Helping People is Not Part of Basic Science

Here is another excerpt from the fascinating piece in the Freakonomics section of the New York Times, which asked what progress, if any, the fields of psychology and psychiatry have made over the last century. Quoted here is Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist. I think some of what he says illuminates some of the squabbles that occur between the researcher/scientist psychologists and those more interested in the human condition.

To put it another way, I think the field of psychology began making important and cumulative progress when it ceased to be a social science, and became a natural science. Psychology is really a branch of biology or zoology. The success of evolutionary psychology, behavior genetics, and cognitive neuroscience also underscores the importance of reductionism in science — as all good science is reductionist. These fields reduce psychology to (more fundamental) biology and biochemistry.

The importance of subjective human experience. Here is a key disagreement clothed in a statement of fact. Kanazawa assumes that psychology has become a biological science. Many would beg to differ. Some would even assert it would do better to be considered one of the humanities. Others see it as a social science. What psychology, which deals with the mind (as distinct from the brain), deals with intrinsically is subjective human experience.

Reductionism in science. And that doesn’t even address the reductionist argument. In science, it is desirable to look for the simplest explanation possible for the given facts, that’s the starting point, and you work from there. It’s called Occam’s razor — see Wikipedia. In human beings looking for the simplest explanation may be helpful, especially when dealing with the behaviors of small children. But human beings are complicated, complex, contradictory, hypocritical, and plain dishonest. Looking for the simplest explanation is not likely to be a particularly useful approach. I’ve attached the italics that follow:

Do we know enough about the human psyche to prescribe the medication that we do? This is a very interesting question, but I regard it as lying outside the realm of science. As I have said elsewhere, the only purpose of basic science is to explain nature; the only purpose of psychology as a basic science is to explain human cognition and behavior.

Here’s the rub. Helping people is not part of basic science.

Helping people is not part of basic science; medicine and psychiatry are applied sciences or engineering, not basic sciences. So anything that involves medication in the hope of helping people, alleviating pain, or curing diseases is not part of science.

So psychiatry and psychology are applied sciences. That at least makes more sense than hard sciences. And it helps to clarify an important distinction among psychologists — those that seek to understand human nature (brain) and those that seek to understand the human condition (mind).

If that was interesting, please click on the digg button so others might enjoy it. Thanks.

Kalea Chapman, Psy.D.


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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

One thought on “Helping People is Not Part of Basic Science”

  1. Dear Dr. Chapman,

    Science tells us what CAN be done. Rules and Law tell us what MUST be done. Ethics tells us what SHOULD be done. Sportsmanship and Justice provide the vehicles by which we can act to level the playing field; to mitigate the inequities of indifferent fortune; to be obedient to the unenforceable dictates of conscience.

    Many thanks for your thoughtful commentary. I happened upon it while researching another topic and I’m glad I did.

    With every best wish,

    Anthony Henry Smith
    Poughkeepsie, New York


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