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B. F. Skinner: Brilliant Engineer, Brilliant Self-Promoter, Mediocre Scientist

Posted Aug 16 2012 12:00am

I majored in psychology at Reed College. At the time, the whole major centered on Skinnerian psychology the importance of reward in controlling behavior. The introductory course used a Skinnerian textbook (e.g., we learned the correct meaning of “negative reinforcement” it does not mean punishment). Other courses also had a Skinnerian emphasis. They never convinced me. I always thought it was an exceedingly narrow way to study behavior.

When I was a graduate student, I visited Harvard and heard Skinner give a talk, titled “Why I am not a cognitive psychologist”. During the question period I asked if he was familiar with the work of Saul Sternberg perhaps the most influential cognitive psychologist. No, said Skinner. I thought it was foolish to criticize an area of research you know little about.

After I became a professor, I went back to Reed to give a talk. After the talk, I went out to dinner with several psychology professors. I told them I thought Skinner was a brilliant engineer the Skinner box is really useful but a mediocre scientist. He was unable to discover anything, he just repeated the same result (rewarding something increases how often it is done) countless times. They had no reply.

In the last two days, strangely enough, Skinner has come up in two different conversations. In the first, a friend said that Skinner’s views about language were ridiculous. I agreed. Why write such nonsense? my friend asked/complained. I said maybe Skinner’s productivity system worked too well. It caused him to write when he had nothing to say. In the second, a different friend brought up David Freedman’s recent Atlantic article called “The Perfected Self”, which argues that Skinnerian techniques really work when you implement them as smartphone apps techniques to lose weight, for example. “B. F. Skinner’s notorious theory of behavior modification was denounced by critics 50 years ago as a fascist, manipulative vehicle for government control,” writes Freedman (or an editor), but actually that theory is really good.

My area of academic psychology (animal learning) is the same as Skinner’s. Within this field, I have never heard anyone complain that Skinner’s work was “fascist” or “manipulative” or a “vehicle for government control.” It never became popular it was always a minority point of view probably because it was boring (the same thing over and over) and perhaps because it was anti-intellectual. Skinner wrote a well-known paper about why theories are unnecessary. He didn’t understand the role of theories in science and didn’t bother to find out. Sure, the psychology theories of the time (1950) were awful. Psychology theories are still mostly awful. But there are plenty of good theories in other areas of science.

For a long time, Skinnerian ideas, nearly dead in academia, lived on in the treatment of autism. The people applying these ideas called themselves “behavior analysts” and the whole field of applied Skinnerian psychology was called “behavior analysis”. What caused this persistence was that the techniques worked. Using the techniques (carefully rewarding this or that behavior) improved the lives of autistic children and their parents. Which was a real contribution. I could make a long list of famous psychologists who have done less to improve human well-being.

The success of Skinnerian ideas in improving the lives of autistic children should not be confused with figuring out what causes autism. To figure out the cause of autism is to figure out the environmental cause(s) to which people with certain genes are more sensitive and how autism can be avoided entirely, not meliorated. I have blogged about possible causes of autism many times , in particular the possibility that sonograms cause autism . I have no idea if behavior analysts understand the difference between melioration and figuring out the cause. Maybe Skinner would claim there is no difference he was full of bizarre statements like that. If your child is autistic, you are in crisis. You have zero interest in questions about “cause” you simply want help. In any form. Behavior analysts, while helping autistic children and their parents, contribute nothing that helps us find the cause of autism. Which, if you are planning on having children, you care about enormously. So you can avoid having autistic children.

So Skinner’s legacy is mixed. The Skinner box is terrific. I happily used them in my research for years, even though I hardly believed a single word Skinner said. As an engineer an applier of stuff discovered by others Skinner made a lasting contribution. As a self-promoter, he was incredibly successful he was on the cover of Time, for example. As a scientist, he was a zero. He discovered nothing that matters. As a thinker (e.g., the book Beyond Freedom and Dignity) he was less than zero. He was a charlatan, claiming over and over that he understood puzzling things (e.g., language) that he did not understand. An unusual mix. Few great engineers are charlatans.

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