In the late 1930's, Burrhus Frederick (B.F.) Skinner wrote his magnum opus, The Behavior of Organisms. Today, his perspective
on behavior is the foundation for almost all behavioral fields that deal with non-verbal animals. Skinner is the foundation
for the term operant conditioning, or "learning by consequences." Skinner's primary desire was to create a science of behavior.
He promoted the idea that scientific behavioral control would make the world a better place. The essence of his ideology was
a non-punitive society that would control behavior through "reinforcement" – the strengthening of behavior through rewarding
good behavior. If you have noticed that science with an agenda strays from the essence of science, you'd be correct. B.F.
Skinner failed to create a science of behavior. He was more ideologue than scientist who created an ideology that fails even
cursory tests of scientific validity.
Skinner got his bachelor's degree in literature and had no formal training in the hard sciences. (By contrast, Ivan Pavlov
studied physiology, organic and inorganic chemistry and was a doctor of medicine.) After his bachelor's program he studied
the budding discipline of psychology at Harvard University, gaining his PhD in 1931. Five years later, he wrote his high-sounding
magnum opus, The Behavior of Organisms. The lofty name conjures up kinship with Darwin's Origin of Species but the foundation
for the work was minimalistic to the extreme. The problem was that Skinner hadn't really studied the behavior of organisms.
He studied only two species – rats and pigeons – and only one behavior each; lever pressing in rats and key pecking in pigeons.
The essence of B.F. Skinner's attempts to be scientific can be summed up in two words – speculation and extrapolation. His
work is really a collection of hypotheses, many of which are improvable because they contradict simple observation of natural
phenomena. His work never reached the level of theory yet is usually absorbed into the broader topic of "learning theory",
In Skinner's mind, science requires numbers. In order to have a science of behavior one must somehow quantify behavior. His
solution was to pick the rate of response of a single "operant." A typical early operant experiment included pigeons or rats
pecking keys and pressing levers. When they pecked or pressed, reinforcement was delivered by a lab assistant with a spoonful
of feed. Skinner believed that he would get better data if he removed the experimenter from the process and worked diligently
to create an "operant chamber" that required no human intervention. His goal was to create a completely austere environment
where the only factors present were those chosen by the experimenter. (In the 1950's, Dr. Ogden R. Lindsley was B.F. Skinner's
first teacher's assistance at Harvard University. At that time, pregnancy tests were conducted by injecting the urine of a
female human into a rabbit. This caused the ovaries of the rabbit to hemorrhage, causing bulging masses that could only be
examined by killing the rabbit. Skinner wanted to find a more humane way to test for pregnancy. He selected the acute nose
of beagles and built a large operant chamber out of a large refrigerator laid on its side. Inside the chamber, the dog had
a tube that wafted the scent of female urine to his nostrils. If the scent showed "positive" for pregnancy the dog hit a paddle
and was rewarded. It didn't work that way. After the dogs became sophisticated about the goal, they started hitting the lever
with both feet and biting it, wildly. The primitive recording instruments of the time overloaded and could not record discrete
data from this assault. Skinner instructed Lindsey to move the lever to one side of the box and build a tubular sleeve that
would only allow one leg to access the paddle. It didn't work. Though there was no additional reinforcement for excessive
pawing or biting, the dogs continued to try to use both feet and their teeth to engage the paddle. In some cases the animals
almost dislocated the elbow of the "off" leg trying desperately to shove it down the tube. The tube was marked with teeth
marks within a few short trials. This information was discarded by Skinner because his only concern was single presses of
the lever. ) The biggest problem with the scientific literature of Skinnerian ideology is that the research was never conducted
in a robust environment. On the contrary, any "noise" that filtered into the experiment was eliminated to create bare-bones
data that could be displayed on a chart or graph. In the process, any real understanding of behavior was sacrificed to the
minimalist desires of the master. This is problematic when modern behaviorists cite behavior analytic research to explain
real-world problems and solutions. The literature does not describe the way an organism would behave outside of a box or when
the animal has access to its full behavioral repertoire. i.e. Real pigeons use flight as a means of solving problems and gaining
"reinforcement." Inside a "Skinner Box" flying is not possible. Ergo, studies of flightless pigeons have little to do with
the Real McCoy.