Beyond methodology

Beyond methodology

About the disunity of psychology

‘In the overwhelming majority of cases in psychology, the intended interpretations of research data go beyond the actual observations’, Borsboom et al. state in their article on the disunity of psychology (2009, 8). Considering Lykken’s hypothesis (1991; in: Borsboom et al.) about the differences between people, they overview Cronbach’s (1957) aim at one unified psychological science. According to Borsboom et al., psychology is directed at extracting ‘indicators’ of ‘underlying structures’ out of observations, which are called ‘somewhat misleadingly, a ‘construct’’ (8). This last utterance they place as a side issue between brackets, but it might indeed be the grail in the controversy. For what is this ‘construct’ and how does it reveal underlying scientific perspectives?

According to Borsboom et al. (2009), there are two types of researchers in psychology. Experimental researchers manipulate variables systematically in order to ‘demonstrate the existence of causal effects’ (Borsboom et al., 3). Correlational researchers focus on the ‘structure of association  between variables on which people differ’ (ibid., 5). ‘What the experimental psychologist views as error, […] is the object of study for correlational psychologists’ (ibid.). Borsboom et al. however state that this disunity of psychology should be embraced ‘as the working hypothesis’ (Fodor, 1974; In: Borsboom et al., 26). Distinguishing between experimental and correlational researchers, Borsboom et al. suggest that the differences in their theoretical views are driven by their methodological choices, that is, the differences are determined by methodology. Left open however is how scientist come to make these choices. What goes beyond these researcher’s methodologies?

However misleading the ‘construct’ may seem, according to Borsboom et al. (2009) it is extensively used in psychological research. As indicators of underlying structures, experimental psychologists use constructs that ‘give evidence in support of a universal law or mechanism’, although ‘through the ‘lens’ of statistical analysis’ (Borsboom et al., 4). This aim is consistent with the logical positivist perspective on science, which states that ‘every scientific statement should be based on and reducible to statements of empirical observations’ (Carnap, 1995a, 3). Universal laws are then generated as expression of ‘regularities […] observed at all times and all places’ (ibid.). Logical Positivist Rudolf Carnap states that in psychology ‘statistical laws are the best that can be stated, because there is not sufficient […] knowledge to warrant a universal law’ (ibid., 8-9).[1] Nonetheless, experimental psychology is headed at catching the world in laws, with psychological constructs as its fishnet. This aim implies that it is possible to formulate psychological laws about the world, were it at least about certain parts of certain populations.

Philosopher of science Ian Hacking would call this pursuance of psychological research ‘constructivism’ (1999, 49). Constructivism is the practice of creating a construct in order to be able to use it: without being created the construct does not exist, but when created, the construct is supposed be lawful. Exemplary is the invention of mathematical constructs, without which we were not able to calculate, but whose meaning is since their creation lawfully fixed (Hacking, 46-47). In psychological methodology, this kind of constructivism seems to be the aim: using a variety of statistical methods, we try to create constructs that furthermore follow statistical laws, and are, since ‘hypothetical entities or quantities [are] called constructs’ (Hacking, 1999, 44) more or less constructively valid (Cronbach & Meehl, 1955). This form of constructivism is again consistent with a logical positivistic view on science: although the laws described by psychological constructs are not universal, the possibility to find statistical laws does exist. The opportunity to find constructs is inherent to the object of study.

However, psychology does not end with the formation of constructs; it is directed at application in the outer world. Mathematically constructed and approved devises are used in a variety of outer world settings to understand something about certain people. Researchers and practitioners directed at individual differences however mainly aim to understand the world out of people’s perspective. In this respect, cognitive behavioural therapists McGinn and Young (1996) state that psychology is a constructionist science, directed at the constructs people hold in life. ‘[Psychologists] reject a “correspondence theory” of truth […]. Instead, they hold that the viability of any given construction is a function of its consequences for the individual who adopts it.’ (McGinn & Young, 184).

The question arises if we are still talking about the same ‘construct’. Is the constructivism of psychological methodologists equal to the constructionism embraced by psychologists? According to Hacking (1999), it is not. He states that constructivism and constructionism differ with respect to the actor. Constructivists are the actor in the process of construction, while constructionists follow the way constructions are produced by actors other than themselves. Speaking with Cronbach, the constructivist would be the ‘puppeteer’, while the constructionist rather is ‘observer of a play’ (1957, 7). This difference might yet be extended into a fundamental perspective on science. Experimental psychologists hold the view that science is able to find laws about the world, at least to a certain degree. Psychologists directed at individual differences hold the view that people are driven by their own interpretation of the world, which implies that in practice we cannot assume the world.

This matter displays similarity to the issue raised by Joel Michell (2006), who states that certain constructs measured in psychology are not inherently quantitative and thus not measurable. Going beyond the psychological assumption of measurability, he finds that the objects of study inherently differ in quantifiability. The same awareness might be needed regarding the inherent structure of the ‘construct’ used in different fields of psychology. Michell states that ‘science, as the attempt to understand nature’s way of working, knows nothing of practicalism, for scientific knowledge is neither useful nor useless, in itself’ (2006, 365). With regard to the disunity of psychology this idea is unavoidable: psychological research is pursues involvement in the outer world. Methodological devises are designed and applied to understand and guide people in their world. One could wonder though, if it is possible to apply devises on objects, while they radically differ in their perspective on the possibility to know ‘the world’. Does this difference between the worldviews beyond methodology do justice to Borsboom et al.’s (2009) aim to embrace disunity of psychological methodology as working hypothesis? Or might they be inherently incompatible?

Pdf: Beyond methodology

[1] Universal laws apply to any concerning x in all possible worlds, ‘at any place in universe, at any time, past, present, or future’, e.g. “all ice is cold” (Carnap, 1995a, 3). Statistical laws may be valid ‘if the percentage is specified or if in some other way a quantitative statement is made about the relation or one event to another’, e.g. “ripe apples are usually red” (ibid.). See Carnap (1995a), Chapters 1 and 2.



Neuroscience and its hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy

Neuroscience and its hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy

‘Psychology has always been in bit of an identity crisis’, Lisa Feldmann Barrett states in her article about the future of psychology, ‘trying to be both a social and a natural science’ (2009, 326). ‘The largest challenge in 21st-century psychology’ is the ‘mind-brain correspondence’ (Ibid). With this statement Feldmann Barrett enters the gap between psychology and cognitive neuroscience that has expanded tremendously ever since the first neuroscientific successes. Typical questions within the current neuroscience are about the evolvement and even overruling of neuroscience regarding psychology as a scientific discipline. The question of concern in this essay is how the relation between neuroscience and psychology will unfold in the next decades. Its answer is metaphorically speaking subject to multiple realizability (Putnam, 1980; In: Kievit et al., in press), and will be considered in the light of the scientific foundation of psychology’s identity crisis.

The question about the future relation between psychology and neuroscience is a layered one, which could be answered at (but not reduced to) different levels. The question concerns two scientific domains that are practiced in different institutes with different means by differently educated scientists. Are we heading towards a paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1962), or might there still be a chance for these two domains to reunite? A second layer concerns the object of study, that is, the connection of the opposing terms ‘brain’ and ‘mind’ to neuroscience and psychology, respectively. Are these terms just different words that shape the way we look at our object of study (Feldmann Barrett, 2009, 329) or are they different concepts that are yet incommensurable (Kuhn, 1962)? The final layer concerns the linguistic content of the term ‘psychology’, that might refer to psychological knowledge as opposed to neuroscientific knowledge, but also to the general scientific discipline ‘psychology’ that contains the domain cognitive neuroscience among others. Is it possible for cognitive neuroscience to escape psychology’s maternal wings?

According to Thomas Kuhn, science is always processed out of and within a certain scientific perspective, that shapes scientific observation as well as the questions about and the interpretation of these observations (Kuhn, 1962). In this so-called paradigm scientist’s heads are more or less turned in the same direction. This way researchers in a certain field are able to ‘produce major novelties, conceptual and phenomenal’ (Kuhn, 35). The conjoint effort to extend psychological hypotheses about brain functioning in a variety of psychological domains, to actual neuroscientific research, might serve as a perfect example of such major novelties within a paradigm. Starting out as convenient novelty, neuroscience now heads towards being the new leading perspective in psychology. Being the (self-stated?) mayor of the discipline, one might ask if neuroscience is progressing towards being a broadly established school within psychology, or that it might actually cause a paradigm shift that will result in a degradation of classic psychological research (Kuhn, 165). Unfortunately prediction of this sort does not seem to be more than a wild guess, but attention might be paid to the implications of both options for the other layers of this essay’s central question.

In order to reunite the concepts mind and brain, Feldmann Barrett states that ‘psychology may need a different set of psychological categories’ (2009, 330). These categories ought to be ‘described in [their] own terms and with [their] own vocabulary’, ‘as a combination of psychological primitives’(Feldmann Barrett, 332). How far this solution may reach with regard to the reconnection of psychology and neuroscience, depends on the development of neuroscience as either a psychological school or as a new established paradigm. If neuroscience is headed towards taking over psychology’s throne entirely, then according to Kuhn incommensurability is lurking (Kuhn, 1962, 103). Embracing a new scientific perspective may lead to an all new scientific language, in which the formerly common language might henceforward fundamentally be misunderstood. So within neuroscience as a currently established psychological school, Feldmann Barrett’s suggestion of creating a new vocabulary might be useful to gain a better understanding of the object of study. However, if neuroscience is on its way to state a new paradigm, the traditional psychological perspective, including Feldmann Barretts psychological primitives, might be fundamentally degraded. In that case, the aim of reuniting brain and mind is likely to be trampled by the paradigm shift marching in.

Whether neuroscience is able to become the big winner of such a paradigm shift is doubtful though. As Kievit et al. state, ‘cognitive neuroscience involves simultaneous analysis of behavioral and neurological data’ (Kievit et al., in press, 2). The ultimate goal of neuroscience, however, seems to be a model in which the psychological attributes (P-indicators) are altogether replaced by neurological processes (N-indicators; Kievit et al., 8 ) – for example, finding the g factor without extensive consideration of observable or adaptational behaviour. To this aim several objections could be made. Practically, it is impossible to develop such a variant of the reflective model without guidance of psychological constructs and measurements (Kievit et al., 37). Furthermore, neuroscience will always remain focused on understanding human beings, that is, people. Without input from the functioning human being, there will be no observations, no questions, no interpretations that can add up to testable hypotheses or formalizable models about the functioning of the brain. This statement might be repudiated stating that the neuroscientific object is the brain itself, and that the scientific aim is to find out how the brain is built up – either as a total of structural parts, or as a network of dynamic processes. However, this would imply that the aim of neuroscience is to describe the functionality of its object of study, which is to say that neuroscience is focused at Verstehen, rather than at Erklären (Leezenberg & de Vries, 2007). Having identity crisis already, as Feldmann Barrett points out (2009, 326), such a twist of scientific focus would push neuroscience to a side of the psychological field it actually pleads to avoid, not to say overcome.

So assuming that neuroscience is not eager to become a describing science – as Kievit et al. (in press) state that ‘the conceptual elephant in the room is how […] concepts relate […and] what the causal relationships between them are’ (Kievit et al., 5, underlining by author) – it will rather be unavoidable for cognitive neuroscience and psychology to somehow stay intertwined. That is to say, however intriguing the brain itself is, to properly explain it, psychology will at least stay around as neuroscience’s hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy.


Neuroscience and its hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy