Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Psychology Research:Two Tensions for Christians (Part 1)

Sherri LantingaOur guest blogger, Dr. Sherri B. Lantinga, is an academic consultant, editor, and adjunct professor at Handong Global University. You can also read her delightful blogs about being an expat in Korea here: http://korealantinga.blogspot.com/

I taught the senior psychology research course at Dordt College for about 15 years.  Students didn’t want to take it, dreaded taking it, and were sure it would be the worst class in their college career (although History of Psych was a close contender).   They were usually terrified of statistics and/or public speaking, did not feel the joy of APA style, and really wanted to help people by doing counseling–not wasting their time and talents with independent variables and ANOVAs and proper DOI citations.

But I loved teaching the course.  Because I knew something my students didn’t: researching people is really fun (ok, not 100% of the time, but more than they expected).  And I knew that even if they never again came within 10 blocks of a p value, they would turn out the best paper and conference presentation they’d ever done.  In fact, our department staked a fancy steak dinner on it every year.

“Well, that’s nice for Dordt,” you dear Trinity readers may be thinking. “But WE have to reflect on Christian Perspective and, really, what does THAT have to do with the size of t or the insanity program called SPSS?”

Good question–and one I couldn’t answer myself for many years.  But gradually I found at least two sticking points for Christians doing psych research.  The first point I shall get to indirectly.  Imagine that you are in Florida and visiting a local swamp (just go with me here).  Your travel companion wonders aloud: “I wonder.  How many teeth does an alligator have?”* You do not know the answer.  And, lo, there is a dead alligator just yards away!  Do you (a) say “Oh, curious friend, let us adjourn to Disney World and leave behind your strange nature-y questions!”; (b) open the mouth of said gator to count the teeth therein; or (c) repeatedly attempt to access Google or your mom or pastor or anyone wiser than you for the answer?

The method you chose to answer that question (and many other questions in life) reveals something of your beliefs about the proper way of finding truth. (Some of you may suspect we’re nearing the great swamp called epistemology. Fear not.)  In the same way, different academic fields have different preferences for the way they answer questions like these.  By this time you probably know that psychology is a relatively new discipline (Wilhelm! Wilhelm!) that has struggled, like a teenager with bad breath, for respect among its academic peers.  Psychology straddled the line between philosophy and biology for a time, but sometime around Watson and Skinner it opted for scientific, empirical methods for answering questions and booted out the introspective meanderings of Wilhelm and Sigmund and others.  As a result, neither philosophy nor biology respect us because they both think we’re using the wrong methods to learn about human behavior.

Now back to the alligator’s dental situation.  If you chose to count its pointy teeth, that’s akin to using empirical methods: using your senses to make systematic observations to gain knowledge about the world. (And, if you had time on your hands, you could rustle up some other alligators to count their teeth and consider variables like gender, diet, and dental insurance coverage.)  When you, O Student of Psychology, use empirical methods to study human behavior, you don’t just trust Plato or the Bible or Urban Dictionary for answers–you look for yourself (in a systematic and unbiased way, of course).

So where exactly is the darn “sticking point” this essay is supposed to be about? Here it comes. God gave us senses and the brainpower to learn about his creation. Very cool, that. If empirical methods are your only tools for learning about people, you’d be an empiricist. From a Christian perspective, empiricists miss big opportunities for learning about people in other ways, including what God reveals through his Word and his Spirit and the wisdom of other people.  My first-year grad professor at UIC was a dedicated empiricist who sprinkled even normal conversations with zingers like, “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.”  But Christians believe in a much larger universe. Christians believe in unmeasurable things like the twisted power of sin and the redemptive, unceasing movement of the Holy Spirit. We have faith in things we cannot see, as the author of Hebrews reminds us.  Empirical methods are very cool God-given tools; but there are other tools in the bag, too.

Back to our gator one last time.  An empiricist is sort of like someone who counted that dead gator’s teeth, took its measurements, carefully documented the terrain and the goo in its stomach, and then concluded that he/she knew everything there was to know about alligators.  But, of course, this gator is dead: the researcher would have completely missed learning about some of the most important aspect of gators (like how they whirl around to attack the Gator Boys of TV fame).  The field of psychology pushes empiricism in an attempt to get respect from the natural sciences.  But Christians in psychology must remember the bigger picture: our senses don’t give the whole story about people. And thus, from the mouth of a gator, we have one source of tension for Christians doing psychological research; you’ll have to wait for the next episode, about snowflakes, to learn about tension #2.   

**Thanks to Francis Bacon for his teeth-in-the-mouth-of-a-horse analogy in the 16th century.