What Do Psychologists Actually Know?

Having followed a number of news stories about psychology online, I have been struck by how frequently comments from readers express contempt for psychologists. Much of the anger seems focused, especially, on the failure of psychology to produce knowledge as solid and useful as that produced by the natural sciences. This reaction is part of a larger attitude of disparagement toward social science in general, and the validity of social science findings in particular. The failure of the social sciences to produce knowledge as ample and well-grounded as that produced by the natural sciences is undoubtedly real, but the degree of criticism expressed by some members of the public, and the sweeping manner with which they dismiss all work in the social sciences, calls for an explanation. While this disparagement is often aligned with conservative attacks on academia, the anger vented onto social science seems to be broader and seems to have its own special quality of skepticism, and even nihilism, about social science knowledge:

“‘Social science’ is hogwash intended to provide jobs to idiots.”

“Psychology and psychiatry are both sad joke pseudo sciences.”

“Near as I can tell Social Science hasn’t advanced an inch. It’s always been baloney”

This social science nihilism is best understood in a larger historical context. The notion of “truth” in social inquiry has been subjected to at least two assaults in the past few decades. The first assault occurred with the rise of postmodern philosophy in the mid-twentieth century. French philosopher Jacques Derrida and others demonstrated numerous problems and contradictions in attempting to capture knowledge definitively within the objectifying assumptions underlying the Western tradition – that is, within approaches that naively assume that all phenomena can be treated as objects of culturally shaped “common sense” categories. Instead, Derrida wrote, what passes for objectivity in both the natural and social sciences exists “only within a context which is extremely vast, old, powerfully established, stabilized or rooted within a network of conventions . . . [and] an incessant movement or recontextualization” (1988, p. 136). Few philosophers accepted the most extreme version of postmodernism, which seemed to reject the notion of truth altogether. But the insights underlying postmodernism posed a significant challenge to scholars in conceptualizing how we can be certain that any knowledge is valid given that all knowledge is, to some degree, dynamically ambiguous – that is, created and recreated, in part, by our own internalized categories and knowledge-seeking activity. This is particularly problematic in fields of social inquiry like psychology where definitions, descriptions, and observations always entail assumptions about the social world that are covertly, if not overtly, value-laden.

One of the results of this first assault on truth was the erosion of the authority and credibility of psychologists and others who attempted to study social issues. This erosion afflicted both of the scientific traditions described on the previous page. As I noted there, psychological knowledge produced within the first tradition, experimental psychology, is often criticized as trivial, mechanical, and inconsistent, both with ordinary experience and with other knowledge produced by other members of the same tradition (the so-called “validation crisis” of recent years). An additional line of criticism concerns the fact that laboratory science, with its reliance on instrumental knowledge and experimental manipulation, seems particularly suited to serve agendas of social control (I will give several examples of this on later pages). On the other hand, knowledge produced within the second research tradition, interview research and naturalistic observation, is often disparaged as subjective, unreliable, and vulnerable to the biases of the researcher. As noted on the previous page, critics often dismiss it as unscientific because it lacks the controls of quantitative research. All the above criticisms have been longstanding ones, but the critiques by postmodernists gave them new force by throwing doubt on the traditional arguments for the validity of scientific and professional psychological knowledge.

The effects of this first assault on social scientific truth created a fertile environment for the second assault. This new assault began in the political upheavals of the late 1960s, gradually gaining strength in the years that followed as a result of social, political, ethnic, and economic tensions, as well as the mistakes, lies, and failures of political authorities responsible for addressing these tensions. The skepticism induced by these events seemed to reach new heights in the U.S. with the election of Donald Trump. Supercharged by social media, it blossomed into a full-blown attack on public sources of information, including traditional opinion leaders like politicians, journalists, and researchers, and promoted a widespread feeling that one’s own intuition is a better source of knowledge than members of elites who are designated as “experts.” Postmodern skepticism and popular disillusionment with authorities therefore combined to create the environment of social science nihilism described above, in which internet rumors, conspiracy theories, and charismatic leaders seemed to many to have more credibility than carefully accumulated information distributed through legitimated channels.

But social science nihilism is a foundation of sand that gives no basis for understanding human beings and no guidance as to where we need to go from here. Like all nihilism, including the extreme version of postmodernism, it is self-contradictory, pulling authority out from under itself, along with everything else. For if carefully accumulated knowledge about the social world is not possible, neither are the sweeping claims of those who make this assertion. The deconstruction of truth is a limited insight – and indeed a useless one – unless it is balanced by a recognition of a constructible and constitutive truth that nevertheless remains possible. Thus, in studying the natural and social world, we have to recognize that while any knowledge available to us must be dynamically ambiguous, created in part by our own knowledge-seeking activity, that knowledge must also be grounded in and shaped by an independent reality. Recognizing that neither the canons and standards of quantitative science nor the discipline and professionalism of qualitative research can provide an absolute guarantee of the validity of social knowledge, nor a complete escape from the influence of our own preconceptions, we need to find a way of thinking about how we do, in fact, seek truth in psychology and other social sciences, however imperfect that process may be. On the next page, and the two that follow it, I will discuss some ways of thinking about the challenges involved.