Wasting Time

Tom Bourbon [950110.1043]

"Confessions of a PCT jester," or, "Why I told Bruce Abbott that
cows say, 'quack, quack.'"

This is a short discussion of experimental methods and PCT,
prompted by a brief passage from a post by Bruce Abbott and by
subsequent exchanges. I draw on ideas discussed at length by Hugh

Bruce's original passage and my initial reply:

     Tom Bourbon [950104.1330]

     >[From Bruce Abbott (950104.1215 EST)]

     >1. Traditional Research Methods Versus PCT Methods

     Rick: please tell me how you plan to study the properties of
     human memory using the Test. Your results should allow you
     to explain, for example, how it is that you are able to
     recognize a familiar face.

I replied:

     But(t)insky Bourbon, that's me. :wink:

     Cows say quack, quack.

     The figure at the end of the second line back was a (:frowning:


Subject: Re: Methods N' Such


Bruce replied to me in:

  Subject: Bait and Switch [From Bruce Abbott (950104.2050 EST)]

     >But(t)insky Bourbon, that's me. :wink:

     >Cows say quack, quack.

     I'm afraid I missed the significance of your reply...please

     >The figure at the end of the second line back was a (:frowning:

     No it wasn't.

Instead of telling Bruce what I was trying to do, I gave him more
"silly" statements. He never did discover what I was up to.
Eventually, he lost patience with me and declared the whole
exchange a waste of time.

Using what I admit was an indirect tactic, I was trying without success
to encourage Bruce to reconsider remarks of his like the following, which
is also in:

     [From Bruce Abbott (950104.2050 EST)]

Rick Marken (950104.1445)

Bruce Abbott (950104.1215 EST)

     >>Rick: please tell me how you plan to study the properties
     of human memory using the Test. Your results should allow
     you to explain, for example, how it is that you are able to
     recognize a familiar face.

Rick said:
     >I presume that this means that you don't want to discuss
     the problems of using conventional IV-DV methodology to study
     living control systems?

Bruce replied:
     Actually no, I don't. I want to discuss the problems of
     using control-system methodology to study aspects of human and
     animal capabilities for which that methodology is inappropriate.
     In this way I hope to bolster my argument that traditional methods
     have their place in psychology.

In the silly statements he thought were a waste of time, I
was trying to challenge both of Bruce's assertions: that
control-system methodology is inappropriate for the study of
topics like memory, and that traditional methods have a place in
psychology. :wink: (I'm more or less KIDDING about one of those points
-- guess which one.)

That Bruce recognized my deliberately silly statements
about cows, ducks and such as wrong, and that he acted to control
his perceptions so as to eliminate his sense of their wrongness,
might show us something about how PCT can inspire methods to
study topics like memory and learning.

What would happen if you told a two-month old that dogs say
"moo"? A ten-month old? A two-year old?

I'm sure you get the picture. Eventually, you arrive at a point
where, much more demonstratively than Bruce, a child will let you
know that something is wrong with what he or she just heard. A
perception does not match a reference. You may see a puzzled
expression on the child's face. The child may look at you as
though something is wrong. Or, if he or she is like my own when
I played my games at the right times, the child will say something
like, "No!, or "That's silly!," or "You're dumb!" (The third possibility
is more like what my own children told me.)

The silly statements are "silly" only because they do not match
expected perceptions -- reference perceptions. The "reactions" of
a child, or of Bruce, are actions to correct for error. From their
attempts to control, we (PCTers) conclude that they "know" (have
reference perceptions for) certain "facts" about the world. By their
attempts to control, we know they "recognize" certain perceptions as
"familiar" and others as "unfamiliar." By their efforts to
control, or by their absence, we learn that some hypothesized
perceptions probably are not "recognized" at all.

One of the best discussions about methods, inspired by PCT,
that can be used to test for memories is in a chapter by Hugh
Petrie. It is one of my favorites for showing that the way we
treat one another can be affected if we think of all people as
active perceptual control systems.

Hugh G. Petrie (1979) "Against 'objective' tests: A note on the
epistemology underlying current testing dogma." Chapter 4 in,
Mark N. Ozer (Ed.), _A cybernetic approach to the assessment of
children: Toward a more humane use of human beings_. Boulder,
Colorado: Westview Press. pages 117-149.

The book includes chapters by participants in a symposium at the
February 1977 meeting of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science, in Boulder, Colorado. There is a nice
chapter about hierarchical control systems, by Bill Powers. The
title alludes to Norbert Wiener's book, _The human use of human

In his chapter, one of Hugh's goals is to carefully distinguish
between various meanings of "objective" and "subjective," when
those terms are used to describe testing procedures. He develops
that theme nicely, but nicer still is his discussion of how we
might go about testing for knowledge in living control systems.
I will summarize some of his ideas that I like, and I will use a
few quotes as samples of some of the best writing in the PCT
literature. (Remember that when Hugh says "cybernetic," he is
talking about what we now call perceptual control theory.)

Hugh argues that actions *in* the world precede knowledge (formal
representations) *of* the world. He challenges some traditional
ideas, like those that education should create students who
always produce the correct responses (actions, behaviors) in the
appropriate contexts, or that education should equip (fill)
students with facts that are context-free.

Hugh rejects the idea that testing is a process of sampling
from a set of predetermined possible responses. Writing as a
control theorist in opposition to that idea, Hugh says, "We do
*not* simply select, from an infinite array of possible
preexisting responses, the one which just matches a given

Hugh describes the "cybernetic alternative" (PCT alternative) for
testing. It is not fool-proof. In PCT testing, we apply
potential disturbances to the knowledge process we hypothesize in
a particular child, and we watch to see if the child counters the
disturbance. Hugh never used the phrase, "the Test for the
controlled variable," but that was what he described.

p. 130. "Coming to know is coming to have the appropriate
control system. Knowing is operating with the control system,
or, in the dispositional mode, is being ready to operate with the
control system if a disturbance occurs."

p. 131. " . . . knowing a fact is being in possession of a
feedback system which represents that fact as a reference signal
in the system." . . . "How does one test for the knowledge of
facts?" All of you on csg-l know how that discussion unfolds.

In a test for "knowledge" of facts about American History, ". . .
the disturbance might be a true-false test with the item being
'The _Declaration of Independence_ was signed in 1776.' In this
case, marking 'false' would constitute a disturbance and if the
student knows the fact, the disturbance would be avoided rather
than directly counteracted."

A PCT procedure similar to the one for testing knowledge of facts
can be used to test knowledge of "concepts."

"A goose is a: (a) bird (b) fish (c) mammal (d) none of the above

Sometimes, as in that example, a single "disturbance" item might
disturb more than one controlled perception at a time.

Notice that some of the *surface* appearances of a test might be
the same, whether the teacher is a PCTer or a traditionalist.
The big difference is in what those two teachers assume they
learn about the child who takes the test. One of them looks for
the presence or absence of controlled perceptions; the other, for
a repertoire of correct actions or responses, indicative of a
mental catalog of correct facts and concepts.

Similarly, we can use "the Test" for a controlled perception (a
phrase Hugh did not use) to assess "understanding" (higher-level
control that subsumes lower-level control of categories, facts,
instances, etc.), and to test for specific methodologies and

p. 137. On skills: "We do not learn the principles of skills
and then apply them. Rather, we acquire certain perceptual
quantities to control and correct for disturbances."

Beginning on page 137, Hugh describes an example of how one might
use what we now call "the Test" while teaching students about
fractions. The example involves different numbers of students
each wanting certain fractions of the pizza. A disturbance
(question) might be: "If Sam wants 1\3, and Sandra wants 1\3,
and Jose wants 2\3, can each of them have what they want?" (If
circumstances were right, I would do this a little differently
than Hugh. I would give a student a pizza and say, "Cut this up
so that Sam gets 1\3, Sandra gets 1\3, and Jose gets 2\3," then I
would sit back and watch. I would *hope* all of my students
would say, "You're dumb!" At least I might get to eat the equipment.)

p. 138. Concerning the pizza example. "The point is not that
the cybernetic view generates tests or test items which would not
in principle be generated under the conventional model, but
rather that it sets us off in a slightly different, and, I think,
more fruitful direction." "The reaction to this kind of item by
the advocates of the conventional model of testing will be that
they too could have come up with the item." Hugh described a few
likely objections, then he said: "If this sort of example is at
all persuasive, I suggest it is because it makes direct use of
the model of removing a disturbance rather than the model of
selecting from a repertoire of responses." p. 139.

p. 140. On the "problem" of the novel answer on an exam.
"Instead of its being an unwelcome intruder for whom we must
somehow find room in the conventional model of testing, the novel
answer is the master of the house in the cybernetic view. By
giving pride of place to this central feature of human
adaptability, the cybernetic model is in a very clear sense a
more human approach to testing for learning than the conventional

p. 141. "Cybernetics shows how control systems perceive in the
environment whatever it is they are controlling for and how they
can change the environment *within limits* to become more like
what is being controlled for. The limits are set by the world as
it is, natural and social."

p. 144. "One also needs to consider the test response *both*
from the point of view of what the student is controlling and
from the point of view of the collective understanding the
teacher is testing for. In short, there are two cybernetic
systems (PCT systems) in operation -- the student's and the
teacher's. Do they control the same quantity?" (TB: and if they
don't? In yesterday's "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip, the
teacher says "Write about X in your own words." I forget what X
was. Calvin is seen writing, feverishly, things like, "qiuhw,
xkhb, wvuy, lphw, i37 ckj d." In the last panel, Calvin smiles
devilishly and says, "I love loopholes!" Probably not exactly
what the teacher had in mind! I wonder how many teachers would
welcome Calvin's essay as evidence that he is an effective
yong control system!)

p. 147. "What someone *does* is defined not in terms of
behavioral affects -- those could well vary from situation to
situation -- but rather in terms of the quantities the actor is

All in all a wonderful chapter.

Bruce said:
"Rick: please tell me how you plan to study the properties of
human memory using the Test. Your results should allow you to
explain, for example, how it is that you are able to recognize a
familiar face."

At least as a start toward developing the methods, consider these
two items:

"Chickens have three eyes and long trunks for noses."

"Perceptual control theorists are behavioral scientists."