While there are many factors that distinguish between scientific and unscientific theories in psychology, we’ll focus on one of the most central ones here in PSH100. That distinction is between two types of hypothetical constructs; empirical constructs and non-empirical constructs. Hypothetical constructs are agents or factors that are hypothesized (guessed) to cause one or more aspects of human cognition, emotion, or behavior. These are “educated guesses” as to what might determine some aspect of human psychology, and they are called “hypothetical” because they are based on speculative (in fact, sometimes very little) evidence. All scientific theories are built through successively better and better hypothetical constructs, and they are a necessary part of the hypothesis generating and testing process of the scientific method.
Empirical means real, tangible, observable, and testable. Thus, empirical constructs (ECs) are hypothetical constructs based on real evidence, and which eventually can be tangibly defined, observed, and measured using the scientific method. Just as importantly, incorrect empirical constructs can eventually be non-verified, proven not to be true causal agents, and thus discarded by the scientific method. (This is one important reason why the scientific method is self-correcting.)
On the other hand, non-empirical constructs (NECs) are hypothetical constructs that — intentionally or unintentionally — cannot be tangibly defined, observed, measured, or tested. They are in every meaningful sense unreal, like a figment of someone’s imagination. Not surprisingly, such NECs do not lend themselves to objective testing, or disproof. NECs’ glaring weaknesses are that they can never be proven true, and cannot contribute to valid understandings or make useful predictions, and thus have no scientific use. For naive or unscrupulous theorists and believers, however, NECs can also never be proven to be untrue. If one has other motives or agendas, one can believe in such constructs forever! Psychology students and humanists can take no greater step forward in their understanding and development than to learn the difference between theories based on valid, useful, empirical constructs, and those based on invalid non-empirical constructs.
Just because we are advocating science to you as by far the best means to answer questions about human psychology — or any other natural phenomena — we must also note that science is also very careful and conservative in its claims. Science never claims to have the “final answer” or “total truth” because there is always the possibility — no matter how small — that some as yet undiscovered law of nature will intervene, and the best scientific knowledge of today will be disproven tomorrow. For example, five hundred years ago most scientists didn’t believe in meteorites. According to the Newtonian physics of that day, stones were too heavy to be up in the air, so how could they fall out of the air?! Of course, meteorites are real, but they are subject to natural laws of weightlessness in space unknown to scientists of that day.
Similarly, up until the 20th century, many taught that a terrible form of psychosis called general paresis was God’s punishment for “wantonness,” because many of its victims led promiscuous lives. Through scientific study, it was shown that general paresis was caused by syphilitic infections reaching and damaging the brain. So while the scientific explanation still carried a warning regarding unprotected sex, it wasn’t supportive of the “God’s wrath” hypothesis. (Just as science doesn’t support many religionists’ claims that AIDS is “God’s wrath” against homosexuals.) In fact, one of psychology’s greatest achievements in the 20th century has been finding the natural, organic causes for psychopathologies that were previously believed to have been “functional” (of unknown, non-physical causes).
So even though science provides the best answers to any question, its answers are cautiously stated in probabilities or confidence levels; e.g., “We’re 95% [or 99%+] confident that this answer is correct.” Ironically, other less rigorous methods of answering questions are much less likely to be correct, yet they paradoxically claim to be the “absolute truth.” Theistic religion, for example, claims to answer questions by “supernatural revelation” or “sacred dogma” — and cries “blasphemy” or “heresy” if anyone dares to question those flawed answers — but it can almost never provide logical reasons or credible evidence to prove its claims. Unlike science, most religious answers are not falsifiable; i.e., they are conceptualized and stated using supernatural terms and non-empirical constructs (i.e., imaginary causal variables) for the specific purpose of not being testable. In fact, when religionists provide testable and disprovable explanations or predictions, they are usually proven to be wrong! Thus when their explanations or predictions fail — as they routinely do — religionists simply make up another hypothetical construct to try to explain the failures away. This “circular reasoning” leads nowhere, but it is highly valued by religionists because it is technically not disprovable by science.
Given a choice between the hard won “best answers” provided by science, or easier but functionally sterile answers by “mystical” means, we should choose science every time!