Last week, the satirical "news" source The Onion reported that the field of psychology was disbanding as researchers realized they had been studying the mind with nothing but itself.
"We've spent years trying to discern how the mind functions, but today I am forced to admit that this so-called research was nothing more than a fool's errand — and that we people of learning were the greatest fools of all," said American Psychological Association president Nadine Kaslow at a press conference Thursday, flanked by leading figures from all major psychology subfields. "Can the eye watch itself? Can a book read its own pages?"
Of course, philosophers have long recognized and debated the limits of human understanding, and The Onion isn't the first source to see the potential for satire when it comes to studying the mind. In The Devil's Dictionary, published in 1911, Ambrose Bierce defined the mind like this:
MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with.
The solution, suggests The Onion, is to turn to the natural sciences.
Reached for comment, many from the now-dissolved psychology community told reporters that they hoped to redirect their efforts toward other sciences such as physics, chemistry, and geology, fields they hoped would be untainted by the 'inescapable enigma' of consciousness.
"If I can no longer study myself, then so be it: I will pursue that which is concrete and measurable," said Harvard University experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, holding up a quartz crystal before his eyes. "Look at it: Irrefutable. Solid. So unlike the elusive mind."
But here's the rub: As with mind, so with world. We have nothing but the mind to know the world with.
There may be some special issues that arise from the self-reflexive nature of studying the mind (or, perhaps, from any computational system studying itself), but when it comes to limits on human understanding, the natural sciences don't get a free pass. There's no guarantee that the natural world conforms to the contours of our own understanding, and in fact there are plenty of reasons to think it does not. The lesson isn't that we should become hyper-skeptical of physics, chemistry and geology; it's that we should recognize psychology as a peer among the sciences.
So why are we so quick to fault psychology and other social sciences but willing to treat the natural sciences as rock solid?
I think there are two answers — but they don't make the most natural bedfellows. The first answer is that we think psychology is hard. The second answer is that we think psychology is easy.
Psychology is hard because humans are such complex, interacting systems. Psychology is faulted for being messy, for lacking clear, "objective" markers of what it purports to measure, for limited predictive success, and, more recently, for failures to replicate. It's true: Psychology is hard, and we have a lot left to learn.
On the other hand, people sometimes treat psychology as an easy science, a "soft" science, or no science at all.
One set of studies by Frank Keil, Kristi Lockhart and Esther Schlegel found that even kindergartners rated phenomena from the natural sciences (like why light travels faster than sound) as more difficult to understand than phenomena from psychology (like why children learn new languages more easily than grown-ups). The kindergartners — and older children, too — had these intuitions even though, according to adults, the particular phenomena selected were equally difficult to understand. When the children were asked which phenomena could be figured out "on your own just by living and watching things," it was the psychological phenomena that received the highest ratings. The logic seemed to be this: Since psychology can be figured out from our own conscious experience and from casual observation, it must be easy. Who needs "scientific" experts?
The reality, of course, is more complex. I can no more introspect my way to a full understanding of language acquisition than I can of light and sound. Sure, I've "watched" many people learning languages, but I've "watched" even more photons. I've experienced language acquisition firsthand, but I've also experienced digestion — that doesn't mean I can explain peristalsis.
It's ironic, perhaps, that the very thing that makes psychology seem so hard and elusive — our conscious experience — is also what generates the impression that it's easy and transparent, that it's not a science at all.
One reason the humor behind The Onion's spoof works is because we slip so smoothly back and forth between psychology-the-hard (it's so elusive!) and psychology-the-easy (we're such fools!). Physics, chemistry and geology are no less constrained by the limits of the human mind, yet they don't foster these particular caricatures quite so readily.
In the end, I decided to ask the real Steven Pinker what he thought. I wondered if he was prepared, like his Onionized counterpart, to abandon the self-reflexive study of the mind for something "concrete and measurable." Here was his response:
As I say to my intro psych class — after giving them the Bierce quote — the fact that we have nothing but the mind to study the mind with does not prove that psychology is impossible, because no psychologist studies his or her own mind; they each study other people's minds.
The one exception to this rule may be the so-called hard problem of consciousness (namely the existence of subjectivity, as opposed to the equally misnamed 'easy' problem, the computational, evolutionary and cognitive bases of the distinction between accessible and inaccessible information). The 'hard problem' is hard not because it's an intractable scientific challenge, but because it's a conceptual conundrum that we can't think our way out of.
Psychology is, in most ways, like any other science: It tackles easier and harder problems, and it faces empirical and conceptual challenges. It's hard but it's also important. Let's double our efforts, not doubt them.
You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo