Digging Into The Science

Is That Real Science?
My primary intellectual interest is in Social Psychology and related fields. In case that explanation alone isn’t enough to express why I want to do article discussion posts – to talk about our ideas and feelings, and how we’re the same and different, and special and insane – I want to share that one goal is to challenge ourselves to think about something we may not have given a lot of thought to before. Also, to have us all thinking about the same thing, to evoke our unique perspectives and apply them together to learn things and expand our views in a way that is impossible alone. I think that’s the whole point of there being more than one of us on this planet.

Often, the articles that I’ll choose for article discussions will come from peer reviewed journals. That means that before an article is accepted or published, it is reviewed by rival scholars in the field who are both familiar with the research techniques being used, and the topic being examined. So, for the reviewers, though they are generally anonymous, it is in their best interest to be honest and fair in their assessment of the article – for better or worse – because no one wants to stake their professional reputation with the journals (that are likely also considering some of their articles for publication) by unfairly or inaccurately judging the work of a colleague.

Even with the high standards to which social scientists are held by their peers, for some hard science devotees, a critical question remains:

Can you really call Psychology research – science?

When discussing History, or one of the other soft social sciences, the debate can be pretty murky because social sciences deal with the subject of people, and the study of something so varied and complicated rarely results in any one single right answer. Psychology, at least, has the distinction of being grounded in the function of the physical structures of the brain, which are increasingly being illuminated by Neurology, which is more concrete than domains like personality. But, unlike Physics, there is a wider and more uncertain range within which any behavior studied in the Social Sciences can be called predictable or measurable. You, perhaps, have a different word for that, one I’ve heard is: terrifying.

Unless you are married to the idea of a black-and-white world, we must admit uncertainty in everything – most particularly in perception – even of something we think of as being concrete. I would even go so far as to argue that Physics theory itself (compared to experimental data, which is always a little fuzzier than theorists would wish)  is less clear and concrete than a hard-science-enthusiast might be willing to concede (such as is being revealed by the difficulties of confirming the details of the Standard Theory of Particle Physics). Science, of any form, is always struggling to discover what it doesn’t know it doesn’t know, and the degree to which what we know and don’t know is interconnected. You know, easy stuff.

So, then, I assert that the only standard to which “Science” can be measured is by its commitment to the principles of the scientific method, including a willingness to change or abandon your hypothesis when the data indicates it is necessary.

I will ask you to evaluate for yourself the degree to which any research adheres to the Scientific Method; but perhaps it goes without saying, that I believe Psychology, along with the other Social Sciences, hold themselves up to the same scientific standards as those in the hard sciences. We can never know anything perfectly – even Newtonian physics breaks down at the atomic level – but in the Social Sciences we can still get results that are both replicable as well as practical and applicable in a broader population. In short, you can reprove the results, and get good real-world information that people can use to make their lives better; and if we don’t discover all of the hidden secrets of the universe today, well, then there’s always tomorrow.

Getting off my soapbox …

WHERE DO YOU FIND ARTICLES?
The places that I most commonly look for research articles, particularly when I am not affiliated with a university – as I haven’t been for …  a while – are JSTOR and Google Scholar.

JSTOR is an online repository of Social Science research articles from a large number of academic journals. Universities pay big money to obtain full access for their community. But recently, JSTOR has made it possible for anyone not affiliated with a university to get access to a significant portion of their library. In general, that means you’re limited to three articles every two weeks, and you can’t download them, but, that’s a much better deal than you’d get from the journal publishers, who might charge around $30 to download (or just read) a single article. They also have a pretty reasonable subscription program, for more serious unaffiliated scholars, with less restricted access for about $100 per year.

Google Scholar is a special branch of the Google search engine that only searches for peer-reviewed articles. Not every article will have free access, and some only give access to the abstract on the publisher’s website, but for a more general search, Google Scholar is perfect because there isn’t a restriction to the number of free articles that you can access or download when you find them.

If you can get an article citation, many universities still have physical copies of many journals, and access to the libraries and their photocopiers is generally not restricted to the university community. It’s definitely worth exploring.

Our First Journal Article

 I first started writing this post two weeks ago, and have pondered what would make the most exciting article to suggest for discussion. The first article I ended up posting, though very thought provoking, was not a peer-reviewed journal article, so I didn’t want to post it here.

During the last week, the Psychology Research Methods class that I’m sitting in on started to delve into peer-reviewed research articles. Since it’s been a long time since I’ve had a university’s library resources at my disposal … I might have gone a little … I was going to say “overboard,” but really, if there are that many articles that I haven’t read, I think it just means I’m behind in my reading. But, I found a lot. I’m so excited. But, I’m still sorting through it all and couldn’t pick just one, yet.

So, instead of my choosing an article, I’m going to encourage you to explore Google Scholar and JSTOR and find an article about something you find interesting.

Next time, I’ll write a little about the fun articles I’ve been finding, I’ll tell you what I know about digesting peer reviewed research efficiently, and I’ll talk a little about how to evaluate – even within peer-reviewed research – which articles have the most impact in the field, and if that means anything about the value you may or may not take away from an article.

The last thing I’ll ask you to think about as you search for and read your article(s) is, even if the work you’re reading is very specific in scope, imagine how the skill researchers have and continue to develop in doing their work makes them increasingly capable of nuanced and significant discovery. Even if you’re reading about research that does not have immediate or obvious practical applications (think: transistors), can you imagine how it might inspire others to imagine things that never occurred to them before (think: pretty much everything in our world today)?

We live in a web of interconnection, and sometimes we can’t discern something’s significance because it’s so broad that it takes a long time to understand. So, be patient with yourselves as you read, and be patient with the researchers. We’re here to do our best, make mistakes, be compassionate, to get excited and inspire each other to make the most of what we share in this world. The most important tool we have to accomplish all of that is words, words, words, and our mutual striving to share and understand them.


I don’t think this is what Shakespeare intended when Hamlet spoke words, words, words.

I’d love, love for you to comment about what article(s) you find!!

Love you all,

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