Tuesday, May 22, 2012

When B.F. Skinner Became a Joke


William F. Buckley begins an interview of B.F. Skinner by noting that Skinner has "just written a book announcing that we will have to do away with individual freedoms and throw away the 'superstition' of the dignity of man."

B.F. Skinner himself is right there and does not deny that this is his thesis in Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

Of course, by this time Skinner was on the fast track to becoming a punchline.

Overly-lauded for training pigeons, rats and a few chickens to do a few simple tricks in the 1930s, his ego had swollen to the size of a Macy's Parade float, and he began to over-generalize and pontificate on things he knew absolutely nothing about, writing a Utopian novel (Walden II) shortly after WWII, and then capping that with Beyond Freedom and Dignity in 1971.

And the result? Behaviorism became a bit of a joke.

Where did Skinner go wrong? Right at the beginning. Skinner decided, based on his work with pigeons, rats and chickens, that all animals were little more than empty boxes with external inputs. According to Skinner, living things were simply a fleshy response system to stimuli. Since every animal is little more than an empty black box, no animal should be given credit or blame for choices and behaviors, as no animal has real free will or real choice. According to Skinner, animals are simply automatons programmed by outside stimuli.

Of course this is not entirely true, as anyone who has worked with instinctive traits knows, but by the mid-1960s Skinner did not really care if it was entirely true. What did it matter that his provocative-sounding pseudo-scientific statements about human behavior were not backed up by actual science? Skinner's work was now in the philosophy and fiction sections of the book stores -- that was what he was selling!

 Beyond Freedom and Dignity was one of Skinner's last bits of prattle, and it was effectively eviscerated by Noam Chomsky who noted in The New York Review of Books ( December 30, 1971) that: 

Skinner's science of human behavior, being quite vacuous, is as congenial to the libertarian as to the fascist. If certain of his remarks suggest one or another interpretation, these, it must be stressed, do not follow from his "science" any more than their opposites do. I think it would be more accurate to regard Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity as a kind of Rorschach test. 

Chomsky goes on to note that Skinner offers no evidence to support his Olympian pronouncements about people, nor does he even bother to try to ground his claims in science. 

Claims... must be evaluated according to the evidence presented for them. In the present instance, this is a simple task, since no evidence is presented, as will become clear when we turn to more specific examples. In fact, the question of evidence is beside the point, since the claims dissolve into triviality or incoherence under analysis. 

Chomsky goes on to note that "behavioralism" had already become somewhat of a joke, with almost everyone moving to separate themselves from the Utopian ramblings of Skinner who, by now, had inflated mere trivia to significance, even as he waved off all true science such as as physics, chemistry, and molecular biology: 

It is important to bear in mind that Skinner's strictures do not define the practice of behavioral science. In fact, those who call themselves "behavioral scientists" or even "behaviorists" vary widely in the kinds of theoretical constructions that they are willing to admit. W. V. O. Quine, who on other occasions has attempted to work within Skinner's framework, goes so far as to define "behaviorism" simply as the insistence that conjectures and conclusions must eventually be verified by observations. As he points out, any reasonable person is a "behaviorist" in this sense. Quine's proposal signifies the demise of behaviorism as a substantive point of view, which is just as well. Whatever function "behaviorism" may have served in the past, it has become nothing more than a set of arbitrary restrictions on "legitimate" theory construction, and there is no reason why someone who investigates man and society should accept the kind of intellectual shackles that physical scientists would surely not tolerate and that condemn any intellectual pursuit to insignificance. 

And so, in the end, Skinner became a caricature of himself -- an ego-besotted egg-head who fell in love with his own reflection; a man who codified a few important points about training rats and pigeons, but who then tried to blow those points up into a unifying truth for man that eclipsed all other truths, and with himself as the God Head deserving (of course) a three-volume autobiography.

The result was almost a cartoon. As Chomsky notes

Skinner confuses "science" with terminology. He apparently believes that if he rephrases commonplace "mentalistic" expressions with terminology derived from the laboratory study of behavior, but deprived of whatever content this terminology has within this discipline, then he has achieved a scientific analysis of behavior. It would be hard to conceive of a more striking failure to comprehend even the rudiments of scientific thinking. 

Bingo. Wrapping a few simple ideas in words devoid of common-place meaning is not science, it's nonsense. 

Yes, under the nonsense there may actually be some substance (timing, consequences, consistency), but when stripped down to simple terms, how often do we we that find that the prize inside is quite a bit smaller than the box in which it was delivered? 

And so it is with Skinner. 

 His work in the 1930s with rats and pigeons was important and illuminating, but what came out of it was something less than a unifying truth for all mankind.  In the end, Skinner was less science than science fiction; less prize inside and more designer box.


Anna Carol E. said...

I'm not Skinner biggest fan. I actually hate how some psychologists see him as a god and dont like to question his ideas. But wel, I AM a behavioural psychologist afterall.

And what I think is most precious about his thinking is, infact, the role of the environment in man or animal learning and adaptation.

Think about it for a moment. If our behaviour doesnt come from genes (you could say some of it does, but not will, moral codes, ethics or selfcontrol) and it doesnt come from the environment (aka family, society, physical world), where does it come from?

How do we learn to deal with our world if not by actually dealing with it? That is what Skinner "selection by consequences" actually states.

We learn to deal with our world through the feedback it provides us.

The words Skinner uses are not the best words, because they attack something about what our society states as "freedom", as "autonomy" or singularity. But that is exactly what Skinner what going for: a paradigm shift. What was rather presumptious and arrogant, but interesting.

But that doesnt mean all his ideas are good. Some are pure bullshit. Seriously.

But this one is quite precious.

We are not empty boxes. We are animals striving for feedback and learning. And only the environment can provide this to us.

There was selection pressure for those individuals that could adapt to their mutating environment. We descend from them.

Anna Carol E. said...

Wow. I actually committed a fault I didnt think I would. I didnt read the whole post before I posted a comment.

Well, I dont think there is anything in "selection by consequences" that makes instinctive traits unexistent. Infact, Skinner says behavior analysis is only one part of the equation. We can only understand behaviour with the help of both neuroscience and ethology.

But again, the post states lots of unscientific behaviors from Skinner. Well, I have to agree with that. Although he claimed to be making science, he was quite the unscientific guy.

PBurns said...

Anna Carol -- Skinner's observation that animals and humans are shaped by outside forces is a perfect example of Skinner elevating trivia to deep thought. All of history and story since before the Bible is about that; no one could consider that new or news!

What Skinner brought to the table that was new (according to him) was that animals (including humans) were ONLY shaped by outside forces. Skinner said we are born blank boxes and only OUTSIDE forces shape us.

Of course this was and is complete nonsense and most of Skinner's theory was tossed out as complete junk by the 1950s, even if a few things discovered by Skinner's students (i.e. shaping and jackpots rewards) have proven useful.

Not only is there instinct that controls behavior from the inside, but there are also the biogenic amines -- the complex equation of genetics and chemistry that results in obsession, mania, high energy, low energy, bipolar, catatonia, sex drive, mood, etc.

Biogenic amines and instinct are what create the personality of breeds. Yes, the experience a dog has in life may partially shape how an animal responds, but it is the biogenic amines that are the code inside that are the lens through which a dog has those experiences. This is the internal code Skinner denied existed.

If we had listened to Skinner, we would not have solutions to OCD, bipolar disorder, low sex drive, high sex drive, catatonia, narcolepsy, ADD, psychosis, etc.


Anna Carol E. said...

No Patrick, this is not true. Although this is the biggest prejudice against behavioural psychology.

No one ever denied the role of environment in the making of a man or animal, but what Skinner was trying to destroy was the "mentalism", as he called it. He denied the ego, the superego and the id from psychoanalysis. The "initiating agent". He denied thought as part of this metapsyphical (is that a word in english? sorry about that) constitution of the mind. He stated that thinking and speaking and dreaming were behaviors just like running or jumping.

Of course stating that we are completely empty boxes is pure nonsense, I'm with you on that. But that is not what Skinner stated. That is actually from Locke's empirism that was NEVER a philosophical foundation for radical behaviorism.

That is what Chomsky understood of his theory, though.

Skinner based much of his works on natural selection, he was specially proud of that (he never took into account other evolutionary phenommena, but they were unknown back then). And he actually stated that there were 3 determinants to animal and human behaviour: phylogenesis, ontogenesis and culture (basically verbal behavior).

Skinner never denied phylogenesis. He was not a phylosophical empirist.

PBurns said...

Behaviorism, in fact, is largely founded on the taubula rasa notion which is one reason it has fallen out of favor. See >> http://www.simplypsychology.org/behaviorism.html and the work of Watson and Thorndike who Skinner built on.

When Marian and Keller Breland wrote "The Misbehavior of Organisms," in 1961, it was an explicit and pointed criticism of Skinner who had been their professor and mentor, and who had published "The Behavior of Organisms" in 1938.

In "The Misbehavior of Organisms," the Brelands noted:

"Three of the most important of these tacit assumptions [of Skinner and the radical behaviorists] seem to us to be: that the animal comes to the laboratory as a virtual tabula rasa, that species differences are insignificant, and that all responses are about equally conditionable to all stimuli. It is obvious, we feel, from the foregoing account, that these assumptions are no longer tenable."

See >> http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Breland/misbehavior.htm

The fact that John Locke coined the term "tabula rasa" is true, but that in no way negates the point that Skinner up to then believed it to be true, and accepted it as a core tenet which was delivered to him from Watson and Thorndike. Skinner's work before the mid-1960s did not move very far from Watson and Thorndike -- the "Skinner Box" was just an evolved Thorndike Box, after all.

After the Brelands wrote their paper expressly noting the weaknesses in the Watson and Thorndike and Skinnerian "tabula rasa" thesis, Skinner claimed his earlier work was "misinterpreted" but in fact, Skinner was simply trying to back-peddle since, by then, people like the Brelands who had worked with more than pigeons and mice and cats and chickens for decades, had showed that animals (including humans) were a bit more complex than what he and his predecessors had put out.

By now, of course, Skinner was pretty far down in the weeds and removed from science, with a Utopian science fiction novel on the shelf and a new rejection of freedom already getting outlined for publication. His goal now was to not to get tossed out with the wash water, and so he added padding around his earlier writing to suggest that "of course" he always thought there was more to animals than simple external forces, but in fact he had remained mum on that point for 30 years.


Anna Carol E. said...

Well, I have not read the original "Behavior of organisms", so I cannot say he didn't make that claim there.

But much of prejudice against radical behaviorism is actually meant to methodological behaviorism (a name Skinner created) that was Watson's work. Locke's empirism did influence Watson's work, but Skinner started by criticising Watson very early on.

I've never read Brelland's work, so I can't comment on it. But I disagree on Chomsky's criticism.

Maybe Skinner started off believing in the 'tabula rasa', I can imagine that to be the case in 'Behavior of Organisms' but that is not was he states in the middle of his career.

I do agree that Skinner was rather unscientific. "Science and Human Behavior" was the most ridiculous name for a book that had very little data on it. But I'm just tired of having to explain to people that behaviour analyses is not based on the "tabula rasa" concept. No true behavior analyst believes that. I dont think any psychology school today believes that. There is too much evidence against it. And Skinner himself didnt believe in that.

And is quite unfair to jugde him based on what other people said of his work and not on what he said himself.

Anna Carol E. said...

Actually, as I re-read you comment I can see that we agree on everything, except I dont wanna put the joke on Skinner as much as you do.

Well, fair enough, the guy was really arrogant and a total douche. I can really picture your last paragraph as being exactly what happened. As soon as I have time, I'll go look for Skinner's statements on that concept.

PBurns said...

The Brelands more-or-less invented animal training, and their seminal paper on "The Misbehavior of Organisms" was a serious shot to the ABSOLUTE belief by Skinner and other behaviorists, up to that time, that animals were blank boxes (tabula rasa) and that ANY animal could be perfectly trained to do any thing with a little food or electric shock.

For more on this see >> http://terriermandotcom.blogspot.com/2010/05/they-invented-animal-training.html

I assure you that the Brelands HAD read every word of Skinner's "Behavior of Organisms" and what they presented was simply a CORRECTION to the overstatement and dogma that Skinner presented and continued to mantain up to that time. The difference, of course, is that Skinner trained only pigeons and rats and only trained a limited number of functions. The Brelands were everything Skinner was not -- real animal trainers with many decades working with a wide variety of animals trained to do a wide variety of things. They started with Skinner and liked Skinner and never rejected most of what he had to say, but they did KNOW that Skinner thought animals were tabula rasa and that on this score Skinner was simply WRONG. Bravely, they said it, and correctly they did not overstate it or throw out the baby of operant conditioning with the bathwater of tabula rasa.

I put up a post and video last night on Edward Thorndike who was president of the American Psychological Association at the turn of the 20th Century. The so-called "Skinner Box" is really a variant on the Thorndike Box and all of Skinner's scientific work in the 1930s (before he started writing science fiction) is little more than an extension of Edward Thorndikes. Thorndike and Skinner were BEHAVIORISTS who argued that we could ignore physiological aspects of animals such as their internal chemistry and mindset, and that all had we had to do was look at BEHAVIOR and see how it was shaped by outside external events. If animals had dreams or chemical reaction inside themelves, this was as a result of OUTSIDE stimulus, not from internal chemistry or code. Animals were "black boxes" who we could never hope to understand and they were also "tabula rasa" or blank slates that could be trained to do anything. Of course, this was overstated nonsense. The Brelands noted that the animals were NOT complete tabula rasa (yes there is instinct)and further experiments with mazes showed that even rats could actually reason and so too could other higher animals such as chimps and porpoises. As for the notion that the world of animal action was all contolled by outside forces, the psychiatric pharmaceutical folks showed us this was nonsense as was the notion that animals were completley "black boxes" we could never hope to understand.

As the theories espoused by radical behaviorists became more and more limited or even exposed as being obviously wrong, the behaviorist school has tried to modify its original theory to say well "of course" there was always instinct, and "of course" some animals can reason and "of course" chemistry and genetics enter into the picture, but of course they did NOT admit that at the beginning, but only AFTER their "taubula rasa" theory of animal behavior crashed and burned on the hard rocks of reality.

When cornered on all this, the behaviorists always do the same thing -- they talk in 10-pound words and say that "of course you have misunderstood" because they (the behaviorists) have used language in a unique and complicated way in which common terms have been given entirely new definitions. That was what Norman Chomsky pointed out, and it's as true today as it was then.

None of this is to reject operant conditioning, but it is to reject some core dicta of the behaviorists which has simply not stood up to time, science and observation.