B. F. Skinner: Brilliant Engineer, Brilliant Self-Promoter, Mediocre Scientist

I majored in psychology at Reed College. At the time, the whole major centered on Skinnerian psychology — the importance of reward in controlling behavior. The introductory course used a Skinnerian textbook (e.g., we learned the correct meaning of “negative reinforcement” — it does not mean punishment). Other courses also had a Skinnerian emphasis. They never convinced me. I always thought it was an exceedingly narrow way to study behavior.

When I was a graduate student, I visited Harvard and heard Skinner give a talk, titled “Why I am not a cognitive psychologist”. During the question period I asked if he was familiar with the work of Saul Sternberg — perhaps the most influential cognitive psychologist. No, said Skinner. I thought it was foolish to criticize an area of research you know little about.

After I became a professor, I went back to Reed to give a talk. After the talk, I went out to dinner with several psychology professors. I told them I thought Skinner was a brilliant engineer — the Skinner box is really useful — but a mediocre scientist. He was unable to discover anything, he just repeated the same result (rewarding something increases how often it is done) countless times. They had no reply.

In the last two days, strangely enough, Skinner has come up in two different conversations. In the first, a friend said that Skinner’s views about language were ridiculous. I agreed. Why write such nonsense? my friend asked/complained. I said maybe Skinner’s productivity system worked too well. It caused him to write when he had nothing to say. In the second, a different friend brought up David Freedman’s recent Atlantic article called “The Perfected Self”, which argues that Skinnerian techniques really work when you implement them as smartphone apps — techniques to lose weight, for example. “B. F. Skinner’s notorious theory of behavior modification was denounced by critics 50 years ago as a fascist, manipulative vehicle for government control,” writes Freedman (or an editor), but actually that theory is really good.

My area of academic psychology (animal learning) is the same as Skinner’s. Within this field, I have never heard anyone complain that Skinner’s work was “fascist” or “manipulative” or a “vehicle for government control.” It never became popular — it was always a minority point of view — probably because it was boring (the same thing over and over) and perhaps because it was anti-intellectual. Skinner wrote a well-known paper about why theories are unnecessary. He didn’t understand the role of theories in science and didn’t bother to find out. Sure, the psychology theories of the time (1950) were awful. Psychology theories are still mostly awful. But there are plenty of good theories in other areas of science.

For a long time, Skinnerian ideas, nearly dead in academia, lived on in the treatment of autism. The people applying these ideas called themselves “behavior analysts” and the whole field of applied Skinnerian psychology was called “behavior analysis”. What caused this persistence was that the techniques worked. Using the techniques (carefully rewarding this or that behavior) improved the lives of autistic children and their parents. Which was a real contribution. I could make a long list of famous psychologists who have done less to improve human well-being.

The success of Skinnerian ideas in improving the lives of autistic children should not be confused with figuring out what causes autism. To figure out the cause of autism is to figure out the environmental cause(s) — to which people with certain genes are more sensitive — and how autism can be avoided entirely, not meliorated. I have blogged about possible causes of autism many times, in particular the possibility that sonograms cause autism. I have no idea if behavior analysts understand the difference between melioration and figuring out the cause. Maybe Skinner would claim there is no difference — he was full of bizarre statements like that. If your child is autistic, you are in crisis. You have zero interest in questions about “cause” — you simply want help. In any form. Behavior analysts, while helping autistic children and their parents, contribute nothing that helps us find the cause of autism. Which, if you are planning on having children, you care about enormously. So you can avoid having autistic children.

So Skinner’s legacy is mixed. The Skinner box is terrific. I happily used them in my research for years, even though I hardly believed a single word Skinner said. As an engineer — an applier of stuff discovered by others — Skinner made a lasting contribution. As a self-promoter, he was incredibly successful — he was on the cover of Time, for example. As a scientist, he was a zero. He discovered nothing that matters. As a thinker (e.g., the book Beyond Freedom and Dignity) he was less than zero. He was a charlatan, claiming over and over that he understood puzzling things (e.g., language) that he did not understand. An unusual mix. Few great engineers are charlatans.

8 Replies to “B. F. Skinner: Brilliant Engineer, Brilliant Self-Promoter, Mediocre Scientist”

  1. “If your child is autistic, you are in crisis.”

    Yes.

    “You have zero interest in questions about “cause” — you simply want help.”

    Well, sort of. You figure out really quickly that not many people can help much. But if I had good theories about cause I could use those to design interventions on my own.

    Somehow I’ve missed on behavior analysis for autism. I will have to look at it. We’ve got some behaviors at home that need, shall we say, meliorated. 🙂 Thanks for posting on that.

  2. While I agree with many of your criticisms of Skinner I think your characterization of him as a charlatan is too harsh. Skinner did make real contributions to psychology, he framed operant behavior in a useful way and he provided an important critique of punishment that helped to reduce the use of punishment in schools and in the treatment of people with mental illness. Many techniques derived from operant approaches remain useful in education and therapy

    Although flawed I think Beyond Freedom and Dignity and Walden II are fascinating challenging books well worth reading.

    Seth: I agree that Skinner made real contributions to psychology: the Skinner box and cases where behavior analysis works, such as autism. I call that engineering. My graduate school advisor, Russ Church, who did a great deal of research about punishment, told me that Skinner ignored data about punishment that did not fit his beliefs. And continued to espouse those beliefs.

  3. I must say “Bravo!”. For reasons unknown (or at least unsaid), it requires an uncommon degree of insight and honesty to voice this sort of criticism.

    Could you please do the same with Chomsky? He is even more deserving if possible as his tour de force has been far, far more duplicitous, devastating, fallacious, opportunistic, and, ultimately, inane.

    Seth: Thanks. Yeah, I feel the same about Chomsky as I do about Skinner, minus the brilliant engineer aspect. But I am not a linguistics professor and know far less about him. So I am not very qualified to comment.

  4. Chomsky’s work on the formal treatment of grammar had a heck of a lot of influence on the path of compiler development in computer science. Regardless of any relevance (or lack of) to human linguistics, Chomsky did good in the world elsewhere.

  5. “Skinner ignored data about punishment”
    This is undoubtedly true, Skinner’s theory of punishment did not hold up. However, his work did inspire people to re-examine the use of punishment and to try to avoid it when possible.

    For a good examination of Skinner’s work see the text book: Introduction to Learning and Behavior [Russell A. Powell,Diane G. Symbaluk,P. Lynne Honey}

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