Extremism or "Let us now ignore famous men"

[From Rick Marken (920804)]

Well, here it is; my first "post - meeting - post".

The Durango meeting was a joy, as usual. Every day was filled with
helpful discussions and fascinating demonstrations.

A general impression from the meeting: many of us (people) have a
great reluctance to abandon ideas that have at one time or another
been deemed "important" or treated as "fundemental". Thus, for example,
it is difficult to believe that "reinforcement" is a useless concept; that it
is simply the result of a misperception of the phenomenon of control. A
famous man said it was important -- and many famous men and women continue
to use the concept -- so it MUST be important.

The same holds for other concepts that have become shibboliths of behavioral
science because some now famous person once said it was important.
Examples include: reflex, experimental method (IV-DV approach),
statistical analysis, true score, intelligence, information and conditioning.

It is hard for people to believe that the fruits of the "great minds" of
the past could be completely useless; many people think that there must be
SOMETHING worth preserving from what went before -- even when they accept
the value of a new point of view, such as control theory.

I find this respect for history admirable and I also think there actually
might be some things worth preserving from the old point of view. They
are the things that can move into the new control theory point of view
effortlessly, with no one noticing. For example, the Copernican
revolution held on to the Ptolmeic idea that there were planets moving
in space. Similarly, control theory holds on to the idea that animal
actions result from muscle contractions caused by efferent neural impulses.
It just gets rid of the idea that these actions are caused (made to
occur more frequently) by external events (reinforcers). Actions are, of
course, part of a control loop; and some perceptual consequence of those
actions is under control. The apparent effect of "reinforcers" is a result
of looking at this control loop from the wrong perspective.

There are many places where control theory shows that some old, revered
concepts are just plain wrong or irrelevant. Reinforcement a good example
of a concept that is wrong; another example is the idea that properly
executed "controlled" experiments (even if the results are perfect) reveal
something about the psychological law that relates variations in the
independent variable to those of the dependent variable. And another is
the idea that behavior is "intrinsically variable" -- so that it it necessary
to average over subjects or over trials with the same subject in order to
estimate the "true" response.

Each one of these assumptions is believed important because it was pronounced
by some "famous man" (yes, they were almost always men; another reason for
exasperation); Skinner or R.A Fisher or whomever.

Thus, when a control theorist pronounces such ideas "wrong" there is some
considerable consternation. Even when we make our case there is still the
feeling thaty there must be SOMETHING that can be salvaged from the old ideas.
But the fact is that control theory shows that these concepts are often just
flat out wrong and can be safely (and profitably) ignored. This is the
only proper response to these famous concepts. Unfortunately, the proper
response is the one that makes the control theorist seem like an EXTREMIST
(or, as one person put it at the meeting, a religious zealot).

I think the "extremism" label is just something one will have to put up
with once he or she understands control theory. The alternative is to try
to seem "moderate" by trying to find a place for "famous" concepts in
control theory. Unfortunately, when this is done it usually results in
compromises that, from a control theory view, are WRONG. For example,
trying to study control using the IV-DV framework is wrong, not
because a tenet of the PCT religion says "thou shalt not do experiments
as the conventional psychologists do them", but because we know (and
have shown in many experiments) that

o = - k.e (d)

What an organism does (its output, o) depends on environmental disturbances,
d (not sensory inputs) -- and the relationship between disturbances and
outputs depends on the nature of the environment that determines the
relationship, k.e, between outputs and the sensory effects of disturbances.
Thus, you are guaranteed not to learn about the nature of the controlling
organism if you use the IV-DV approach. This is an "extreme" conclusion -- but
the only correct one, I'm afraid.

There are certain control theory concepts that cannot be compromised with
existing "famous" concepts -- without losing control theory. "Extremism"
like this is, unfortunately, the price one pays for understanding control
theory. I prefer to call it "integrity" rather than "extremism"-- but I'm
sure it doesn't look like anything but "extremism" from the point of view
of those who are not yet prepared to "ignore famous men".

Best regards




Richard S. Marken USMail: 10459 Holman Ave
The Aerospace Corporation Los Angeles, CA 90024
E-mail: marken@aero.org
(310) 336-6214 (day)
(310) 474-0313 (evening)