Psych-out over ridiculous communication

And this bump means I'm clumsy.

I’m not a psychologist. I haven’t got a degree in it and I failed the only subject I did in it during my undergrad about fourteen years ago. That said, much of my career has revolved around making myself well acquainted with certain topics in this field. Education and cognitive psychology go together like pedals and bicycles. To butcher the analogy further, education without psychology is like a bicycle without pedals – it might feel like you’re going for a ride, but once you get to a hill you’re screwed.

While I cannot profess to significant expertise, I have worked hard to understand the fundamentals and have a keen eye for deciphering literature on current educational psychology. In my world, psychology is a useful science for determining worthwhile methods for communicating, educating, engaging and assessing.

Much like its sibling sociology, psychology is often flippantly dismissed as a pseudoscience on the grounds that it is compromised by a myriad of variables that no experiment could possibly iron out. As such, diverse opinions on anything to do with human thinking or behaviour are treated as equally valid. Or, more precisely, for some people, personal stories and ad-hoc rationalisations are granted more weight when it comes to claims in psychology than they would if the topic was physics or chemistry.

I find this rather odd, given my understanding of science as a methodology. It’s true that psychology and its ilk are impeded when it comes to devising experiments. Ethics aside, controlling for a diverse range of niggly factors makes it hard to pinpoint definitively a simple relationship between any two observations. Fortunately science is not limited to such constrictive dichotomies of ‘proven by experiment’ and ‘falsified by experiment’. Rather, science isn’t about ticks and crosses, but about the weight of evidence by way of a combination of logic and observation. It’s true that a social experiment cannot carry the same convincing power as one done with lasers and atom counters. But it’s not to say that all beliefs regarding social behaviours or cognitive reactions are of equal weighting.

The so-called tone wars rage on, with Phil Plait recently fleshing out his TAM8 speech with several blog articles, and Richard Dawkins weighing in with his two cents. While I can appreciate the sharing of opinions, I do find it quite strange how the numerous responses to each – as well as the original comments themselves – utilise personal accounts to support claims of the role of ridicule in communication. I find it odd because this is a community of skeptics; people who prize science and would quickly put the boot into anybody foolish enough to try to support their claim with an anecdote or a just-so-story.

While by no means does it come across as a majority view, I have had it pointed out to me that psychology is a soft science, therefore it’s impossible to address such a claim with evidence. I wonder, however, how many of these skeptics would quickly suggest the role of confirmation bias in psychic claims, or cite any one number of other neurological quirks or cognitive hiccoughs as a suitable explanation for some otherwise paranormal observation.

No, psychology is not physics. We won’t have laws of the brain in the next few years, or a formula for sociology. The local tabloid might have articles on equations for the best handshakes or how best to meet girls, but few self-respecting psychologists would entertain such notions seriously. But to dismiss it as science and believe it has no role in helping us understand communication simply because it’s complicated is to misunderstand how science operates. We’ll probably never know whether ridicule is the best course of action for creating a more critical community in the same way we know the laws of thermodynamics. But by no means does that mean all bets are off when it comes to studying human behaviour, and in no way does it mean all opinions on the topic are equally valid.

Published in: on August 25, 2010 at 12:35 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Damn right.

    Though I took the anecdotes more as illustrative examples than as evidence. I might be mis-remembering though.

  2. Oh, I did too. The thing is, the entire discussion seems to be a long list of ‘illustrative examples’, without much more. Which is often what happens when it comes to discussions on communication – a lot of conjecture followed up by a personal experience to illustrate a context for it. It’d be nice for the culture of skeptical thinking to extend to matters of effective outreach as efficiently as it does when it comes to pet topics of psychics and alternative medicine.

  3. Dawkins’ comment that you linked too is seriously off-putting. Withing the very first sentence he is labeling and othering Phil Plait. Worse still I find the repeated use of conversion rhetoric to be frightening.

    You can’t “convert” someone to scientific thinking like you can convert them to Christianity or Islam. The very idea is anathema to the principles inherent in science. Instead the desire should be to help them to think a little more critically, to have a little more appreciation for the scientific enterprise than before. The only way they’re going to accept that science generates the best explanations of the natural world is to see for themselves how it works.

  4. On the other hand Phil Plait’s argument is itself based on anecdotes for which he is unwilling to provide examples.

    It may be that studies have shown people are more likely to be convinced if they observe the atheist refrain from name calling and insults. But “more likely” doesn’t mean that ridicule is never effective – it means, at best, that it is less effective, all else being equal, in some circumstances, and of course “More study is needed.”

    One of the problems with psychology is that anecdotes are perhaps more damning/convincing than they would be in (say) physics. If I tell you that I drop a lead ball and a feather in a vacuum and the feather hit the ground last, you are able to replicate the experiment (at least in principle) and falsify my findings. But if I tell you that I’ve found it more convincing to try and reason with people than to yell at them, and you find the opposite, then all we can really prove at best is that one method may statistically work more often than another – and as the tribal scientist points out, there are numerous confounders that make it difficult to accept such conclusions unreservedly. Perhaps that itself is worthy of study – “Why people find counterintuitive psychological findings unconvincing.” 🙂

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