Evidence that people underestimate the difficulty of psychology

Pertaining to the name of this blog

In 4 studies, the authors examined how intuitions about the relative difficulties of the sciences develop. In Study 1, familiar everyday phenomena in physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and economics were pretested in adults, so as to be equally difficult to explain. When participants in kindergarten, Grades 2, 4, 6, and 8, and college were asked to rate the difficulty of understanding these phenomena, children revealed a strong bias to see natural science phenomena as more difficult than those in psychology. The perceived relative difficulty of economics dropped dramatically in late childhood. In Study 2, children saw neuroscience phenomena as much more difficult than cognitive psychology phenomena, which were seen as more difficult than social psychology phenomena, even though all phenomena were again equated for difficulty in adults. In Study 3, we explored the basis for these results in intuitions about common knowledge and firsthand experience. Study 4 showed that the intuitions about the differences between the disciplines were based on intuitions about difficulty of understanding and not on the basis of more general intuitions about the feasibility or truth of the phenomena in question. Taken together, in the studies, the authors find an early emerging basis for judgments that some sciences are intrinsically more difficult than others, a bias that may persevere in adults in subtler forms in such settings as the courtroom.

Source: Keil, F. C., Lockhart, K. L., & Shlegel, E. (2010). A bump on a bump? Emerging intuitions concerning the relative difficulty of the sciences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139, 1-15. [pdf available]

I rest my case.

Just don’t ask me how

There has been lots of blog activity over a NY Times op-ed by Mark Taylor, professor of religion at Columbia. Right now it’s the most-emailed story at the Times. In it, Taylor proposes abolishing the modern university. From his mixed bag of arguments:

  • graduate education prepares students for jobs that don’t exist
  • academic scholarship is too specialized and divorced from real-world problems
  • faculty create clones of themselves instead of true scholars
  • grad school exploits people to provide cheap labor for undergrad education
  • traditional disciplines need to be replaced with interdisciplinary thematic ceters
  • tenure protects unproductive people and inhibits change
  • etc.

I wish I could say that any of this was new, but this is the same stuff I’ve been hearing about higher education since I was in college, and I know that pretty much all of it has been around a lot longer than that. Some of it has some traction, some of it doesn’t. Taylor doesn’t come up with any new or interesting solutions. (He proposes to train grad students for non-academic careers; but he doesn’t say how. Abolish tenure: but he makes no attempt to quantify the benefits of tenure, such as the freedom to define hard problems and take risks to solve them. Etc.)

Plenty of bloggers are posting takedowns. Among the good ones…

Chris Kielty on Savage Minds notes that many of the practices and structures that Taylor attacks (like departments and tenure) protect what is valuable about universities. Abolishing them will just make things worse:

Administrators across the country love it when stooges like Taylor say this kind of shit, because it gives them the right and high horse upon which to justify the destruction of academic job security, autonomous decision making by faculty and the definition of what counts as a timely or important problem by the people who actually have to do the work. And I suspect I hardly need to tell anyone that it isn’t places like UCLA or Columbia that will suffer even if his suggestions are taken seriously, but those underfunded state schools looking for any excuse to expand the number of adjuncts, diminish the autonomy of faculty, exploit graduate students even further (by claiming that they need to “expand their skills”), and so on.

Scott Sommers says that the problem isn’t that grad students are too specialized to have marketable skills — it’s that most of the jobs where they can apply their skills are less interesting than academia:

All the “…limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems” decried by Dr. Taylor is really made up of highly valuable skills…

The problem isn’t the usefulness of these techniques, nor even the employablity of these skills outside the university. The problem is that no one trained in these skills really wants to apply them to anything but academic problems. I have personal experience with this. Before teaching English, I worked for a marketing research firm in Canada. While all this was long ago, I retain one especially vivid memory. My supervisor, who holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto, and I were hunched over a table examining cross tabs of a survey of attitudes toward Canadian hi-tech companies. I remember her commenting on the wide fluctuation in perceptions of excellence we had obtained across the spectrum of surveyed companies surveyed. Her response to this? “Isn’t this interesting!” No, it isn’t and it wasn’t then, even though it was really one of the more interesting problems our firm worked on. And I suspect even my boss thought so, since she now works in academia.

Matt Welsh points out that Taylor’s critique doesn’t apply nearly as well to the sciences:

What he really means is that in the areas of “religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy” (the author’s all-encompassing list of the realms of human thought that apparently really matter) it is damned hard to get a decent job after graduate school, and I agree. But this has little to do with the situation in the sciences and engineering, where graduate students go on to a wide range of careers in industry, government, military, and, yes, academia.

Making progress in the hardest science

The name of this blog comes from a talk I gave at the SPSP conference.

The talk was in a training symposium for people starting out in academic psychology. People at various stages of their careers were invited to talk about how we approach research. I titled my talk “Making Progress in the Hardest Science,” and the first third of the talk was a half-serious, half joking explanation of the title.

The idea is that you often hear people arrange the sciences on a continuum from “hard” to “soft,” with physics at the hard end and psychology at the soft end. The implicit message is that the “hard” sciences are more scientific. But that’s not based on anything fundamental or substantive. As best as I can tell, it’s about scienciness. We have these preconceptions and stereotypes about what science is supposed to be about — big fancy equipment, lab coats, etc. But that’s not science. That’s the superficial sheen of scienciness.

What science is is a method of inquiry. In a nutshell, it’s the application of logic to empirical evidence. And by that measure, physics and biology and psychology are equally and fully scientific, because we’re all trying to figure stuff out by systematically gathering evidence and applying logic to it. (Or at least our respective academic versions are. I offer no defense of the Doctor Firstnames in your local bookstore.)

So it doesn’t make sense to try to determine who is more scientific. Instead, what differs is what we are trying to figure out — the phenomena we strive to understand. And here I think the other meaning of “hard” is useful.

What are the “hard” — as in difficult — problems in science? Hard problems in science are those that are embedded in complex systems; they are hard because to study something well you often need to isolate it from outside influences. Hard problems are those that vary by local conditions — science seeks to identify general laws, and when something is locally dependent, you need to sniff out the complex interactions that make it so. And hard problems are those that are difficult to quantify — science rests upon formalization and quantification, and you need to get traction at that initial step of quantification (i.e., measurement) before you can test theories. So… by these measures, if we are going to differentiate areas of science, the continuum of scientific problems should go from “hard” to “easy,” and psychology is clearly a science that deals with hard problems. Perhaps the hardest.

This was mostly intended as cheerleading to an audience of budding academic psychologists, revolving around a debatably clever pun. (I don’t really mean to suggest that physicists and chemists are picking the low-hanging fruit of the scientific disciplines. The low branches were picked clean centuries ago.) But the human mind is an amazingly complicated thing to study, which is what makes psychology so much fun.