Throw it in the box!
Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a mini-course on Blogging Science (within the Thematic Meetings course), in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Stephen Scholte.
One question with which first year psychology students are almost always presented is “is psychology a science?” The implicit message I have drawn from this in my own experience is “explain why psychology is a science”. This kind of leading question is indicative of the desire of psychology as a field to prove itself, to get to play with the big kids, to be a “real” science. I feel it must be said here, that in writing this I am conflicted. On the one hand, as a relatively science-naïve second-year student, I am far from being able to provide satisfactory answers for the questions I pose here. Conversely though, these are just the kinds of questions that are the most important for me when I consider that psychology may be what I spend the rest of my life engaged in. Just the fact that we are routinely asked the above question highlights the insecurity of the conclusion; imagine first year chemistry students being asked the same question with regard to their own studies.
The black box
This striving for “scienciness” that pervades psychology is clearly a diverse system of mutually influential causes and effects, the many components of which all deserve to be addressed respectively. One critical component in my opinion however, is the ease with which we, as psychologists, or psychologists in the making, “black box” ideas, theory, and fact. The black box is a metaphor commonly used in theory and philosophy of science to describe the manner in which, once a process or fact is deemed established and functional, the inner workings of this (the interactions, components and assumptions) are disregarded in favour of a perspective that what matters is simply what goes in and what comes out of the box.
Bruno Latour begins his classic book “Science in Action” (1987)  with a story illustrating this process. Two researchers are working on sequencing DNA. Whilst doing so, they take for granted many aspects of the tools and knowledge base with which they are working, noting almost exclusively the inputs and outputs of their procedures. Latour proceeds, with the help of historical accounts, to open two of the black boxes the researchers are utilizing: the “Eagle” computer on which they construct the images representing the DNA sequences and the accepted double-helix model of the structure of DNA itself. The trials and tribulations uncovered in this investigation highlight the oft forgotten human, non-linear, and frequently controversial processes that lead to the establishment and acceptance of ideas. The two examples in this case, however convoluted their history, have proven to be useful and reliable (a necessary condition of useful) boxes.
Premature black boxing
Within psychology however, there are in my opinion, far too many black boxes closed too early, and their usefulness is often questionable. Recently there has been a wave of reflections on the focus on and worth of p values within psychological research (see: Morey, 2016 ; Woolston, 2015 ; etc, or for a practical tool see: Simonsohn, Nelson & Simmons, 2013 ), and I will not discuss this further here beyond citing its relevance to the quick acceptance of research findings; the tendency for uncritical acceptance of any idea that is supported by significant results. This is relevant for the individual however, in that, as consumers of knowledge we are also involved in the co-creation of fact. The positive modalisation of ideas is one important way in which black boxes are closed, thus implicating and empowering any individual who takes the presented idea and extends its reach.
A second and less discussed contributor to the propensity of premature black boxing is the institutionalized focus on discovering something new. Many researchers seem to routinely narrow the breadth of their possible research to include only questions to which, nobody to their knowledge, has previously provided an answer. This is motivated by a range of interrelated factors, notably publication bias and the weight attributed by academic institutions to publication and impact factors, leading us to another argument that has been covered repeatedly of late and into which I will not delve further here (see Curry , or UC3 blog  on impact factors; or Lakens , Scherer , or Krueger  on publication bias) . The result of this in relation to the black box debate is that, rather than furthering the work of others and attempting to clearly define and refine ideas before they get “thrown into the box”, as a field psychology seems to rely heavily on reference to poorly established fact. By using prematurely boxed chunks, we run the severe risk of building new work on unstable foundations, and of ignoring the dynamics of a system of complex interactions and multiply causal relationships.
[…] as individuals we can make better choices about how we read and utilise the content of articles, how accepting we are of established practice and how quickly we are willing to believe […]
The unscrupulous acceptance of fact also underlies another of psychology’s chronic issues, the preponderance of coexisting, seemingly contradictory theories. This is by no means an issue exclusive to psychology, it is in fact recognized by many theorists as a common starting place for developing sciences (e.g. Staats, 2004 ; in fact much of this issue relates to the topic at hand). This tendency appears to be the product of a combination of institutionalised pressures, and philosophical and theoretical bases. These are not issues I feel I can tackle at this point nor in this format; what I do believe though is that as individuals we can make better choices about how we read and utilise the content of articles, how accepting we are of established practice and how quickly we are willing to believe, as the acceptance of ideas as fact is the only way they go from being the idée fixe of the crazy scientist and into our textbooks.
Relevant links and publications
 Morey, R. (2016). The American Statistical Association statement on p-values. Psychonomic Society. Retrieved from http://www.psychonomic.org/featured-content-detail/american-statistical-association-statement-on-p-va
NOTE: Image by shahzairul.