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Saturday, January 22, 2005

B. F. Skinner and the Magic Toaster Oven

One thing everybody needs to know is how to make toast. Baking bread is a matter for the specialist, but toast is for the great unbuttered masses. As baking technology progressed over the years, there was a little fry cook who perfected a tiny oven that could toast bread on both sides. Escaping the bakery, the fry cook took his technology to the masses, and soon everyone had little toasters, and centers for toaster technology spread throughout the land. But sadly, most of the toasters didn’t work, made poor toast, and ended up with many people feeling rather burned. But the fry cook did not admit defeat, the masses did not forget, and because of a bad baker, baking got a bad name, and any toaster ovens that came out of bakeries were immediately suspect.

Luckily for human invention, at least of the practical and mechanical sort, the end of this scenario rarely happens. Escaping the laboratory with your grand invention in hand can be a recipe for grand success or an equally grand failure. In technology, usually the faux pas of an enterprising genius is replaced with a better model by a more enterprising and market savvy type who understands how to deliver what the masses really need. From computers to cars, the list is endless. The public forgives and forgets past mistakes, and whether the product is a toaster or TV, progress marches on.

For entrepreneurs and inventors, failure is evident, final, and is sealed by apathy of others, namely the consumer. For philosophers and psychologists however, bad ideas have an often different fate, as they commonly admit no failure, blame the consumer, and continue to advocate the ineffective packaging of ideas even though they are as useful as bad toaster ovens.

Take the concept of behaviorism.

For the first fifty years of the twentieth century, behaviorism was an innocuous thing. Behaviorists were folks who studied the behavior of animals and tried to discern the lawfulness of behavior in a laboratory setting. Because animals couldn’t really talk to you to tell you that they would have preferred not to live in cages and run through mazes, they indirectly told the psychologist through their behavior, hence the name behaviorist. Behaviorism existed quite nicely until the behaviorist B. F. Skinner had the brainstorm to escape from the laboratory, and apply the same principles of reward or reinforcement to the common man. Well, it didn’t work, and left a bad philosophical taste in minds of everyone. So behaviorism was shunned, ignored, and except for the tiny squeak of a Skinnerian movement that refuses to die, was relegated by popular and academic opinion to the junkyard of failed intellectual ideas. In other words, behaviorism was toast.

In our fanciful example, one bad baker did in the toaster industry, a disaster for sure if it happened in real life. But equally disastrous and real has been the public identification of behaviorism with B. F. Skinner, when behaviorism has marched on past Skinner to identify through animal subjects the real processes that underlie learning. Called affective neuroscience or bio-behaviorism, it still does not garner respect or a lot of attention, as behaviorism is still identified with a baker of ideas who to the end of his days never learned to toast bread. But the future after all may bode better for this new breed of behaviorist. After all, people still need as much to make their behavior right as they need to rightly make toast.

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