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In the information age it seems that every fact is at our fingertips. Simply googling a topic can lead every person to a multitude of different sources on that topic. However, rational skepticism is a must, if any information we find is to be trusted. This is no less true when information comes from supposed intellectuals speaking on areas that they do not directly contribute to.

A wonderful example of this is the recent article published in the Edge[1] by Simon Baron-Cohen[2]. Simon Baron-Cohen is a psychologist at the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University. In the section titled 2014: What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement Baron-Cohen suggests that radical behaviorism should be retired. Based solely on his position and place of work Baron-Cohen would seem, to many people, to be a reputable authority in this area. Unfortunately for Mr. Baron-Cohen and those who would believe his statements in this article, his argument is valid in structure, but his premises are untrue. This destroys his entire argument and shows him to be a great example of an unreliable source in this area.

The article starts out with a true and a false statement. It is true that many students of psychology are taught that behaviorism was displaced by the cognitive revolution, because it was deeply flawed scientifically[3][4]. However, this is not true on two counts. One, it was not, so to say, displaced. Two, it was and is not scientifically flawed.

Behaviorism and radical behaviorism were never displaced. First, the idea that radical behaviorism had a necessarily high number of adherents in its early days is not completely true. Though it was much talked about, there was never a time when the American Psychological Association was made up of an overwhelming number of radical behaviorists. Also the faction of behaviorists that existed in the APA started to have less involvement in the late 1950s-1970s. The reason for this is not because all of the behaviorists submitted to cognitivist view points, but because during this time they started to branch off away from traditional psychology. For example, Skinner developed the experimental analysis of behavior as a form of study and the flagship research journal in this area, the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, did not start to be published until 1958[5]. Ten years later the first applied research journal, the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, had its first publication[6]. The first research methods book for behavior analysis (the science of behavior informed by the philosophy of behaviorism) was not published until 1960[7]. It was not even until the 1971 that the first textbook in the applied textbook in the principles of behavior analysis was published[8]. The Association for Behavior Analysis, the professional organization for behavior analysts around the world, was not even established until 1974[9] and this emerged out of regional behavior analysis conferences[10]. How could behaviorism have been on decline in this period if these events were just starting to occur? In reality this period was representative of behavior analysts’ attempting two firsts: their first attempt to apply their research findings to human issues and their first attempt to separate themselves from the practice and tradition of psychology[11].

Today behavior analysis is not only far from displaced, it is growing. In 2012 at the 38th annual conference of the Association for Behavior Analysis, Maria Malott reported that over the past 20 years the association’s membership has increased by 266%[12]. In 1998 the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB) was formed[13] and started providing certifications for Board Certified Behavior Analysts in the year 2000[14]. Today the state of California alone has over 2,000 (BACB) certificants[15].  BACB approved university programs exist at over 200 different sites around the world[16]. Behavior analysts have conducted countless effective interventions in mental health[17][18], developmental disabilities[19], education[20], animal training[21], organizational change and job improvement[22], traffic safety[23], addiction,[24] and countless other areas. Again, this does not appear to be a dead discipline.[25]

Now to the other false claim; that is, that behaviorism is a flawed science. There are many issues with this claim. The first may be that behaviorism is not considered a science, but a philosophy that guides the science of behavior[26]. Radical behaviorism is a specific philosophy of science that, among other things, operates on the assumptions that there is no difference between the private and public events[27][28]. An example is that the self-talk typically called consciousness (private) is not considered to be of a different substance or dimension than self-talk out loud (public). In both situations the same types of controlling relationships exist and act between the behavior and the environment. More plainly, behaviorists do account for thoughts and feelings in therapies, they just account for them in a different way than traditional mentalistic psychologists. All of this is to say that the radical behaviorists never considered the organism a tabula rasa or blank slate, so this could not be the reason for it being a supposedly flawed science. The behaviorists’ perspective of the individual self as a single dimensional organism may be best illustrated by what the late Christopher Hitchens said in his book Mortality[29], regarding the cancer ravaging his body, “I don’t have a body, I am a body” [30].Which is not to say he does not have thoughts and feelings, but that those are not of a different substance than the rest of him. Further, the idea that radical behaviorism does not account for the findings of other fields was countered by B. F. Skinner himself his book The Contingencies of Reinforcement[31]. In that book Skinner accepted and accounted for the multiple influences of physiology, neurology, biology and genetics on human behavior.

Another example against Mr. Baron-Cohen’s claim that radical behaviorism is scientifically flawed is actually in an area he should be familiar with – that is, autism research. In 2009 the National Autism Council published their National Standards Project[32]. This report was a large scale assessment of the various interventions for autism. It rated each of these interventions for the autism population as either established, emerging, unestablished, or ineffective/ harmful. Of the established treatments nearly two-thirds were behavioral and of the final one-third, 75% were found to be behavioral in nature. This does not seem to be a scientific theory that is ready for retirement.

These are not the only claims made by Simon Baron-Cohen that are false. For example, though Chomsky’s scathing review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior[33][34] did lead many to assume that Skinner’s analysis was flawed, that does not make it true. First of all, Chomsky’s proposed theories on language have contributed almost nothing to helping people learn language skills, whereas the methods based on Skinner’s theoretical analysis have helped countless children learn to speak[35]. This is not surprising as Chomsky’s language acquisition device[36] is simply a construct to explain a behavior, which always leads to circular reasoning. (The child acquires language naturally through his language acquisition device. How do you know? Because he acquires language naturally and quickly. So why does he acquire language naturally and quickly? Because of his language acquisition device.) Do you see the problem?

In regards to the postulation that neuroscience is incompatible with behavior analysis, as Baron-Cohen says, this is simply untrue. In fact, the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior in 2005 devoted a special issue to research collaborations between neuroscience and behavior analysis[37]. David W. Shaal[38] is a particularly great example of a behavior analyst working with neuroscientists and has been an advocate for increased participation.

Finally, in his article Baron-Cohen says that behaviorists’ work with animals in zoos and aquariums is actually harmful. He says that 3 deaths by a killer whale at SeaWorld are an example of this, as human death by killer whales rarely happens in the wild. This is a terrible example, since the contact of killer whales with humans – particularly in close proximity – in the wild is in no way comparable to that experienced at SeaWorld. Baron-Cohen says this is as a result of not accounting for animals’ nature, but behavior analysts have specifically intervened to increasing animals’ species-specific behaviors in captivity[39]. Again, this is the opposite of what Baron-Cohen claims.

All of this speaks to the falsehood of Simon Baron-Cohen’s claims, but not their invalidity. An argument is valid if, assuming the premises are true, the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises. The sources Baron-Cohen sites are real and come from (apparently) reputable sources. Every conclusion he makes from his premises is valid. It is not because of a flaw in his logical process that his article is unreliable. His arguments make sense, but that doesn’t make anything he says true. Since his premises are based on incorrect information his conclusions cannot be true, and this makes his entire argument false.

To be a rational skeptic in the information age finding valid and true sources of information is an important first step. If we are curious about the state of applied quantum physics we should look in journal and organization of applied quantum physics. This is not to say that people outside of the discipline have no right to evaluate it, but that any contradiction between the two claims require further investigation. Finally, we must remember that just because a statement comes from a supposed intellectual is no reason to exempt it from this process of rational, skeptical investigation.

[3] Heine, S. J. (2010). Cultural psychology Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

[4] Miller, G. A. (2003). The cognitive revolution: A historical perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(3), 141-144.

[5] Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 1958, 1 (1) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/issues/128933/

[6] Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1968, 1 (1) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/issues/125029/

[7] Sidman, M. (1960). Tactics of scientific research. Boston: Authors Cooperative.

[8] Whaley, D. L., & Malott, R. W. (1971). Elementary principles of behavior. Engle-Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

[9] Currently the Association of Behavior Analysis International-  http://www.abainternational.org/abai.aspx

[11] For an extended look see Rutherford, A. (2009). Beyond the box: B. F. skinner’s technology of behavior from laboratory to life, 1950s-1970s University of Toronto Press, Toronto, ON.

[12] Malott, M. E. (2012, May). Award for distinguished service to behavior analysis: Maria E. Malott , Ph. D. In M. J. Douger (Chair). Opening event and society for the advancement of behavior analysis awards. Award presentation presented at the 38th Annual conference of the Association for Behavior Analysis International. Seattle, WA.

[14]Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Columbus, OH:        Merrill-Prentice Hall.

[17] Harvey, M. T., Luiselli, J. K., & Wong, S. E. (2009). Application of applied behavior analysis to mental health issues.Psychological Services, 6(3), 212-222.

[18] Sturmey, P. (2009). Behavioral activation is an evidence-based treatment for depression. Behavior Modification, 33(6), 818-829.

[19] Axelrod, S., McElrath, K. K., & Wine, B. (2012). Applied behavior analysis: Autism and beyond. Behavioral Interventions, 27(1), 1-15.

[21] Forthman, D. L., & Ogden, J. J. (1992). The role of applied behavior analysis in zoo management: Today and tomorrow.Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25(3), 647-652.

[22] Journal of Organizational Behavior Management

[23]  Van Houten, R., Hilton, B., Schulman, R., & Reagan, I. (2011). Using accelerator pedal force to increase seat belt use of service vehicle drivers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44(1), 41-49.

[24] Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 41 (4), 2008.  Special Issue on Drug Addition

[25] See research journals like Education and Treatment of Children

[26]Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism Alfred A. Knopf, Oxford.

[27] Chiesa, M. (1994). Radical behaviorism: the philosophy and the science. Boston: Authors Cooperative.

[28] Moore, J. (2008). Conceptual foundations of radical behaviorism. Cornwall-on-Hudson,NY: Sloan.

[29] Hitchens, C. (2012). Mortality. Twelve. New York, NY.

[30] Ibid. page, 41.

[31] Skinner, B.F. (1969). Contingencies of reinforcement: A theoretical analysis.  New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts

[32] National Autism Center (2009). National Standards Report. Retrieved from http://www.nationalautismcenter.org/nsp/reports.php

[33] Chomsky, N. (1959). Review of Skinner’s verbal behavior. Language, 35, 26–58.

[34] Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Acton, MA: Copley Publishing Group.

[35] Palmer, D. C. (2006). On chomsky’s appraisal of skinner’s verbal behavior: A half century of misunderstanding. The Behavior Analyst, 29(2), 253-267

[36] Chomsky, N. (2000). New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge University Press. New York, NY.

[37] Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 84 (3), 2005. Special Issue on Neuroscience

[38] Ibid.

[39]   Forthman, D. L., & Ogden, J. J. (1992). The role of applied behavior analysis in zoo management: Today and tomorrow.Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25(3), 647-652.