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 speciality of psychiatry became possible to give rise to the science of psychopathology. Now medical science in general deals with disease entities within a classification system and the same was required of the science of psychopathology by systemizing knowledge of psychopathology and delineating nosological entities. The first taxobug was born and with it Emil Kraeplin's system of classification which is the forerunner of today's DSM-IV.
Problems in living, emotional distress, familial conflict and so on could now, with the consummation of the marriage of psychiatry to psychology and the birth of the science of psychopathology, be generically classed as mental illnesses. I do not deny that these so-called 'mental illnesses' have corresponding biochemical brain states for we are creatures with the brain as the organ of mental functioning, whatever the relation between mind and brain. There are biochemical correlates, i.e. corresponding brain states, even to learning arithmetic for example - does this mean that the whole process of teaching arithmetic be transformed into a regime of pill-popping? A brave new world where, like taking a course of antibiotics to eliminate infection, one could take a course of drugs to learn Portuguese? What it would mean is that we are all born "ill" for we lack at birth the brain states which correspond to knowing that '2 + 2 = 4', etc - in other words education would fall within the province of psychiatry and its associated drug industry. It may sound facetious but it certainly is not an illogical argument.
If one has to put one's finger on the source of the myth of mental illness, it is the fact that the person going through problems and difficulties in life is rendered into a state of dysfunctionality not unlike that of a physically sick person - this resemblance allows for metaphor and analogy but is illicitly extended to literality thereby laying the foundation for a science of psychopathology.
What alternative am I then suggesting? Well, the emphasis would be more on understanding the phenomena lived and experienced by individual people in existential situations of happiness, love, pain anguish, despair, death, distress, loneliness, longing, desiring, conflict, confusion, fear, and so on. Does this not sound more human than "Major Affective Disorder", "Schizophreniform Disorder", etc? The focus shifts from an anatomical and genetic context to a social, ethical, and metaphysical context. The effort is not one of suspiciously searching in detective like fashion for a particular combination of "symptoms" that will match a diagnosis in that voluminous statistical ordering of disorders; instead the effort is one of listening empathically to communications, often in strange idiom, of a person about himself/herself, others and the world about him/her and of administering care, understanding and acceptance rather than ECTs and leucotomies. To sum up the quest and aim of this approach is more a search for selfhood, its wholeness and integrity rather than the elimination or correction of "maladaptive" behaviour in the name of "mental health".
A fundamental source of the difference between the two perspectives is that mainstream psychology is an offspring of positivism which dictated that psychology wrest itself from philosophy and function as an independent empirical science after the fashion of the natural sciences. Phenomenological/Existential Psychology using qualitative methods on the other hand is inextricably interwoven with philosophy and rightly so in my opinion. Clinical psychology/psychiatry is the life-world where the many expressions of the human being's struggle with fundamental life-questions come to the fore as to why life should be lived and how it should be lived. These can only be addressed through philosophical reflection and discourse rather than by dreaming up exotic species of "illnesses" such as "Tobacco Use Disorder", "Academic Underachievement Disorder" and "Child School Refusal Disorder" - sailing through the pages of the DSM is comparable to Darwin's voyage on the Beagle! In short the psychology-psychiatry alliance's armamentarium of medications, MMPIs and DSMs is doing more to stifle the cry of humanity than to answer it, a sentiment very eloquently expressed by Felicity Bielovich in her paper. With reference to one of the papers, at this conference, on Raves: that this phenomenon exists with all the contradictions inherent in it as disclosed by the researcher only serves to demonstrate the failure of psychiatry where rich youngsters quite able afford the fees for consultation and medication instead turn to the Raves in a bid to search for meaning and togetherness which is what I think the sense in which connectedness was used, i.e. in existential terms to be-with-others, feeling safe and and without the loneliness charecteristic of modern day living, the affluence notwithstanding.
Having spent enough time on psychopathology, let me now turn to the area which has been used to fabricate the need for statistics in psychology, psychological assessment. The major problem with psychological testing is that it does not view the testee in terms of situational, temporal, biographical and socio-historical factors, i.e. in terms of an ecological context which is an open system constantly in a state of flux. Instead it sees the individual as static rather than dynamic, constantly in a state of changing by responding to contextual changes. This reminds me of the paper, at this conference, by Kenneth Wilson about the self as actually being many possible selves, a different line in the sand at different times. Now the absurdity of testing lies in the fact that the testing situation tries to measure that which is changing! - try to measure a table on a conveyor belt to get my point. Incidentally the once young science of physics has come to realise this but alas psychology has not. However, having by hook or by crook and with a look of "scientific respectability" managed to capture a quick picture of the testee, in terms of scores, this then is taken to be a fixed and static reflection of the testee cross-situationally and cross-temporally. The mental image invoked, with reference to the paper by Kenneth Wilson, is one of psychologists being huge genies or gods holding back the wind to keep the line in the sand from being blown away.
The focus of traditional testing is on the outcome or product of the test which is then fed into independent and dependent variable function equations of the type y = f(x). The focus is on the outcome of the test, at the time of testing, but that outcome is not the person, rather, only a product of the person, at that time, in relation to a vast array of interwoven factors operative in the person's life, at that time. No multivariate equation can capture a dynamic open system in all its complexity since an equation, by definition, is a static and closed system. In short, test results are a far cry from the reality of the person and are on the whole artifactual. Ask any student of psychology and the statistical formulae are nothing less than monsters to them. Yet, the psychologists are, in the name of science, able to get away with their creation of reality and its explanations using such monsters while the Nguni residents of Eastern Cape are taken to task for engaging in mythical speculations about a river monster about which we had a very interesting paper, at this conference, given by Alain Tschudin yesterday - I would not be surprised if in fact such a monster has ethereal properties allowing only people with certain areas of their right brains highly specialised and evolutionarily selected for in that part of the country. I think it is necessary to mention that philosophers today and in particular the most influential philosopher at the very forefront of the empiricist movement has made the following statement to the effect that the physical objects posited by the empiricists are just as much mythical as the gods of Homer but that he would much rather stick to believing in the myth of physical objects rather than Homeric gods, this choice being made for pragmatic reasons rather than for epistemological reasons. A bold and honest assertion by Willard Van Orman Quine that puts the positivist psychologists at shame as far as I am concerned.
This brings me to a very important topic which is I think an indispensable topic in a research methods course - cut down on calculations which can be done by computers and include this important topic, namely the topic about truth, epistemology and the philosphy of science. For after all if research is done, is not the object of the research the establishment of truth or at any rate to be clear about one's position that one is a relativist and is concerned only with the pragmatic value of research or that one is a realist engaged in the construction of a posited reality about which we get to know more and more although not infallibly, a view advocated by philosopher Roy Bhaskar. Even neo-positivists like Popper would fall in to more or less such a camp with his notion of falsifiability. One major problem is that in the human world, develop a statistical based theory and one has only to look at the error term which I can guarantee you is always there and it is always there for the simple reason that at the heart of statistical thinking is the average or mean and this mean is no less of a fabrication or myth than the river monster. The error term in fact is due to the fact that there is at least one individual who does not fit in the statistical model and my dear friends, that one instance is more than enough to falsify the theory - in Popperian terms there is more falsification than corroboration in the human sciences and inevitably so. This is due to deluded politically, industrially motivated attempts at finding psychological laws of human experience which even if they do exist are probably far too complex for the human mind to grasp, particularly if constrained within the parameters of a statistical formula. An idiographic philosophy of psychology is the only viable one and the only authentic one at that. This philosophy is embedded in the alternative styles of thinking about psychology, I have touched upon at various points in this paper. In a nutshell, each individual is a culture unto himself/herself and researching this individual can only be achieved by getting under the skin of that individual which we fortunately can up to a point through language, text and discourse. A course in research methods without such components is an impoverished one at best and an inauthentic or even a fraudulent one at worst.
Let me quickly go through this in more concrete terms for psychology. Students embark on psychological studies to become professionals in one of the following applied areas of psychology: industrial, clinical/counselling and educational. Now if these are applied areas of psychology, then there must be a pure psychology of which these are applications - well, what is this pure area, the principles of which are being applied? Experimental, lab-based psychology is history - so what is the substance of this pure area? I am afraid the only candidate is specialized phililosophy or philosophical psychology. Now the paradox par excellence is that this is not taught - yet applied fields happily progress in the name of science.
In a postgraduate course in research methods and statistics I taught in 1997 students were not required to do any calculations nor work with any formulae - I did not see any point for reasons which should be clear after my foregoing discussion. They were required to know the various statistical techniques which are used to analyze data, the logic underlying these techniques and the types of research designs and research questions such techniques would be applicable to. The practical component included hands-on application of these techniques to real data-sets downloaded from the internet and others acquired from the South African Data Archive based at the HSRC in Pretoria. However, a major component of the course was taking a critical look at the use of quantitative methods in the social sciences on which they were assessed by writing an essay on the topic, "Mainstream psychology holds that quantitative methods are the royal road to understanding human beings - critically discuss". I certainly did not want to be guilty of the naturalistic fallacy nor for that matter of passing it on to the students and designed the course in accordance with the principles being expressed in this paper.
The feedback I have had from students has been tremendously encouraging, particularly with respect to the essay topic. At first I noticed a sense of incredulity on their part at having to write an essay for a 'stats' course but as lectures progressed, the students evidently became quite pensive and finally when essays were handed in as well as after the course, the written and verbal comments I got clearly indicated that this component of the course was meaningful and rewarding to them. The major themes in their comments were that writing the essay had given them an opportunity to think for the first time about the essence of the subject they had been studying for three years already without having questioned its epistemological assumptions. It had given them the opportunity to rethink what the real subject matter of psychology is, how qualitative methods and the concepts of meaning, values, understanding and interpretation were indispensable to coming to grips with the subject matter of psychology in its socio-historical context.
Let me respond to some criticisms leveled at the position and the stand I am taking. Firstly, it is often claimed by the pragmatically inclined that testing has to be done because there are practical needs requiring psychological testing to be done in order to make immediate decisions. In other words, it is claimed that the issue is practical rather than philosophical. It is in fact a strategic maneuver on the part of the quantobugs that whenever a paradigmatic issue is raised, it is immediately converted into a pragmatic issue, i.e. an issue of practical import and consideration. Thus in accepting testing, on the grounds that it is practically demanded, they are affirming positivism, i.e. the argument is that there is a demand for testing, therefore accept psychological testing and hence positivism: Demand Premise, therefore, Positivist Conclusion. Now I would like to show that there is circularity in this argument since the Demand Premise itself entails the Positivist Conclusion. This being so as a result of the fact that positivism being the dominant paradigm in psychology, it permeates society as the best option to demand analogous to the demand for medical services due to the scientific bias prevailing in society where whatever science says must be right - a power structure discussed by Foucault and much earlier by Ivan Illich. With the positivists having psychology parading as a natural science, thus bearing the old-established stamp of scientific authority, it is no surprise that the Demand Premise exists in society - it is a well-known fact that psychology has been required to form alliances with various agents of social control such as government, education, military and industry in order to ensure that its perspective gains credence over alternative philosophical positions in the study of human life and functioning.
Secondly, my position is criticized as extremist and idealistic. With respect to the charge of extremism, my justification is as follows: the extremity of one pole can only be discerned and appreciated from the extremity of the opposite pole. From the extreme position I have taken and presented to you, my intention has been to show you the extremity of the positivistic position in psychology, for the simple reason that this position is being researched, practiced, and taught as OK with the result that it is not being seen as extremist. As for the idealism of my position, this is so because the dominant positivist psychology does not allow for the principles of the position I represent to be put into practice. In other words, the position I represent is not in principle idealistic (inherently not practiceable) but rather in practice it is not practiceable for the simple reason that such an alternative practice is not allowed to take root, grow, and evolve due to an already established practice of positivistic psychology which is perpetuated and maintained on account of the vested interests of industry and its technology, professionalism (expertism) and so on. Now, if there is an already established practice and I present a set of ideas, then necessarily I am being idealistic for all I have is a set of ideas but no space or opportunity to put these into practice. Thus, I am being idealistic but this idealism is not in principle idealistic but only in practice idealistic since it is not allowed to be practiced as argued above. Ironically, it would be very pertinent to point out that it is in fact positivistic psychology which is in principle idealistic since it has been in practice for a long, long time and has quite patently failed which can be demonstrable by a very simple observation: of all the postgraduate students and psychologists, which one of them understands the human being in the same way that a mechanical engineer understands an airplane or car? I do not believe that it is an unfair comparison since mechanical engineering is an applied mathematical science and psychology is an applied social science. Since not one of us can answer the above question in the affirmative, it can safely be concluded that positivist psychology is itself, in principle idealistic.
In conclusion, the purpose of this paper has been to gear for thinking beyond the pragmatic value of the traditional triad of psychostats-psychotests-psychopathology. One could say indeed that, in all consideration and respect for the need to be reactive, using the existing triad, to immediate problems/practical needs in the short-term, there is also a stronger need in the long-term for a proactive approach to these problems that would perhaps even, through a shift in our epistemological perspective, render invalid the strong practical motivations cited for the necessity of this triad. Once we understand the historical reasons for the use of statistics and its indispensability as a matter of tradition, strategically initiated by a positivist philosophy to place psychology and the other social sciences on par with the natural sciences, one would be freed from the superego of statistical reasoning and be able to have a more natural relationship with the subject-matter of our discipline. Thus we can celebrate human emancipation, and there is perhaps no better forum for this to take place than a qualitative methods conference. If however, this triad continued to be uncritically handed down to students with the nomothetic objective of being able to predict human behaviour in general, then, I believe psychologists will continue to refine methodology by the use of more and more sophisticated statistical techniques, churn out more and more tests to measure more and more indefinable dimensions of and traits of an indefinable construct called personality and continue to busy themselves ordering disorders along multiple axes and within different clusters. They will remain out of touch with the existential reality of life, its meaning, mystery and complexity and continue to suffer the grave conceptual confusion which Wittgenstein complained about forty years ago. Did I say psychologists would be or are out of touch with reality? That is a major symptom of psychosis, is it not? There is an expression about the blind leading the blind; here we seem to have the psychotics treating the psychotics. Help, me somebody, I'm sick - I suffer from Breathe-Philosophy-Into-Psychology disorder!
Zubair Moomal studied at the University of the Witwatersrand, University of South Africa and University of Natal (Dbn). Qualifications obtained thus far: BSc - Biological Sciences and Psychology, WITS; BSc (Hons) - Psychology, WITS; Diploma in Datametrics - Computer Science, UNISA; BA - Philosophy and Logic, UNISA. Work experience: Research Officer at Cognitive Research Unit, Div. of Specialized Education (WITS); Research Specialist at the South African Data Archive (HSRC). Lecturer in Research Methodology, Statistics and Philosophy of Science in the Department of Psychology, University of Natal (Dbn). Working on an MSc towards a Phd in Evolutionary Psychology & Epistemology.