The Scientific Approach - A Dead
M. Burckhardt, Ph.D.
Although psychology has established itself firmly in the world of science,
its causal determinism and reductionist approach is being questioned by
renowned professionals of all shades and colors today. The singular focus
on empiristic data gathering, of quantifiable behavior and sometimes
overvalued statistics have for a long time obscured the object of
psychological research - the human mind and spirit in all their
complexities: a systemic entity of often unknown properties.
The European author Arthur Koestler sure had a point when he stated in The
Misery of Psychology 1, as early as 1975, that the dilema of modern
psychology was the
"attempt to explain the irrational with rational means".
Feeble attempts to re-define a more comprehensive view with focus on the
healing aspect of psychology as a holistic experience of the whole human
being have usually been answered with "Quit wasting your time!"
and "Get back to science!".
This is not to say that experimental empiristic psychology shouldn't have
an important place in the overall order of things, and scientific
psychology has been able to produce wonderful insights, valuable data, and
instruments that help tremendously in our everyday therapeutic experience.
But the almost obsessive-compulsive fixation on reductionistic research
(part of our own anxiety management?) has sometimes left the practitioner
with a vast amount of unchartered data, of scattered results of test and
trials, and it was only recently that efforts are being made to focus on
the patterning of the elements.
Since Sigmund Freud and his immediate followers (Anna Freud, Karen Horney,
Robert Jung, Adler et.al.), no attempt - especially since the behaviorists
took over most of the departments and institutes of psychology all over
the planet - to remap what he had called Psyche into a model of the mind
as a dialectic, interactive system has been successful, and the few
serious ones have been belittled and sneered at in the
We were able to read the other day that the late Roger W. Sperry , the
venerable guru of CalTech in his acceptance speech of the APA Lifetime
Achievement Award about The Future of Psychology acclaimed the recent
changes in perspective when he found that
"We no longer seek
ultimate nature of reality within the smallest physical elements, nor in
their innermost essence. Instead the search is redirected to focus primarily
on the patterning of the elements, on their differential spacing and timing
and the progressive compounding of patterns of patterns, and on their
evolving nature and complexity." (2)
Every serious student of
psychology organizing his first test arrangement becomes painfully aware of
the fact that in order to deliver conscientious, reliable, and valid results
in experimental psychology, the variables of the setup have to be kept in
check. To achieve that goal the complexity of the human condition has to be
excluded from the test array, because in "real life situations" the
number of variables approaches the infinite, tending to potentially render the
test data invalid. And validity is a question of definition in the first
The hypnotized stare at "data" mostly forgets what lies beneath the
data on the meta level, i.e. what the data actually mean. Not only are
these data taken as empiristic, scientific results--which they are not, but
also is the basic meaning lost. A correlation coefficient of say
.75 is taken as a meaningful statement about a person's psychological
functioning--which is isn't. It is not, because one of the crucial
requirements of natural sciences is its quality to be replicated anywhere with
exactly identical results. The results of the overall statistic may be the
same as a mere number value, but they are by no means "identical",
not by a long shot. 30 Ampere is always 30 Ampere, whereas r=.75 does
not equal r=.75 with a different population and not even with the same
But digging deeper into test theory and the theoretical concept that underlies
the "scientific approach" would take several articles in itself and
surely exeed the frame of this one.
The excruciating task of the practitioners, the women and men at the
frontline, remains to take the bits and pieces of the puzzle and try to
reconstruct the elements into a complex whole - and sometimes the people at
the frontline are simply overwhelmed. A fair amount of the therapist's
frustration in everyday encounters of the first kind - the therapeutic
relationship - has been the lack of help and support in this ardous task.
But is there light at the end of the tunnel? Basically, more and more
professionals realize the limitations of the traditional approach to mental
illness where it actually should read mental health. They feel, and I
with them, that the old Newtonian causal model of "cause and effect -
actio est reactio" as a one way street which, although valid in detail,
does not apply to the system as a whole, especially to a system as complex as
a human being in general and to the beautiful and sometimes threatening
configuration of the human mind in particular.
Thus the reductionist causal analysis of scientific phenomena has to be
suplemented by a systemic dialectic synthesis, because what we as
practitioners see in our office is the synthesis of all the atomistic details.
And, no surprise, this synthesis looks complete and utterly different from
what we would expect from scientific data alone. Our task thus
remains to put the pieces together and target our treatment efforts towards
I am well aware that "dialetic" is one of the dirty words in the
United States of America, the home of scientific psychology, because of its
Marxist connotation. However, great philosophers like Plato and
Hegel have developed the method of dialectic thought long before Marx, and
thus the method can be applied today without the ristrictions and baggage
imposed by the Cold War; and the end of the ideological dichotomy with the end
of the "realm of evil" may make it possible even for the most astute
positivistic thinker to use the term and the implied methodology in an
unprejudiced and value free way. And some have already done so, e.g.
Marsha Linehan with her dialectical variation to cognitive behavioral therapy
The dialectic approach however demands heuristic and hermeneutic methods in
its quest for the truth. The humanities have arrived at their theories
and models using this way for millennia and we have now the opportunity of
applying their integrative and synthetic properties to develop comprehensive
models and theories of mental illness and mental health as an interrelated
body of internal and external elements that constitutes the human mind.
We have to finally acknowledge that removing elements - even peripheral ones -
and observing them in isolation in a "clean" scientific environment
may unintentionally falsify the results by not integrating them in their
natural environment, and by observing the old cause and effect paradigm of the
single part rather than their interaction with the whole and vice versa.
If I keep variables out--for scientific purity, any variable introduced later
will skew the picture. The alcoholic in the test lab may show
significant improvements in his data. Enter the disgruntled wife/husband at
home as an extrinsic variable and kaboom the test results sail out the window.
However, we will need to continue the scientific way to be able to distinguish
and scrutinize the parts of the whole and understand their intrinsic function
and their uniqueness in the overall picture, but we will also have to admit to
the limitations of the empiristic methodology: We have to go the
dialectic way when we are trying to understand, because the human condition is
not reproducible in a test environment in a laboratory in spite of the
optimistic remarks of B. F. Skinner to the contrary half a century ago.
And isn't it understanding we want?
A new emphasis on understanding the whole as an intricate web of elements
interacting dialetically may actually enrich psychology and allow for
courageous new concepts and interpretations and may bring back those precious
components of the human mind that many of us feel lacking in behaviorist and
"single track" empiristic science: creativity, intuition and maybe
As therapists we have to look at the system, find the dialectically
interrelated "faulty" parts and try to reintegrate and readjust them
as components of a wonderfully organized whole. Thus we have to finally
accept the idea that the parts (traditonal psych. science) are nothing without
the system and that the "Gestalt" (holistic approach) is nothing
without its components. And as other sciences like e.g. physics had to
acknowledge some time ago that they are limited to answering the question
"How?" and that empiristic methodology cannot even attempt to answer
the question "Why?" as so many renowned scientists have come to
admit (i.e. Heisenberg, Einstein, von Weizäcker). They also turned to
heuristic models and theories of interpretation. Psychology as a science and a
humanity will have to make that change or else be stuck in a meaningless
mountain of data. But if we are reading the writing on the wall
correctly, we can be very optimistic about the future of a subject we have
come to love - psychology.
After all Psychology remains an Art even if it utilizes scientifc methods
This is essentially the philosophical background we bring to counseling.
We are trying to be intermediates between the parts and the whole and consider
an idea of balance of utmost importance for a person's mental and emotional
well-being. Integration of diverging components as well as finding a healthy
balance between defense mechanisms that protect and defenses that are
1. Koestler Arthur, Das Elend der Psychologie, Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg
2. American Psychologist, Vol. 50, No 7, 506
M. Burckhardt, Ph.D.
Universities: Eberhard-Karls Universität Tübingen, Germany;
University of Kent, Canterbury, GB; Université de Genève, Geneva, CH.
Degrees: BA in History and Social Siences, MA in English
Language Arts, Dipl.-Psych. in Clinical Psychology, Ph.D. in
Psychology (Behavioral Sciences)
Born in the last year of World War II in Germany; raised in Glengarry,
Scotland and Heilbronn, Germany. Educated in Germany, Switzerland, England and
the United States. Married with two sons and one daughter.
17 years employment by the State of Baden-Württemberg, Germany as a high
school teacher, school psychologist and assistant professor.
Presently employed by the WA State Department of Corrections as a
psychologist, performing forensic testing and assessment tasks and providing
clinical services to inmates in the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) a high
security maximun custody environment at the Washington Corrections Center in
Shelton, WA, the receiving end of this correctional system.
treatment modality is a one-on-one psychodynamic approach that combines
elements of many different schools from Rogerian to CBT, Jungian to EMDR. Main
focus is always the individual in need of therapy and intervention and not the
confines of a slavish treatment concept.
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