The Looking Glass

The Looking Glass

The Department of Psychology


Dr. David R. Perrott

By the mid-nineteen-fifties, B.F. Skinner and his followers could say, with considerable confidence, that the manipulation of the "rules" by which an organism receives reinforcement produces regular (i.e., systematic) changes in behavior. The behavior observed following training on a fixed interval schedule of reinforcement, for example, could be readily discriminated from the behavior that one would observe if the organism had been trained on a variable interval schedule. Lest we forget, Skinner and the other behaviorist were not talking about rats, pigeons, monkeys, or college sophomores.... It didn't matter! This universal view was also quite evident in the thinking of other behaviorists. Toleman's cognitive maps were not "rat maps," the principles could be applied to college professors, colorful parrots and common pests. The debate sometimes centered upon how "little" nervous system was necessary to replicate these results. Some researchers even claimed success with very primitive creatures (invertebrates). OK! So what?

Those generations of Psychologists were following a scientific tradition that extends back thousands of years. Find the general (i.e., fundamental) functions and don't get side tracked by the secondary sources of variance. Take Galileo for example. By wrapping his "feathers" inside a bag, he eliminated a "detail" which he correctly perceived told him little about the "behavior" of falling bodies. By ignoring the obvious "details" Newton was able to spring from the insights of Galileo regarding the "behavior of earth bound bodies" to the heavens themselves! Obviously, by the middle of this century Psychology was working its way down a well-worn track. Then something happened!

To characterize the current conceptual frame of reference that is all too common in "modern" psychology (note the small p in psychology). One professor was heard saying to another (obviously the details have been changed), "You can’t possibly understand exactly what I am experiencing unless you are of Jewish-Mexican ancestry and raised in southside Chicago (Kansas). My God!" He or she said, "there is a vast literature that proves that no one can understand.... Well, anyhow, I know that you can’t know...." I can ill afford to comment further on that and similar dialogues (monologues?). that I have heard. As Galileo was prohibited by the Catholic church from conducting any further scientific research (1616), so to must the modern day scientist keep a wary eye out for the authorities. The Church has been replaced (at least to a large extent) by politically correct mandates. If one scoffs at these silly, non-scientific guidelines, God knows what label would be applied... but back to the main point. Science has prospered by seeking the BIG picture (global "truths"). The vast array of details that confronts all scientists, the factors that generate the "fuzzy" description, is the enemy not the solution. Had Galileo been supervised by a "modern day" psychologist, God only knows how little he might have accomplished. "Mr. Galileo! Do you have any idea of how many different types of feathers are on, say, a duck? Or how many different types of feathered creatures there are? Heavens man! By wrapping them up in a bag, why the feathers can’t, you know, act natural! Hum, and then there is this problem with your assistants, all of which are local (i.e., Italian or whatever they were called then). How can you generalize to anything!"

Modern day psychology has lost its way. It has meandered off the well-worn path in the pursuit of micro-eddies generated by the modern day equivalent of the medieval church. Psychology (capital P) exists in fewer and fewer Psychology Departments and will, in time, cease to exist as a scientific discipline unless the trivialization and politicization of the field is challenged.

The next time someone says to me that I can’t understand something because of my cultural, ethnic, racial, religious, age, sex, etc., I plan to reply: "Well, what you are trying to say probably isn’t important then. Tell me something interesting, something relevant to our understanding of life forms in general -- something about the big, grand picture of our universe, you know, real science!"

See Michelle Butler's article.
See Tanya Madden's article

Prepared -- This edition update by

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