Science and Professional Practice: Opening a Two-Way Dialogue

Science and Professional Practice: Opening a Two-Way Dialogue

Lindsay M. Anmuth, MA

Psychology is not a unitary discipline. Specifically, the psychological field is often conceptually split into two “cultures”: the scientists and the humanists. This dichotomy reflects the field’s academic and practice-oriented traditions. Each of the two camps (scientist and humanist) can be defined in terms of what their proponents tend to value. An extremely scientifically minded individual values empirical support. Such individuals remain critical of information that is not gathered through controlled and data-driven means. They use empirical methodology to test various phenomena and to reveal what they consider to be objective truth. An extreme humanist, on the other hand, values the human experience. Such individuals value theory and intuition and are less interested in empirically testing that which they propose. They do not believe that it is possible, or necessary, to access objective truth, as truth can only be perceived through a subjective human lens. Instead, they value subjective experience and practical significance.

These value differences are reflected in the current status of the psychological field. Specifically, many academicians have rigidly adopted the notions of the scientific camp and, as such, value “pristine” methodologies that are poorly generalizable to the actual human experience. On the other hand, professional psychologists have experienced a wealth of tension. Many professionals seek training in applied psychology as a result of a drive to improve the human condition. However, much of them are then trained to utilize treatment approaches that do not accurately capture their clients’ problems and are less than effective. Further, many professional psychologists tend to wonder what happened to the subjective human experience as well as the rich theories that so attracted them to the field in the first place.

For these reasons, the two camps tend to conflict with one another instead of appreciate their complementarity. The psychological field is in a current state of fragmentation as well as an epistemological tension. The scientists are frustrated with the fact that clinicians are not practicing according to the utmost empirical support. At the same time, clinicians are frustrated with the lack of sophistication in empirical methods as well as with the limitations of deriving claims about the human experience from randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Each has valid concerns and, if they ceased to “double-down” on their own scientific or humanistic values, they might find complementarity and value in one another.

I believe that the argument boils down to the fundamental value of either objective or subjective truth. The scientist believes that objective truth exists and, though he might have his doubts, if the clinician were to demonstrate the “objective” efficacy of, for instance, humanistic therapy for depression, he would acknowledge that. However, the clinician, if she were truly humanistically oriented above all else, would never conduct such a study. Broadly, she does not believe that it is necessary and so she is not interested. Further, she would not value the results of an RCT anyway.

The scientists and humanists represent uniquely valuable perspectives and many believe that they should come together for the sake of cumulative knowledge; however, in order to do so, they should not double-down on their own positions when speaking to one another. After all, the point of an academic debate is not necessarily to determine which is the winner and which is the loser, but to challenge each opponent to consider new ways of thinking, require them to flesh out their ideas in greater depth, and to see if a consensus may be reached, so that the audience may leave with an insightful new view. Because of the tension in the field of psychology, however, the arena has been characterized by direct competition and polarization.

If we actually delved into the structure of each camp’s value system, however, would we really find such irreconcilable differences? Just over 30 years ago, a landmark article, (Kimble, 1984) sought to study whether or not the field of psychology is really so dichotomized. Kimble (1984) administering a self-report questionnaire of 12 distinct values to students, researchers, and professional psychologists. The 12 values were proposed to be at the core of the scientist-humanist dialectic. Results suggested that some more established members of the psychological field were more aligned to one of the sides, either scientific or humanistic; however, a great polarization appeared not to exist. In fact, in the undergraduate student sample, there appeared to be no polarization at all.

With all of this considered, many would like to see the scientists and humanists step outside of their own camps, open up their structures, and listen to one another. Perhaps practitioners might engage in a greater amount of research. Perhaps researchers might consider more practical and real-world methods of conducting effectiveness trials, such as including participants with comorbidities, those with historically excluded presentations, and in other settings such as laboratory and academic centers. Either way, in coming together, we might stand to improve professional practice and psychological science alike, as well as amass a greater body of shared, collected knowledge.

Lindsay M. Anmuth, MA
Doctoral Candidate, Combined-Integrated Clinical & School Psychology
James Madison University



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