Baby in a Box

Sometimes there’s a kernel of truth in what David Horowitz claims—which is why he is so dangerous. But that truth, if examined carefully, can also turn around and bite him.

Twenty years or so ago, my brother was taking a course in philosophy at Ohio State University. The professor, for some reason, repeated the canard that B. F. Skinner had raised his daughters in a Skinner box and, as a result, one had gone crazy and the other had committed suicide (Skinner was in town to speak). My brother raised his hand and objected. His statement went something like this:

“I’m sorry, sir, but that’s not accurate. One of Skinner’s daughters is an artist living in England. The other teaches in West Virginia. In fact, I had dinner with her and her father just last night.”

The professor simply told my brother he was wrong and moved on. In disgust, Joel dropped the class. Horowitz is right: there are professors who are so sure of themselves that they will reject even the direct experience of another if it contradicts their belief (but, hey, there are people like that everywhere–Horowitz being one himself).

What my brother said was true, right down to having had dinner with Fred Skinner and Julie Skinner Vargas, an educational psychologist. Fred Skinner and our father (himself a radical behaviorist—like Skinner), had long been friends and the dinner invitation had resulted from that.

If he were alive, Skinner would certainly be a candidate for Horowitz’s book on evil professors. And he would have loved being included. After all, he told (with relish) how much he enjoyed the way I. A. Richards would introduce him each term, when Richards invited him to address his own classes: “And now, students, let me introduce… the devil!”

The recent graduate Horowitz assigned to Skinner would try to come up with salacious “details” that could be used to show just how horrible Skinner was. That person would soon come across the 1945 article Skinner published on his “air crib” in The Ladies’ Home Journal, describing the crib Skinner had constructed for his second daughter, Deborah, one that controlled temperature and humidity, and that included for the first time at least one item that has since become commonplace—a microphone connected to speakers all over the house, so that the baby’s breathing (and crying) could be monitored and responded to. This was only a crib, and Deborah was in it just as any baby is in its crib.

The title of the article was “Baby in a Box.” This caused many careless people to conflate it with Skinner’s “operant chamber,” a device used to teach students about operant conditioning through the use of rats and pigeons—just the sort of conflation Horowitz likes to use to smear people. With just as little validity. Both being associated with Skinner does not make them the same thing.

This is just the sort of “mistake” that an unskilled, hurried, or “agenda-ed” researcher might make. Does make. Especially one relying on second-hand information, never bothering to check carefully to see what the references are (Michael Bérubé points out that he is accused by a Horowitz acolyte of being, essentially, anti-Semitic through a careless attribution of the words “this article” in a comment he made to one article instead of another, the real referenced article).

To his credit as a person (but to the detriment of his reputation), Skinner never seemed to find it necessary to correct this sort of misapprehension. He wasn’t about correcting people, but challenging them. Just so, he never did respond to Noam Chomsky’s criticism of his book Verbal Behavior, feeling that Chomsky had missed the point and was attacking behaviorism in general and not the theses Skinner was putting forth in his book. Skinner didn’t feel he could argue with Chomsky, for Chomsky was arguing against an assumed stance that certainly wasn’t in the book and definitely (by 1957, when the book was published) was not Skinner’s. Skinner didn’t feel it would do any good to point that out, for Chomsky, clearly, had made up his mind even before reading the book. Nothing Skinner could say later, certainly, was going to change that. As a result, the book (quite interesting and illuminating) isn’t often read today (a pity), just as many still believe that Skinner raised his daughters in an operant chamber. (Another partial truth of Horowitz’s: Chomsky’s not perfect).

The “mistakes” of a Horowitz would amuse Skinner (as did those of Chomsky), but he wouldn’t likely bother to correct him, either. To me, that would be a failure on Skinner’s part. “Truth will out” is not something I believe in—our perceptions of history of all sorts and all fields are filled with error—so I will continue to stand against this new slander of Horowitz’s against our modern-day professors, just as my brother did, in his small way, against the slander on Skinner a generation ago.

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