When I read the title I was obviously taken aback given that it's a fairly strong claim to make. Skinner was well-recognised as an incredibly gentle man who spent most of his life fighting against people attempting to use punishment as part of behavioral modification programs, and was awarded the Humanist of the Year in 1972. So what was happening here? Initially I thought that maybe it was going to be a thought-provoking discussion on how an effective theory of psychology could have negative implications on society, like an effective theory of nuclear physics did, but the big screenshot from 'A Clockwork Orange' didn't leave me hopeful...
OH GOD, HERE WE GO AGAIN
Maybe I'm being too harsh though, let's just read the article to see what the author has to say:
"B.F. Skinner gave us concepts like "conditioned behavior,"..."
Okay, one sentence in and there's already an error. Arguably I'm being a little pedantic here but I think if we're going to slander dead scientists by accusing them of basically being the embodiment of evil, some accuracy is required. The notion of "conditioned behavior" was around long before Skinner and was used by theorists like Watson, Thorndike and Pavlov. The earliest I know of is Pavlov but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that similar concepts have been discussed before him.
"Thoughts, emotions, and actions, said Skinner, are exclusively products of the environment."
And biology - remember that Skinner wasn't a blank slatist, as discussed and demonstrated in more detail here and here. To summarise it briefly, Skinner fiercely defended the idea that behavior can only be understood as a function of biology and environment. The reason why people view him as an environmental determinist is because the majority of his work was done looking at the effect of the environment on behavior but, as he himself explains, he doesn't ignore biology because he thinks it's irrelevant but rather he ignores it because he's not a biologist.
"What's more, he grossly underplayed the role of biology in forging and regulating human behavior, dismissing the burgeoning fields of behavioral genetics, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive science."
Except, as the articles above point out, he didn't. The claim about ignoring cognitive science is a little more nuanced though as he did reject an idea of cognitive psychology for very specific reasons but these reasons had nothing to do with "the role of biology".
Skinner argued that cognitive psychology relied too heavily on hypothetical constructs and what he called "explanatory fictions", which are statements which appear to be explanations but are in fact just circular restatements of the original problem (e.g. why did the rat press the lever? Because it was hungry. How do we know it was hungry? It pressed the lever to get the food). As such, the problem Skinner had with the field was that he thought that it was inventing concepts and explanations to fit into their prior understanding and narratives, and he argued that this isn't how science should be done.
The debatable part of Skinner's argument there is whether it accurately describes cognitive psychology but, assuming its accuracy, there is little debate over whether that's a good way to do science.
"Skinner argued that humans don't really think — that they merely respond to environmental cues."
Skinner argued that thoughts are an integral component that needs to be considered when figuring out how behavior works. His form of radical behaviorism was termed "radical" precisely because it included the role of cognition in behavior, which deviated from the traditional form of behaviorism (methodological) which argued that we cannot scientifically study thoughts and so we should ignore them for pragmatic purposes.
"He came up with various therapeutic techniques, including "operant conditioning," which, while beneficial for the treatment of disorders like phobias and addictions, have proven extremely problematic for the "treatment" of autism and homosexuality."
Behavior analysis is currently the only recognised treatment for autism and operant conditioning underpins cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is an effective treatment for a number of disorders but is mainly used for depression.
With that said, there is no arguing that behavioral modification attempts at "conversion therapy" were/are horrible, unscientific, and should never be used under any circumstances. They operate against all the principles of radical behaviorism given that it contradicts the teaching that behavior is a combination of nature and nurture, and not all nature can be changed by conditioning.
Interestingly, as I note in "Sokalian Diatribes", we see again an instance where a horrible historical fact of psychology is used to denounce the field or the subfield whereas we don't see this in other fields. That is, conversion therapy isn't solely the use of behavioral modification techniques and arguably they weren't the main method used - the primary techniques were medical. Is medicine evil based on this fact?
"His studies on the connection between stimuli and observable behavior in rats led to his famous Skinner Box — an enclosure equipped with levers, electrified floors, and food pellets allowing for the precise measurement and control of experimental conditions"
Operant chambers are not, and were not, routinely fitted with electrified floors. This is particularly true for Skinner who was repulsed at the notion of using punishment to change behavior and so only studied punishment briefly early on in his career to conclude that it should never be used.
"Skinner argued that humans were no different — that they could be trained through the delivery of new subject matter in a series of graduated steps with feedback at each stage."
This is putting it a little to simply and perhaps misrepresents Skinner's position a little. Skinner didn't simply argue that humans were no different, he demonstrated it experimentally and cited other research which demonstrated it experimentally.
"Changes in behavior, said Skinner, were simply the result of a person's response to events occurring in their environment. Nothing more, nothing less."
Except biology and cognition.
"Take his work on child development and the emergence of verbal behavior. Skinner argued that imitation was a serious mechanism for the acquisition of language. Verbal behavior, he said, was learned by an infant from a verbal community. This overly simplistic explanation attracted the ire of linguist Noam Chomsky, who (arguably) launched the cognitive psychology movement by virtue of his response. Among other things, Chomsky argued that many of Skinner's animal experiments could not be applied to humans and that he never fully developed a science of behavior."
Chomsky's attempt to critque 'Verbal Behavior' was debunked a long time ago and it's pretty well accepted that in that discussion, Skinner came out on top. Chomsky's ideas on language acquisition have largely faded out of academic interest whereas Skinner's ideas now form the basis for most language therapies and shares a lot in common with the dominant notion of statistical language acquisition.
"And in regards to the relation of mentalism to the issue of artificial intelligence — a discipline largely predicated on the notion of cognitive computationalism — Skinner remained skeptical. "The real question is not whether machines think but whether men do," he wrote, "The mystery which surrounds a thinking machine already surrounds a thinking man.""
This is an interesting misreading of Skinner's quote. This is not skepticism over artificial intelligence, it was skepticism over the current understanding of cognition in his time. The whole point of the quote was to ask the question of how would we identify thought in a computer when we currently have so much trouble identifying a thought in a person.
"In his papers "Selection by Consequences and "A Matter of Consequences," he argued that such scientists were wrong to suggest that there were genes for specific behaviors, such as altruism or a predisposition to certain addictions."
And he was unarguably correct to do so. The myth of "Gene for X" has been rejected for decades now and Skinner was ahead of his time to see the problems with that line of reasoning.
"Skinner took the Blank Slate hypothesis to an extreme."
Given that Skinner actively rejected blank slatism, it seems impossible to describe him as taking the position to the extreme. That's like describing George W. Bush as an extreme liberal.
"Given his "benign totalitarian" leanings, we can be thankful that he never took office or found himself in a position where he could apply his self-described "technology" on the masses."
"Totalitarian"? Skinner is closer to a socialist than anything. He argued that democracy was at the heart of any successful society and that governments need to be under the thumb of the people they are supposed to work for.
"Earlier, Skinner's 1948 novel Walden Two envisaged utopian societies or intentional communities resulting from tightly controlled systems in which people were motivated solely by the manipulation of positive and negative reinforcements. It's an idea eerily reminiscent of the Soviet Union's use of psychiatry to suppress political dissent. Indeed, the notion of conditioning the population to conform to a predetermined set of behavioral standards is an undeniably dystopian notion."
Okay, I understand now why the author described Skinner as "totalitarian" - he hasn't actually read Walden II. The community is a near-communist society where systems are designed to make people happy, where punishment should never be used, and people are free to come and go as they please. The government is controlled by the people and if it ever stops working for them then it is to be disestablished and rebuilt based on the values of the people, and decisions are based on the best ethical and scientific evidence available.
"Which all leads to another fundamental problem intrinsic to Skinner's radical behaviorism: not all psychological conditions or states of mind can or should be conditioned. Take autism, for example. Many people in the autistic rights movement argue that the most common therapies for autism are unethical."
Oh great, more misinformation. Applied behavior analysis is the only successful treatment for autism. It does not use aversives and is based entirely on positive reinforcement. There is nothing unethical about teaching a child how to, for example, communicate what they need and want without bashing their head against a wall until their eyeball pops out of its socket.
"Abusive, even. Indeed, therapists sometimes use aversion therapy, including shock therapy and restraints, when trying to "condition" or "train" children out of their autism."
The author then links to the Judge Rotenberg Centre. This place is clearly an ethical quagmire but there are some points that need to be kept in mind here:
1) the shocks used are not to "treat autism"
2) the JRC is usually a last resort where all other facilities have rejected patients for extreme behaviors
3) shock therapy is only used when all other methods have failed. To demonstrate that all other methods have failed, objective empirical evidence needs to be presented to an independent clinician, the patient and family members, and a court judge. All of the above (when capable) need to sign an agreement that shock therapy is needed to be used.
4) instead of "treating autism", shock therapy is only used for behaviors which harm the patients themselves. Many of them come in with severe cases of self-injurious behaviors where they are on the verge of either permanently disfiguring themselves or dying.
So I can't pretend that the JRC is perfect and that there is nothing that needs to be questioned, and there certainly have been cases in the past which are more than dubious (and the practitioners deserve to be punished for malpractice) but it's not as simple as the author wants to present. The problem is that when most patients go into the JRC, the people involved are faced with the question of: Is it more ethical to allow a child to kill themselves or should we implement an aversive treatment that will save them?
There are a lot of moral assumptions there that need to be unpacked and adequately addressed but again, let's look at how psychology is treated differently to other fields like medicine. There are some evil doctors out there that pump sick children full of poison. Should we organise a protest? Well, maybe not when we look at it in context. These sick children have cancer, the treatment is consented to, and the "poison" is chemotherapy.
Just another author that wants to criticise behaviorism without ever picking up a book on it. There's not much else to add to this but starting back from the time of Chomsky, to Baron-Cohen's recent embarassment, to this pile of nonsense, we have to wonder why people are so eager to criticise something they aren't willing to understand.
With that in mind, next week I plan on criticising quantum mechanics based on a book I read by Deepak Chopra and founded entirely on the argument that I think reality being formed by a series of tiny vibrating strings is silly because if that were true we'd see cats playing with reality all the time.