Review: How to Think Straight about Psychology by Keith Stanovich

How to Think Straight about Psychology is an introductory textbook for psychology students — but it’s also a great introduction to what I might call practical philosophy of science.

A lot of philosophy of science, when it’s under that label, is about things like “Can science be true if it’s socially constructed?” or “How can we prove induction works when we can’t use induction to do it?” I’ve heard it’s largely uninteresting to actual scientists. But there’s something else, too, something I’ve mainly come across in The Skeptic’s Dictionary — and psychology courses at our university, where this book (tenth international edition) is currently required reading. It’s about how science really works, the things you need to understand as a scientist. It’s also about why you need science instead of something else.

How to Think Straight about Psychology is an excellent introduction to these questions, as well as dispelling misconceptions about psychology specifically. It tells, among other things, how the public misunderstands psychology because they think of Freud and science because they think of Einstein. It goes through the basic methods of science in general and how these apply in psychology, and it keeps things colourful by using examples such as the Amazing Randi, Clever Hans the Wonder Horse who was thought to be mathematically able but was actually more of a mind reader, and of course that one guy who proved that a disease was not spread by feces by eating them. Still, these are just flavour, not arguments; everything here is scientifically based, and this is one of the rare places where it’s also made very clear why this matters. Pseudoscience is also discussed and it is shown just why it is so “pseudo-“. And why it is not harmless, either.

While much of the book is a kind of apology for psychology, there is towards the end a small but candid section about when — quite often — psychology itself is unscientific.

I recommend this book for anyone, even if not interested in psychology specifically, wanting to know the “secret” behind the success of science. It illustrates well the point I wrote recently about, that science is largely based on being really suspicious about every putative belief. If only more people understood these things, there would be a lot less nonsense around.

I’m also writing another post as it were in response to something said in this book, about essentialism in science and philosophy.

Rating: 4.5/5


2 thoughts on “Review: How to Think Straight about Psychology by Keith Stanovich

  1. Al de Baran says:

    ” that science is largely based on being really suspicious about every putative belief.”

    Except for those that underpin science itself. Science then sets itself up via special pleading as the one exception, the one true master narrative, which then assumes the truth of its assertions and never examines its own biases and its own limitations as a perspective upon the world. Yes, science really is different from the other ways in which humans engage intellectually with their reality.


    • What do you mean by the beliefs that underpin science?

      Maybe you mean the same kind of assumptions that I think underpin science: things like methodological naturalism, reliance on empirical observation, and what I was talking about here: the implied assumption that unaided human reason and observation are extremely poor guides to the truth, meaning that the use of observation, though vital, is anything but a simple matter.

      First, suppose that it was indeed the case that science made these assumptions without warrant, but at the same time really was very suspicious about every other belief in the sense that I meant above. In that case, science might not be reliable because it would making a few basic assumptions that might not be true. In spite of that, it would still be almost unique among the ways in which humans try to understand reality. The degree of methodological doubt that science applies in practice is highly unnatural to us, and it is seen almost nowhere else. Even in science, it takes the scientific community to apply it — it would be impossible for individual scientists to do it alone. The point is not about being suspicious of “extrascientific” beliefs but every putative belief that science itself might accept. I discuss this more here:

      Secondly: If we talk about an idealised science — which is actually approximated by real-world science, not perfectly but nevertheless — then I don’t think it needs to make any assumptions that there is not a reason to make. I think what I see as the beliefs (or methodological assumptions) that underpin science don’t need any special pleading to be found acceptable. (Unless you count the criticism of “the philosophy of knowledge” by Nicholas Maxwell, which approaches the matter from a different direction.) But here I would need your answer to the question from the beginning before I continue: What do you think are these beliefs that underpin science itself?

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