Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Monday, September 25, 2006

Blogging Lovaas, 7

100 years?

Still, there's a line there that deserves slightly more attention.

The validity and efficacy of behavioural treatment is based on thousands of scientifically sound studies of learning processes investigated for over 100 years and published in journals with competent peer review by a large number of researchers from across this country and abroad.

That's quite a claim; scientifically valid behavioural research all the way back to 1899. It's a claim that suggests Lovaas hasn't actually moved on since the time when Skinner was the unchallenged paradigm. Not an easy claim to disprove, mind you, particularly as he doesn't name them (well, it would certainly lengthen the book) - but it's not on the face of it terribly convincing, either; few of us would be prepared to rest our reputation on any publication from 1899. We are ever so slightly readier to question the scientific soundness of the work of the pioneers - reports on the Kallikaks, say, or the Jukes, to take representative examples from the time.

Peer review, too, comes up here. As a published author and an ex-editor of a refereed journal I have no difficulty in believing the findings of the many studies that have found flaws in the system - a bias in favour of positive findings, or a tendency to reinforce the conventional wisdom. I wouldn't say peer review was useless, but it's certainly no panacea (and publication in your own journal proves nothing whatsoever).

Blogging Lovaas, 6

Science or scientism?

This teaching manual places a major emphasis on describing treatment programs confirmed effective based on methods of scientific inquiry. The final goal of scientific inquiry is to make the treatment procedures and data on treatment outcomes believable and replicable to the scientific community and to parents, teachers, and others who want to apply them.

Perhaps it's just picky, but it's mildly interesting that when framing the point of scientific inquiry Lovaas looks first at its rhetorical advantages - it makes the outcomes believable.

This in turn means that one's investigative efforts are subject to review, commonly referred to as peer review, by other scientists so as to establish the validity of these efforts. The validity and efficacy of behavioural treatment is based on thousands of scientifically sound studies of learning processes investigated for over 100 years and published in journals with competent peer review by a large number of researchers from across this country and abroad.

This claim of scientific status is certainly one of the central planks of the Lovaas phenomenon. Myself, I can see more of what Feynman called cargo cult science;

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.

In part, Lovaas' is an appeal to method - ABA works with scientific protocols, and so are scientific - and partly an appeal to outcomes - the planes, it is said, have landed. I'll speak more of that later; at the moment, I'd like to quote some more Feynman that suggests that you can have some of methods and some of the outcomes and still not be a science.

There is one feature, I notice, that is generally missing in cargo cult science. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated. Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.

I can't see any evidence of that attitude in anything produced by Lovaas; anybody who thinks they have found an instance is welcome to draw it to my attention.

This may not be as significant as the next issue Feynman raises.

There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

Feynman says that you collect data to form your hypothesis, and then you go off and collect different data to test your hypothesis. Lovaas came up with the first round with his canonical study in 1987, and spent the next ten years defending it. Feynman would have suggested that yes, it was a good start, but you needed a different data set to test the predictions made by the first one. Lovaas has worked on the assumption that a single experiment can establish his theory. Not, in Feynman's terms, scientific.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Blogging Lovaas 4 or possibly 5

The development and analysis of many new behavioural treatment programs over the last 30 years have led to three major advances. [One, start young; two, we can identify the subgroups who gain the most;] Third, advances in the teaching of socially appropriate forms of communication are associated with concomitant reductions in self-injurious and other destructive behaviours in the majority of students. Because of this concomitant reduction, the use of aversive interventions to reduce destructive behaviours may no longer be necessary.

In this context, 'may' screams weasel word. He's still not willing to back down completely.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Blogging Lovaas, 3

Second page (p. xiv)

Estimates of the frequency of autism have risen in recent years; reports place the prevalence as high as 1 in 500 births. The prevalence of PDD and Asberger’s syndrome is higher still. Then comes the prognosis: little or nothing can be done about the problem; only 5 out of every 100 children with autism will be able to live outside of institutions or without custodial care.

Well, there are the statistics; There are, of course, other and even higher estimates; one claim is 1 in every 166, though that may cover more of the spectrum - if PDD and Asbergers are as high or higher than autism, that’s 3 in 500 or 1 in 166. In any case, let’s go with the one in 500 for a little. If 95% of those are institutionalized that’s 95 in 50,000.
If the population of the USA is, for ease of calculation, 250 million, that’s 500,000 people with autism, of whom 475,000 would be institutionalized (or in custodial care). Let’s look at the figures of people in institutions in the 2000 census (

Under Age 18 Age 18-64 Age 65+ Total
Total 262 5,091 7,330 12,683
Community 170 4,382 5,688 10,240
Institutions 92 709 1,642 2,443
-Nursing Homes 1 181 1,590 1,772
-Homes for Physically Handicapped 1 9* --- 10
-ICF/MRs 20 118 9 147
-Other MR Facilities 26 109 7 142
-Child Welfare MR Children 14 --- --- 14
- Mentally Ill Facilities 30 144 30 204
- Correctional Facilities N/A 119 3 122
- Homeless Shelter/Street N/A 29 3 32
SOURCE: 1990 SIPP; 1989 NHIS; 1987 NMES; 1990 Decennial Census; CMHS/SAMHA, DHHS; Lakin.
NOTE: People in other institutions/group quarters, e.g., crews on ships, are not included.
• Includes ages 18+.

That is, the total number of people institutionalised for all diagnoses of mental retardation and mental illness is 507,000. For Lovaas’ estimates to be true, 94% of all institutionalised persons would need to be autistic. This seems unlikely.

This will later prove significant when Lovaas is defending the cost-effectiveness of his methods.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Blogging Lovaas, 2

So, on with the second paragraph.
Any one of the behaviours mentioned, such as language, may be broken down into a large number of separate behaviours, yielding more precise measurements and requiring different kinds of treatments.

No. Language is not an assemblage of behaviours, in any meaningful sense of 'behaviour'. Chomsky blew Skinner away on just this issue, in 1959 - "A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior" in Language, 35, No. 1 (1959), 26-58.

I had intended this review not specifically as a criticism of Skinner's speculations regarding language, but rather as a more general critique of behaviorist (I would now prefer to say "empiricist") speculation as to the nature of higher mental processes.....
The conclusion that I hoped to establish in the review, by discussing these speculations in their most explicit and detailed form, was that the general point of view was largely mythology, and that its widespread acceptance is not the result of empirical support, persuasive reasoning, or the absence of a plausible alternative.

Lovaas shares Skinner's "general point of view". As a result, he shares also in Chomsky's brickbats.

Skinner ..... utilizes the experimental results as evidence for the scientific character of his system of behavior, and analogic guesses (formulated in terms of a metaphoric extension of the technical vocabulary of the laboratory) as evidence for its scope. This creates the illusion of a rigorous scientific theory with a very broad scope, although in fact the terms used in the description of real-life and of laboratory behavior may be mere homonyms, with at most a vague similarity of meaning. To substantiate this evaluation, a critical account of his book must show that with a literal reading (where the terms of the descriptive system have something like the technical meanings given in Skinner's definitions) the book covers almost no aspect of linguistic behavior, and that with a metaphoric reading, it is no more scientific than the traditional approaches to this subject matter, and rarely as clear and careful.

Chomsky's demolition of behaviourism is so lapidiary that the temptation to quote in extenso is overwhelming.

What has been hoped for from the psychologist is some indication how the casual and informal description of everyday behavior in the popular vocabulary can be explained or clarified in terms of the notions developed in careful experiment and observation, or perhaps replaced in terms of a better scheme. A mere terminological revision, in which a term borrowed from the laboratory is used with the full vagueness of the ordinary vocabulary, is of no conceivable interest.

However, much of the basic structure of ABA - in particular, the notion that language has to be specifically taught element by element, behaviour by behaviour - is directly descended from Skinner's ideas.

Similarly, it seems quite beyond question that children acquire a good deal of their verbal and nonverbal behavior by casual observation and imitation of adults and other children. It is simply not true that children can learn language only through "meticulous care" on the part of adults who shape their verbal repertoire through careful differential reinforcement, though it may be that such care is often the custom in academic families. It is a common observation that a young child of immigrant parents may learn a second language in the streets, from other children, with amazing rapidity, and that his speech may be completely fluent and correct to the last allophone, while the subtleties that become second nature to the child may elude his parents despite high motivation and continued practice. A child may pick up a large part of his vocabulary and "feel" for sentence structure from television, from reading, from listening to adults, etc. Even a very young child who has not yet acquired a minimal repertoire from which to form new utterances may imitate a word quite well on an early try, with no attempt on the part of his parents to teach it to him. It is also perfectly obvious that, at a later stage, a child will be able to construct and understand utterances which are quite new, and are, at the same time, acceptable sentences in his language. ... I have been able to find no support whatsoever for the doctrine of Skinner and others that slow and careful shaping of verbal behavior through differential reinforcement is an absolute necessity. If reinforcement theory really requires the assumption that there be such meticulous care, it seems best to regard this simply as a reductio ad absurdum argument against this approach.

What Lovaas has done is to take the structure that Skinner said ruled everybody and restricted it to the special case of people with developmental delay. This has not removed the internal contradictions of the program.

It is not easy to accept the view that a child is capable of constructing an extremely complex mechanism for generating a set of sentences, some of which he has heard, or that an adult can instantaneously determine whether (and if so, how) a particular item is generated by this mechanism, which has many of the properties of an abstract deductive theory. Yet this appears to be a fair description of the performance of the speaker, listener, and learner. If this is correct, we can predict that a direct attempt to account for the actual behavior of speaker, listener, and learner, not based on a prior understanding of the structure of grammars, will achieve very limited success. The grammar must be regarded as a component in the behavior of the speaker and listener which can only be inferred, as Lashley has put it, from the resulting physical acts. The fact that all normal children acquire essentially comparable grammars of great complexity with remarkable rapidity suggests that human beings are somehow specially designed to do this, with data-handling or "hypothesis-formulating" ability of unknown character and complexity.

Do pwdd have hhypothesis-formulating ability, as described here by Chomsky, or not? If they do not, how is it possible to (in Lovaas' words) 'teach them to understand'? If they do, what is the justification for teaching them as if they did not?

Skinner himself said
"A child acquires verbal behavior when relatively unpatterned vocalizations, selectively reinforced, gradually assume forms which produce appropriate consequences in a given verbal community". "Differential reinforcement shapes up all verbal forms, and when a prior stimulus enters into the contingency, reinforcement is responsible for its resulting control.... The availability of behavior, its probability or strength, depends on whether reinforcements continue in effect and according to what schedules." That's what Lovaas, in effect, tries to do. And that's where, to return to the sentence we started with, we have to ask how one breaks down language into verbal behaviours. Back, again, to Chomsky.

What are in fact the actual units of verbal behavior? Under what conditions will a physical event capture the attention (be a stimulus) or be a reinforcer? When are stimuli "similar"? And so on. The use of unanalyzed notions like similar and generalization is particularly disturbing, since it indicates an apparent lack of interest in every significant aspect of the learning or the use of language in new situations. No one has ever doubted that in some sense, language is learned by generalization, or that novel utterances and situations are in some way similar to familiar ones. The only matter of serious interest is the specific "similarity." Skinner has, apparently, no interest in this.

Neither does Lovaas.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Blogging Lovaas, 1

Teaching Individuals with Developmental Delays: Basic Intervention Techniques
O. Ivar Lovaas, Pro-Ed, 2003


Individuals are evaluated on many dimensions, including emotional development, social skills, educational achievements, and language skills. Within behavioural psychology, the branch of psychology that forms the foundation of this teaching manual, such dimensions are referred to as behaviours. Behavioural psychology thus assesses such observable aggregates as intellectual behaviours, emotional behaviours, social behaviours, educational behaviours, language behaviours, aggressive behaviours, occupational behaviours, and self-help behaviours.

Insofar as behaviours can be observed, they can also be separated and objectively measured.

The very first paragraph of the text contains in four lines an almost complete list of the sleight-of-hand effects that characterise behaviourism in general and ABA in particular.

Individuals are evaluated on many dimensions, including emotional development, social skills, educational achievements, and language skills.

This is a statement of commonsense observation, like that dialogue in Mark Twain.
"Do you believe in adult baptism?"
"Believe in it? Hell, I've seen it done!"

Like that joke, Lovaas' line relies on an identification of what is seen with what is claimed. Individuals are evaluated - yes, there are tests, we have seen them done, we have undertaken them ourselves as tester and testee. In another sense, though, the words "Individuals are evaluated" are a claim, as would be "Individuals are transfigured" or "Individuals are infected" or "Individuals are weighed" - that is, there is not only a behavioural claim but a truth claim, amounting to a claim that there is a link, or even an identification, between the evaluation process and the evaluation findings, on the one hand, and "emotional development, social skills, educational achievements, and language skills" on the other.

Common sense - which I do not regard as determinative, but which needs to be mentioned - would probably say that yes, there was presumptively a connection between our evaluations and something real in that individual, between educational tests and educational achievements; as a culture and a state we rely on innumerable tests every year to sort out exactly that. We'd also probably say, though, that the transmission line between the external assessment and the internal education is loose and complicated, and that there are many possible hazards that would throw the assessment off.

Lovaas's list, in any case, includes a blend of internal mental states and external manifestations. Emotions are unobservable; social skills only exist when manifested; educational achievements can be mental states or manifestations; language skills we'll come to later. That blending is a step on the way to an identification between mental states and behaviour.

The next step comes. "Within behavioural psychology, the branch of psychology that forms the foundation of this teaching manual, such dimensions are referred to as behaviours." Again, the words 'are referred to' are intended to carry the burden of 'are'; these dimensions are behaviours, are wholly behaviours, are whatever their involvement with mental states not in any meaningful sense mental states. To underline here, things that are not behaviours, or are at least not wholly behaviours,are to be referred to - are to be identified with - behaviours, as if I was to say "This dog will be referred to as a cat" and expected to command agreement.

So then to another list: "Behavioural psychology thus assesses such observable aggregates as intellectual behaviours, emotional behaviours, social behaviours, educational behaviours, language behaviours, aggressive behaviours, occupational behaviours, and self-help behaviours." Here the hybrids - the 'observable aggregates' - are approaching the oxymoronic. What is 'intellectual behaviour'? The intellect is internal, behaviour is external, philosophers have struggled for centuries to link the two, sometimes through the pineal gland, but there appears to have been a shortcut. Occupational behaviours, though, are unquestionably behaviours; one's job description is not under any philosophy internal. Aggressive behaviour, on the other hand, is a descriptor of a medieval humour, reading back from the thrown punch to a socially transgressive attitude that is then assumed to be an internal category. But then - 'observable aggregates'? You can observe a behaviour, you can't observe an aggregation; that's a construct, a hypothesis.

I'm not just spinning my wheels here, being ironic; classical behaviourism did have a means of resolving just this difficulty. In full-court-press behaviourism there was only behaviour, no aggression, no intellect,no emotion. There was only stimulus and response, and no resort to any explanation that involved the black box. I think that was the wrong answer - spectacularly so - but it was consistent, which modern behaviourism isn't. Modern behaviourism has abandoned the underlying theory without changing any of its own behaviours; its prescriptions are identical now and then, which is why the Lovaas method has been able to bridge the eras.

But we haven't finished yet."Insofar as behaviours can be observed, they can also be separated and objectively measured." That 'insofar' is another linguistic card trick. The sentence could mean either "To the extent that [intellectual] behaviours can be observed, they can be measured"; which is a mild claim, particularly if one sets the extent to zero. It also carries the burden of "Because [intellectual] behaviours can be observed, they can be measured" and we have been carried further into accepting the ability of behavioural psychology to speak authoritatively about that which it cannot know.

And even if it is only behaviour, does that mean we must accept that it can be separated and objectively measured? I'm still unconvinced. How does one separate a single behaviour? When does it start, when does it stop? We are certainly going to get practical examples further in to the book, but the theoretical issues have not yet been dealt with satisfactorily.

And measured? Again, some doubts remain. If one has separated behaviours, they can be counted; but can they be measured, a term which implies comparison, even numerical comparison? Heights ands weights can be treated mathematically, multiplied, divided, subtracted and added; behaviours would seem to have only the less-than< and greater-than> operators.

To be fair, that last Lovaas sentence was from another paragraph.

OK, you don't go to Lovaas for theory, that was Skinner; this beginning may simply be a pious invocation of the old Skinnerian gods. Even so, it's hardly satisfactory.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Age bin

The Palestinians should accept the right for Israel to exist in the same way that the Israelis accept Palestine’s right to exist. How hard could that be? That would give the Palestinians control over Israel’s borders, its roads, its water, all of Jerusalem, and any hilltop that looked inviting, constituting 40% of the best land. The Palestinians could occupy any Israeli city any time they felt like it, could invite anyone of Palestinian descent from anywhere in the world to return and settle, could round up and imprison the Israeli cabinet as convenient, could declare the Israeli army illegitimate, and could build high walls around Israeli settlements with closely policed crossing points. Offer them that and I think they’d listen.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Is the stance

What set Steve Irwin out on his own in this era was his willingness to be the clown. Clowns are not heroes, not cool, not leaders. He didn't mind. He was the only media figure in this era who appeared in public flexed at the knees, which is the mark of the clown.He didn't insist on being perpetually erect.

On an exactly contrary line, but again on stance, I was looking at the last moment of Ceacescu and wondering what was wrong with his cabinet ministers lined up behind him. Rose picked it; they had their hands hanging at their sides, the posture of the servant. The model for public men is, literally, the model, the people in the ads - the people in art - who have their limbs arranged in approved postures.

Again, not Steve.

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