Should psychology be written for the layman or should it be exclusive for scientists?

Firstly I would like to address a concern with the question in hand, ‘layman’ and ‘scientists’ should not be viewed as separate entities, but opposite ends of the same continuum. Individuals fortunate/unfortunate enough (you decide!) to be included under the umbrella of ‘Scientists’ were not born ‘Scientists’, but a lay person, no different from anyone else.  They may have benefitted from inherited genotype that has flourished throughout their development in environments belonging to science, and may have developed phenotypic qualities that distinguish them from the general population: such as a higher level of IQ, an increased vocabulary, and a preference to have their trousers pulled excruciatingly high! But the aforementioned points should not, and cannot hand them the exclusivity to psychological research.  There is a lot of research in the field that is largely beneficial to the ‘average-Joe’, for example, during our Social Psychology module last Semester we were introduced to literature that is invaluable as it can be fully applied to Job Interviews, for example Asch’s (1946) discovery of central and peripheral traits, Kelley’s (1955) ‘personal constructs’ and other valuable tools to be employed such as implicit personality theories and cognitive algebra. Literature such as this, during an economic recession alike the one we are experiencing now, could give the ‘average-Joe’ a fighting chance when applying for jobs and being interviewed.  It is blatant that the main barrier to entry for the layman is without doubt, to me, the lack of parsimony (there is some irony in the word parsimony, not being parsimonious surely!) in many research papers.

Throughout my time as an undergraduate, I have encountered vast numbers of reports in which the content is illegible as the result of overused jargon and long-winded explanations, which are seemingly inappropriate considering all undergraduates, can be considered ‘laypeople’ to begin with.   I fully understand that in certain circumstances only scientific words are befitting, and I also realise that the APA stipulates that you write scientifically and posits guidelines for the field.  But what ever happened to Occam’s razor?  Is Psychological research becoming overly concerned with is reputation as a ‘pseudo-science’ in the broader field of science?

Occam’s razor is named after William of Occam, who first wielded his famous razor against “the superfluous elaborations of his Scholastic predecessors”. In its original form, it states that “Nunquam ponenda est pluralitas sin necesitate,” which, approximately translated, means “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity” (Tornay, 1938).

His principle of parsimony has since been “incorporated in the methodology of experimental science in the following form: given two explanations of the data, with all else being equal, the simple explanation is preferable” (Blumer et al., 1987).  Occam’s razor is often considered one of the fundamental tenets of modern science, (Domingos, 1999) when applied, it makes experimental research easier for people (both scientists and laypeople) to understand, remember and use.  Blumer et al. (1987) provide us with some explanation as to the circumstances by which the razor should be used, consider the phrase “with all else being equal”.  The aforementioned phrase corroborates a point made in the introduction of this blog, when researchers are faced with many ways of explaining the same phenomenon they should opt for the most parsimonious explanation; converse to an explanation that appears to have heavily featured the use of a thesaurus.  The use of parsimonious explanations in these circumstances would largely benefit the ‘layperson’ without any loss of meaning; which is undoubtedly important as simplicity and comprehensibility are not always equivalent (Domingos, 1999).

To summarise, it is highly pretentious to consider scientists and laypeople as ‘separate entities’, as every scientist began their career as a layperson; indicating the existence of a continuum of some sort.  Research can feel off-limits for the majority of laypeople, and there are barriers haltering their access to the research.  The main barrier is the overly complex explanations of phenomena, and the lack of parsimony.  Occam’s razor stipulates that when all else is equal, one should opt to use the means of explanation that is the clearest, and simplest. 

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4 thoughts on “Should psychology be written for the layman or should it be exclusive for scientists?

  1. I completely agree with you – I definitely think that psychology should be written so everyone can understand it.

    I’ve found a lot recently that the only way in which the ‘layman’ is exposed to research in a way it can be easily understood is when it is reported on blogs, newspapers, magazines etc. The problem with this is it is often a sensationalised version of the research and often not an accurate representation of what actually happened. Quite often, I think that the layman should be able to have easy access to research so as they can see what is happening. The research could be of a benefit to some people, however it is sometimes in such a way it is almost impossible to make sense of.

    It has become apparent recently that even with nearly two years of reading papers in Uni, there a still some which are hard to read and make sense of. Occam’s Razor certainly needs to be applied to many papers.

    In short, research should be written so it is accessible to everyone, not just an elitist group of scientisits.

  2. I do agree that, as an undergraduate in the process of becoming a scientist, some of the material we have to read and understand can appear far too complex and difficult to understand. Furthermore the “scale of high trousers” was the best metaphor I have seen on the subject!

    However I must say I do believe there are tangible benefits to using complex language. I believe that as the complexity of your definitions goes up, so does the level of understanding that will be achieved once the person reading understands what is being said. An extreme example, if you were conducting research into the V1 layer of the brain and were asked to describe “in layman’s terms” what it is you do, you could simplify your answer to “I look inside heads”. The level of detail conveyed is very low and the person you are speaking to will understand relatively little about what it is you actually do. If however you were to begin to describe your research at the level of complexity you might expect in a research paper then (well the person you were talking to would probably fake call themselves and leave but if they didn’t…) you may be able to pass on a level of understanding to that person that they may not have sought out themselves.

    I do not believe that keeping language at a high level of complexity is a show of elitism, as some blogs on this topic seems to have suggested. I believe that it is necessary for the high level of scientific research to continue. Yes, Occam’s razor does say that we should simplify. If, however, by simplifying you leave out crucial information that another researcher looking into your work misses, then it is holding back the development of the field. Perhaps it is leaving some people behind but in all honesty, I would bet that most laymen do not want to spent their spare time reading research papers. If their interest is high enough on the field then perhaps they will put in the extra legwork to understand what it is they are interested in.

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