Features of science
The scientific process is a means of acquiring knowledge based on observable, measurable evidence, involving the generation and testing of hypotheses through empirical methods. These involve observations based on sensory experience rather than on thoughts and beliefs alone. A scientific fact is therefore one that has been subjected to empirical testing by rigorous observation of phenomena and must be explicable through theories testable by empirical means. Science requires predictions that are testable empirically, without bias or expectation of results, and under controlled conditions. Theories can therefore either be validated (seen to be true) or be falsified (seen to be untrue). The challenge for psychology is to achieve this in real-life settings.
Replication involves repeating studies under identical conditions to check reliability and validity of findings. This occurs if research studies are written up in a designated manner. Fleischmann & Pons (1989) published research appearing to verify the existence of cold fusion, whereby limitless energy could be created very cheaply. Because the research was written up in the required manner, other scientists could replicate their work where unfortunately they discovered that the phenomenon does not exist, presumably due to methodological error. Replication performs the important function of ensuring that psychologists do not use practical applications in the real world until they have been shown to be based on empirically tested facts.
Objectivity concerns observations made without bias, as science requires that research be performed without the application of distorted personal feelings and interpretations. Objectivity is an element of empiricism, where observations are made through sensory experience rather than biased viewpoints formed from expectation and desire. To lessen the chances of bias, standardised instructions, operational definitions of observed variables, physically defined measurements of performance and double-blind techniques are used. Bias in research, making findings subjective rather than objective, is generally unconscious rather than deliberate fraud. For example, when Ganzfeld studies, which test for extra-sensory perception (ESP), are performed by believers in ESP, results tend to confirm that ESP exists, while when they are performed by sceptics, the exact same procedure tends to show that ESP does not exist.
An integral part of the validation process is the notion of falsifiability, where hypotheses are tested and found to be false. This is achieved by replicating studies under the exact same testing conditions. Freud’s psychodynamic theory is unfalsifiable, as his interpretations of behaviour cannot be shown to be untrue. For example, Freud argued that a person may behave in a certain way due to events in their childhood. If this was found to be so, it is taken as evidence for the theory’s validity. However, if it was found to be untrue, it was still seen as supporting the theory through repression of the events due to their traumatic content.
A paradigm is a shared set of assumptions about a subject matter and how it should be investigated. Psychologists then collect data that fit these assumptions and therefore find what they expect to find. Paradigm shifts occur when such old assumptions are rejected and new, revolutionary ones are adopted. Such changes occur only infrequently and often due to minority influence (see page 20).