Posted by: Adam Kay | February 13, 2012

Nick Michalak: Thoughts on scientific rigor in the behavioral sciences

{Editor’s note: This semester, UST senior Nick Michalak is doing an independent study in which he is reading and writing about prominent books in Biology that are written for a general audience (the “lay public”). Here is the first of his entries.]

Nick Michalak getting some inspiration

Nick getting some inspiration

I’m mingling at a New Year’s party this past December, when the host calls me over to chime in on a discussion her fiancé and his friend are having. I bounce over, we exchange niceties, and the fiancé’s friend confidently states, “Psychology is a soft science.” He’s a chemical engineer, proud of his role as a “hard” scientist, and he goes on to say that, “You can ask a chemist to make a certain amount of a specific compound, and he can cook up almost exactly that amount. Psychology just doesn’t have that kind of predictive power.”

I’ll spare you the details of our mostly half-baked exchanges. I do, however, want to highlight this notion of predictive power in science. Yes, a pharmaceutical engineer can take raw materials and tell you almost exactly how many kilograms of a medicinal compound he can make. A behavioral scientist can only approximate how many people will purchase that compound, and actually take it. You can say the same about the guy behind the Subway counter making sandwiches, and the party planner pondering how many people to order for. In the scientists’ case, to say that the engineer’s prediction of yield is more accurate than the behavioral scientist’s prediction of the target group’s consumption isn’t wrong, but I think the distinction is redundant. It’s redundant because these scientists are answering different questions. Electrical currents, organic compounds, vaccines, car engines, and bridges behave more predictably than do critters and people. Or maybe animal behavior is just as predictable, but the large variance in individual differences (e.g., personalities, physical traits) and features of specific environments (e.g., food sources, mating opportunities) make the task a little messier. When push comes to shove, this predictive power that people like to underscore in the old and tiresome hard science/soft science dichotomy is actually confined within the parameters of different scientific disciplines; these parameters are set by the questions these disciplines tend to answer best.

My interest in this topic was reignited when I began reading Robert Sapolsky’s book, The Trouble with Testosterone: and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament1. In his introduction, Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford, explains that behavioral biologists are trying to understand bad behaviors by exploring connections between the body and the mind. Is anti-social behavior the result of differences in neuroanatomy, hormones, genetic abnormalities, drugs, or even junk food? Or are bad behaviors simply the result of bad people? Are diagnoses like depression or attention deficit disorder just euphemisms for sulking and “being a kid”, or are there underlying chemical imbalances and connections within the brain that are producing debilitating differences in thought, emotion, attention, and the like? If the mind is the product of our bodies and our brains (it is), then questions about people, about individualities, generalities, limits, and potentials, ought to be within the scope of not just behavioral scientists, but also natural scientists.

This common ground isn’t just easy to miss; it’s a little unsettling. Sapolsky nails it on the head when he says, “It’s easier to determine how birds navigate while migrating or how muscle fibers contract than to answer a question like ‘Is there a genetic basis to criminality?’” Chemistry, biology, and physics seem so controlled, so distant until we begin talking about them in relation to behavior. Biology is over there, but behavior…no, that’s over here. Don’t challenge our sense of autonomy with your lab coat sciences. Of course, there’s no denying the vast complexity in how people behave in comparison to how body parts work. There are just so many more variables. This is why we’ve known about the structure and circulation of the heart since the 18th century, but we still have to question whether macroeconomists can help us prepare for a financial meltdown within a practical timeframe. But, as I’ve mentioned, these facts can be used to make silly distinctions. An anatomist or a cardiologist knows more about hearts than an economist knows about the consequences of binning the Euro in Greece. So what? The cardiologist can’t answer the economist’s problems any better, certainly not with the latest literature on heart malformations or gene therapy.

I’m not exactly sure of how a heart specialist and an economist can team up (pulmonary-economics?), but I do know that different disciplines within science offer tools that can be used to tackle complex human behavioral questions. Sapolsky’s book is a compilation of essays illuminating how biologists attempt to answer some of these questions. His goal is to bring good science to the general reader because, “When science works right, it is an amazing thing to behold—it provides us with some of the most elegant, stimulating puzzles that life has to offer. It throws some of the most provocative ideas into our arenas of moral debate. And occasionally, it even improves our lives.” I’ll continue to blog about the topics he addresses with this appreciation for science in mind, and it’s my hope that at the very least, your evaluations aren’t muddied with the idea that science deals only with exact, “hard” answers. Science deals with questions. Let’s see how biology deals with questions about behavior.

  1. Sapolsky, R. M. (1997). The Trouble with Testosterone: and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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