and objectivity.
Hayek (1942–44), on the other hand, pointed out that such restrictions reflect a “methodological tyranny,” motivated by the success of the physical and biological sciences and the desire of the social sciences to follow in their footsteps. This isn’t necessarily a conscious commitment, but could also be an unreflective application of a mental habit that is stretched beyond its appropriate domain. William writes:
Hayek argues persuasively that the reductive project is self-contradictory because the scientistic project seeks to reduce and eliminate as unnecessary the very language and meanings it simultaneously needs in order to evaluate the accuracy of the substitution of language reduction in the number of phenomena to be accounted for.
To sustain the worldview, according to which the hyper-scientific social scientists can eventually fulfill their promise of uncovering causal laws, they must tacitly embrace the notion of a “super mind,” which is associated with a privileged viewpoint. From the viewpoint of the “super mind,” we can see through the illusions of everyday phenomena and explain them in the language of naturalistic cause-and-effect.
Hayek gives a good deal of attention to one phenomenon of this super mind: historicism. It is historicism — the reification of an invisible rational thrust of history — that has allowed the last century’s German National Socialists, and contemporary Marxists, feminists, and many leaders of social thought, to conclude, sometimes with extreme confidence, that some (who do not agree with them) are ‘on the wrong side of history’, while others (who agree with them) are enlightened.
Chapter 3 (by James T. Lamiell) brings in Wilhelm Wundt and William Stern in a critique of scientism in psychology. Why is it that contemporary psychology replaces people with quantifiable variables, on one hand, and psychological phenomena with quantitative relationships among variables, on the other hand, e.g., statistically significant correlations and experimental “effects”? Lamiell describes the relation we have decided to have with the forerunners of Psychology. With both Wundt and Stern, we have cherrypicked the parts of their works that fit scientism–the overreach of scientific methods and the elimination of personhood and agency from view–while neglecting the parts in their work that encourage attention to the philosophical and methodological foundations of the discipline. We might say that a neglect of (or selective attention to) the psychological domain goes hand-in-hand with a neglect of (or selective attention to) the history of psychology.
Chapter 4 (by Lisa M. Osbeck) is about the relationship between intuition and scientific reason. The opposition between the two, which we take for granted in our present age, is a product of a recent shift that began in the 18th century. Two modes of knowing were separated from each other, one associated with objective and detached observation, with the discovery of impersonal facts, and another associated with subjective and engaged construction, with poetry, and with literary and artistic creation. As a consequence of this separation, intuition has been left out of the discussion of science and its mysterious character has been intensified. Osbeck’s historical analysis, pointing to the treatment of intuition in the writings of Aristotle, Aquinas, William of Ockham, Descartes, and Kant, shows how intuition was regarded as a fundamental aspect of experience and reason, taken as a prerequisite to rationality. Scientism, by contrast, involves cutting (denying) those ties between intuition and rationality.
In Chapter 5, Edwin E. Gantt demonstrates how the science-intuition opposition takes its particular form in the discourse of evolutionary psychology. He also discusses the notion of saturated phenomenon (introduced by Jean-Luc Marion), whose grasp requires the exercise of intuition. I might devote a future post to a discussion of saturated phenomenon, its association with particularity, and its implication for psychological inquiry.
Chapter 6 (by Brent D. Slife, Eric A. Ghelfi, and Sheilagh T. Fox) explores scientism in psychotherapy research, in the form of an excessive insistence on lawfulness and objectivity. Research has repeatedly shown that practicing psychotherapists are for the most part dissatisfied with psychotherapy research. Slife et al. argue why we should take their dissatisfaction seriously.
Chapter 7 (Jeffrey S. Reber) takes a step further, exploring the relationship between science and society. Similar to Osbeck, who pointed out the disconnect between intuition and science, and similar to Slife et al., who pointed out the disconnect between the practice of psychotherapy and the research on psychotherapy, Reber points out the disconnect between scientists and society. When Reber talks about scientists not expressing their statement in ordinary language, we shouldn’t take this to mean either a failure to reach out to the less knowledgable public or a failure to simplify scientific findings. It means, instead, a refusal to rely on the resources of ordinary language, common sense, and intuition.
Reber highlights the role of trust both within the scientific community and in the relationship between the scientific community and the general public. He evokes the history of the Reformation in Christianity as a model for how reformation could be enacted within sciences, against the dogmas scientism.
Chapter 8 (by Frederick J. Wertz) summarizes the preceding chapters, reiterating the idea that “science itself is based on prescientific experience and ,indeed, presupposes it.” In future posts, I’d like to focus on a few passages from this book and explore specific question regarding the nature of science, scientific communication, and scientism. Chapters 2, 4, and 7 are particularly important for me. Overall, the book is an important contribution. It is clear and concise, and it gives expression to problems and dissatisfactions that runs widely in our discipline.