Friday, March 22, 2013

Quote of the Day

At this point an annoying, though obvious, question intrudes. If Skinner's thesis is false, then there is no point in his having written the book or our reading it. But if his thesis is true, then there is also no point in his having written the book or our reading it. For the only point could be to modify behavior, and behavior, according to the thesis, is entirely controlled by arrangement of reinforcers. Therefore reading the book can modify behavior only if it is a reinforcer, that is, if reading the book will increase the probability of the behavior that led to reading the book (assuming an appropriate state of deprivation). At this point, we seem to be reduced to gibberish.

A counterargument might be made that even if the thesis is false, there is a point to writing and reading the book, since certain false these are illuminating and provocative. But this escape is hardly available. In this case, the thesis is elementary and not of much interest in itself. Its only value lies in its possible truth. But if the thesis is true, then reading or writing the book would appear to be an entire waste of time, since it reinforces no behavior.

Skinner would surely argue that reading the book, or perhaps the book itself, is a "reinforcer" in some other sense. He wants us to be persuaded by the book, and, not to our surprise, he refers to persuasion as a form of behavioral control, albeit a weak and ineffective form. Skinner hopes to persuade us to allow greater scope to the behavioral technologists, and apparently believes that reading this book will increase the probability of our behaving in such a way as to permit them greater scope (freedom?). Thus reading the book, he might claim, reinforces this behavior. It will change our behavior with respect to the science of behavior (p. 24).

Let us overlook the problem, insuperable in his terms, of clarifying the notion of "behavior that gives greater scope to behavioral technologists," and consider the claim that reading the book might reinforce such behavior. Unfortunately, the claim is clearly false, if we use the term "reinforce" with anything like its technical meaning. Recall that reading the book reinforces the desired behavior only if it is a consequence of the behavior. Obviously putting our fate in the hands of behavioral technologists is not behavior that led to (and hence can be reinforced by) our reading Skinner's book. Therefore the claim can be true only if we deprive the term "reinforce" of its technical meaning. Combining these observations, we see that there can be some point to reading the book or to Skinner's having written it only if the thesis of the book is divorced from the "science of behavior" on which it allegedly rests.

Let us consider further the matter of "persuasion." According to Skinner, we persuade ("change minds") "by manipulating environmental contingencies," specifically, "by pointing to stimuli associated with positive consequences" and "making a situation more favorable for action, as by describing likely reinforcing consequences" (p. 91f.). Even if we overlook the fact that persuasion, so characterized, is a form of control (a variety of "reinforcement") unknown to Skinner's science, his argument is in no way advanced.

Suppose Skinner were to claim that his book might persuade us by pointing to positive consequences of behavioral technology. But this will not do at all. It is not enough for him to point to those consequences (e.g., to draw pictures of happy people); rather he must show that these are indeed consequences of the recommended behavior. To persuade us, he must establish a connection between the recommended behavior and the pleasant situation he describes. The question is begged by use of the term "consequences."5 It is not enough merely to conjoin a description of the desired behavior and a description of the "reinforcing" state of affairs (we overlook, again, that not even these notions are expressible in Skinner's terms). Were that sufficient for "persuasion," then we could "persuade" someone of the opposite by merely conjoining a description of an unpleasant state of affairs with a description of the behavior that Skinner hopes to produce.

If persuasion were merely a matter of pointing to reinforcing stimuli and the like, then any persuasive argument would retain its force if its steps were randomly interchanged, or if some of its steps were replaced by arbitrary descriptions of reinforcing stimuli. Of course, this is nonsense. For an argument to be persuasive, at least to a rational person, it must be coherent; its conclusions must follow from its premises. But these notions are entirely beyond the scope of Skinner's science. When he states that "deriving new reasons from old, the process of deduction" merely "depends upon a much longer verbal history" (p. 96), he is indulging in hand-waving of a most pathetic sort.

Consider Skinner's claim that "we sample and change verbal behavior, not opinions," as, he says, behavioral analysis reveals (p. 95). Taken literally, this means that if, under a credible threat of torture, I force someone to say, repeatedly, that the earth stands still, then I have changed his opinion. Comment is unnecessary.

Skinner claims that persuasion is a weak method of control, and he asserts that "changing a mind is condoned by the defenders of freedom and dignity because it is an ineffective way of changing behavior, and the changer of minds can therefore escape from the charge that he is controlling people" (p. 97). Suppose that your doctor gives you a very persuasive argument to the effect that if you continue to smoke, you will die a horrible death from lung cancer. Is it necessarily the case that this argument will be less effective in modifying your behavior than any arrangement of true reinforcers?

In fact, whether persuasion is effective or not depends on the content of the argument (for a rational person), a factor that Skinner cannot begin to describe. The problem becomes still worse if we consider other forms of "changing minds." Suppose that a description of a napalm raid on a foreign village induces someone in an American audience to carry out an act of sabotage. In this case, the "effective stimulus" is not a reinforcer, but the mode of changing behavior may be quite effective, and, furthermore, the act that is performed (the behavior "reinforced") is entirely new (not in the "repertoire") and may not even have been hinted at in the "stimulus" that induced the change of behavior. In every possible respect, then, Skinner's account is simply incoherent. Since his William James Lectures of 1947,6 Skinner has been sparring with these and related problems. The results are nil. It remains impossible for Skinner to formulate questions of the kind just raised in his own terms, let alone investigate them. What is more, no serious scientific hypotheses with supporting evidence have been produced to substantiate the extravagant claims to which he is addicted. Furthermore, this record of failure was predictable from the start, from an analysis of the problems and the means proposed to deal with them. It must be stressed that "verbal behavior" is the only aspect of human behavior that Skinner has attempted to investigate in any detail. To his credit, he recognized early that only through a successful analysis of language could he hope to deal with human behavior. By comparing the results that have been achieved in this period with the claims that are still advanced, we gain a good insight into the nature of Skinner's science of behavior. My impression is, in fact, that the claims are becoming more extreme and more strident as the inability to support them and the reasons for this failure become increasingly obvious.

It is unnecessary to labor the point any further. Evidently Skinner has no way of dealing with the factors involved in persuading someone or changing his mind. The attempt to invoke "reinforcement" merely leads to incoherence. The point is crucial. Skinner's discussion of persuasion and "changing minds" is one of the few instances in which he tries to come to terms with what he calls the "literature of freedom and dignity." The libertarian whom he condemns distinguishes between persuasion and certain forms of control. He advocates persuasion and objects to coercion. In response, Skinner claims that persuasion is itself a (weak) form of control and that by using weak methods of control we simply shift control to other environmental conditions, not to the person himself (pp. 97 and 99).

Thus, Skinner claims, the advocate of freedom and dignity is deluding himself in his belief that persuasion leaves the matter of choice to "autonomous man," and furthermore he poses a danger to society because he stands in the way of more effective controls. As we see, however, Skinner's argument against the "literature of freedom and dignity" is without force. Persuasion is no form of control at all, in Skinner's sense; in fact, he is unable to deal with the concept. But there is little doubt that persuasion can "change minds" and affect behavior, on occasion quite effectively.

Since persuasion cannot be coherently described as the result of arrangement of reinforcers, it follows that behavior is not entirely determined by the specific contingencies to which Skinner arbitrarily restricts his attention, and that the major thesis of the book is false. Skinner can escape this conclusion only by claiming that persuasion is a matter of arranging reinforcing stimuli, but this claim is tenable only if the term "reinforcement" is deprived of its technical meaning and used as a mere substitute for the detailed and specific terminology of ordinary language. In any event, Skinner's "science of behavior" is irrelevant: the thesis of the book is either false (if we use terminology in its technical sense) or empty (if we do not). And the argument against the libertarian collapses entirely.

Not only is Skinner unable to uphold his claim that persuasion is a form of control, but he also offers not a particle of evidence to support his claim that the use of "weak methods of control" simply shifts the mode of control to some obscure environmental factor rather than to the mind of autonomous man. Of course, from the thesis that all behavior is controlled by the environment, it follows that reliance on weak rather than strong controls shifts control to other aspects of the environment. But the thesis, in so far as it is at all clear, is without empirical support, and in fact may even be empty, as we have seen in discussing "probability of response" and persuasion. Skinner is left with no coherent criticism of the "literature of freedom and dignity."

Noam Chomsky
"The Case against B. F. Skinner"
The New York Review of Books 17, no. 11 (Dec. 30, 1971)

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