A Reply to Christschool
Christschool is the maker of excellent and well known autism advocacy YouTube videos. He is also a fellow Autism Hub member. Very recently he wrote an article criticizing my post for inaccuracy. Specifically, he writes:
"Contrary to Interverbal's analysis that Professor Skinner was "strongly against punishment" and the "behavior analytic community abandoned Skinner's argument", B.F. Skinner was not only an advocate of extreme aversives, but he was literally the architect of the aversives that led to the death of Mr. Milletich.To be Continued...."
To this end he cites the following, culled from this article. "Professor Skinner said: ''I don't like punishment at all. But some people are temporarily out of the reach of positive reinforcement, and a small amount of punishment may help bring them within reach of therapy.'' He also defended Mr. Israel, saying, ''The critics who call what he's doing torture don't know what they're talking about."
I have significant problems with all of this. Beginning with Christschool's title. His title reads:
"Critics of Mr. Israel don't know what they are talking about." - B.F. Skinner"
This quote appears nowhere in the New York Times article. It seems to be based on the following Skinner quote; ''The critics who call what he's doing torture don't know what they're talking about". Christschool's quote is inaccurate and misleading. By adding a few words and taking a few more out, he has radically changed the meaning of Skinner's comment.
Moreover, Skinner is right. It is not torture. The word "torture" means something specific. What certain parties did in terms of using physical aversives in the past, or still do now, might be disagreeable and I would certainly argue against it on ethical lines, but it is not torture. This sort of argument is like accusing parents who choose to use EDTA of poisoning their children. We might disagree with it, we might argue that it is unsafe, but it is not poisoning. This would be a very poor argument and some readers, even if they dislike aversives, are likely to recognize it for what it is, a fallacious appeal to emotion.
Moving on, Skinner consistently wrote concerning his stance against punishment. I argued this in my previous post and very carefully referenced my assertions. I feel no obligation to do so again. Christschool may argue that by backing aversives in unusual circumstances, for a brief period of time, and to a small degree, Skinner should no longer be considered to be considered "strongly against" aversives. Fine, but.... in such a case, I too can no longer be considered strongly anti-aversive. This is news to me, and probably news to a number of other folks both behaviorist and non-behaviorist alike. If the case arises (and indeed it has) of a choice between life-and-death and aversives, I would choose the aversives. In my ethical analysis, death is certainly the greater evil compared to limited and context specific delivery of physical pain.
Christschool, also evidently took issue with my statement that the wider behavior analytic community rejected Skinner's arguments. This is bizarre; I can only guess that Christschool misunderstood what my words meant. Skinner certainly did argue early in his career that punishment is weak. The behavior analytic community did not take this to heart.
I rather carefully detailed the journal articles starting in the 1950s when punishment based research for humans began to appear with some regularity. The existence of punishment focused research, the green light by peer reviewers, and the lack of dissent in letters to the editor, is a clear indicator of a general lack of agreement with Skinner in this regard. In fact, in an extremely telling moment, one of the first letters to the editor where dissent is provided concerning aversives; the letter writer actually congratulates the researcher for abandoning the Skinnerian dogma that punishment is ineffective.
Finally, Christschool writes, "B.F. Skinner was not only an advocate of extreme aversives, but he was literally the architect of the aversives that led to the death of Mr. Milletich."
This would be most unusual. There is no journal record to suggest that Skinner researched these techniques, they are not made reference to in any of his major works for a certainty, and in none of his minor works either from what I can tell. Nor did he employ them with his daughters as they themselves have made very clear. I can only hope that he will provide some sort of evidence for this, in part-two of his series. Although I confess, I am openly skeptical of his claim.
Advocacy, no matter how worthy the cause, needs to be factually accurate. No real service is done in its absence.