Saturday, April 2, 2016

New Project Finally Finished... Whew!

So, my last project having been completed way back in 2003, I've finally finished another.  One of the songs on it was originally written I think as far back as 2004 (All I See).  I remember actually playing it for my therapist after my suicide attempt.  But with my daughters being so little, I haven't had much time since then to apply myself artistically, sparing the occasional stolen moment with the guitar here and there.

But now they're older and more independent.  My career as well began to straighten out a bit a few years back.  That's actually not the best description, but emotionally... it fits.

And so in 2013 I took my 10 best songs and began laying down more tracks - drums, bass, lead guitar, piano, etc.  A slow process, working on maybe a track at a time on weekend mornings, here we are in April 2016.

I'm still a solo musician.  Never worked out very well socially for me to find other people to do much substantial with.  Tim Groseclose and my improvisations have always been really cool.  Ryan Jones lent me drums back in Portland for the 2003 project.  Josiah Rector added anonymous guest vocals for my secret rap album the same year.

Each of the songs has meaning for me.  Although the lyrics are vague enough that you wouldn't be able to tell much.  But events in my life have informed their subjects. In the digital age now, a mere CD release seemed anachronistic.  Would people even listen?  But to put them on you tube would require a visual. So I ambitiously decided to do illustrations for each song.  I think about 160 in total. Many clues there for the meaning of each song.  Friends might recognize various times in my life from Here it Comes.  These represent jobs I've had throughout my life.

I'm somewhat the Tralfamadorian out here in my little artistic bubble.  I used to bring my guitar to work which Kevin Palmer and Kevin O'dell may remember.  One of the clients there told me she was my biggest fan.  Aside from my wife, she was probably correct.

I love to make music.  It seems a shame however not to share it with any who might enjoy it.  I hope you will!

Playing with Bubbles

Harold Pollack is skeptical of Charles Murray's Bubble Quiz.
Joe the Plumber would probably ace that particular exam. Good for him. But he’s no more authentically American than I am, no more authentic than the inhabitants of more cosmopolitan or less non-Hispanic American worlds, either.
I too found this quiz curious, and somewhat trolling.  It polishes the spear tip on the argument that lower-class, lower-culture, lower-educated whites are to be resentful of upper-class, upper-culture, upper-educated whites.  I find myself wounded by it, and sympathetic - snobbery is real, as is the resentment it creates.  I immediately reflect upon my own "hipster" interests, cultured by a process of criticism and evaluation, skeptical and analytic.  Music, fashion, movies, television, food, literature: none of which to be taken for granted, accepted as they come from family or community, but rather to be assessed according to an extrinsic rubric of historical contexts, objectives and criteria.  Each artifact is never to be accepted according to tradition or default, but rather as something to be explored within a larger cultural expansive.  Even when the default option is selected, it is appreciated with a wink of post-modernism - cheese puffs and Pabst blue ribbon (or Celine Dion, although I realize I'm in rare hipster air there) are enjoyed for their almost comical yet elegant simplicity, all the while understood as tropes themselves of particular historical manufactural moments.

All of which is fundamentally progressive.  This approach is learned, usually in cognitively enriched home environments, or chance entry into friendship circles that reinforce critical thought, and generally leads to higher education, which reinforces this posture further.

And it doesn't end with cultural material consumption, but extends as well into social analysis: religion, politics, history, psychology - all of encounters a critical analysis which seeks to transcend tradition and established authority.  "Question everything" is the guiding principle to be striven towards.  Skepticism and enlightenment become high values.  If one is not questioning, critiquing, evaluating, comparing, contrasting, one is failing to perform basic duties.  The stance is progressive, liberal, as opposed to conservative.  Instead of standing before history shouting stop, one ought be driving the train - past the cheese puffs, Pabst and The Bachelor - on to hummus, Sierra Nevada and Herzog.

Can the conservative be critical?  Of course, just as he can enjoy fine wine and literature.  He investigates, questions, evaluates, critiques... and ends up in favor of tradition.  But this type of conservative is a rarer breed.  This type, often a libertarian (he finds cultural conservatism silly, but so too the pretentions of the statist - all pretentions really, his defense of genre against literary canon is quite high brow analysis, if self-serving).  But enlightenment and skepticism are not conservative values.  They are defined by subversion of traditional paradigms.  Thus conservatives who wield them must do so carefully, building arguments not from sleepy inheritance, but rather from erudite analysis of historical context.

Which brings us back to the bubble.  A bubble refers to one's attention, how one spends one's time.  Murray references situational characteristics of an individual's placement in space and time.  Certain stores, certain friendships, certain neighborhoods, certain television channels.  These define the extent to which one is in a socio-economic bubble.  HIs quiz is simple, and designed to target (troll) upper-SES whites.  Lower-SES individuals are no less prone to living in bubbles.  Eating only cheese puffs, Pabst, listening to Dion and watching the Bachelor are no less insulated from Herzog or World Music.

But the point of the exercise is to illustrate the power dynamics hidden within these spacial and temporal spheres.  The ability - the desire even - to question, analyze, evaluate, critique requires societal capital.  It corresponds with cognitive enrichment that comes from social privilege.  This is where the resentment lives.  The pickup truck with the "redneck" sticker on the bumper is a reaction to a sense of unfairness, of being looked down upon.  It is a statement of pride in the face of a perceived and real imbalance of power.

The conservative movement has been polishing this spear tip for decades....  The "elites'" arrive at their position through privilege....  This privilege grants them the luxury to adopt enlightenment, skeptical values ("book learnin')... this privilege allows them not only better pay, but a whole variety of cultural "goodies": music, food, fashion, tastes that play as status symbols for their privilege, the nature of which is not merely arbitrary, but defined in direct opposition to tradition.  Sierra Nevada is not merely fancy beer, but a direct product of critical rejection of "lesser" tastes, derived as they are from tropes, derivations, and unreflective experience.... to engage in such cultural activity is to traffic in a sort of  enlightenment masturbation - the organ of pleasure erected from a progressive stance....

Or so goes the argument.  But wait for it! ...the money shot: just as upper-SES microbrews are emblems of exploitation, products of critique inherited from privilege and defined by a process of discriminative taste-making, so too is the liberal, progressive ideology.  Social progress and relativistic values are just as much products of this enlightenment, skeptical stance.  Critical thought as decadence.

However, this is all cheap trickery.  Disadvantage is real, and immoral. Critical thought and analysis requires societal capital, and to the extent that there is an inequality of societal capital, there is moral failure.  However, critical thought and analysis do not require class inequality.  This is the cynical lie being sold.  Sure, you can find individual instances of cultural snobbery, where instances of cultural unsophistication are sneered at meanly.  But to take the position that the concept of cultural criticism is therefore an immoral act is absurd.  Complexity is Go ahead and listen to Shania Twain, read Danielle Steele and eat cheese puffs all day, but the fact remains that they are simplistic and derivative.  That is an empirical fact.  They may be entirely enjoyable, but complex they are not.  Whether or not one has a history of learning appropriate to understand this fact is a spatial and temporal reality that need not be a function of class.  Listeners of Phish and Dave Mathews (generally college educated) are a testament to this fact, as both bands are generally considered derivative and uninteresting to music critics, those who's job is predicated on having spent long hours of learning musical contextual analysis.  That a learning history of complexity need not be defined by class is evidenced by the wealth of experience in blue collar trades: would you tell a highly-skilled tradeseman that experience (learning history and contextual analysis) doesn't matter?  Knowing how to precisely lathe a rocking chair leg or replace the alternator an an '09 Chevy Silverado is hardly less discriminating than an appreciation of micro-brews.  That one is more valued than the other is function of SES status as it relates to social privilege, not a critique of the process of critical analysis.

So, to the extent that the Murray quiz asks us to reflect upon our learning histories and privilege, the exercise is useful.  However, to the extent that it seeks to further sharpen a wedge between blue collar and white collar workers by arguing that cultural sophistication is responsible for social inequality, it distracts from the real functional relationships that drive economic mobility.  Rather than cower before the notion that my cultural interests are decadent, I prefer to embrace them with pride, meanwhile continuing to actively advocate for social policies that seek to expand access to social mobility for all.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Simple Thing Like Behavior

A BCBA, Adam Ventura, wonders about the future of applied behavior analysis, and whether something like  a singularity might one day arrive, with technology displacing real therapists.  But whether it will or not, a more immediate question is how to raise awareness about the field in the context of decades of (my words) deliberate skepticism.

Since learning about ABA 3 years ago, getting my BCBA last October, and to this day, I've been fascinated by this question of mainstream acceptance of our field.  Or, rather, why there isn't more of it.

I have always been fascinated my human behavior. 

One of my first jobs was delivering meals to people with AIDS all over the city of San Francisco, from luxury penthouse apartments to squalid projects.  At the time I was also attending college and taking social sciences courses, learning about political history, economics, philosophy, psychology, etc.  I was thinking very deeply about the injustice that I saw all around me, and wanted to understand both how it had come to be, as well as what could be done about it.  One of the ways I passed the long drives in my delivery van was to listen to political talk radio.  I was struck, over and over, by the emphasis on the right - personalities like Rush Limbaugh - on the behavior of the poor.  Welfare abuse, laziness, criminality, poor parenting, failure to clean up their neighborhoods, were a constant refrain. 

How could we, as a society, be expected to help these people (who were so often minorities) if they seemingly refused to help themselves?  I was disgusted by the generalizations, the smugness, the lack of empathy.  But what they described was often quite true.  I saw up close so many of the same behaviors.  Not by everyone in the neighborhoods, of course, but by too many.

On the left, the emphasis was on structural problems - racism by banks and employers, school teachers with low expectations, a history of oppression and disenfranchisement that left generations of families with few resources and psychopathologies like physical abuse or addiction that were a function of growing up in wretched conditions.

So I thought deeply about how these narratives conflicted, and yet were at the root of political disagreement in the country.  This was back in the 1990's, but little has changed.  The history of conservative and progressive thought can almost be defined by this conflict: why do people do what they do?  Is it because they freely make different choices, or because their choices are constrained by larger social structures?  If they are free, then do we simply blame them for their lot in life because it is one they choose?  Or do we help them out of an obligation because their choices are a function of the environment in which they have lived – an environment we tacitly support as fellow Americans?  It seemed all to come down to free will: do we have it or not?

This was a HARD problem.  The more I read, the more difficult I understood the problem to be.  For centuries people had been struggling with it.  I, however, felt like the problem was relatively simple.  From what I saw around me, people increasingly seemed entirely a product of their genes and environment.  I was by this time working with schizophrenics and people with traumatic brain injuries in different group homes.  I saw just how fragile the brain is, and how we take for granted the role it plays in our emotional and cognitive abilities.

I obtained an undergraduate degree in social science and a Master’s in Elementary Education.  I wanted to help children maximize their potential.  Yet from the beginning I could see how trapped kids were.  Even at the poor school where I did my internship, I could see the stratification beginning: regardless of income, what seemed to matter most was the support the children were receiving at home.  The teachers were doing their best – I saw greatness and I saw frustration.  But in a class of 30 students there was only so much a teacher could do.  No matter, I would find a way.

I read Maslow and Bandura, Piaget and Vygotsky.  Skinner - I was terrified to find out much, much, later – was entirely absent.  We learned about “schema” and “multiple intelligences”.  We learned that what mattered was making lessons “fun”, and that through high expectations and diligence, all of our kids could go to college.  (My social sciences background was skeptical that we were ignoring larger structural forces – who, for example, would clean the bathrooms and wash the dishes when everyone was attending college?  But no matter.  I pressed on.)

My first experiences were as a substitute teacher in Reading, PA, a post-industrial, post-white flight city in which poor, misbehaved children were the norm.  Gunshots at night and drug deals translated with palpable immediacy into children dropped of at school too tired to work, angry, frustrated, resentful, mistrustful of authority and with a deep need for attention.  As a substitute, I struggled.  But I assumed when I had my own classroom, I would be able to reach all of them and give them what they needed.

When I finally did, a smaller Kindergarten class of around 22, I had a vindicating year.  Despite the 5 to 6 year-old children coming to school with extremely low academic readiness, I was able to get them all to basic grade-level standards before the year was done.  Many of them could barely recognize letters, shapes or numbers.  Many had never been read to.  Many couldn’t hold a pencil properly as they had been given few opportunities to use them.  I gave out homework to try and make up for this lack.  I told silly stories to engage them. I danced.  I illustrated letter sounds with fanciful cartoons.  I brought in books by the cartful form the local library to stimulate their curiosity. 

The parents were for the most part loving, caring, and devoted.  Yet many simply did not have an academic mindset.  Many had not thought to read books to their children, much less provide a cognitively enriched environment.  They showed their love with hugs, food, and kisses and freedom – one parent told me her daughter (beautiful baby-teeth smile filled with metal caps, however highly inattentive and at the bottom of her class academically) would not do her homework because as soon as she got home from school would strip to her underpants and run outside for the rest of the day.  Some struggled to get their children to school on time.  One child missed 2 months of school because of a gunshot wound from a careless cousin.  More than a few children spoke of the horror movies they loved to watch – one dressed as Chucky for Halloween.  Their world was rough and unkempt.  Parents were struggling.  There were stories of incarceration, parents unfit because of drugs so grandparents took over.  Most parents worked low-pay jobs – gardeners, clerks, maids.  One child spoke very little English but excelled academically.  His Mexican immigrant parents had been professionals in Mexico.

But the next year was worse.  For financial reasons I had to teach a double-class, and was now responsible for juggling both a kindergarten and first-grade curriculum.  I struggled with classroom management in my attempt to provide differentiated instruction to children with a functional grade-level range of 3-4 years.  Mid-year, I was asked by the principle to leave my classroom and fill-in for the high school science teacher that had quit.  It was a K-12 school, and I was felt to be the only of the elementary teachers to be a good fit for the older kids. 

But these weren’t just older kids.  Ours was a charter school.  It had originally been established as an alternative homeschool site for a group of largely white, Christian parents in the majority poor, Hispanic neighborhood.  But over the years it expanded enrollment and the local demographic (poor, minority) began to edge in.  In my time there, I saw the last few families – better off, organized, involved – pull their children out.  To make up decreasing enrollment, younger classes were consolidated, and high school students were recruited by accepting more and more students who had dropped out of regular education schools – even continuation schools.  This meant a host of behavioral problems. 

These kids hated school.  The most successful teachers seemed the meanest.  One teacher told me “what these kids understand best is meanness, so don’t be nice to them.”  I was horrified.  I tried to make learning fun.  I had little success.  These kids weren’t interested in success.  What they were interested in was fighting, getting high and having unprotected sex.  I met my first teen mothers.  One of them, at the age of 17, had a 2-year-old son, and appeared mainly interested in gossiping and surreptitiously painting her nails or trying to plug in her curling iron.  It dawned on me that her child would soon be in kindergarten.  Some desperate teacher would be trying to make up for this young girl’s complete lack of parenting skills. 

What the hell was going on?  I dug deeper.  I read Hart and Risley’s Meaningful Differences, a watershed study that was one of the first attempts to collect data on parent-child interactions within different socio-economic classes.  (Interesting, Todd Risley, I was to discover later, was to be a founding contributor to The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis’ landmark paper, “Seven Dimensions of AppliedBehavior Analysis, in 1968.)  The story was gripping.  It explained everything that I saw happening.  It described stressed-out families interacting with their children in ways that were mostly loving, yet lacking in cognitive elements that provided opportunities for expanded verbal development.  Looking at the 17-year-old mom in my class, I was not surprised in the least.  This was generational poverty at work.

I kept on.  Enrollment eventually dropped even further and the school could no longer afford to keep me on as a science teacher.  By this time I had gotten credentials in Earth and Biological Science.  I took a job myself at a continuation high school.  Here was a population in exponentially more need of intervention.  Kids got high in the bathroom.  Many were foster children or lived in group-homes.  Any work at all was regularly refused, no matter how much support was given.  Instead, students shared stories of horrific abuse, rape, and violence.  Outside my classroom door each morning the lunch counter opened early for the teen mother program.  When done with their work, I allowed some of my male students to leave and go spend time with their children.  But teen fathers usually wanted nothing to do with their children.  Students regularly only showed up for the first few months or weeks of class, often only enough to satisfy a court mandate.  Fights broke out in my room.  Hair was pulled.  Extensions were pulled off.  Children fled out the back door, security chasing after them.  I would hear stories later about parents getting involved and searching the streets to facilitate their children’s revenge.  One student came to class flying high on what seemed likely to be methamphetamines.  He lived in a local group home and I never saw him again.

I poured myself into my blog.  I wrote more than a thousand pages, combining philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, economics – everything I read that helped me better understand just what in our system had broken.  I studied school performance maps and their relationship to demographics and geographic housing patterns.  I looked at average incomes and crime rates, education levels and quality of libraries by zip code.  I began thinking about the concept of financial capital leverage, how it takes money to make money.  I thought about this concept in a global sense: what about human capital?  Social capital?  Education, safety, parenting, sanitation, peers, parks, transportation, infrastructure – all forms of capital at one’s disposal.  All of these were determinate of one’s self-efficacy.  Forget about the income gap.  The reality of human growth involves something greater.  I needed a better term so I began referring to this as “societal capital”: everything that a society provides to a person that s/he is able to leverage into the exponential attainment of more capital.  There was negative capital as well.  Drug abuse, mental illness, and discrimination were all negative forms of capital that had the opposite effect: they decreased one’s capital exponentially.  I doubted many people were reading.  But I had to write.  I needed an outlet.  What I was writing about wasn’t commonly found on either the right or the left.  It was either all the kids’ fault, or it was the teachers’ fault.  The conversation wasn’t advanced enough to look deeper.

At school, my principal, in his infinite wisdom, was convinced what was needed was to adhere to strict curricular standards and test preparation.  These kids needed to learn.  No matter that many were being beaten and abused at home, suffering PTSD from secret tragedies, or only coming to school because it was the one relatively safe place in their lives where they could sit quietly or engage a peer in friendly conversation.  The old continuation model, where students were given hands-on, therapeutic course work like sculpting, art, or poetry – a recognition of their broken state, was long gone.  Now we were all about state test performance.  The principal, I once remember, confessed to his staff his love of “data”.  Data was going to drive our teaching.  Data was going to drive performance.

When yearly testing came around, my students drew patterns in the bubbles.

I then moved on again, this time to teach in general education in Yucca Valley, named after the beautiful, somehow alien-looking cactus trees.  I hoped the students would at least be in something more than survival mode.  At this point, 5 years into my career, I know I was.  I had two small children and a wife at home to support.  I was used now to laying my head down at night on a pillow of guilt, doubt, anger, and fear.  But he next year was hardly better.  In some ways it was worse.  These kids – mostly low-SES or with various troubles – were satisfied with D’s, something they were used to acquiring by the skin of their teeth at the end of the year after doing little work and pleading with their teachers.  Towards the end of the first semester, 2/3 were failing, despite every possible prompt I could have given them.  The 4-5 daily calls home I made were of little use.  The parents had long since given up hope on shaping the behavior of their children.  The assistant principal, however, pulled me aside one day and explained that I couldn’t fail this many kids.  There simply wasn’t enough capacity in the summer school program. 

I was slowly going mad.  During my long commute up into the wretched dust of the high desert, I fantasized about driving my car into the divider.  Some nights I cried.  I couldn’t take it any more.  Now not only did my students hate me.  I hated them.

So this was it, I thought.  As the end of the year came I packed my things, fully expecting to never teach again.  I thought about going into special education, where I hoped (naively) at least I might have the support to meet my students’ needs.   I soon learned that the burnout rate in special ed was actually higher than anywhere else in education.  But I was determined.  Maybe I could make it work.

On my blog, I was realizing I had said most of what I needed to say about our broken system of education – that in reality what we had was a broken economic system built upon a broken, flawed philosophical system that didn’t understand human behavior.  In a special education course I learned about the history of disability rights in the US in the latter half of the 20th century.  After a procession of legal victories, a social conception of rights had formed to agree that people with special needs deserved larger society’s active effort in providing them the support they needed to be as successful as possible.  No longer shoved away into the corner, out of sight and out of mind, society now had a responsibility to these individuals.  In 1975 the Individuals with Disabilities Act guaranteed that children with special needs had a right to a "free and appropriate education".  Schools were now required by law to address students’ needs and make accommodations for them. 

It occurred to me that what we had come to realize was morally correct with regard to physical disabilities we had not yet come to realize for the merely “disadvantaged”.  Sure, we offer the bare minimum through a patchwork of programs such as free/reduced lunch or title 1 funds for special tutoring.  But it can't possibly make up for the problems these kids live with.  And it is nothing like the large-scale, sustained, legally binding law we have for students with disabilities.

Why not?  Is not a child with numerous risk factors deserving of special assistance in a comprehensive, cohesive fashion?  When you look at all of the factors that go into a child’s emotional, physical and academic success, the very concept of disadvantage defines an unequal future.  Is this, to use the language of the 1975 law, “appropriate”?

I realize providing an comprehensive, individualized education to disadvantaged students is a radical notion.  What it implies is a complete restructuring of our entire educational system, as well as a rather invasive and powerful legal intrusion into the family.  Yet the larger problem is philosophical: kids are born with disabilities.  There is little we can do to change that.  But kids are not born disadvantaged; they are born into an environment of disadvantage.  We can change this, but it requires a reshaping of our economic and social institutions.

Let’s look at a real-world example of what I mean.  Take the 2 year-old child of the 17-year-old mother.  If this child was taken and place in an upper-SES family, it’s risk factors removed, it would likely go on to college and stand a high chance of success.  Of course, this would be entirely immoral, aside from impractical.  This child might be fine, but what about the structure within which the parent exists.  She will continue the rest of her life working for low wages, providing society with cheap labor.  But in this scenario society has not changed.  The sector of the economy that requires an underclass to operate will continue.  And who is to say the parent won’t simply have another child?  She likely will.  She will be living in poverty, in a neighborhood with similar property values as she can afford, inhabited by people of similar means.  They will all send their children to the same school, to exponentially de-leverage each other, while on the other side, the upper-SES property value families will be leveraging away between rounds of tennis and political caucusing.

We’re not going to take children away from their families.  That’s barbaric.  But is the current neo-liberal agenda, to “fix the schools”, much better?  

It sounds good, and has a bipartisan ring.  But in the past decades we’ve tried: charters, school closings, hiring “the best and brightest”, union-busting... we’ve made next to zero progress.  After a sober analysis of the functional relationships in poor communities, children and education, is it any surprise?  At best, schools are an extra leg-up for those unlucky enough to have low levels of “societal capital”.  At worse they are a continued excuse for a society that wants to pretend it is helping those that get left behind by the system, all-the-while depending on classes of poor people for its cheap labor.   Given that most of our political eggs are in such a hopeless basket, this alternative seems pretty barbaric too.

So what to do?  Well, we can start by understanding the problem.  And to understand it, we must return to Skinner.  As I mentioned previously, what is broken in society is our philosophy of human behavior.  In 2016, enormous numbers of people still believe in the magical concept of “free will”.  What this means is that they believe that all people, once they reach a certain age, are “free” to make their own decisions, regardless of life experience.  If, at this point, they make poor choices, the responsibility begins and ends with them.  It is not society’s fault.  Therefore, society is not responsible either for investing in special programs to help them, or to alter its institutions so as to stop creating the environments which produce individuals who would make such decisions.  This is the raw core of disagreement between right and left, democrat and republican, “big government” versus “small government”.  You can have policy debates about the efficacy of different policy responses, but less government necessarily means leaving people on their own to suffer whatever contingencies naturally arise in any given environment.  For some, this may work fine.  But for many, this will mean a life shaped by a lack of resources.  And just like financial resources, Rent will develop in which those with capital will be in a better position to profit off of those with less.   Humans are selfish by nature, and without strong contingencies keeping us in check, we are very good at living with inequality.  We are very good at building walls, both literally and figuratively.

So to continue the metaphor, the first wall that must come down is the notion of free will.  Skinner’s work, along with countless others in the natural science of behaviorism, has devastated it once and for all.  Radical behaviorism the most rigorous, empirical, and parsimonious account available of human behavior - both verbal (including private thoughts) and non-verbal.  Its laws are irrefutable. 

The political history of behaviorism versus cognitive science is long and not well enough understood.  But it is apparent that those who decades ago began proclaiming its death were ignorant of the science.  Not only is it flourishing today, with practical applications that show results in certain populations - namely those with autism - that would be almost unthinkable in any other field of psychology, but offers great promise in a great many other areas as well, from business to politics, mental health to urban planning.  (And of course we can't forget education.)

A common critique of behaviorism is that it is too simple, too reductionist.  Sure, it is said, it describes well the behavior of simple animals, or some simple human behaviors, but doesn’t come close to explaining the complexity of human thought.  This is both true and false.  True, many human thoughts are the product of incalculable functional relations between an individual’s genetic make-up and the schedules of punishment and reinforcement that have acted upon them in a process of unfolding, never-ending contingencies.  We cannot account for specific instances at such levels of resolution.  But this would be like asking how one molecule of H2O got to be just where it is in the middle of a hurricane, or of a molecule of pigment in a Rembrandt. 

At the same time, it would be false to say we don’t a have a clear explanation for the principles from which molecules of water or paint operate.  They are part of highly complex systems, yes, but systems that obey fundamental laws.  The same can be said of behavior.  We know the principles of respondent and operant conditioning are responsible for every measurable human behavior, no matter how complex.  As a system, the human “mind” is entirely behavioral, and operates according to the same principles and laws that all other organisms do.  I can’t possible tell you whether or not you are going to drink coffee tomorrow morning, or why you didn’t today.  But I can explain the principles involved that will, over time have come to create your coffee-drinking behavior.

But why, people would always say, does it just FEEL like we are in control of our actions?  There must be something more.  Maybe some emergent property, quantum entanglement, or some yet to be discovered phenomenon that allowed for us - the most sophisticated thing in the known universe - to be acting free from the constraints of determinism.

I’ve only been studying behaviorism for close to three years now, and a certified behavior analyst for less than one year.  But I'm still struck by the gap between behaviorism's vast scientific body of knowledge and popular discussions of psychology and philosophy -  not to mention its implication for every other realm of human endeavor.  I still love to read non-behaviorist writing on the subject, but I find it increasingly difficult to take anyone seriously who doesn’t at least understand the basic principles of behaviorism.  It would be like reading book on geology by someone who has never heard of radiometric dating.  To be honest, the discussions of the “mind” one often hears from non-behaviorists bears striking resemblance to evolution skeptics discussing intelligent design.  One of the first things I do now when picking up any book dealing with a related subject is check the index for references to Skinner.  There usually are none.

I’m now a BCBA, with a successful practice and doing work I love each day with beautiful families and their children with autism.  I am deeply gratified by the constant miraculousness of the work – the principles of “verbal behavior” that Skinner developed and others built on to provide effective treatments I get to deliver are literally teaching the behavior of thought in children and allowing them to more fully meet their potential as individuals.

But while the work I do makes a profound difference in the lives of children with special needs, I can’t help but think of the larger world, with so much sadness, suffering and inequality.  I can’t help but think of the impact we could have – not just with the practical application of the principles of behaviorism, but the philosophical implications its science has for how we structure and organize our society.  With a behavioral lens, so many old mythologies that have kept us from real political and social progress slip away, exposed as illusions.  In their place, a vast humility takes form that sees each individual as unique, yet inseparably tied to everything else in the universe, shaped by the contingencies of day to day life, interacting through his breath, blood, organs and nerve endings in complete harmony.

It is through our objective philosophy of science that we reach out across four thousand millennia and gaze upon ourselves, both in all we could be and what we may one day yet become.  This reaching is our “will”, though it is anything but free.  It provides the reinforcement.  It provides the punishment.  All we can ever do is go along for the ride, from these words to your history of associated memories.  What will be will be, however in this humble endeavor, I try my best to be light from that gaze, into darkness of the unknown.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Playing Games

Leveling up.  New items.  High scores.  New abilities.  Upgrades.  These game mechanics have a seductive allure known all to well to those of us who play video games.  

A featured article at Game Informer explores this fascinating subject.

A few paragraphs in, a minor but significant error is made, taken from no less an expert than a Ph.D. psychologist who describes the mechanics as classical conditioning - immediately bringing to mind for many Pavlov and his famous salivating dogs. 

However, game mechanics are an example of operant conditioning, not classical conditioning. Classical conditioning (also known as respondent conditioning) describes unlearned behavior (the behavior itself) elicited by the environment, i.e. salivating, eye blinking, sneezing, etc. and isn't affected by what comes after. Operant conditioning, however, is learned behavior (classes of responses) that is evoked by the environment and either punished or reinforced depending on what follows the behavior (i.e. reaching for cookies because they were delicious, or playing "just one more level" to get a special item.

This is an intermittent schedule, in particular a variable ratio schedule, the schedule that evokes the highest rate of responding across all organisms. Other schedules: fixed ratio, fixed interval, or variable interval all have lower levels of responding, whether you are a pigeon, dog or human.

What's fascinating is that operant behavior - which encompasses most everything we do, including our thoughts, does not need to be conscious. We can learn to be aware of our behavior, but we generally can't really be aware of all aspects of the schedule of reinforcement of which the behavior is a function. For example, we can only be vaguely aware of how pleasurable or painful an activity is, but a fuller account needs a high level of data collection (time, behaviors emitted, topography of stimulus, history of reinforcement, etc.). We can, however, make predictions, alter our environments and design rules for ourselves to follow. 

A tad unfortunate that the psychologist on hand muddled the subject a bit.  It may have been sloppy wording, but my suspicion is that his mistake is emblematic of a larger problem in which behaviorism is relegated to an important, yet minor "school of thought" in psychology.  Skinner is taught somewhere after Pavlov, alongside Watson, and then passed over for Bandura, Piaget, and the ever-luminous Freud.  This is an unfortunate, because in casting aside Skinner's work, including him among other "interesting" but unscientific and subjective, hypothetical (in behaviorism we call them "mentalistic") models, our power to not only define human behavior but to truly understand what creates and shapes it is sacrificed.  Far from being an outdated "perspective", behaviorism is a hard science, and underlies everything we do.

So why isn't radical behaviorism, nearly seventy years after its development, embraced more fully outside a narrow clinical application of its principles in work with special needs populations, if it is such a fundamental description of why 7 billion humans do what they do?  

Applied Behavior Analysis (the contemporary name for behaviorism), rooted in the philosophy of radical behaviorism, is complex.  It requires a relatively lengthy period of study to begin to fully appreciate.  It is also the case that  one's own preconceptions about the nature of the "mind", human nature, and free will are challenged by the evidence.  To accept radical behaviorism is to accept a materialist, deterministic, parsimonious, empirical account of human behavior, i.e. why we do what we do.  This sets up a situation in which those who have not spent considerable time studying behaviorism likely do not understand it very well, and will fail to appreciate its power.  Furthermore, they will not have come into contact with its salient features, namely hard evidence that overturns conventional wisdom held not only by the general public, but of many other areas of psychology.

Skinner described human behavior as a process of cultural selection, operating similarly to biological evolution evolution.  In the Darwinist account, certain phenotypes are created, but then selected for by the environment, which allows certain traits to pass on generationally and others to die off.  With behavior, certain behaviors are reinforced by the environment, causing them to occur again or more frequently, while others are punished, causing them to stop or occur less frequently.  Just as the environment is a constant pressure on biological evolution (food, water, availability of mates, shelter, etc.), so too is cultural selection in the form of determining which behaviors will survive and which will fade away.

The theory of evolution is now over 150 years old, and although widely embraced by scientific and reasonable people, it's detractors still object to it on the grounds that it is incompatible with an intelligent designer, or God.  Religious compatibilists such as the Catholic church, argue instead that God can still be present, in that he merely "got the whole thing going".  I'm not sure if that makes much sense when you really think about it, especially in the context of their larger Christian doctrinal exegesis, but good on them. 

The parallels with radical behaviorism are striking.  Where evolution seems to kick God out of the equation, making biological selection possible through an entirely naturalistic, deterministic process, behaviorism seems to kick Man out of the equation in a similar sense, making cultural selection possible through an entirely materialist process as well.  Where religious objections stem from a fear that their beliefs become nullified, objections to behaviorism also seem to arise out of fear: that their belief in the mind becomes nullified.

Just as religion looms old as history itself, and in this manner seemingly self-evident, so too does the notion of man's free will and self-determination.  But both are a subtle matter of framing.  A religious man looks around him and says, how could all of this come about without a masterful God?  So to the free-will romantic looks within himself and says, how can I not be in control of my actions?  

But as we began to understand the mechanics of atoms, fundamental forces and laws, so too were we able to see the universe as able to give rise to the astonishment we see around us merely through materialistic interactions.  We then began to realize that our assumptions were themselves the product of cultural histories and particular to our time and place.  As Pavlov began to discover the two-term contingency: connections between reflexive responses and environmental stimuli, and Skinner began to discover the three-term contingency: connections between our responses, environmental stimuli, and the probability of future responding, we can now see that the universe gives rise as well not only to our actions but our thoughts.

I think in many ways it has been easier for people to accept biological evolution than radical behaviorism.  For one thing, the outside world is by definition objective, and much easier to control and manipulate.  When you design an experiment to measure rainfall, continental drift, or star formation, no one worries about the ethical considerations.  But when you begin to think about testing and controlling human populations, people naturally get spooked.  And the cultural context for scientific paradigm shifts can't be understated.  Radical behaviorism was literally being developed at the same time millions of Jews were being sent to gas chambers in Europe as a "scientific solution" to social problems; the rise of communism was building entire states on the notions of mass population control and social engineering.

But Nazism no more disproves the theory of evolution than totalitarianism disproves radical behaviorism.  Sure, it raises some very urgent questions about how we structure our society.  But at the same time, from a behaviorist perspective, so does the romantic notion of free-will.  The difference is that the former is based in science, the latter on intuition and cultural tradition.  

Video game makers and casinos aren't concerned with whether we accept it or not.  They simply do what works.  The choice for us is whether we want to be aware of why we respond in the ways we do, so that we might at least have a clear-eyed perspective on the world we live in, or whether we would rather dismiss the science in favor of what we would prefer to believe in.  The stakes go far beyond video games.  The principles of behaviorism shape every behavior we engage in, and describe how our behavior will be determined by our public institutions, our economy, our schools, our courts, and most directly, our intimate relationships.  Every problem we have in life involves, by definition, a human behavior that is located within a complex environmental system of selection.  The key to knowing ourselves, and our world, lies in understanding this process.