In Values in Psychological Science: Re-imagining Epistemic Priorities at a New Frontier, Lisa Osbeck believes we live ‘in an era characterized by extreme and unpredictable global challenge’ (p. 110). As she sees it, the world has recently and drastically changed due to ‘any number of recent threats to human flourishing, [such as] rapid and accelerating climate change, global and domestic terrorism, information warfare, […] the threat of nuclear proliferation, natural disasters of outlandish and devastating proportion, contamination in water and food supplies’ (p. 38), amongst other things. It follows that, for her, we need innovative scientific methods of research that can address these profound matters of human concern. Scientific method as construed on the old positivistic view is not up to the challenge. Positivism is indeed an immoral option (p. 98), with its advocacy of a uniform, value-free methodology (pp. 12–15) and its impoverished understanding of what constitutes an informative observation (pp. 42–7). So, to address the global challenges that she’s identified, we need to reorient our epistemic priorities and engage in ‘more flexible problem solving and interdisciplinary collaboration’ (pp. 11, 39). She motivates this change in priorities by means of an emphasis on the inherent value-ladenness of research. For her, it is this value-ladenness that motivates our methodological decisions, so much so that one can explicitly view methods as value systems (pp. 28–31). Her emphasis in this book is on psychology and its methods, so one might wonder how she makes the connection to the global challenges listed above. On this matter her view is that ‘there are clear psychological dimensions to every problem named’, and it is the responsibility of psychologists to address these problems, just as this it is a responsibility for the rest of us (p. 38).
The bulk of Values in Psychological Science is a detailed description of the methodological changes she thinks we need in order to address our global challenges. These changes she calls the new ‘epistemic priorities’ for psychological, and more generally scientific, research. The priorities she recommends fall under three categories: ‘observing’ (Chapter 3), ‘sense-making’ (Chapter 4), and ‘perspective-taking’ (Chapter 5). As regards ‘observing’, her starting point is a critique of the view that ‘observation provides the evidence upon which theory is grounded’, which she regards as an untenable position since ‘observation repeatedly has been demonstrated as a questionable and unreliable epistemic guide’ (p. 47). Alternatively, she endorses a view of observation that focuses on the ability to be observant, that is, to notice anomalies and recognize the unexpected. In support of this view, she cites the opinions of various philosophers: Ian Hacking, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, and indeed Aristotle. She doesn’t say a great deal about how this capacity for being observant plays a role in meeting the global challenges she cites—but it is relatively easy to see how this would go. Simply observing things without noting how things have changed in drastic ways will not help us meet the problems we face. We have to recognize the challenges before being able to address them. Nevertheless, we are left with the problem of how to trust our ability to be observant of important changes if observation is unreliable to begin with. In this regard she passingly cites the views of Dudley Shapere, who views observers as reliable detection devices (p. 49), but provides no further detail than this.
When it comes to sense-making, her focus is on the value of metaphors and analogies in scientific investigation. Here she cites a number of philosophers and scientists who have emphasized such features, such as Max Black, Paul Thagard, Henri Poincaré, Edward Tolman, and others. She also notes a connection between sense-making and imagination, such as the visual images used in some forms of mathematical problem-solving. On her understanding, the need for imagination in science exhibits a link to literature and the arts, and thus derivatively shows how the latter can play a role in managing our monumental, practical challenges. Of course, what counts as an informative analogy or metaphor in science is a difficult issue to address; similarly, imagination can mislead as well as inform an inquirer. These epistemological questions are worth answering on their own, but especially if we want to solve global crises, as Osbeck hopes. So she could have said more to address these fundamental issues. Her view is that ‘psychology stands to benefit from better understanding of the means by which scientific innovation incorporates analogy and metaphor’ (p. 77). Yet she doesn’t provide any concrete examples of this benefit; rather, she points to how various philosophers have held this sort of view as well.
Finally, as regards perspective-taking, Osbeck spends a significant amount of time heralding the value of interdisciplinary research. With our worldwide problems being so severe, we need a number of angles from which we can deal with them. Her position is to support methodological plurality, but not to such a degree that ‘anything goes’ (p. 96). Furthermore, as inspired by the philosophy of William James, her approach is pragmatic. As she quotes James, the ‘vital question is […] what is the world going to be?’ (p. 101); and it’s that sort of consideration she believes we should use to comparatively assess competing scientific paradigms, with ‘paradigm’ being used in Kuhn’s sense (pp. 93–102). But is interdisciplinarity the panacea Osbeck claims it to be in solving the world’s problems? Some fields are naturally and effectively interdisciplinary, such as bioinformatics and mathematical physics, whereas others are not, such as the combination of chemistry and French literature. So, some consideration on Osbeck’s behalf in determining which kinds of interdisciplinary perspective-takings are valuable for problem-solving, and which are not, would be beneficial—better than just providing blanket endorsements of interdisciplinarity. One also needs to consider the extent to which interdisciplinarity is worthwhile. Multiple perspectives are needed, but exactly how many? As many as possible? Do some perspectives take precedence over the others? Some guidance is needed on these questions.
There is much to commend in Osbeck’s book as regards the scope of its scholarship, dealing with philosophy and the history of psychology on the question of how values impact epistemic issues. Yet the book is neither a philosophy book nor a book on the history of psychology. It is too unsystematic for the latter; there is no displayed historical progression of the views of psychologists. Concerning the former, it doesn’t contain philosophical argumentation. Osbeck characteristically discusses how various philosophers have held views in support of her claimed epistemic priorities—we saw above how she notes that Hacking, Bacon, Kant, and Aristotle all express support for a view of observation as the ability to be observant—but she does not go so far as to analyse the concept of ‘observing’ or defend its purported value. Her reasoning seems to be that a number of esteemed philosophers or other thinkers have held a view, so the view should be strongly considered. This is not necessarily a bad argument, but it is definitely not an argument philosophers would normally find persuasive.
As her concern is the epistemic priorities that should be in place for psychology, one would think that the reproducibility crisis would be at the forefront of her examination. The reproducibility crisis deals with the phenomenon that, in finding and then publishing statistically significant results, psychologists and other scientists have found that these results fail to be reproduced at a striking rate, leading one to wonder how these results passed muster in the first place. The appellation ‘crisis’ is due to the concern, not only that the rate of non-reproducibility is so high, but that such non-reproducible research occasionally serves as the basis for subsequent inquiry, sometimes even for longstanding research programmes. For her part, Osbeck briefly refers to the reproducibility crisis in service of the point that the crisis exhibits the value-ladenness of psychological research (pp. 20–1). More generally, on her view, the use of quantitative methods in psychology is expressive of a set of values, and as psychology encounters ‘new demands’ and ‘new problems’ (p. 30) these methods will need to be modified. It is, though, an open question whether the reproducibility crisis is a product of the values expressed by scientists, and it is an active topic of inquiry what sorts of modifications to the methodology of statistical testing, as well as to the standards relating to the publication of statistical results, need to be put in place for the reproducibility crisis to be solved. My sense is that these sorts of issues, so widely recognized, should be front and centre if we’re going to talk about psychology as ‘frontier science’ and if we’re in the business of the ‘reexamination and reenvisioning’ of psychology’s epistemic priorities (p. 1).
At the end of the book, Osbeck illustrates its themes by examining the opinions and works of William and Henry James. The James brothers, each in their own ways experts in psychology, can be seen to express Osbeck’s favoured three epistemic priorities, and to do so in a markedly interdisciplinary fashion since one is a scientist and the other a novelist. It is a striking illustration of her view of psychology. But what lesson should modern psychologists take from that illustration? The global challenges facing the James brothers were very different from the challenges facing psychologists today, and the field of psychology has changed enormously since the James brothers were writing, with formidable advances in, for example, neuroscience and statistical analysis. Osbeck is correct, nevertheless, to recognize the fruitfulness of such a synergy between science and the arts.
Robert Hudson University of Saskatchewan firstname.lastname@example.org