Monday, 24 March 2014

The Parable of the Strawbehaviorist

My stimulus-response reflex chain is set to "Kill!".

In another time and in another place, giant men made of straw roamed the lands. They were known as 'strawbehaviorists'. Their heads were hollow, like a doughnut made more of hole than doughnut, and upon creation they knew nothing of the world. All of their temperaments and responses were simply the imprints written into them by their experiences in the world, like behavioral Golems whose behaviors are masses of unformed clay waiting to be shaped by their environment.

The people feared the absurdity of these creatures; didn't they know that they are logical impossibilities? A number of heroes came forth over the years to rip their straw bodies apart with ease but somehow the strawbehaviorists would rebuild themselves. Even the great Noah Chumsky, champion of champions, defeated these strawbehaviorists with the power of The Good Book (Review) but still they would not die.

Many theories were constructed to explain the regenerative capabilities of the strawbehaviorist. Some said that their own refusal to accept the incoherence of their existence was in itself enough to keep them alive, and this led to the Dissonance Revolution. This was an attempt to highlight their inconsistencies, like pointing out that they could not possibly learn language without a Learning Ordinary Language (LOL) device in the brain (since they had no brain and barely a head at all), with the hopes that these facts would cause them to crumple in a puff of logic.

However, despite all these fierce attacks and despite their apparently weak frames that should have been easy to dismantle, the strawbehaviorists grew in numbers. They were seemingly unperturbed by the onslaughts, as if they were too arrogant to just accept that they cannot exist. With time though, the people tried a new approach: they simply ignored the strawbehaviorists.

They wrote books about how they were defeated, how society had moved on, and whenever a strawbehaviorist would dare reveal itself to the people, it would be reminded that history tells us that they were beaten and that they no longer exist.

This put the minds of the people at ease and they lived their life as if the strawbehaviorists no longer existed. They told tales to their children of how they were so weak that they stood no chance against the people's greatest heroes. But every now and then, after these stories of horror and adventure have been shared with a child, a strawbehaviorist can be seen peering in through the darkened bedroom window.

The parents will comfort the children, carefully scanning the now empty window, and they'll reassure them with the words that their own parents used to reassure them in days gone by: "Don't worry, you're safe. They're not real".

And then they all lived happily ever after... Until "Strawbehaviorists 2: Rise of the Tin Machines" was released, and then no matter who wins, we lose.

This story was inspired by the recent high profile misrepresentations of behaviorism that described the philosophy as blank slatist or as a black box approach to psychology, and I hope that it will serve as a reminder that those people don't need to be afraid any more. Those behaviorists not only don't exist but they never have.

Some good reading on strawbehaviorism:

Why Pinker Needs Behaviorism: A Critique of The Blank Slate

What Happened to Behaviorism?

On behaviorism in the cognitive revolution: Myth and reactions.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Skinner was an evil sociopath

The great thing about eye-grabbing titles is that you can say whatever you want and justify it in terms of generating attention towards the article itself. However, problems arise when the ridiculousness of your title isn't explained away or justified in your article and instead you continue to engage in the hyperbolic misinformation. One such example of this is: Why B.F. Skinner May Have Been The Most Dangerous Psychologist Ever (thanks to @yurihbl for linking me to this absurdity of an article).

Is Skinner more dangerous than Dr.Satan himself? 

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...

Monday, 3 March 2014

There's an app for that

One of the awesome things about science and technology is that as it advances, it becomes more accessible to the everyday person. In behavioral psychology we now have a couple of possible options for cheaper, open-source contraptions to use in our experiments:

"Yeah, yeah, just a minute - I'm about to beat my top score in Flappy Bird!"

The first of these programs was described  in this article, "Need to train your rat? There is an App for that: A touchscreen behavioral evaluation system" and this is an app freely available in the Apple store which allows researchers (or the general public) to create flexible behavioral experiments on a very tight budget. One of it's advantages is also that it doesn't require a great amount of coding knowledge either so it shouldn't be that hard to set up.

The second article, "ArduiPod Box: A low-cost and open-source Skinner box using an iPod Touch and an Arduino microcontroller" describes the equipment needed to build your own Skinner box, complete with the open-source program to run it. All up, you can supposedly build a functioning operant chamber for less than $300 (US, I assume).

Here's a demonstration of it:

Even if you aren't interested in becoming a mad scientist yourself and running the neighbourhood animals through complicated behavioral experiments just to serve your own maniacal curiosity, you have to admit, seeing a rat using an ipad is pretty cool.