In my last post, I argued that the pseudoscience of parapsychology (and in particular the publication of a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology claiming to provide evidence of precognition) hurts the perception of psychology as a science. This may seem like an obvious argument to make; Bem's paper was published in the flagship journal of social psychology, so it is easy to make the logical jump that this article is representative of the kind of research most social psychologists do. Therefore, the reasoning goes, social psychology is not a real science at all; to quote one comment on the media coverage of the Bem article,
Psychology is such a joke. A demonstration of future events influencing present events would be one of the most important (if not *the* most important) findings in the history of mankind. Yet this demonstration doesn't end up in Science or Nature, but is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology? And some wonder why psychology is still considered pseudoscience....
However, all sciences have their occasional crackpots (in physics, John Baez humorously proposed the Crackpot index to deal with the profusion of physics cranks on Usenet forums). Why should psychology be any more affected by pseudoscientific claims for precognition than physics is by pseudoscientific claims for perpetual motion?
According to a recent paper by Keil, Lockhart and Schlegel, there may be a very good reason that psychology as a field is affected more than physics. Keil and his colleagues argue that psychology findings are afflicted by what I'm calling an "obviousness bias" -- they are viewed as intrinically less difficult to figure out than the findings of other sciences.
Keil and his colleagues took questions from physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and economics. These questions were pre-tested with adults to be equally difficult and span a wide range of topics (see below).
The questions used in Keil, Lockhart, and Schlegel (2010) study 1.
The authors then asked people of various age-groups, from kindergarten up through adulthood, to rate the questions on difficulty from 1 (very easy to understand) to 5 (very hard to understand). The key finding is that while kindergartners viewed the questions from the various sciences as equivalently difficult to understand, children from 2nd to 8th grade viewed psychology problems as much easier to understand than the other problems. This bias disappeared in adulthood (see graph below).
A graph from Keil, Lockhart, and Schlegel of the mean difficulty score assigned to the natural and social sciences across the various age groups.
Note that children have absolutely no basis on which to judge how easy it is to understand why cooked eggs go from liquid to solid or why it is hard to understand two people talking at once. Children have no experience on which to draw when judging the difficulty of these questions and therefore, presumably, rely on heuristics to answer these questions. Thus, the fact that younger children rated psychology questions as less difficult than natural science questions points to a heuristic that makes psychology facts seem more obvious than other sorts of facts.
The authors found an identical pattern of judgments of questions within the various sub-disciplines within psychology; children judged questions from "harder" sub-disciplines, such as neuroscience and cognitive psychology, as more difficult to understand than questions from "softer" sub-disciplines, such as social psychology and personality psychology. Moreover, when the authors asked adults how easy it would be to figure the questions out just by living and watching things, the adults showed the bias as well -- they rated the psychology questions as easier to figure out than the natural science questions.
While the authors do not explore directly whether the obviousness bias translates into psychological findings being taken less seriously than the findings from other disciplines, the authors do show that people assume they can figure out psychological findings on their own. This could very easily lead to a perception that less scientific rigor is required for research psychology than for other sciences -- after all, anyone can do psychology just by experiencing life. This means that anything that reflects on the integrity of psychology as a scientific discipline -- like pseudoscientific work on precognition -- is likely to be especially damaging for psychology.
Keil, F. C., Lockhart, K. L., & Schlegel, E. (2010). A bump on a bump? Emerging intuitions concerning the relative difficulty of the sciences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139, 1 - 15.