Hear me, I'm sick:
I suffer from Breathe-Philosophy-Into-Psychology Disorder
Department of Psychology, University of Natal, Durban
This paper was first presented at the third annual South African qualitative methods conference. In it I discusses a different method of teaching research methods and statistics to students in psychology and other social sciences. This method was used on a trial basis in a research methods course for postgraduate students in psychology and other social sciences at a South African university. My experiences at various research institutes and universities as a research consultant motivated and informed my attempt at redesigning the teaching of research methods and statistics, the main aspects of which are to be discussed in the paper. The conclusion arrived at is the proposal of an idiographic philosophy of psychology to guide not only conceptualization of the "what" of psychology and the "how" of doing psychological research but more importantly the appropriate content and structure of research methodology courses taught in psychology, the other social sciences and ultimately all human sciences. Themes covered are: the difference the "new" method makes as manifested in positive feedback from students; the unraveling of the paradoxes inherent in the traditional method; the nature of the "new" method, its content, structure and guiding critical approach; assessing the presence and present status of positivism in psychology and other social sciences.
Thank you all for your presence to hear me and thereby empathically to touch me for as you all have learnt, I am quite sick - an ailing soul, I suffer from Breathe-Philosophy-Into-Psychology Disorder. This is a disorder which has not yet reached the pages of that voluminous ordering of disorders, the DSM, but if I infect enough of you there would be good statistical grounds for its inclusion as a nosological entity. You need not panic though about the mind-to-mind infection, it is quite a benign, friendly bug, the mental analogue of the bifido, lactobacillus or e-coli that enable our guts to function efficiently and effectively by warding off the pathogenic organisms that invade our bodies. What then is the mental analogue of these pathogens? - quite simply, one could call them quantobugs which produce an affective state of quantophilia, i.e. an almost irrational love for numbers in the form of t-values, F-ratios and associated p-values. Since these quantobugs are only able to survive in the cognitive medium of positivism, some strategies are deployed to ensure that this medium is maintained optimally. These strategies target certain innate human capacities and needs reciprocal to each other - humans have a capacity to become depressed and a reciprocal need to enjoy psychological well-being; humans have a capacity to become insecure and to wane in ego-strength as well as a reciprocal need to feel secure, confident and as good, if not better, than the next person. So these quantobugs synthesize and secrete thoughts playing on the quantophilia which is based in a powerful and longstanding bond with the legacy of positivism in psychology. The intent is to induce paranoia that if the bond with positivism is broken, the individual will suffer deprivation or loss depression. Alternatively, depending on the individual concerned, he/she will suffer defeat depression since the egotistic benefits which positivism accords a psychologist as expert on the human mind, human emotions and human life or affairs in general, will have to be surrendered. The façade of a scientist on par with the hard natural scientists within the priesthood of science will disintegrate and wither away exposing an ego-battered psychologist not fit to survive the rampant competition in the jungle of academia. Furthermore, our clever little quantobugs act at an unconscious level and secrete a mechanism that enables transmission of this ideology through education with the result that we end up with generations of psychologists who unwittingly and unknowingly are guilty of the naturalistic fallacy in the form that what is learnt is so and what is so, ought to be so! - no critical thinking, no philosophical reflection nor any metatheoretical questioning forms part of their education. Upon exercising such critical thinking, one finds that the quantobugs actually are responsible for an epistemic confusion that is endemic in the discipline of psychology. As far back as forty years ago, Wittgenstein commented on this: "Psychology has experimental methods and grave conceptual confusion" - now it has sophisticated quantitative methods and a plethora of psychological tests but, alas, still the same grave conceptual confusion!
If one takes a closer look at the transmission mechanism, the epistemic confusion can be magnified to unravel a number of paradoxes inherent in the traditional method of teaching research and statistics. Students approach the course with mathophobia and severe dread, go through the course bitterly complaining about it but end up producing excellent results! - Paradox 1: Mathophobic students achieve distinctions in what is commonly known by students as the 'stats' course. This leads to Paradox 2: students, including those with distinctions, sometimes the greater part of the class, are still much at a loss at applying statistics to their research projects as they probably would have been if they had not completed the stats course/s. Furthermore, statistical principles of sampling, sample size, criteria for which tests are appropriate for the research planned and the nature of the data intended to be collected are not taken into account at the stage of research design which eventually turns out to be damp with tears.
It seems one has to invoke the distinction made by philosopher Gilbert Ryle between knowing-how and knowing-that or knowing-why to explain these paradoxes reminiscent of the distinction between ready-to-hand and present-at hand made by Heidegger which Steven Segal speaks about in his paper. Students know how to do statistics but are significantly lacking in knowledge about why they are following certain rules. In other words, they lack understanding in the same way that the diligent workers in philosopher John Searle's hypothetical Chinese Room example are able to do translations between Chinese and English but do not understand a word of Chinese. Searle's example referred to artificial intelligence in computers and argued the impossibility of genuine human understanding in computers. However, the disturbing fact is the reverse phenomenon we are experiencing where humans are producing the artificial intelligence themselves without any understanding through learning cookbook science an using knowledge of the knowing-how kind but none of the knowing-that or knowing-why kind. The result is Paradox 3: which is that while computer scientists are progressively trying to produce human intelligence in computers, the kind of teaching going on at universities is producing or encouraging computer intelligence in human students.
Now clearly it is not becoming of any academic discipline to turn human students into efficient robots that have no understanding of what they are doing. It may seem obvious that the answer to this problem is simply to lend greater weight to the knowing-that or knowing-why aspect of teaching statistics and research so that psychology does not degenerate into cookbook science which in fact it already has and the process needs to be reversed. There may be an objection at this point to the effect that statistics is taught to psychology students from first year onwards. However, statistics taught to a mathematically naïve class is inevitably going to produce a cookbook mode of learning. This is borne out by academically good students who have had their dose of three years undergraduate statistics as well as by masters students who have had an additional module at honors level - these students, in my experience at various institutes, consult with me very much at pains with the statistical aspects even to the point of paying as much as R6000 to a private statistician who usually is deficient in methodological issues and the outcome is still one of no satisfaction after payment.
Perhaps Statistics I should be made a pre-requisite for Psychology II in which case Maths I would be a co-requisite for Statistics I in which case the selection criteria for admission to a degree in psychology would necessitate applicants to have higher-grade mathematics at matric level. The good news is that the psychology classes would now constitute students exercising human intelligence with a deeper appreciation of statistics and the mark of a good education. The bad news, however, is that this is clearly a case of reductio ad absurdum for although it would be a good education, it would in fact be an inauthentic education in terribly bad faith. This option would be resorted to by those with an overgrowth of quantobugs resulting in a quantophilia progressing to necrophilia, an irrational love for a corpse-like psychology. Indeed what we as psychologists have studied and are teaching is something of a corpse with statistics as its skeleton and the research activity within the discipline as a process of rigor mortis! The metaphor is surprisingly apt - dig up articles in psychological journals and you find more written on the statistics than on the humans about whom the study is all about - just as if one were to dig up a corpse, one would find more of skeleton than of flesh. Cause of death? - Infection. Source of infection? - quantobugs in symbiosis with taxobugs!
Metaphors aside, in literal terms the problem in psychology lies in its obsession with measurement (quantification) and classification (taxonomy) within the areas of psychological testing and psychopathology respectively. My argument is that it is not statistics per se which is the root of the crises in psychology but rather its misuse or its misplaced use in psychological research and the teaching thereof.
Wittgenstein spoke with penetrating insight and foresight when he said that psychology is not a young science meaning that it is not a young and growing science like physics initially was. In the case of physics, during the normal course of its growth and development, statistics was regarded as a useful tool to apply to its subject matter, this being so because it was suited to its subject matter, i.e. the "what" of physics determined the "how" of physics. In psychology, however, it was the "how" which determined the "what" of psychology - in a bid to keep up the pretence of being scientific, the question as to how to incorporate statistics became pressing. Were it not for positivistic epistemological assumptions which were smuggled in earlier on, it would not have been necessary to smuggle in the whole technology of statistics later on. The need for statistics in psychology was not intrinsically called for but was externally imposed; a need was created, in fact fabricated - the first quantobug was born only to multiply as rapidly as ever. Psychology's subject matter was reconceptualized to enable statistically based research instead of phenomenologically based enquiry into the existential life-world of the human subject. Intelligence was no longer a concept one could discuss in words with sound logical argumentation as philosophers did; it became a psychological construct defined as that which the intelligence test measures and the same for anxiety, personality, etc. The circularity of definitions did not matter nor did the tacit admissibility of statements such as that a person is 1.68 times happier than he or she was yesterday as meaningful statements to make. As long as numbers were available to carry out statistical tests with. Psychology's dark night of the soul became studded with the stars of statistical significance; having had its pubertal growth spurt and having achieved scientific respectability and maturity, it could now stand on par with medical science. A marriage between abnormal psychology and the medical spe