Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Law of Feynman

I've considered writing this entry a number of times from multiple different angles but in light of the recent Edge.org debacle, I've gone with this: The Law of Feynman. Stated simply, I view the relationship as such:

As a scientist's popularity increases, the probability of them making silly statements outside of their area of knowledge also increases. 

To help clarify this unique interaction of a scientist's popularity with silliness, I also propose that it be quantified and measured in terms of "Dawks". The unit of measurement here ranges from 0-10, with a Dawk score of "10" being comparable to the silliness of Richard Dawkins himself. If you don't think Dawkins makes silly statements outside of his area, I recommend you browse his Twitter feed. I particularly liked this one:

You showed them, Richard! Just er, let's not talk about Western Medicine or even (more broadly) Western Science.


The problem, in my opinion, is that in the effort to make science accessible to everyone they have inadvertently simplified the notion of science to the point that the misconceptions cause more harm than good. With Feynman in particular we can see this harm caused by his misunderstandings of psychology and the social sciences, where he compares [clinical] psychology and psychiatry to witch doctors and suggests that the social sciences aren't "real" sciences. To make matters worse for himself, in addition to making pronouncements on the demarcation problem of science (a major issue within philosophy of science), he also dismisses the value of philosophy of science by saying that scientists need it as much as birds need ornithology.

In other words, Feynman was concerned with cargo cult science (equating scientific fields with a tribe that worshipped planes as gods and emulated runways and landing procedures without planes ever landing, in the same way these sciences emulate the scientific method without actually doing science), whereas my contention is that the problem these days is something more akin to "cargo shorts science". It's an understanding of science which appeals to semi-educated people who want a conversation piece like a cargo short-wearing frat boy chatting up a girl at a party, rather than someone who is eager to understand the nuances of some complex phenomenon.


The recent issue with Simon Baron-Cohen highlights the problem I am trying to get at, and Baron-Cohen would probably score at least 8 or 9 Dawks. Unfortunately, after reading some more articles on the essay series of "What scientific idea is ready for retirement?" I found some more silly statements from people who are attempting to speak outside of their field, along with some decent insights into behaviorism. Below are some of these statements and my quick responses to their comments:

[1] "Fond though I am of rats, I would not wish to defend their intelligence. But the assumption that they do not have inner mental states needs examining. Behaviorism arose from the argument of parsimony (Occam's razor)—why postulate mental states in animals when their behavior can be explained in simpler ways? The success of Behaviorism arose in part from the fact that the kinds of behaviors studied back then could, indeed, be explained by operation of mindless, automatic processes." - Kate Jeffery.

Jeffrey here specifies that she's speaking about radical behaviorism but the explanation would seem odd to anyone who knows anything about radical behaviorism and Skinner's work. The idea that organism's don't have inner mental states is a premise of methodological behaviorism, not radical behaviorism which instead suggests that things like covert behavior is needed to be understood in order to fully appreciate the causes of behavior.

And far from being a claim of 'automaticity', Skinner's behaviorism leaned heavily on operant conditioning. The whole point of this form of learning was that the organism operated upon the environment and that it wasn't a reflexive response like that found in classical conditioning.

Did any form of behaviorism reject mental states based on Occam's Razor? Of course not. Methodological behaviorism rejected mental states based on pragmatism and a narrow understanding of science. It wasn't that they thought mental states were not necessary to explain behavior but rather mental states were viewed as inaccessible to scientific methodology and that their inclusion was, in effect, no better than guesswork and post-hoc rationalisation.

[2]"Place cells may well be an internal representation of the kind eschewed by behaviorists..." - Kate Jeffrey.

Indeed, behaviorists hated the idea of internal representation and cognitive maps. Behaviorists like Edward Tolman were particularly vocal in their disdain for the concept of a cognitive map...

[3] "Indeed, the absence of emotion pervades modern scientific models of the mind. In the most popular mental metaphors of social science, mind as reflex (from behaviorism) explicitly omits emotion..." - Brian Knutson.

Does behaviorism treat the mind as a reflex? Perhaps an argument could be made that methodological behaviorism held something like that to be true, due to it being based largely on classical conditioning processes, but behaviorism is a far more diverse philosophy than just methodological behaviorism. If we were to generalise all forms of behaviorism then it would arguably make the most sense to conflate behaviorism with radical behaviorism, given that it is currently the dominant form of behaviorism and has been for a long time now, and undoubtedly has had the most proponents supporting it. If we are to take radical behaviorism as "behaviorism" though, then the overapplication of the notion of "reflex" no longer make sense given that radical behaviorism was a rejection of methodological behaviorism's reliance on reflexes.

Secondly, does behaviorism reject emotion? I'm pretty sure Eric Charles over at Fixing Psychology would disagree, given his recent paper: A Behaviorist Account of Emotions and Feelings: Making Sense of James D. Laird's Feelings: The Perception of the Self.

[4] "IQ is a general measure of socially acceptable categorization and reasoning skills. IQ tests were designed in behaviorism's heyday, when there was little interest cognitive structure." - Scott Atran.

Oh, you're lucky, Mr. Atran. Because you've specified a time period we can confidently link your statement to methodological behaviorism and due to your careful wording, we can have few arguments against the claim that methodological behaviorists had little interest in cognitive structure.

This is a good example of what an informed reference to behaviorism looks like.

[5] "And what do we have to show for 250 years of pursuit? We have a series of time-wasting failures and ideological battles. Human behavior cannot all be explained by positive and negative reinforcement (contra the behaviorists)." - Jonathan Haidt.

Is that so? So did John Watson simply eschew all of his work in ethology when he developed the philosophy of behaviorism? Why did he dedicate an entire chapter to instincts ("Concerning the Origins of Instinct") in his textbook "Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology" if he rejected such notions? Why did Skinner often write on the importance of understanding phylogenetic and ontogenic components of behavior?

Is Haidt tilting at windmills here?

[6] "These reflections won't be news to many philosophers, but they're worth repeating. Rejecting the mind in an effort to achieve scientific legitimacy—a trend we've seen with both behaviorism and some popular manifestations of neuroscience—is unnecessary and unresponsive to the aims of scientific psychology." - Tania Lombrozo.

Does behaviorism reject the mind? We already know that radical behaviorists did not reject cognition but rather the use of the mind as an explanatory fiction but perhaps we could be generous here since Lombrozo, like Atran, has been careful with her wording - she specifies "philosophers". Maybe I'm being overly charitable but I would argue that she might be referring to logical/analytical behaviorism here which does reject the mind, in the sense that internal are argued to be descriptions of external behaviors.

[7] "Critics have, for centuries, pointed out this problem with associationism (sometimes called the problem of induction, or the frame problem). And, in recent decades, there have been countless empirical demonstrations that animals—ants learning their way home, birds learning song, or rats learning to avoid food—do not learn in the way that associationism suggests. And yet, associationism (whether as empiricism, behaviourism, conditioning, connectionism, or plasticity) refuses to die, and keeps rising again, albeit encrusted by ever more ad hoc exceptions, anomalies and constraints. Its proponents refuse to abandon it, perhaps because they believe there is no alternative." - Oliver Scott Curry.

This one surprised me. I was prepared to reject it and to explain how woeful Curry's understanding of behaviorism is, and instead I'm met with what is essentially some of the contemporary arguments in behavioral psychology at the moment against associationism.

A lot of research has recently come out to question the associationist assumptions behind the concept of reinforcement and it's argued that it needs to catch up to theories behind Pavlovian conditioning, which relies more on the understanding of "information" (for example, it's argued that Pavlov originally meant "conditional stimuli" rather than "conditioned stimuli", as the stimulus doesn't acquire power itself but instead only has value in what it predicts).

There's an excellent paper by Timothy Shahan that can explain the situation far more clearly than I can, where he argues that we should view reinforcement as a signpost; that is, a conditioned reinforcer isn't valuable because of some association it has been imbued with but rather because of what it can tell us about future events. There are some fascinating experiments that attempt to determine which understanding is more accurate, and maybe I'll dedicate a post to the topic at a later date, but I highly recommend that people look into the issue more thoroughly.


The misunderstanding of behaviorism is unfortunately far more pervasive than it should be. Whether this is a result of our inability to correctly teach behaviorism or not, I think one thing we should be able to expect is that professional scientists will make accurate and defensible claims when criticising behaviorism. As Edge.org has shown us, we might be setting our expectations too high.

I sometimes think that people would benefit from taking the approach outlined by Daniel Dennett, who tells his students that if they come across a popular argument that appears to be plain stupid or absurd then it might pay to re-read the argument to ensure that they understand exactly what is being said. It's not impossible that they have discovered a massive error that many professionals before them have failed to identify but it's simply not very likely. In terms of behaviorism, I think this could be helpful when people argue that it rejects thoughts and emotion or that it rejects innate behaviors because such positions simply are plain stupid.

So don't be a Feynman or a Dawkins - if your respect is truly earned as a result of being a committed intelligent academic then be careful when you step outside your field. If something sounds too crazy to be true then it probably is.


  1. Amen... Regarding your conclusion to give ideas a fair shot, I have a great quote by Tom Natsoulas that I will try to dig up.

    Also, I love the idea of Dawkes. Though I would tempted to name them "Cricks" after Francis Crick's attempts to wade into psychology and neuroscience. Your term is more timely though.

    1. I'd be interested in reading that quote, let me know if you ever find/remember it!

      And yes, there are certainly many people I could have chosen for the scale but Dawkins is a name that pops up a lot in the areas I'm interested in. I also considered calling them "Harrises" after Sam Harris, but it didn't roll off the tongue as well as "Dawk" - plus, it has the added bonus of sounding like "Dork".

  2. I'm confused about how you're using the terms "methodological behaviorism" and "radical behaviorism". Doesn't MB imply that the behaviorist may very well accept subjective inner mental experience, emotion, etc. but ignore them for methodological purposes? If this is not the case, is there such a thing as a "pragmatic behaviorist"?

    - Curio

    1. Hi Curio, thanks for your comment.

      Your description of a methodological behaviorist is correct in that they can accept the principles of methodological behaviorism whilst personally believing in the existence of inner states and emotion, it's just that their philosophy remains silent on the notion of their existence. I think it's consistent with what I've written above.

      Similarly, a scientist who adopts methodological naturalism can accept that position and simultaneously believe that there is a god. They aren't incompatible positions as long as the beliefs don't enter into the scientific work based on the philosophical position. This is because those positions simply remain silent on the existence of those things and so the adherents of the philosophy can hold whatever belief they like regarding them.

      I haven't heard the term "pragmatic behaviorist" but, depending on where you think the pragmatism comes into it, I think the MB position that you describe above would qualify.

    2. I've been reading William Baum's book "Understanding behaviourism", and he put it that that MB was loosely a realist philosophy, (As you say MB said that "thoughts" "feelings" etc (ie what radical behaviourists would call covert behaviour) were unreachable to scientists while real) while Radical behaviourism is actually related to Pragmatism. A few other behaviourists I have come across including Anthony Biglan, and Steven C Hayes concurred and said that Radical behaviourism is related to pragmatism (as in, the philosophy of people like William James and Ernst Mach). I think you are wrong to say that MB is based on Pragmatism.

    3. Hi Anonymous,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, above I'm using the term "pragmatism" in the standard non-philosophical sense and wasn't trying to assign any behaviorist position to the traditional American Pragmatist philosophy.

      My point was just that MB's rejection of internal states was done on the basis of a pragmatic concern; i.e. one of convenience and practicality, rather than a claim about what's true, real, or exists.

      I've seen a number of arguments trying to link radical behaviorism to various other philosophical positions but I wouldn't disagree with associating it with American Pragmatism. It's definitely more accurate than the claims that it is a logical positivist stance.

  3. surreptitious5710 March 2014 at 00:49

    It seems odd that scientists can make fundamental errors of judgement when referencing other scientific disciplines outside their own area of expertise which is probably why they should refrain from doing so if at all possible. The most famous example3 of this was Fred Hoyle who made a monumental misjudgement on a matter pertaining to biology even though he was a physicist. But scientists are just as human as anyone so one should not be too surprised this happens. Though it does so probably less frequently within the scientific community than without it. One should always provide evidence for any claim one makes otherwise it cannot be demonstrated to be true. Though something which is non falsifiable is not necessarily false but even so