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...


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.

Literally Hitler.

"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.

Checkmate, physicists.


  1. Wait your saying I shouldn't be taking my physics lessons from Deepak Chopra? ;)

    The misrepresentation of Skinner and behavior analysis has been something I have been dealing with for years and I use to respond in frustration to how absurdly wrong and off the mark these claims are. Almost anyone of Skinner's readings directly conflicts with multiple claims made by the author of the linked article.

    More recently however I'm curious as to why it persists so much. I think in part, it's due to the caricature of Skinner as the evil person has permeated our social stories that we tell one another. He's become the stereotypic wrong minded scientists who did all these bad things and look how dogmatically wrong he was. Listen up kids, you should be careful not to become a Skinner.

    And to a certain extent, I can understand that advice because if Skinner was actually the person he is described to be by his critics, no one should care about his work. Luckily, most people are able to benefit from Skinner's work without having to mention Skinner at all, just call it "state of the early social learning" so it doesn't sound like it has anything to do with Skinner. To some extent, I'm happy with this as behavior analysis continues to grow and progress our understanding of behavior of organisms. It's just sad that Skinner's name is tarred by those too intellectually lazy to look up the person they mean to "discredit".

    1. I agree, he has become the stereotypical villain of science where any bad thing you might have heard about a scientist suddenly becomes Skinnerian lore. In the comment section of that article I linked above, one commenter even mentions that he'll never be able to forgive Skinner for depriving those baby monkeys of affection from their mother. He of course was referring to Harry Harlow's work but somehow evil Skinner strikes again.

    2. skinner and pavlov were noit "evil" in the psychopathic sense, but they had OCPD and a lack of common empathy, both pavlov and skinner used torture as conditioning. it was their first port of call in trying to manipaulate in fact, what skinner didnt realise is that other far more nefarious individuals like stalin and the fucking nazis used his work to great effect.
      Thats why he is seen as so dnagerous...but he was no psychopath , he had this, the worlds most common yet systemically ignored and even approved personality disorder,

    3. "skinner and pavlov were noit "evil" in the psychopathic sense, but they had OCPD and a lack of common empathy"

      Interesting claim but I'm not aware of any evidence that they had OCPD, and Skinner himself was awarded numerous prizes based on his humanism and empathy for others - so that claim seems to be immediately false unless you have some evidence.

      "both pavlov and skinner used torture as conditioning. it was their first port of call in trying to manipaulate in fact, what skinner didnt realise is that other far more nefarious individuals like stalin and the fucking nazis used his work to great effect."

      Skinner never used torture and he spent most of his career attempting to demonstrate that punishment does not work to change behavior. So if Stalin and the Nazis wanted to use his work to change behavior, they'd reach the same conclusion that he did - that punishment (and thus torture techniques) are useless.

      More importantly, someone using your work to do evil things wouldn't make you evil. The Nazis also used Darwin's work on natural selection to fuel their philosophy, but that doesn't make Darwin evil.

  2. Same for the electrified container, which was Martin Seligman's work with dogs. Of course most people have forgotten that and now apparently are associating it Skinner.

  3. I'm just entertained that you did basically the exact same thing with Zimbardo in your post. ;-)

    1. In my defence, it's not an exaggeration if it's true - like in Satan's case above.

  4. I adore this post! Great job. I've been looking into the Chomsky skinner debate recently and found your post hit the nail on the head with the hatchet job that has been done on Skinner. I'd like to mil you if possible. Do you have an email address?

    1. Hi, thanks for the compliments! You can email me at, if you like.

  5. "to Baron-Cohen's recent embarassment" ffpphhhhahahahahahaha

  6. Your sarcastic tone does not hide the way your mind is locked in the literal world, like many of your breed. You lack humanity, like Skinner , and fail to see his shortsightedness as a result -- but do not confuse your attempt at reducing your own cognitive dissonance for any greater meaning.

    1. Thanks for the comment, anon! Just wondering if you were able to address any of the evidence I presented. Even if it's true that I'm somehow suffering from cognitive dissonance, that wouldn't be a problem if all the evidence still supports that position.

    2. its not dissonance its a lack of a morality applied in a historical perspectives, two words . no six.
      the first four, obsessive compulsive PERSONALITY disorder (not to be confused with OCD) and the other two are a name,,,,
      Adolf Eichmann.
      not an "evil" bone in his body, but still killed more people and more efficiently thna any other nazi, prided himslef on his "work rate".
      Skinner clarified and taught torturers and preternatural manipualtors everything they think they know.

  7. This was reasonable, until you started talking about ABA. Then, it's just a bash fest. ABA is not the only successful treatment for autism, unless by successful, you mean successful at traumatizing. You'd think that, because motivations are so meaningful to Skinner and you, you'd have worked out that they're in a pain that they can't adapt to.

    You cannot excuse the jrc just by calling them a school of last resort, and saying that the shocks are the same. Torture ought not be resorted to, ever.

    1. Hi June, thanks for your comment.

      "ABA is not the only successful treatment for autism, unless by successful, you mean successful at traumatizing."

      Alright, maybe I'm unaware of another evidence-based approach, what did you have in mind? Most alternatives I've seen are just variations of ABA where they avoid using the term "ABA".

      "You'd think that, because motivations are so meaningful to Skinner and you, you'd have worked out that they're in a pain that they can't adapt to."

      Can you clarify what you mean by this?

      "You cannot excuse the jrc just by calling them a school of last resort, and saying that the shocks are the same. Torture ought not be resorted to, ever."

      Well, I disagree with calling medical treatments "torture" (anything can be "torture" without context, like how chemotherapy is "torture" for pumping someone full of poisonous chemicals) but regardless, I think we actually can justify it by pointing out that it's a method of last resort.

      In other words, I absolutely understand how distressing it can be to think that a treatment involves administering electric shocks to a person to try to help them. But I also understand that the only alternative is to let them continue to hurt and kill themselves, even when they beg to be helped.

      It's a situation where both options are distressing but, to me, it seems like there's a clearly better alternative - electric shocks is better than sitting there and doing nothing while a child bashes their brain in against a wall until they die.

      If there was any dispute over the effectiveness of the treatment, or that any element of it was unnecessary, then absolutely there would never be a time when such a treatment should be suggested or advocated. But until anything better comes along, it's unfortunately a highly successful last resort.

  8. Hi,

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