Madelene asked:

Is psychology a pseudo-science?

Answer by David Robjant

What a charming question. But what is proper science?

There is a trend in all areas of research these days, be they science, pseudo-science or mere humanities, to chase research funding by undertaking to find, and then finding, some positive result. Few researchers these days are tenured professors free to disport themselves picking holes in anybody else’s well funded research. Academics these days are too busy chasing the money. This introduces an incentive across all areas of research to sit on any negative results for years – or possibly forever. And in such an academic environment a real question arises about the extent to which even Chemistry can be said to remain a hard science, if the ordinary motive of enquiry is under threat. It was that motive which previously drove the publication of evidence showing the error of some theory, and it was the threat of such evidence that made those theories scientific in the first place.

The issue is not merely that researchers in the sciences and the humanities are now professionals. I do not glorify the various golden ages in which a larger proportion were moneyed amateurs – those ages are glorious enough already, and there have also been quite different kinds of golden age in the sciences, under the ignoble pressures of War, for instance – where the motive of enquiry met the motive of national survival. No, the issue is the way in which the ‘performance’ is now quantified.

Unlike in the second world war, there is presently an assumption, based on wildly counter-empirical craziness like Public Choice Theory and Game Theory now disowned by John Forbes Nash, that researchers are lazy galley slaves interested only in the prospect of a sinecure. Unless goaded by regular ‘assessments’ and ‘sanctions’, the researcher in the sciences or the humanities ‘must’ be bound to sit on his arse and play battleship all day, as no doubt, before such sound financial measures were introduced, did such layabouts as Einstein and Socrates. But to treat a researcher as a galley slave, whether out of concern for the efficient use of public resources or simply out of hatred of anyone with obscure satisfactions, is automatically to corrode his original motivating curiosity and move his area of competence towards tax-accountancy.

Our over-assessed system of research is now selecting for men and women who can efficiently game that system, with more of an eye on the journal rankings and Leverhulme guidelines than on the Good. You might say, ‘Grow up, this is reality.’ But it has become a reality on the basis of an empirically false theory of human motivation, in pursuit of an efficiency which is wholly chimerical, and the only positive result has been to dis-incentivise the kind of whistle-blowing publication upon which all advances in the sciences and the humanities must depend.

Is psychology a pseudo-science? Well, not more than other sciences and humanities in which the systems of funding have come to dominate the lives of their beneficiaries.