Science Behaving Badly I.

Early Behaviorism: Pseudoscience or Poor Methodology?
By Richard Flavin

I.  William James’ bear, Colin’s horse and Pavlov’s dogs.

Fig. 1. William James, ca. 1895 (James 1920), and Fig. 2. Drawing of a bear from ERB's Pellucidar by Frazetta.

     Psychology, as a scientific discipline, gradually emerged and defined itself from physiology and philosophy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Harvard’s William James [Fig. 1.] taught a course in 1875-1876 on ‘physiological psychology’ and soon after began work on his classic textbook, Principles of Psychology (James 1890).  One of the many significant contributions by James to the new discipline concerned stimulus and response.  James used the example of a person being confronted by a bear [Fig. 2.] and argued that emotion is a consequence of reaction (James 1884).  His use of several drugs from 1870 to 1896 to experience altered states of consciousness was neither original or scientific (Holmes 1871; Leuba 1904), and perhaps assisted in an honest self-description as a  “critical philosopher” (James 1902; p. 494).  Leaning toward pragmatism, James wrote “I have never claimed .... that psychology as it stands to-day, is a natural science, or in an exact way a science at all (James 1892; p. 146).”  Harvard didn’t separate psychology from the philosophy department until 1936.  The University of Leipzig, Germany established an experimental psychology laboratory in 1879, while some American institutions established departments as soon as possible (e.g. U. of Penn. 1887, Cornell 1891, U. of Chicago 1893).

Fig. 3. Colin’s horse (Colin 1854; p. 471 & Rosenzweig 1959; p. 632).

     Chronologically paralleling James’ time at Harvard, Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, investigated the digestive process, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1904.  Working with dogs, Pavlov avoided the practice of post-mortem analysis and chose to study living dogs.  Apparently unaware of the previous efforts on salivation by the French veterinarian, Gabriel Colin, who experimented on a horse [Fig. 3.] with food and various chemicals (Colin 1854; Rosenzweig 1959), Pavlov discovered that his dogs displayed a “conditioned reflex” after an audio stimulus was used (Mendel 1901; Yerkes & Morgulis 1909).  Though contributing greatly to physiology and our better understanding of the digestive process, Pavlov’s “conditioning” formulation (Pavlov 1928) [Fig. 4.] had a profound influence on the new discipline of psychology.

Fig. 4. "Pavlov's Dog" illustration (Pavlov 1928 & Goodwin 1991, p. 138).

II.  Watson’s rats and Skinner’s pigeons.

     The Oxford English Dictionary credits John B. Watson with the April 1913 first published usage of the term, ‘behaviorism’ (Watson 1913; see OED under ‘behaviourism’), although a telling article by Watson’s former teacher, J. R. Angell, three months later [Fig. 5.] suggests an objective study of behavior in previous years and it was an act of fortuitous proprietary publishing which allowed Watson the opportunity to coin the term (Angell 1913; passim Meyer 1911).

Fig. 5. Published allusion to Behaviorist study in 1910 (Angell 1913).

     Watson’s doctoral dissertation from the University of Chicago (Watson 1903) on the protective layer around the cerebral nerve fibers of white rats (usually completed by the end of infancy in most mammals and known as myelinization) was a fairly straightforward description of the growth rate of rat brains (as measured in days and weeks).  Written with a touch of empathy (e.g. calling one rat specimen “little fellow,” see Watson 1905; p. 79) and mentioning only one specific laboratory euthanization (“The next rat was killed at thirty-five days of age.”  Watson 1903; p. 95) it concludes with a rather dispassionate assessment (“It seems to me that we now have the answer to the two main neuro-physiological questions raised at the beginning of this work: [1] medullated fibers in the cortex of the rat are not a conditio sine qua non of the rat’s forming and retaining definite association...”  Watson 1903; p. 120).  The exact method of euthanization or how many rats were killed to document the brain development in white rats wasn’t recorded.  As Watson never expressed any helpful or conservatory goals for rats (either the domesticated albino white rats or the undomesticated Norway rats [Rattus norvegicus], from which the white rats were selectively bred), it may be assumed he ultimately wished to construct a correlation with the growth rate of the cerebral nerve fibers of humans (now referred to as “wiring”).  He had begun an academic career which consisted primarily of killing rats and taking notes, but quickly moved into the killing of other animals (e.g. birds; passim Watson 1910), and at some sad point took to extreme torture and mutilation to record the physical and psychological capacities and capabilities of damaged animals (Buckley 1989; pp. 53, 54).  Such violent investigations were commonplace in the experimental psychology labs of that period and the University of Chicago contributed its share.

Fig. 6. Jacques Loeb at the microscope and Fig. 7. The 'Monster' (Shelley 1945).

     Jacques Loeb [Fig. 6.], Watson’s original thesis-advisor (until Angell convinced him otherwise), held positions in physiology and experimental biology at the University of Chicago between 1892 and 1902, before moving on to other universities.  His work consisted of the purposeful creation of mutants (Loeb & Bancroft 1911) and monster making (Loeb 1906; pp. 199-222) [Fig. 7.] and was a significant influence on Watson.  Loeb’s “experimental biology” was considered extreme and horrific when reported in the press and prompted official denials (Loeb 1901; Loeb 1905).

Fig. 8. Opening of Watson's "Behaviorist Manifesto" and Fig. 9. "Little Albert" and rat (Watson 1913; Watson 1928).

     In defining “Behaviorism,” Watson explicitly seeks “control” (Watson 1913; p. 158), admits the killing of animals is “worthless” until applied by “analogy” to “consciousness” (ibid; p. 160), is sexist (ibid; 161), racist (ibid; p. 168), promotes human experimentations such as is done with animals (ibid; pp. 159, 171), introduces his pet-theory that thought is unspoken “speech” (ibid; p. 174), dismisses contemporary psychological theories (ibid; passim), and while described as a “manifesto” by historians, reads more like a flippant tirade. [Fig. 8.]  He got a part-time job in advertising the same year as he began to study mental illness.  Watson’s wish was eventually granted and he was allowed to experiment (Watson & Rayner 1920) and publish (Watson 1928) on babies [Fig. 9.], advising against any parental displays of affection (ibid; pp. 79, 80).  His braggart claim (Watson 1924, p. 82) that he could condition any healthy child to learn advanced professions was repeated in his obituary (Skinner 1959).  Fortunately, especially for babies, charges of adultery with a colleague were well-publicized, he was fired, his experiments were stopped and he chose to devote himself full-time to advertising, a profession in which he did well.

Fig. 10. Prof. B. F. Skinner and pigeon and Fig. 11. "Baby Tender," ca. 1945.

     The babies weren’t out of the woods entirely, as the academic career of Burrhus Frederic “Fred” Skinner began, noting that Watson’s approach was an “impracticable program (Skinner 1938; p. 10).”  Rejecting laboratory euthanization and respondent punishment, B. F. Skinner used operant conditioning without a threat of violence and was able to work with thousands of pigeons [Fig 10.], while sustaining only a few casualties (though he would subsequently use electronic shock on rats, see Estes & Skinner 1941).  Gradually building a professional reputation in behavioral psychology, he also wrote critical reviews of fantastic claims (Skinner 1947) and articles explaining Shakespeare and poetry (Skinner 1939; Skinner 1941), which projected a layman-friendly image of the scientist as a champion of veracity.  With the controversial “Baby in a Box” article (Skinner 1945) [Fig. 11.] achieved ‘true’ (i.e. inane) celebrity status.  During the 1950s, Skinner speculated on learning and teaching with experiments and publications (e.g. Skinner 1950, Skinner 1954; Skinner 1958).  A natural tinker and engineer, Skinner’s physical inventions and innovations were for the most part tolerated and his teaching a pigeon to bowl was circus amusement (Skinner 1951).  When critics passed the “Shock and Awe” of Skinner’s academic celebrity status and began to navigate the Behaviorist’s grammar, his equivocation concerning the expectations of operant reflex conditioning, reckless disregard for human free-will, etc., it became apparent that much of Skinner’s legacy is speculatory and not science, per se (e.g. Hamburg 1956; Johnson 1963; Chomsky 1971).  Skinner’s sci-fi novel, Walden Two (Skinner 1948), and its ensuant application by hippies and social drop-outs, doesn’t concern Early Behaviorism directly and requires discussion elsewhere.  It should suffice here to question, do the rat, pigeon and baby experiments of Early Behavorism qualify as pseudoscience or a peripheral scientific discipline and representing a period of acceptable mistakes?

III. Schrödinger’s cat and Flavin’s weasel.

Fig. 12. Edwin Schrödinger, ca. 1927, and Fig. 13. Cover of RAW's Quantum Psychology (Wilson 1990).

     Darwin began modern science with hypothesis, testing and more testing.  Exactitude and repeatable results are givens and Einstein continues to be tested.  Erwin Schrödinger [Fig. 12.] served science well with his thought-experiment concerning quantum mechanics and a cat, which demonstrated how an observer is entangled in any experiment (Schrödinger 1935; Wilson 1988; Wilson 1990). [Fig. 13.]  Is it fair to compare pure or exact science with the soft, social or natural sciences and expect consilience?  Yup, with allowances.

Fig. 14. Weasel (OE wesle).

     One could weasel [Fig. 14.] poor methodology, plead Popper and positivism, argue ethics and dispute data, but truth and science will out sooner if not later.  Hindsight is a luxurious entanglement, yet it would be uncritical and dishonest not to recognize the efforts of Early Behaviorism as scientific.  As science allows for correction, Behaviorism continues to improve itself. 

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