NLP Is NOT a Science

Nor does it need to be.

Let me explain…

NLP is often described as the “science of excellence” or something like that. I can’t help but think that the people who describe NLP as a “science” know very little about the scientific method (or NLP for that matter) and are often just regurgitated, parrot fashion, something they have heard or read elsewhere.

Anyone that knows anything about the scientific method (or NLP for that matter) would recognise the total absurdity of the statement “science of excellence”!

NLP is not a science, and the sooner we stop referring to it as a science the more respect NLP may have in the wider community. By referring to NLP as a science it opens it up to (fair and just) criticisms that it is just a pseudo-science. A pseudo-science is best described as “a methodology, belief, or practice that is claimed to be scientific, or that is made to appear to be scientific, but which does not adhere to an appropriate scientific methodology, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, or otherwise lacks scientific status” (thank you Wikipedia!). Sound familiar?

Being called a pseudo-science is possible the worst insult a field of enquiry could be given! You may as well call it a scam, a sham a swindle or a fraud (which are other criticisms aimed at NLP too).

NLP doesn’t need to pretend to be a science or scientific. Science is not the only (nor, in some cases, necessarily the best) way of acquiring knowledge (sorry, you “hard” scientists out there, it isn’t). The field of psychology is barely a science as it is (and I say this with a partner who is a psychologist and agrees with me), so expecting NLP (a field on the “fringe” of psychology) to be a science is a big ask.

Firstly lets look at what “science” is; “science” or the “scientific method” refers to a body of techniques for “investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge”.

To be “scientific”, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. It consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.

There is the conviction in the scientific method that the process be objective to reduce biased interpretations of the results.

The best description of NLP I have heard comes from Dr Richard Bandler (who co-created the field, so he should know), who calls it the “study of the structure of subjective experience” or just the “study of subjectivity“. Now, NLP being about subjectivity, it is going to find it very difficult to fully apply the scientific method, which, by definition is about objectivity.

Although NLP shares some of it’s evidence gathering and testing procedure with the scientific method, it cannot, by it’s very nature be rigorously “scientific”. Some critics of NLP would accuse that of being a “cop out” and if NLP is about subjectivity it just means you can do what you want. Which is true, I don’t see it as a “cop out”, I see it as allowing for, and developing flexibility.

That really is the appeal of NLP to me, the way it prescribes a methodology that can (since, by it’s very nature is personal) be applied to any field of endeavour the individual practitioner wishes (but I digress…).

So it seems to me to be height of arrogance and ignorance to accuse NLP of being a science and those that do are deserving of the scorn that is heaped upon them. Sadly these (misguided and ill-informed) individuals have done a massive disservice to the credibility of the field of NLP as a whole.

The sooner we stop calling NLP a science the better it will be, for everyone involved.

Incidentally another basic expectation of a science is “full disclosure” or to document, archive and share all data and methodology so it is available for review and scrutiny by other scientists, allowing other scientist the opportunity to verify results by attempting to reproduce them. How often do you (or other NLPers) rigorously record your experiences and experimentation and allow it to be peer reviewed?

If NLP is not a science, then what is it?

NLP has much more in common with an art or a discipline than a science. I don’t think it is too much of a coincidence that a lot of NLPers are also interested in such things as music or martial arts, as these disciplines have, structurally, a lot in common.

They all have a core basic methodology or process to follow (that defines the discipline), but what makes them what they are is often the individual creativity of each practitioner.

By considering NLP an art, does it make it any less potent or powerful? Well, because it cannot be scientifically “validated” does art have any less power? Would you scoff at the Beatles or tell Mozart he had no talent just because what he did could not be scientifically validated? Of course not, that is a ridiculous idea!

But, by considering and discussing and treating NLP like a discipline we can start to shrug off some of the bad reputation that it has (by making claims that NLP is something that it isn’t – and doesn’t need to be).

Matt

Categories: NLP

About Matt Caulfield

3 Responses to “NLP Is NOT a Science”

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  1. Steve says:

    Hey Matt,

    Glad you brought this topic up and discussed it.

    I'd like to add to what you wrote and go even further.

    Ken Wilber, in my opinion, discusses the notion of science at length and very richly, might I add, in "The Marriage of Sense and Soul".

    Wilber argues that science is an injunction, an instruction set. In other word, the scientific method. A specific set of steps you leverage to investigate something that interests you.

    As such (and now it's me speaking, not Wilber), there is not such thing as "a" science. There are bodies of knowledge developed and assembled through the use of science.

    Biology is not "a" science. It's a body of knowledge, maybe even a doctrine.

    NLP is, likewise, a body of knowledge. Some of its precepts might be the result of the use of science (the scientific method), others not. By that, it means that some of those conclusions have been reached through a repeatable process that anyone can carry out and test for themselves.

    For instance, the use of sensory predicates in language is scientific. Anyone can listen to predicates when someone speaks, and map them back to the senses.

    The eye accessing cues model, on the other hand, isn't scientific knowledge. We have yet to set up an experiment for eye accessing cues that anyone can successfully replicate.

    Many "scientists" affirm that the conclusions that master meditators arrive at aren't scientific. Actually, they are in no position to make such an affirmation. To do so, they would have to follow meditators' injunctions, such as:

    1. Sit on a cushion.
    2. Turn your attention to your breath.
    3. When thoughts come up, just observe them and let them go.

    To argue with a hardcore meditator, you have to follow this instruction set repeatedly over 20 years. You don't do the experiment, you don't get to argue with those who did.

    The interesting piece of NLP isn't the stories or models. It's the unique injunctions we can come up with that matter.