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Baiting the behaviorist(s)

Posted on November 30, 2011 by James Kohl.

A discussant on the International Society for Human Ethology (ISHE) group leveled a sarcastic attack on my credibility and my established level of expertise. See for example: Human pheromones: integrating neuroendocrinology and ethology. The attack, as most are, was devoid of any substantive content because it did not address cause and effect with regard to the visual response of the honeybee, which was the topic of discussion.

It is typically somewhat difficult for me to get others to realize they are not addressing cause and effect, but behaviorists are often the extremists in this regard. The problem is that some of them think their endless series of experiments will result in a better understanding of evolved human behavior. This problem led to the accusation that I was accusing all of psychology of the same kind of charlatanism.

My complaint is that many of the study results coming from behaviorists and other psychologists are relatively meaningless compared to those coming from molecular biologists and neuroscientists. But I’m not the only one who is complaining about psychologists with meaningless results. And both the FDA and the ASAM are now telling the clinical psychologists to pay attention to the neuroscientists when it comes to cause and effect.

The clinical psychologists will not be inclined to do so if the behaviorists and other pseudo/psycho-types do not quit telling their “stories” about cause and effect. Such stories, sans the gene-cell-tissue-organ-organ system pathway that I have detailed, are much like the “Just-so” stories of evolutionary psychology.  In contrast the FDA Critical Path Initiative is clear (at least to me). These are the points of clarification I think are appropriate for discussion with behaviorists.

1. All demonstrations of contingencies of reinforcement that alter vertebrate behavior depend on activation by sensory stimuli of the gene, cell, tissue, organ, organ-system pathway that links reinforcement to behavior. Clearly, these are demonstrations of evolved behaviors.

2. Accurate interpretation of results from these demonstrations of evolved behaviors does not depend on any single level of analysis.

3.  We cannot directly link any individual gene, cell, tissue, organ, or organ system to any behavior without including the rest of the pathway that links gene activation to brain-directed behavior.

3. Manipulations are not responsible for any brain-directed behavioral affect.

4. Manipulations appear to be causal to some effect when the lower levels of the Critical Path are ignored. (Wow, the stimulus did this to the animal’s behavior!)

5. Contextual ignorance incorporated into manipulations leads to meaningless results. (Wow, the brain did this to the animal’s behavior!)

6. Out of context results are not meaningful to anyone because they explain nothing.

7. Quantum physics is science that lies outside the context of the Critical Path; it explains nothing about evolved behavior.

Point number 7 is made because dumbfounded discussants typically bring physics to bear and attempt to use it as an “out” of discussions of things they don’t understand. I take this as an admission of their embarrassment when they realize they cannot continue discussion of biologically based effects on hormones, and especially their affect on behavior in the context of a topic linking visual input to behavior. It’s tough to link visual input as the cause of any behavior in any insect species.

The discussion of cause and effect required in the context of the Critical Path adds the a neuroscientific perspective, which is why the 2011 ASAM policy clearly states that: “Current neuroscience recognizes that the neurocircuitry of reward also involves a rich bi-directional circuitry…”  and it addresses the need for a comprehensive biological, psychological, social and spiritual assessment by a trained and certified professional.

For contrast, medical practitioners do not require anything from behaviorists who have been trained to assess only the manipulated behavior of species that can be conditioned to press levers, peck at keys, peck at colored dots, jump through hoops, or whatever. As an added diversionary tactic, the discussant brought in the equally irrelevant mention of philosophy. And, in an era where the molecular biology of cause, effect on hormones, and affect on behavior is used to explain evolved behaviors, I’m not sure what Aristotle’s 4 kinds of “cause” have to do with anything. (He’s still dead, right?) So is discussion of cause and effect on the International Society for Human Ethology (ISHE) group.

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James Kohl
Retired medical laboratory scientist

James Kohl




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