Saturday, July 05, 2008

Not Sparta

The following post is offered as a reply to Christschool's recent post "Skinner Confuses Science with Terminology". - Noam Chomsky". My responses to Christschool will be in a point by point basis.

"It's been my experience that behaviorists are quick to recoil and become defensive with inquiry that challenges their "science". From my observation, behaviorist's reaction to skepticism is very similar to the alternative/biomed advocates."

I think it first necessary to draw a distinction between the science of behavior analysis and the philosophy of behaviorism. These are not quite the same thing. It is possible to practice the techniques of behavior analysis and not philosophically be a behaviorist. I would argue this happens regularly in clinical psychology.

Some may ask; doesn't it seem strange that there is both a science and a related philosophy? But I would argue that this is not strange at all. I myself belong to several philosophies which complement and direct my inclination to science, but are not part of science itself. These include the philosophies of skepticism, empiricism, determinism, and materialism.

But to return to the point, yes, some behavior analysts can be very quick to dismiss criticism. Our approach can be dogmatic. I would even argue that as a field, behavior analysts have been worse than average at accepting criticism from those outside the field. One of the ways I have selected to help counter this trend is to operate a blog, which at least on occasion, delves into behavior analytic issues.

However, it would be faulty logic, a non-sequitur in fact, to assume that because behavior analysts are on average worse at accepting criticism from the outside, that the science of behavior analysis is a pseudo-science.

"Both groups cite as evidence studies, anecdotes and faux terminology to support their positions."

The idea that it is faux terminology is the idea one would need to first prove. This is the fallacy of begging the question. As to the anecdotes, he is correct, even though this is a person specific error.

"The behaviorists use
Lovaas' 1987 study and his unique 47% indistinguishable criteria HYPERLINK "http://www.autismpartnership.com/test/ibt.htm"(which has never been replicated independent of Lovaas' small group of behaviorists) to sell their "services".""

This is simply not true. There have been any number ABA autism group studies that were not conducted by Lovaas' immediate students. An even basic review of literature will show this to be the case. Also, Sallows & Graupner (2005) state:"We found that 48% of all children showed rapid learning, achieved average posttreatment scores, and at age 7, were succeeding in regular education classrooms. These results are consistent with those reported by Lovaas and colleagues (Lovaas, 1987; McEachin, Smith, & Lovaas, 1993)."

One can argue that Sallows & Graupner (2005) also had unresolved threats to the validity of their study (and I would agree) but one can not argue that they produced different results from Lovaas (1987).

Furthermore, it is the ad hominem fallacy, to argue that one is wrong and/or dishonest because of whom one is. The fact that some of the research has originated by Lovaas' students should not bias us in interpreting the results. I do not argue that Christschool is wrong for the following reason, but I will point out that the group I usually associate with this fallacy are the vaccine etiology of autism advocates. This seems like an appropriate comparison for the sake of accuracy, since Christschool states that his latest article compares behaviorism and the alternative/biomed advocates.

"However, they conveniently leave out from their marketing materials the fact that the children in that study were never randomized and were subject to physical aversives. Is that honest or is that protecting the dogma of behaviorism?"

Fair question, behavior analysts like any human service providership must make sure the public and specifically consumers have enough information to make an accurate judgment. This has not always been done correctly in my view. However, Christschool had best be careful to acknowledge that this is individual specific. It is not nearly true of all behavior analysts.

"Do scientists leave out very relevant facts (no randomization and the use of physical aversives) in discussing their results with prospective customers?"

Yes, sometimes they do. I don't agree with this practice, but this failure is hardly limited to behavior analysts. One of the most common (and most valid) criticisms we hear from the anti-vaccine movement, is the lack of correct sharing of information by pediatricians and vaccine manufacturers. Nor is it even specific to the sciences in the human service fields. This is a valid criticism of behaviorism (in some cases), but to be consistent, Christschool would have to be willing to apply this criticism broadly across many fields of science. I don't want a problem that exists in the broader subfields of science to be attached merely to behavior analysis.

"If challenged, both groups simply recoil like a viper"

Yes, some behavior analysts and advocates can react this way to criticism. Not all do. Some of my formative experiences in behavior analysis were learning the polite (or mostly so) give and take during debate about behavior analysis with course instructors and professors. So, when faced down by a glaring 19 year old angry about the accuracy of the Matching Law, what do you suppose the much older and well known professor did? Tell him to be quiet? Tell him he just didn't get it? Mark down his grade in participation points? No, he invited me to have an in depth discussion after class. The professor and I spent two hours going over the issue. During which time I was treated with patience and politeness.

That issue has still never been resolved to date. But that professor provided a wonderful example of how to approach disagreements. How many venerable professors in any field could be so patient and selfless with their time? Now the point of my anecdote is not that a dogmatic approach never occurs, but that here is at least one example were it did not. I would argue that there are others..... Many others.

"ready to strike rather than acknowledging that perhaps they could be wrong."

But doesn't this depend on the quality of the criticism? And why criticism may always be necessary to guard against dogma, not all criticism has merit. It is not the job of scientists to acknowledge any criticism, but to scour it for merit and see if it contains it. Not all criticism has this. There is some criticism so bad, it merits serious criticism in and of itself. That is the catch in science or scientific criticism. You can easily end up looking like a fool. And if you are not willing to take this risk, then you can not really do science of scientific criticism. And this is true for any advocacy movement as well.

"For instance, and I don't mean to pick on Interverbal here, but when I stated that ABA has caused PTSD in autistics (based on information supplied to me by 2 autistics who had been diagnosed with PTSD as a result of undergoing ABA as children) and that there aren't any studies that have been done to look into possible complications from ABA such as PTSD, his response wasn't what I would expect from a curious and science based person.

Me:"The field hasn't done any studies that I know of that look at PTSD in those that went through ABA

"Interverbal:"Nor should they. There is no real suggestion of an ABA-PTSD connection. The suggestion there could be, was made and continues to be echoed mostly by those in the psychodynamic paradigm. There are lots of genuinely good criticisms of behavior analysis and ABA in autism specifically. A possible PTSD connection isn't one of them. This is the type of comment that behavior analysts laugh off and correctly so.""

Christschool asks me to accept as evidence second hand information I have no way of checking. I can't possibly weigh this information against what I know about science, because I can't possibly access this information at this time. I do not accept this argument for behavior analysis and I would not accept it at any other time either. I am happy when I see that I have made an error to acknowledge it in full and move on. However, there is no error here. I completely reject Christschool's criticism in this regard.

Here is a rhetorical exercise that helps show this point:

"For instance, and I don't mean to pick on Interverbal here, but when I stated that vaccines have caused autism in children (based on information supplied to me by 2 children who had been diagnosed with autism as a result of undergoing vaccines as children) and that there aren't any studies that have been done to look into possible complications from vaccines such as autism, his response wasn't what I would expect from a curious and science based person."
"Based on Interverbal's representation of behaviorist's views, there is no need to accumulate empirical data in order to draw a scientific conclusion."


This was not my argument. My argument was there is insufficient evidence to justify a study in the first place. Also, behavior analysts will laugh this off and rightly so. Not because it is a criticism, but because it is a very poor criticism. Many behavior analysts in the field have worked with hundreds of children and adults with autism. None of the ones I have spoken to see evidence of this. Even I, a novice of behavior analyst must have worked with and collected data on over 100 people by now. Nowhere in my experience and in the experience of the people I have spoken to, was there a hint that PTSD was or could be an issue. Where is the reason I should take this criticism seriously?

"One would think that those interested in human behavior would be curious about how their "therapy" might affect the emotional well being of autistics?"

Well, I am "one" and here is what I would think. I think the whole ABA = PTSD is a residue left over from the psychodynamic tradition in autism (and they still say this). They argue that autism is caused by some psychological trauma, leaving the child with autism emotionally more vulnerable to PTSD. I think that this criticism has been adopted by certain parties in the self-advocacy/ally movement in the absence of clear thought on the issue. I think it is telling the some of the more scientifically oriented critics of ABA in this movement do not offer this specific criticism.

"Noam Chomskey is a professor of linguistics at M.I.T. and perhaps one of the most engaging and prolific intellectuals of the 20th century. In 1971, The New York Review of Books published his essay
"The Case Against B.F. Skinner"HYPERLINK "http://www.chomsky.info/articles/19711230.htm". Chomsky makes the case that Skinner's theory of Verbal Behavior isn't really science but a sort of secular dogma (dogma is my interpretation)."

I am afraid I must argue against an engaging intellectual. However, first I will note that Christschool confuses the linked Chomsky article and Chomsky's earlier analysis of Skinner's 1957 book "Verbal Behavior". As to the earlier analysis: Some have argued that Chomsky in just 50 pages or so demolishes both Verbal Behavior and behavior analysis in general. I think this is a very fair analysis of these works. Provided one has actually read neither.

Skinner, created a classical book of theory, based on arm chair analysis and on observation of his daughters. This technique has a long history. The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget did just the same in his detailed and excellent "The Origins of Intelligence in Children". Chomsky himself does his fair share of arm chair analysis, as do I.

I won't try to break down Chomsky's criticisms here, some of which are quite sophisticated and good. And some of which have nothing to do with science and a great deal to do with wrangling over terminology (sound familiar?) and musings on just how important free will is.

However, if Chomsky's main criticism is a lack of science to back up Skinner, then I would agree this was a very fair criticism in the 70s. But, I respectfully submit to the reader that it is not 1967 anymore. Both the study of verbal behavior and behavior analysis has matured a great deal since the 60s and 70s and both of Chomsky's critiques. I myself was involved as a research assistant in a major review of all existing research in verbal behavior. In our review, we learned some ideas are well supported and some are not.

Verbal behavior being an interest of mine, I had a topic a few years back that fascinated me. It was stimulus-stimulus pairing to produce speech in non-verbal children. It made crystal clear sense theoretically. But, as more research came out, it did not support it. As pseudo-scientists shouldn't we have cried some intellectual variant of "This is Sparta!" and brushed off the results? Where was my... where was our.... arrogant and dogmatic dismissal of evidence?
Criticism must be able to be given, in the absence of which dogma may creep.

However, I have offered my arguments as to why a number of Christschool's criticisms were without merit. I now leave it to the reader to proceed from here.

9 Comments:

Blogger Alyric said...

A couple or possibly more comments:

"It is possible to practice the techniques of behavior analysis and not philosophically be a behaviorist. I would argue this happens regularly in clinical psychology"

Actually not I wouldn't think and while perhaps this isn't important for other areas and not at all in scientific circles, the practicing behaviorist still has the problem of 'free will'. If they don't believe in it then why are they bothering to hand out reinforcing items etc? Operant principles are predicated on the absence of free will and quite a few other things, like creativity. So it's more of a necessity and less 'merely related' from what I can see.

"The idea that it is faux terminology is the idea one would need to first prove."

Doubtful that anyone could 'disprove' the assertion, but Chomsky gave us all very sound linguistic reasons for calling this into question as a reasonable way at looking at the development of language. The review of Verbal Behavior is worth a read.

the infamous 47% recovery:

a)Sallows and Graupner, Well, there were about half that did really well, bit of a shock that most of them came from the control group. There was some more data released in 2007, but I haven't read it yet.

b)What seems to be going on is two things. It's getting harder to differentiate the techniques among the major players, i.e. DIR TEACCH and ABA (including PBS AND VBT). It also seems that the technique doesn't relate to the outcome but the child does, which sort of says that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but you sure can stuff up the process.

c)It's about time that someone mentioned 'commercial interest' in relation to these studies like Sallows and Graupner and Howard et al. That is such a conflict of interest.

d) The original Lovaas 47% 'indistinguishable from their peers' has to be a complete fabrication if Victoria Shea is correct in her assertions. I doubt that she is lying but then I haven't read McEachin's PhD thesis and she did. Only one child in the 'best outcomes' group scored in the normal range in all the battery of tests they were put through. That is really really bad from an academic point of view, though this kind of equivocation is very common in the literature. I read something recently about a typical baseline design of a study to teach an arithmetic concept. The page and a half discussion was predictably positive and right at the end of it was a single line that the results did not generalise; as short as that about the pivotal finding of the whole exercise.


e) PTSD and other side effects. From what I can see it's not the done thing to go looking for them. See the kids who got worse and worse over the four years of the Sallows and Graupner study. And there's the two tiny mites who had to be withdrawn from the Howard et al study. There are a lot of anecdotes, but most parents see the misfit between the program and the child and go looking for something else. What bothers me is that the 'something else' may cease to be an option. If the Dohertys of this world really had the welfare of ASD kids at heart, they'd make a push for services and leave the type up to the parents. But, nope - it has to be ABA. How on earth can that be suitable for a typically curious ASD kid who's kind of hyperlexic and does not have a cognitive disability as 75% of them do not? It's still by and large a cognitive deprivation curriculum, designed according to the wishes and goals of third parties.

12:06 PM  
Anonymous CS said...

Jon,

Here is my response, all in the spirit of peer review, though I still think your philosphy is dangerous:

http://tinyurl.com/65tehr

2:04 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi Alyric,

"Actually not I wouldn't think and while perhaps this isn't important for other areas and not at all in scientific circles, the practicing behaviorist still has the problem of 'free will'. If they don't believe in it then why are they bothering to hand out reinforcing items etc? Operant principles are predicated on the absence of free will and quite a few other things, like creativity. So it's more of a necessity and less 'merely related' from what I can see."

The way certain clinical psychologists have justified their position in to argue that reinforcement, rather than being a cause, is an influence. Or to argue from the old mentalist perspective that the individual chooses to behave way in response to the reward. I stand by my original statement.


"Doubtful that anyone could 'disprove' the assertion, but Chomsky gave us all very sound linguistic reasons for calling this into question as a reasonable way at looking at the development of language. The review of Verbal Behavior is worth a read."

Skinner seperates tacts and mands in his 1957 analysis. He claims they are seperate operants. Here is one claim that can be tested... that can be potenially disproven. I would argue that Chomsky's criticism was primarily focused on the lack of science in Skinner's theory.

This was a reasonable criticism (this aspect at least) at the time. But time flows on. Some of Skinner's comments have been assessed and found evidence to support them. Others have not been supported by the research. Currently, the only value of Chomsky's critique is a historical one.

I think it is embarrasing though, that one of the most common criticisms of the field of verbal behavior comes from a critique that is now 40 years old. The only parrelel I can think of, are modern creationists hunting down long buried creationist rebuttals from Darwin's contemporaries. Its as if they want to claim that no findings have been made in the field of evolutionary biology since Darwin's day.

"e) PTSD and other side effects. From what I can see it's not the done thing to go looking for them. See the kids who got worse and worse over the four years of the Sallows and Graupner study."

Happens in eclectic special ed too. Such cases are a dime a dozen. As a given birth cohort increases in age. The gap between increases. This has to do with the nature of standardized testing. It has nothing to do with regression.

"And there's the two tiny mites who had to be withdrawn from the Howard et al study."

Yes, the authors say "They acquired some non-verbal skills, but their receptive and expressive language skills did not improve, and behavioral difficulties increased when the full number of intervention hours was attempted. This led their IFSP teams to recommend transition to less intensive school programs."



But that is not evidence for PTSD. That is evidence that their IFSP team pulled them out.



"There are a lot of anecdotes, but most parents see the misfit between the program and the child and go looking for something else."

Fill in the blank. The plural of anecdote is not ________.

"What bothers me is that the 'something else' may cease to be an option. If the Dohertys of this world really had the welfare of ASD kids at heart, they'd make a push for services and leave the type up to the parents."

I support the idea of parents as equal partners in education. However, I think a free for all is a terrible idea. As bad as being handed a big check by the government and told to spend it on any medical therapies. There needs to be a focus on research based practice. In both medicine and education. In education that leaves TEACCH, Speech therapy, and ABA.


"It's still by and large a cognitive deprivation curriculum, designed according to the wishes and goals of third parties."

A bland criticism. Arguably this is true for education period Alyric. At least in the US. http://interverbal.blogspot.com/2007/08/review-of-goals-of-education-in-united.html

3:23 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi CS,

"Here is my response, all in the spirit of peer review, though I still think your philosphy is dangerous"

Thank you for the peer review. I notice that the dangerous-ness of my ideas have shifted from disagreements on terminology to my views on behavior analysis.

Interesting shift.

3:25 PM  
Anonymous CS said...

No shift, I originally stated I thought your views on behaviorism were dangerous, and still do.

3:47 PM  
Anonymous CS said...

"It's still by and large a cognitive deprivation curriculum, designed according to the wishes and goals of third parties."

A bland criticism. Arguably this is true for education period Alyric. At least in the US. http://interverbal.blogspot.com/2007/08/review-of-goals-of-education-in-united.html

But public education doesn't tout the 47% indistinguishable criteria nor charge $50,000/yr for a cognitive deprivation curriculum. For a parent that just chucked out $50 grand on the promise of indistinguishable benchmarks, its not a bland criticism.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi CS,

"No shift, I originally stated I thought your views on behaviorism were dangerous, and still do."

Well you did say views although you did not say behaviorism.
That fine though. As to my views being dangerous, as you like. What is dangerous to me however, is criticism delivered in the absence of science.

"But public education doesn't tout the 47% indistinguishable criteria nor charge $50,000/yr for a cognitive deprivation curriculum. For a parent that just chucked out $50 grand on the promise of indistinguishable benchmarks, its not a bland criticism."

And that is a fine criticism in general. However, relative Alyric's critcism it is dreadful. The fact that some behavior analysts provide inappropriate information doesn't change the fact that Alyric provided a critcism true of nearly all educational methods. Logic doesn't work that way.

5:06 PM  
Anonymous CS said...

"And that is a fine criticism in general. However, relative Alyric's critcism it is dreadful. The fact that some behavior analysts provide inappropriate information doesn't change the fact that Alyric provided a critcism true of nearly all educational methods. Logic doesn't work that way."

You must mean the lesser known behavior analysts, not the household name ones, correct?

"What is dangerous to me however, is criticism delivered in the absence of science. " Dangerous to whom? Certainly not those in a powerless situation. Where is the science? Where is the replication of the 47% outside Lovaas' padewan's? What is dangerous to me is when torture is called something different when the person being tortured happens to be in a powerless minority. Dangerous to me is men like Sallows, who uses unethical and downright lies on his website to promote his services. Dangerous to me is this cult of personality that surrounds Skinner and Lovaas.

Dangerous to you I assume is when I use terminology, which you deem non-scientific, in a manner that isn't consistent with the dogma.

Dangerous to me is the silent shadow which Elie Wiesel spoke about where in polite and professional company a man like Israel doesn't feel unwelcome.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi CS,

"You must mean the lesser known behavior analysts, not the household name ones, correct?"

What does that have anything to do with what I just wrote? Explain please?

"Dangerous to whom? Certainly not those in a powerless situation."

Yes, especially those in a poweless situation. In the words of Michelle Dawson:

"Excuse me, accurate information is bad for autistics how?"

"Where is the science? Where is the replication of the 47% outside Lovaas' padewan's?"

If you want a replication that shows a statistically significant result without any Lovaas students then you can have it. If you want results similar to the 47% you can get it. But you can't have both.

"What is dangerous to me is when torture is called something different when the person being tortured happens to be in a powerless minority. Dangerous to me is men like Sallows, who uses unethical and downright lies on his website to promote his services. Dangerous to me is this cult of personality that surrounds Skinner and Lovaas."

You have me with you mostly for the first two points. You lose me entirely for the last one, when you nose-dive into sloppy thinking.

"Dangerous to you I assume is when I use terminology, which you deem non-scientific, in a manner that isn't consistent with the dogma."

Almost right. You keep getting lost on the way to proving that last part though.

6:42 PM  

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