Assorted aphorisms and slogans

Thoughts from David Clarke (full online version).

Over my 40 years as a social and applied psychologist at the University of Nottingham I built up a list of aphorisms (mostly) relating to psychology. Just a light-hearted piece, but perhaps a conversation-starter?

  • The essence of the natural sciences is taking things to bits to see what they are made of; the essence of psychology is piecing things together to see what they are part of.
  • Classical science teaches us that the whole derives its properties from the parts; but now we are increasingly dealing with phenomena where the parts derive their properties from the whole.
  • Experimental Psychology is to life, as chess is to war.
  • It is much better to understand what you don’t fully remember, than to remember what you don’t fully understand. (For exam purposes especially.)
  • The methods we typically use in research are designed to elicit from people the information we need for our purposes; not to provide them with the information they need for their purposes.
  • The scientific way to peel an onion is to start in the centre, and remove one layer at a time until you reach the outside. (This refers to the strategy in ‘hypothetico-deductive science’ of jumping imaginatively to the heart of what you want to discover, and then systematically working back, by logical inference, to the things that can be observed in order to check.)
  • A new PhD student has to learn to work various important pieces of equipment effectively. One of them is called a supervisor.
  • Sometimes our narrow conception of scientific ‘rigour’ leaves us with nothing but problems we can’t solve on the one hand; and problems that are not worth solving on the other.
  • Hypothesis testing research can be focused on things you care about (although they may turn out to be untrue). Inductive, or data-driven, research picks out everything it can find that is true (although they may turn out to be things you don’t care about).
  • If I lived on a hill and wanted to see further, I would build a tower on the hill. I wouldn’t build my tower in the valley, and hope that one day it would be even taller than the hill. (What we know as scientists should be designed to complement what we know as ordinary people; not substitute for it.)
  • Planning your research career is about choosing a method, not choosing a problem. Choosing a method that is wrong (for you) means choosing the wrong life. Choosing a problem that is wrong just means you have some reading to catch up on.
  • I spent the first half of my career trying to make simple things seem complicated; and the second half trying to make complicated things seem simple.
  • Doing science is like making a map. And like a map, science needs to be accurate, complete, consistent, coherent, up-to-date, and so on. But in spite of all that, like a map, it can still be useless in practice, if it is lacking the little red arrow labelled "You are here". (We need to frame our scientific version of psychology in such a way that we can see where it links up with ordinary life experience.If we (as psychologists) cannot take account lay-people's beliefs in what we do; why should they take account of our beliefs in what they do?
  • A good lecture does not just convey information; it brings it to life, showing what it means, why it matters, why it is interesting, fun, and (sometimes) funny.
  • If we (as psychologists) cannot take account lay-people's beliefs in what we do; why should they take account of our beliefs in what they do?
  • A good lecture does not just convey information; it brings it to life, showing what it means, why it matters, why it is interesting, fun, and (sometimes) funny.
  • A person with an overly restrictive view of research methods may find that only the trivial is tractable.
  • All (exceptionless) generalisations are wrong. (And of course this is one.)
  • Events (at least as they are treated in sequence analysis) are like beads on a string - they come in all shapes and sizes; but they do not overlap, merge, leave gaps, or occur in parallel.
  • It is better to be thought-provoking than to be right (in academic debate, sometimes, in the long run).
  • Methods which are usually used to describe patterns in time can interesting be applied to patterns in space (eg Power Spectral Analysis and Fourier Analysis); and conversely methods which are usually used to describe patterns in space can interesting be applied to patterns in time (eg state spaces and transition maps).
  • Neural network modelling is a technique for turning problems we don't understand into solutions we don't understand.
  • People don't react to what is happening around them, but to what they think is happening around them.
  • Psychology is full of rigorous studies and important issues, although sadly it is often the case that the rigorous studies don't deal with important issues, and the studies of important issues are not very rigorous.
  • Science is not just 'the art of the possible', but the art of making things possible.
  • Students who get C-range marks and want to improve should spend more time reading; students who get B-range marks and want to improve should spend more time thinking.
  • The brain is a time machine: It sees the world (largely) in terms of rates, durations, frequencies, sequences, and phase relations.
  • The brain wears its heart on its sleeve. (Many key functions are carried out in relatively superficial structures which are accessible by techniques like TMS - Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.)
  • The three most important things are faith, hope, and clarity; but the greatest of the three is clarity. (For writers of PhD theses and the like. After Paul's first letter to the Corinthians 13:13)
  • There are no right answers, only good answers. (Also mainly for exam purposes.)
  • To people trained in the natural sciences, sequence analysis seems so basic they can’t see the novelty; to people trained in psychology it seems so radical they can’t see the point. (The basic idea behind Behaviour Sequence Analysis is the ‘Markov Chain’, dating from around 1906.)
  • Two thirds of psychology is common-sense, and the other third is nonsense. (This only applies to certain parts of the discipline, and I am not going to say which I think those are!)
  • When you go into a lecture theatre and get ready to speak, remember two things: (1) lecture, and (2) theatre.
  • You can’t do ‘static science’ on a dynamic phenomenon, unless you locate a ‘stationary’ level of description or abstraction. (For instance, the position of an object free-falling under gravity does not make an enduring finding – the position keeps changing. Its speed does not make an enduring finding – the speed keeps changing. But its acceleration does make an enduring finding, a ‘law of nature’ – the acceleration is always the same.)

David Clarke
Emeritus Professor
University of Nottingham

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