Walden? Schmalden!

From Tom Bourbon [950713.1108]

Picking up the dangling ends of a thread on B.F. Skinner and "Walden II."
(I will not cite all of the originals -- I am trying to catch up on the net
in between bouts of no connection, and connections in which all I can
download are headers and empty files.)

In his conversation on this topic, mostly with Bill Powers and Rick Marken,
Bruce Abbott has said that his primary interest is in keeping the diasuccion
"honest" -- seeing to it that behaviorism and skinner are represented fairly
and accurately.

I share Bruce's concern. That is why I usually try to find what B.F.
himself said on a subject, rather than accept interpretations of him by
second and third parties. Skinner is source enough for us to se the
inconcistencies and contradictions in his ideas.

Take the example of "goals" and "purpose." In _Science and Human Behavior_
(1953), BFS wrote (selections from pages 87-90): "Purpose is not a property
of the behavior itself; it is a way of referring to controlling variables."
(TB: and the significant "controlling variables" are in the environment, or
in the environmental history of the organism.) "The fact that operant
behavior seems to be 'directed toward the future' is misleading." (TB: BFS
never identified the fact that goals and purposes exist only in the
_present_. To make his thinking on that point crystal clear, he added the
following.) "There is no _current_ goal, incentive, or meaning to be taken
into account." (TB: On the subject of purpose and goals, Skinner's thinking
seems pretty clear to me.)

But, as though to muddy the waters, Skinner often said things like the
following, quoted from an interview with Evans, which I cite below: "The
behaviorists, like scientists in general, are attempting to reach certain
goals (sic). They use their own techniques to arrive at these goals (sic),
just as the humanist uses his own techniques to arrive at his goals (sic)."
(TB: Where did all of those goals come from? Didn't he say, somewhere
else, there were no such things to be taken into acount?)

I think some of the most interesting insights into Skinner's ideas are in
_Skinner: The Man and His Ideas_, (1968), R.I. Evans, NY: Dutton. The book
comes from an extensive interview of Skinner by Evans.

The next passage (pp. 22, 23) reveals significant differences between lineal
C-E models of behavior, like the operant-conditioning model, and the PCT
model: BFS - "As far as I am concerned, the organism is irrelevant as the
site of physiological processes or as the locus of mentalistic activities. I
don't think the organism contributes anything to these overall relationships
(TB: between stimulus, response and consequence) beyond the fact that it is
the behavior of an organism we are studying." . . . "As a determinist, I
must assume that the organism is simply mediating the relationship between
the forces acting upon it and its own output . . .." That seems rather
unambiguous: the organism is a sometimes inconvenient feature in the path
from cause to behavior. So much for the PCT practice of taking the point of
view of the organism as the controller of its own perceptions.

In the conversation on csg-l, Bruce Abbott discussed his interpretation of
some social and political implications of Skinner's ideas, and Bill Powers
replied. Bruce said in passing that "right-wing" political forces, such as
the fascists (and Nazis) had used and abused some of Skinner's ideas. Bill
briefly replied that left-wing political groups had also abused those ideas.
Again, the Evans-Skinner interview gives us a direct view of Skinner's ideas
on the subject, in 1968. To put a little perspective on Professor Skinner's
ideas about societies and Applied Behavioral Analysis, remember that 1968
was the 15th year after the death of Joseph Stalin. The Soviet Union was
led by Leonid Brezhnev, who in 1968 announced the Brezhnev Doctrine: the
Soviet Union had the right to intervene in the affairs of any Communist
nation, in order to strengthen Communism. Millions of Soviets had already
been exterminated by their leaders -- part of the effort by Soviet
controllers to create a perfect environment, as the means to create a
perfect society. The Gulag was flourishing. Dissidents were diagnosed with
"psychiatric disorders" and confined in "asylums" where they received "therapy."

In 1968, Communist China was half way through the Great Proletarian Cultural
Revolution, launched by Mao Zedong. Along with the original revolution, the
"Cultural" one produced many millions of deaths -- part of the effort by
Chinese controllers to create a perfect environment, as the means to create
a perfect society.

How did Skinner characterize the Russian and Chinese attempts at Applied
Behavioral Analysis? How did he compare their efforts with those of the
Nazis? In Evan's book, Skinner says (selections from pp. 48-55): "The
Nazis made good use of the social sciences even though they had driven out
most of the good people. It was 'good' from their point of view, of course;
dangerous from ours." (TB: good and bad defined in terms of the
individual's "point of view." I wonder what Skinner meant by that. How do
"good" and "bad" and "point of view" fit into his ideas about stimulus
control through operant conditioning? Also, were all of the good people --
"good" people? -- "driven out?" No. The Nazis' approach to creating a
perfect society was to play the genes-as-lineal-cause-of-behavior game. If
there are some imperfect people in the way of the perfect society, wipe them
out of the gene pool -- and supplement that procedure with a little
selective breeding of the "best" males with the "best" females.)

"If you govern by coercion, as the Nazis did, waking people up in the middle
of the night and dragging them off to jail, you can control for a period of
time, but you are controlling frightened people. Moreover, you do not
encourage support from the outside. Eventually, the method fails."

All well and good. Skinner addresses part of what the Nazis were doing --
he talked about jail and never did mention the firing squads and gas
chambers. How does he distinguish the Soviets and Chinese (as of 1968) from
the Nazis?

"I believe the Russians are trying to avoid that kind of control; they've
had a long history of it, and seem now to be trying to use positive
reinforcement, though they are not organizing their contingencies properly."
(TB: Interesting. The Soviet Union of Brezhnev and the Gulag and the asylums
-- the Soviet Union where the "ideas" of a party hack named Trofim Lysenko
long dominated the sciences -- was on the right track toward effective
Applied Behavioral Analysis. All they needed was some tweeking of the
contingencies for positive reinforcement and, presto, all would be perfect.)

What did Skinner think about the Culturally Rebelling Chinese? "I don't
know whats going on in China today, since we're not allowed to know much.
(TB: What a remarkably misleading statement in 1968!) But I suspect that the
Chinese are a lot closer to Karl Marx than the Russians. (TB: Is that
supposed to be good, or bad, from Skinner's perspective?) The Chinese
probably have to fall back on coercive control from time to time, and I'm
sure they have not discovered the contingencies which make positive
reinforcement successful, but the by product may be that those controlled
are working at less that their maximum capacity." (TB: Now I see.)

For good discussions about _Walden II_ as the model of a real society, read
some of the books written by residents of Twin Oaks Community, in Virginia.

For a good discussion of the functional non-difference between totalitarian
fascists on the right, and totalitarian socialists on the left, see F. A.
Hayek, _The Road to Serfdom_, 1944/1994, University of Chicago Press.

Later,

Tom

[From Bruce Abbott (950714.1405 EST)]

Tom Bourbon [950713.1108] --

Picking up the dangling ends of a thread on B.F. Skinner and "Walden II."
(I will not cite all of the originals -- I am trying to catch up on the net
in between bouts of no connection, and connections in which all I can
download are headers and empty files.)

In his conversation on this topic, mostly with Bill Powers and Rick Marken,
Bruce Abbott has said that his primary interest is in keeping the diasuccion
"honest" -- seeing to it that behaviorism and skinner are represented fairly
and accurately.

I share Bruce's concern. That is why I usually try to find what B.F.
himself said on a subject, rather than accept interpretations of him by
second and third parties. Skinner is source enough for us to se the
inconcistencies and contradictions in his ideas.

I don't pretend to be an expert on B. F. Skinner's writings; in fact I have
actually read only a small portion of his published work: _Science and Human
Behavior_, _Beyond Freedom and Dignity_, portions of _The Behavior or
Organisms_ and _Schedules of Reinforcement_, and the odd article here and
there. I once "browsed" Walden II in the bookstore but have not actually
read it. I have every issue of _JEAB_ ever published (from 1958); Skinner's
name rarely appears there as author. Skinner founded an approach to
studying behavior grounded in his understanding of the nature of scientific
inquiry, developed its major methods and equipment (free operant, operant
chamber, cumulative recorder, automatic programming and recording equipment,
etc.), pioneered its application to learning (programmed learning) and
therapy (behavior modification), and served as its chief spokesperson and
defender. He left its development largely to others; his contribution to
theoretical debate in the years following the founding of JEAB is
essentially nil; that work was left to his students and followers. To the
extent that Skinner's basic vision of the science of behavior continue to
be reflected in current EAB philosophy and practice, I would like to see
those views correctly represented; otherwise, I could care less what Skinner
thought at some point or other during his long career. Nor do I espouse his
political views, whether they are construed as representing the radical
right or the radical left.

Your quotes from _Science and Human Behavior_ and the Evans interview seem
representative of Skinner's view that goals etc. (as internal constructs)
are not causes of behavior but are themselves functions of environmental
conditions. As I mentioned in another post, he saw no contradiction in
SPEAKING of goals when using loose everyday language (we act AS IF we have
such goals, he would say) but believed that the true causes lay elsewhere.
This, of course, is a significant departure from PCT. YOU may see Skinner's
use of the word "goal" as contradicting Skinner's system, but he certainly
believed that his system accounted for such things.

In the conversation on csg-l, Bruce Abbott discussed his interpretation of
some social and political implications of Skinner's ideas, and Bill Powers
replied. Bruce said in passing that "right-wing" political forces, such as
the fascists (and Nazis) had used and abused some of Skinner's ideas. Bill
briefly replied that left-wing political groups had also abused those ideas.

NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. Those were not MY interpretations; I was simply
referring to the interpretations given by Jim Dinsmoor in his introduction
to the reissue of Walden II. My only comment was that many have interpreted
Skinner's ideas regarding the application of his technology as coming from
the right; Dinsmoor suggests that they actually came from the left. I don't
believe I said anything at all about fascists and Nazis using and abusing
some of Skinner's ideas; indeed that would have been hard for them to do
since Skinner's ideas postdated that era. Nor did I claim that coming from
the left made his ideas any more palatable. Nor do I find anything
appealing about the planned society Skinner envisioned in Walden II. As an
autonomous control system, I prefer autonomy.

Regards,

Bruce