Teaching Psychology Like the Science It Is

As you may or may not know, my undergraduate degree is in psychology. What you probably don’t know, unless we know each other in person and it happened to come up, is that I went through an odd process to get that degree. I essentially double-majored in psychology.

The short version of the story is that I transferred from a small private university to the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities in the middle of my college career. I’d also just switched majors from physics, so I had many of my breadth requirements down. After I settled in and knocked down most of my required psychology courses, I got a letter from the university.

They thought I should graduate with honors. I wasn’t going to argue with the idea, since I wanted to go to grad school to pursue counseling. However, it did mean all but starting over with my major. The requirements for an honors degree had almost no overlap with the requirements for a “normal” psychology major.

That should have told me something important right there, but I didn’t have the education to appreciate it just yet. That took another year and a half of coursework alongside graduate students, learning much more about statistics, studying research design, acting as a research assistant, doing my own independent experiment with the relevant lit search, and learning how to read a scientific paper instead of just knowing what parts go into one. Reading Martin Gardner and James Randi didn’t hurt either. Nor did a run in with psych prof who indulged in highly subjective grading.

All that was what it took to make me really understand how useless almost all of my psychology classes had been up to that point. The lab classes were still solid. The…no, mostly it was just the lab classes.

That isn’t to say I didn’t learn anything else worthwhile. I did. The problem is that there was so much junk mixed in with what I was learning that it took me years to sort out what was contemporary knowledge versus what was outdated nonsense versus what was unsubstantiated theorizing.

Parapsychology was mostly confined to my high school psychology classes, but not entirely. One of my favorite teachers was a great lecturer, whose imagination had been captured by the facile just-so stories of evolutionary psychology. Personality inventories were always good for getting the class engaged, even if they hadn’t been shown to be good for anything else.

Action-figure Freud, now with lecture grip (Freud III by Christopher Althouse Cohen)

Fifty years after Freud’s death, I was still learning about psychoanalysis, anal expulsive personalities, and penis envy, despite the lack of support in the scientific literature. Thirty years after Jung’s death, I was learning about archetypes and the “collective unconscious”. Ten years after Piaget died, I was learning that human development in children happened in distinct stages. Of course, I was also learning that it happened differently. In the same class. In the same textbook.

By the time I’d finished my degree, I’d earned a Bachelors of Science. What I received, however, was a Bachelors of Arts, and I understood why. A department that presents entertainment as scholarship and doesn’t differentiate between historical theorizing and modern knowledge isn’t really in any position to present what they do as science.

That’s extra infuriating because the education I ended up with proved that psychology can be taught well. Psychology is a young science, but it is possible to teach it as the science it is instead of as a “soft”, subjective field of study.

We can present the best modern understanding of our subjects. We can present history as history–useful for teaching us how knowledge is acquired but not a reliable source of facts. We can marginalize “science” that doesn’t meet solid standards for research design or that overreaches its data in an effort to bolster its conclusions. We can present our knowledge as provisional, and we can educate students about the challenges involved in collecting and applying that knowledge.

And we can do all this far better now than we could when I was in college. The advent of excellent science writing on the internet frees us somewhat from our dependence on outdated editions of textbooks. So does the ability to create and use open source textbooks. So does the ability to read individual scientific papers, where they aren’t behind a paywall.

Sad to say, the trend toward teaching being done by non-tenured staff also presents some opportunities to improve the field. If we are going to demand that psychology be taught well, it will sometimes be helpful to have recourse when we discover that it isn’t (though lack of tenure also means that those who do teach psychology well are not protected).

Before all that, however, we have to demand that psychology be taught well and taught as a science. That’s harder to do than you might think. Just as economic scholarship has difficulty policing itself, there are those who benefit from having their outdated or unfounded ideas supported in our universities. And those of us who consume the derivatives of psychology–counseling, psychiatry, design, public policy–aren’t usually in a position to provide concrete feedback. There is enough variation in people that failures can be blamed on us rather than on poor education.

The good news is that the people who study psychology in order to provide those services are usually driven to do just that–serve. Since the service they provide can only be as good as the education they receive, they have a strong motivation to seek the best education they can find. If they understand that this education must be evidence-based in order to make a difference, they can provide the driving force to improve psychology education.

I’m very happy to report that one student has started a project to do just that. Donovanable of pervasivegoodness explains:

I’ve had an eerie number of experiences this school year of enrolling in classes I’m very excited about–only to discover professors advocating vitamin megadoses, (really), or informing the class that being too rational would hamper our learning. I’m a psychology major, as I have mentioned before, and I want to go into practicing therapy. It’s why I blog anonymously, why I double-majored and take more than a full course-load.

But I want to do therapy that is proven to actually help people. Because you know, that’s the whole damn point. That means taking classes, and being in a program where I learn what that therapy is. That means professors who know the research, the data. That means when I have a professor telling me that ‘science is like religion’ because there’s evidence for a lot of stuff, and encouraging 4x the FDA dosage for fish oil to improve brains, I get pissed. I want to do something. So here I am. Doing something.

I’ve started a website to collect information on psychology programs at universities in the United States. It can be good or bad. The goal is a comprehensive list of reviews and experiences from skeptics who want to learn. Without alt-med. Without supernatural solutions.

I wish I could have done something like this when I was studying psychology. Donovanable is where I was twenty years ago, except that with this project, she’s actually doing something about the problems that drove me nuts.

Of course, she can’t do it alone. She only goes to one school. Evidence Based Education will be a crowd-sourced project, collecting information on psychology programs–good and bad–so students who value science in their science can find what they’re looking for. If this collects enough information and becomes enough of a resource, it may even become a tool to pressure departments into making their offerings more scientific overall. (Don’t tell Donovanable I said that, though. She’s got enough on her plate to start.)

If you are an undergraduate or graduate student in psychology or have been in the last ten years, you have the kind of information Evidence Based Education needs. Go contribute. Be part of making your field better.

Major thanks to JT for making sure I didn’t miss hearing about this.

Teaching Psychology Like the Science It Is

10 thoughts on “Teaching Psychology Like the Science It Is

  1. 2

    Stephanie; Fredrick Crews’ expose of anti-scientific Freudian fluff & foo-foo, FOLLIES OF THE WISE, is a must read.
    Full of content & brilliantly written.

  2. 3

    @mouthyb, I didn’t realize this was a problem in sociology too. If you go and submit at the site, I’ll take a look. I can’t promise it’ll fit or go up, but it might. And I’ll archive it if I don’t use it, in case the project expands.

    And Stephanie? This is incredible. Thank you so much for writing far more eloquently than I could.

  3. 4

    … Piagettian stages are out? Urk. I’ve been basing curriculum arguments on Piaget.

    Do you have a link or a reference for a more modern model? If I’ve been completely off base, and kids actually can handle the symbolic abstractions of algebra younger than I thought, I’d really like to know about it.

  4. 5

    Robert, Piaget’s observations on what children are able to do at various ages have been broadened and complexified but not thrown out. His idea that this development comes in a small set of stages, each of which needs to be completed before the next can begin has been pretty well falsified. Child development is more multi-stranded than that. Chances are very good that you’re already relying on the more complex model. If you’re not, let me know, and I’ll ask someone more expert than I am for a recommendation.

  5. 7

    Ohhhhhh. Yeah, I knew the “stages” were fuzzier and more complex than the neat little outlines in the textbooks. (It actually never occurred to me that any expert might really think it was a matter of big discrete steps that must be taken perfectly in order.) I hadn’t explicitly thought of it as being multi-threaded, though, that’s an interesting concept.

    I don’t have to rethink any basic assumptions, then, but now I’m curious. So I’m still interested in a good modern reference on cognitive development in children, if anyone happens to have a link or a title handy. (I’ve studied education and science but I’ve only had a couple basic courses on psych.) Thanks!

  6. 8

    If you have not read research by John P. A. Ioannidis on medications, psychology and so many other “scientific studies” you might want to check him out. He basically has shown that most scientific studies (like the megavitamins and what not) are a crock. Same with antidepressents and many heart medications. He has been published in JAMA and other major journals so he is not a quack. He is also in Mary Roach’s “The Best Science and Nature Writings of 2011.” She wrote “Packing for Mars” and other novels.


  7. 9

    […] owe Stephanie Zvan a huge plate of her favorite kind of cookies for writing this beautiful and eloquent post about her experiences majoring in psychology and publicizing Evidence Based Education. Seriously. […]

  8. 10

    What’s hilarious about this (hilarious in a rather depressing fashion) is that my experience with community college psychology classes was very focused on science. Intro (for psych majors) was heavily focused not just on what makes good science, but also on what in psychology was either bad science or wasn’t science at all and why. This is partly due to having instructors who mostly gained their PhDs at the same local uni, but I suspect it is also a big deal at KVCC. My intro cultural anth class was also science heavy – as were my communication classes.

    Robert –

    It’s important to keep in mind that we have made some huge leaps in our understanding of the brain over the past ten to fifteen years. There is actually a lot of good and moderately good science that has been knocked down several pegs because of it. One of the big things we now understand that we didn’t before (or at least didn’t have a lot of science to back up) is that infants are effectively subject to cultural influences as soon as they are born (in some ways before they’re born even).

    To put it in a very over-simplified fashion; when you have a whole lot of people raising kids from essentially the same manual, development is very likely to follow similar patterns. Some kids won’t conform anyways and others might be raised differently enough, but overall you can see patterns. When you look rather closer however, those patterns start to fade – rather like looking at a picture made up of smaller pictures. The closer in you pull, the more you see significant differences. You see stages that are overlapping – even to the extent that a “later” stage actually started before the one before. You see regressions due to circumstances, or simply a stage that was never really passed.

    Being human is a lot messier than being any other earth animal. We are complicated, our behaviors driven by factors we can barely begin to unravel – if we can ever really unravel it all.

    donavanable –

    This is a problem in sociology and anthropology as well. There is a combination of sheer laziness, in terms of expelling outdated information and a postmodernist bent that is all about other “ways of knowing.” The American Anthropology Association actually tried to remove the word “science” from it’s mission statement in 2010. Yes, that happened in 20bloody10! I am pretty lucky, in that I don’t really have to deal with the anti-science contingent where I am, but there are a lot of loons teaching social sciences out there.

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