Thursday, July 26, 2012

Is Skinner the Koehler of Clicker?

Among creationists, it is common to seize upon the mistakes in Darwin's work and use those mistakes to cast doubt on the rest of his work.

If he got this wrong, the thinking goes, what else might he have gotten wrong?

At first that sounds like a valid question. There is reasonable doubt, this bears more research.

But creationists are not interested in research. They are already in possession of the truth. They have a prophet. There is no doubt in prophets.

Because they are tied to the idea of a prophet, the prophet's work must be wholly true or wholly false. When that is where you start from, it is easy to see how that kind of thinking is placed on other figures. A creationist cannot understand why an evolutionist might still revere the thinking of a man (by their definition already fallen and untrustworthy) that is shown to be faulty in places.

This same line of thinking can be found in the camps of "balanced trainers" (their label, not mine, and one I am not comfortable with because I cannot figure out what the heck they mean by it) that are fond of attacking "pure positive" strawmen. The most popular strawman is the father of operant conditioning himself, B. F. Skinner.

By all accounts, B. F. Skinner was not a pleasant person. He was egotistical and, worse, his ego was an incredibly delicate thing that required much appeasement and affirmation. He was not even the first, Edward Thorndike's work with cats predates Skinner's pigeons by decades. Skinner's ideas (and politics) were radical and he was vocal about both (and Thorndike was into eugenics). Most notable of these was his concept of "radical behaviorism." Radical behaviorism is the philosophy that all behavior performed by an organism is solely the product of rewards and punishments, none of the behavior originates within the organism itself.

No one today is a radical behaviorist.

No one.

No one is a radial behaviorist in the same way that no one is an Olympian (a worshiper of the Ancient Greek pantheon, not a world-class athlete in London tomorrow).

But all dog training is done under the light of his work.

Dr. Sophia Yin has a superb post on science vs. craft this week.

Dog training, as a profession, is one of apprenticeship more than formal study. There are some trade schools,  but they tend not to be highly regarded and are not a replacement for training hours. There is little regulation, anyone can hang out their shingle as a dog trainer. College-education based careers are not common. This promotes a culture of prophets.

Prophets hand down completed works. Completed works are not to be improved upon.

The completed works of prophets are also inscrutable. One will always be a student of the master. If one has a question on the work, surely there is a more senior disciple on hand to explain why the work is infallible and changes are not to be made. If they are, against all advice, they are sure to offer poorer results.

To the clicker trainer, the fallibility of humans is not a problem. We have scientists, not prophets at the head of our cult. Scientists are allowed to be wrong. It is okay, we will do better tomorrow. We are allowed to see farther by standing on the shoulders of giants.