The Non-problem of Objectivity in Relation to Psychology’s Status as a Science.
Central to the robust controversy surrounding psychology’s classification as a science is the issue of objectivity. Emerging biases in psychology and the profound issue of subjective data interpretation are a constant threat and do not fit in with the traditional view of science as observing the world for what it really is. What is often over-looked, however, is that the objective ideal of science is outdated and unrealistic. In fact, it is a necessity for scientists to be subjective (Mitroff, 1972). Scientific observations tend to be theory-laden (Kuhn 1962). Scientific research is often governed by personal needs of funding and recognition (Hager, 1982). Value-free science may well be incoherent (Kukla, 1982). Objectivity should no longer be a requirement of psychology in order to classify as a science.
Before psychology’s issues with objectivity be addressed, it is essential that the traditional relevance of objectivity in science be established. Objectivity’s status as a fundamental element of modern science can be attributed to the French Philosopher Descartes (1596-1650). He classified the universe as belonging to the realm of physical matter or to the realm of the non-extended mind. This allowed scientists to treat matter as inert and completely distinct from human observer: The world could now be described objectively. The philosophies of Descartes quickly evolved into the positivist philosophy of science (Gross, 2009), which holds that neutral observations are possible. Positivism assumes objectivity, it demands purity of observations in not succumbing to theoretical prejudices (Bem & Jong, 2006). Today, it is evident that objectivity has become the ideal of science. Nagel (1961, as cited in Bem & Jong, 2006) for example, places objectivity as a core element of the scientific method, in the sense of phenomena being controllable, reliable and inter-subjectively observable. Gross (2009) recognises an underlying assumption of science as being unbiased, objective and value-free, and Hager (1982) notes that all scientists hold a commitment to objectivity. It appears, therefore, that objectivity was, and sometimes still is, regarded as an integral component of science, yet this is a practice that is often lacking in psychology.
The emphasis placed on objectivity poses a difficulty for psychology’s status as a science, as many aspects of psychology are not ‘neutral’, ‘objective’ and ‘value-free’. Feminist psychologists, for example, claim psychology to be both sexist and heterosexist and in addition, believe that psychology is actually ‘value-laden’ as it is androcentric: men are taken to be the universal standard (Gross, 2009). Cultural biases also undermine psychology’s status as a science. The domination of psychological research and practice from the USA, UK and other western cultures has lead to an epidemic of ethnocentrism. This claim is supported by research from Smith & Bond (1998, as cited in Gross 2009) who analysed the most popular US and European social psychology textbooks to establish in which countries the studies referred to were carried out. In both cases, all but 2-3 percent of the non-American studies were conducted outside Western Europe, which clearly does not suffice as an objective, universal account of behaviour. Furthermore, psychology does not comply with science’s requirement that the world be described without reference to the human observer. The data that emerge in experiments must be meaningfully organised in terms of the researcher’s pre-existing theoretical framework (Smith, 2006). Thus, psychology does not simply tell us facts about the world, the ‘facts’ are subject to interpretation. Smith (2006) for instance, provides the apt example of road rage which is subject to both a deterministic and ‘free will-ist’ account. The theory of Bargh & Chartrand (1999, as cited in Smith 2006) would interpret road rage as being caused and determined by environmental stimuli. We automatically respond to external features of the environment, in an ‘environment-perception-behaviour sequence’ with ‘no role played by conscious choice in producing the behaviour’. On the other hand, however, the philosophies of continental rationalism would explain the road rage as an active interpretation of what we encounter in the environment. We bring an entire interpretive world view to our driving experience that affects how we understand driving, driving etiquette and other drivers (Smith, 2006). A general belief in society is that someday science will provide ‘The Answer’, but this does not seem possible within the tangle of firmly held explanations and theories of psychology (Haeger, 1982). The prevalent biases in psychology, therefore, would seem to lessen its chances as being classified as a science. What is often overlooked, however, is that the ‘value-free’ perception of science is an outdated one, modern science does not epitomise objectivity.
If science does not entirely adhere to objectivity, then psychology’s status as a science is not under threat. Kuhn (1962, 1970, as cited in Gross, 2009) is one of many philosophers of science who claim that empirical observations are ‘theory-laden’, in that our theory literally determines how we see the world. This entails that no observation can be objective and ‘facts’ do not exist independently of the scientist’s theoretical framework, without which data have no meaning (Smith, 2006). Bevan (1991, p. 477) also insists that ‘no intellectual activity, science included, is ever free from the shaping force of one particular ideology or another’. It is evident, therefore, that science and psychology are somewhat in agreement regarding the issue of interpretation. In addition, Alliger and Hanges (1984) assert that regardless of the stress placed on objectivity, scientists do not perceive themselves to be objective. Mitroff (1972) elaborates on this point by referring to the adversary nature of science; it demands that scientists be extremely committed- in others words, emotionally attached-to their hypotheses, theories and positions. Thus a degree of subjectivity is required of scientists if a study or theory is to overcome the initial criticism elicited from peers (Alliger & Hanges, 1984). It is thus inevitable that theories include and reflect the biases, prejudices, values and assumptions of the scientist. According to Gross (2009), if such characteristics influence the scientific process it cannot be regarded as objective.
Subjectivity in science is also exemplified in scientists’ tendencies to do research in popular, well-funded areas. Haeger (1982) maintains that the majority of scientists concentrate their efforts in the ‘safer’ areas of science, where their findings will be welcomed by peers, where money is available and where their research will be readily published. Alzheimer’s disease, for example, was not of particular interest to anyone until the research funds were plentiful. Only then was there a rat race amongst scientists to look into the issue. Haeger (1982) also asserts that along with modern science comes an intense pressure to design programs that attract money, and to produce and publish certain findings that keep scientists’ funds flowing and lead to advancement. This claim is echoed by Craik, Gosling and Robins (1999), who recognise that scientists regularly make important decisions concerning the allocation of funding, hiring faculty and the like based on their personal views of what is ‘hot’ in their field. The objectivity of scientists’ work is therefore questionable, as it seems that the need for funding and recognition often govern their choice of research.
Kukla’s (1982) article entitled ‘Logical Incoherence of Value-Free Science’ asserts that objectivity in science is an unrealistic expectation and challenges the privileged treatment accorded to value-free observation. The author claims that ‘objectivity’ requires the observing subject be in a value free state. This would mean that the scientist, or psychologist, can only be acquainted with only one internal representation of a behaviour, situation, object, and so on. The scientist can establish that the value-free view differs from the value-laden one, but every value-laden view may also differ from every other value-laden view. According to Kukla (1982) the traditional ideal of science entails that an observer with value system V1 would report observations R1, an observer with value system V2 would report observation R2 and so on. The ‘objective’ observer however, who possesses no values at all-V0 , reports observations R0. In relation to the aforementioned theories that explain road rage, the value systems of Bargh and Chartrand (1999, as cited in Smith, 2006) would be their deterministic assumptions (V1), and they would explain the emotional response as being caused by environmental stimuli (R1). Continental rationalists, however, would believe the road rage to be an act of will (V2) where the driver brought his interpretive world view of driving to the road rage situation (R2). Kuhla’s (1982) argument continues in asking why scientists tend to deem reports R0 as more veridical than the others? What would make a supposedly ‘objective’ interpretation of road rage superior, or more accurate than the interpretation of Bargh & Chartrand, or of the continental rationalists? It may have something to do with the presupposition that the state of having no values corresponds to being in no state at all, in that the phenomena are speaking entirely for themselves, which, indubitably, cannot be true. Kukla (1982, p. 1016) emphasises that the state of having no values, if this state exists at all, is just another condition that observers may be in, and that is of equal epistemological level as the state of having other value systems: ‘There is no a priori guarantee that V0 yields the truest view. Why may it not be the most distorted view of all?’. What seems to be creeping into modern science is the concept of epistemological privilege, where subjective interpretations of data are viewed as being advantageous. Kukla provides Maslow’s interpretation on the lover’s view of the beloved as an example of the concept: surely the lover sees truths about the beloved that an objective viewer could not grasp.
It seems, therefore, that objective interpretation may have been overestimated by science in the past as scientists are now beginning to recognise the epistemological value of subjective interpretations. It is evident that scientists, like psychologists, possess preferences, judgments, biases, interests, and opinions that inevitably creep into their work and cloud their objectivity (Haeger, 1982). Objectivity may be an elusive goal in psychology, but it is clearly also one in science. The ideal assertion of science as value-free observation and analysis is not a realistic portrayal of science as it is practised in today’s world. The view, therefore, that psychology should be value-free and objective in order to classify as a science, is an outdated one.
Alliger, G.M & Hanges, P.J. (1984) Objectivity and Science: Reply to Kukla. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 47(3) 676-679.
Bevan, W. (1991) Contemporary psychology: a tour inside the onion. American Psychologist. Vol. 46, 475 – 483.
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Gross, R. (2009). Themes, Issues and Debates in Psychology (3rd Ed.). London: Hodder Arnold.
Haeger, M. (1982) Myth of Objectivity. American Psychologist 37(5), 576-579.
Kukla, A. (1982) Logical Incoherence of value-free science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 43, 1014-1017.
Mitroff, I. (1972). The myth of objectivity. Management Science, 19, B613-B618.
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Smith, A.F (2006) Automaticity: The Free Will Determinism Debate Continued. In Slife, B. (Eds) Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Psychological Issues. Iowa, USA: McGraw Hill Contempoarary Learning Series.