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The Behavior Analyst 2011, 34, 201207 No.

2 (Fall)

Consideration of Private Events is Required in a

Comprehensive Science of Behavior
David C. Palmer
Smith College

Baum (2011) argues that private traced at least as far back as Newton
events constitute a trivial idea and (1687/1952), who, in his Principia,
are irrelevant to accounts of behav- asserted, as one of his rules for
ior (p. 185), and that all the reasoning in science, The qualities
behavior and effects that matter of bodies found to belong to all
are public (p. 194). In arguing so, bodies within the reach of our
Baum has misunderstood the central experiments are to be esteemed the
purpose of invoking private events. universal qualities of all bodies what-
Private events play no role in the soever (p. 270). The phrase all
experimental analysis of behavior, bodies, of course, includes planets,
but they play an important role in stars, microscopic dust, and myriad
the interpretation of behavior out- other entities undetectable by the
side the laboratory. If we do not tools of the 17th century scientist.
engage in such interpretive exercises, Newton was not stating a fact: For
we have no explanation at all for all he knew, or anyone knows, the
much human behavior, and we leave universe beyond our ken obeys dif-
the vacuum to be filled with folk ferent physical laws from those gov-
psychology and its derivatives. Skin- erning the pendulums, balls, prisms,
ners recognition of the role of and rotating buckets that served in
private events in a natural science his experiments. It was an assump-
was a necessary step toward a tion, an assumption of continuity and
comprehensive account of behavior, uniformity in nature, an assumption
but Baum is determined to take that without which science would be
step back. That is a bad idea, and pointless. As Skinner (1963/1969)
Baums reasons for urging it are noted, When a man tosses a penny
unsound. into the air, it must be assumed that
he tosses the earth beneath him
THE ROLE OF downward. It is quite out of the
INTERPRETATION IN SCIENCE question to see or measure the effect
In his discussion of the role of on the earth, but the effect must be
private events in a natural science, assumed for the sake of a consistent
Skinner (1953) proposed that events account (p. 228). Many of natures
within the skin are of the same stuff phenomena lie beyond our ability to
and are to be understood in the same measure, control, and observe, but
terms as events outside the skin. In science always interprets such phe-
arguing so, he was following illustri- nomena in light of principles derived
ous precedents: An assumption fun- from observations made under opti-
damental to all science is that phe- mal conditions.
nomena outside the compass of our The planet Neptune cannot be seen
observations obey the same principles by the naked eye and was thus
as phenomena within it. An explicit private until the 1840s, when it
statement of the assumption can be was first tracked by astronomers with
the aid of telescopes. But its existence
Address correspondence to the author at had been inferred for several decades
dcpalmer@smith.edu. from observed perturbations in the


orbit of Uranus. Astronomers had to experimental analysis, something to which

been faced with the choice of doubt- we resort because we have nothing better to
offer. To the contrary, considering the scope
ing their observations, abandoning of the two enterprises, experimental analysis is
the assumption of uniformity, dis- better viewed as the handmaiden of interpre-
carding established laws of celestial tation; we engage in experimental analysis so
mechanics, or inferring the existence that we can interpret the world. Our under-
standing of nature would be slight indeed if it
of an unobserved planet. Until Nep- were confined to those phenomena that have
tune had been systematically ob- been analyzed experimentally. Most of our
served, it could not contribute to scientific understanding of the world is inter-
the confirmation of established sci- pretation: No one has done an experimental
entific principles or to the formula- analysis of the tides or of the orbit of planets
or of the evolution of the wing, and most of
tion of new ones, but the inference of our everyday explanations for the way things
its existence nevertheless played an work are interpretations, albeit often straight-
important role in science before its forward ones, based on a few well established
discovery: It made sense of all of the physical principles. (p. 225)
available data. It was neither a fact
nor an observation, but it permitted Much human behavior would be
the consistent account to which baffling to us if we refused to
Skinner alluded. It permitted scien- consider the role of private events.
tists to continue to trust the general- Consider the following problem: Let
ity of the laws of motion that had each letter equal its ordinal position
served them so well over the preced- in the alphabet, so that A 5 1, B 5 2,
ing two centuries, and it motivated and so on. What is F + I? Most
and guided the patient search that people respond correctly, after a
finally detected the planet. Moreover, pause. But notice that this response
it displaced any tendency to suppose is a kind of anomalous perturba-
that the motion of Uranus was tion in behavior. No stimuli in the
governed by the whims of the Greek current context evoke the target
god for whom the planet was named. response as the result of a relevant
Inferences of private behavioral history of reinforcement. We cannot
events play an analogous role. They explain the behavior by appealing
are not data, and they do not directly to the subjects history: The
participate in the formulation of question has never been asked before,
behavioral principles, but they serve nor has the response been reinforced
at least four purposes: (a) They in this context. Uranus behaves as if
permit us to assume the generality it were attracted by an unseen planet;
of established behavioral principles; our subject responds as if he had been
(b) they guide future inquiry; (c) they asked, What is 6 + 9? (a question
make sense of the fragmentary data with which he indeed has a relevant
we do have about the behavioral history). The astronomer resolves his
world around us; and (d) they dis- anomalous data by postulating an
place the tendency to invoke agency, unobserved planet, and the behavior
spirits, Greek gods, or the apparatus analyst resolves his anomalous data
of folk psychology. As Palmer and by postulating that his subject engag-
Donahoe (1991) suggested, such in- es in the unobserved mediating be-
terpretive exercises are not peripheral havior of reciting the alphabet to F
to science but central: and I, respectively, while keeping
track of the number of letters named;
It is characteristic of historical sciences, such an exercise that produces the re-
as evolutionary biology, cosmology, and sponses 6 and 9. Both accounts might
behavior analysis, that much of the domain be wrong: Maybe the orbit of Uranus
is beyond the scope of experimental analysis;
we must rely on interpretation for our is perturbed by a great intermittent
understanding of phenomena. It is common Jovian wind, hitherto unknown.
to suppose that interpretation is a poor cousin Maybe our subjects behavior is

controlled by a previously unsuspect- but it is a necessary assumption, if

ed innate alphabet-tracking device. behavior analysis is to be a science.
The virtue of our interpretive exer- Moreover, from this assumption, it
cises is not that they reveal the truth follows that there can be no such
but that they show how the phenom- thing as privacy in principle. (By
enon in question can be accommo- privacy in principle, I mean behav-
dated by the available data in con- ioral events that must, in principle,
junction with established principles. forever remain hidden, whatever the
That is, they resolve puzzlement tools of the scientist.) If the world is
about the world by showing one made of one stuff, then behavioral
way that nature might have produced phenomena are physical phenomena.
the phenomenon under study without If they are physical phenomena, then
appealing to anything new. This is they must be susceptible to detection
everyday practice in science. in principle (with due recognition of
Should we be sufficiently interest- indeterminacy of observation at the
ed in investigating the matter, our subatomic level), however remote
behavioral interpretation will guide from observation they might be in
relevant work. We can measure practice or with the technology of the
response latencies; we can probably day. As I have pointed out elsewhere
measure sequential twitching of our (e.g., Palmer, 2009), observability is
subjects fingers as they covertly not a property of a response but of
pace their recitation of the alphabet; the vantage point and tools of the
we can pose interference tasks that observer. A deaf and myopic observ-
might disrupt the performance, such er will fail to detect behavior easily
as requiring our subjects to count spotted by a normal observer, and
backwards from 158 by sevens; we the latter will fail to detect behavior
can invent novel alphabets in which observed by someone equipped with
F and I are closer to or more an electromyograph, or other ampli-
distant from the first letter; we can fying device. The subject matter
loudly recite random letters and remains the same, but whether it is
numbers into our subjects ears, observed (i.e., whether it is private)
increasing the likelihood that our varies from one observer to another.
subjects will emit mediating behav- This point applies up to the limits of
ior at a measurable amplitude. We instrumental amplification that exist
can record imperceptible movements at the time of the observation. Thus,
of the mylohyoid muscle with elec- privacy is a circumstantial property
tromyography. Such steps might put of behavior, and we can dismiss
some empirical meat on the inter- privacy in principle from our consid-
pretive bones of our account. As in eration.
any science, interpretations not only
resolve mysteries; they can guide BAUMS OBJECTIONS TO
research. Thus inferences about pri- PRIVACY AS A CIRCUMSTAN-
vate events play an important role TIAL PROPERTY OF BEHAVIOR
in behavior analysis, just as analo-
Although Baum says that a rejec-
gous inferences play a role in other
tion of privacy-in-principle is the
only tenable position for radical
behaviorism (p. 188), he cites three
THERE IS NO SUCH THING problems with it and concludes that
AS PRIVACY IN PRINCIPLE we cannot assert with certainty that
Of course I agree with Baum that privacy is accidental (p. 190) or that
behavior analysis must be monistic. Skinners assumption of uniformity is
Like the assumption of uniformity, correct. First, he argues, the position
monism is an assumption, not a fact, that all behavior can be observed

through instrumental invasion or overture to his main point, namely,

amplification is an article of faith. I that the problem of private events goes
prefer the less pejorative term assump- away if we look at behavior in
tion. As noted above, behavior anal- appropriately extended time windows.
ysis adopts a monistic assumption, The heart of his argument is that
from which it follows that behavioral
events are physical events. Like all Organisms interact with their environment,
assumptions, it might be wrong, so and that commerce with the environment is
behavior, and its importance lies in its effects
indeed we cant assert it with certain- on reproductive success via the environment.
ty. However, if it is wrong, then the Organisms produce offspring, feed themselves
problem of privacy is the least of our and offspring, build shelters, avoid predators,
worries. I am surprised that Baum and change the world around them in myriad
ways. All of these advantageous effects occur
sees this as a problem and not the through time, on average and in the long run.
sensible foundation on which a sci- (p. 193)
ence of behavior rests.
Baums second problem with the This claim attempts to solve the
position is that in practice, much problem of private events by the
behavior is inevitably unobserved. expedient of defining the subject
But thats not a problem with the matter of behavior analysis as behav-
position; that is the position. Behav- ior that enhances Darwinian fitness,
ior is behavior, whether an observer thereby excluding most human be-
is on duty or not. Unobserved havior, observable or not. Moreover,
behavior is inconvenient for the if we accept that privacy is circum-
scientist, but observability does not stantial and not an essential property
bear on the nature of the behavior of behavior, the argument simply
itself. If relevant behavior is unob- fails. Whether all the behavior and
served, we must make do with effects that matter (p. 194) are
plausible interpretations based on public or private is circumstantial.
the available data. Watch them and they are public; turn
Baums third problem arises from your back, and they are private. All
his curious urge to find a correspon- of Robinson Crusoes behavior, be-
dence between instrumentally ampli- fore he encountered Friday, was
fied instances of private behavior private in this circumstantial sense,
and subjects self-reports. But if but much of it was extended in time
instrumental amplification renders a (foraging, building shelter, exploring
behavior observable, then it is not the island), most of it was commerce
private, and it has the status of any with the environment, and it mat-
other observed behavior of the or- tered as much as anyones behavior
ganism. If we observe a person press matters. Thus, private behavior (i.e.,
a lever and then say, I didnt press unobserved behavior) can take its
the lever, we have two instances of place in extended time windows as
behavior to explain, each with its readily as public behavior.
own history and set of controlling Baum illustrates his point with an
variables. Whether or not we find example of someone installing a
correspondence between the verbal waterfall in his garden. When he
and nonverbal response is itself cir- encounters a problem (a buried
cumstantial and poses no special obstacle), he solves it by changing
problems. the course of his trench. According
to Baum, the momentary details of
this performance can be neglected,
for they are all part of the extended
activity of digging the trench or of
Baums objections to the claim that the less extended activity of solving
privacy is circumstantial are just the the problem. But this is too facile.

Digging a ditch is a relatively That is, any proposed covert behav-

homogeneous activity; solving a ior must be in ones repertoire (i.e.,
problem is not. We call something there must be a relevant history of
a problem only if the target re- reinforced responding); its strength
sponse is not strong under prevail- must be plausible in the current
ing conditions, and thats why context (the relevant historical envi-
problem solving cries out for a ronment must have included critical
special explanation. To call the features that overlap the present
target response part of an extended environment); it must take time to
activity of problem solving (p. 194) emit; it must be sensitive to conse-
is to explain nothing. To make the quences; it must come under stimulus
point more clearly, let us suppose control; it must be stronger than
that to avoid the obstacle Tom has competing behavior; and so on. It
to calculate the approximate length would be empty to propose that Tom
of the hypotenuse of a triangle with calculated the length of the hypote-
sides of 12 and 7 feet. Why did nuse of a triangle if, for example, he
Tom turn after a diversion of had no relevant history with the
around 14 feet? Why not 5 feet? Pythagorean theorem, or if he were
Why not 50? As in the case of the loudly reciting Paradise Lost all the
alphabet puzzle discussed earlier, while he was thought to be perform-
the ambient public stimuli are not ing calculations, or if he had no prior
sufficient to explain the variance in information about the length of the
Toms behavior. An inference about other two sides of the triangle.
private events accounts for this Simply to invent a covert response
variance without introducing any- for the purpose of resolving a mys-
thing mysterious. That is, it serves a tery accomplishes nothing if the
standard interpretive function in the emission of the response is as myste-
face of incomplete or anomalous rious as the original behavior to be
data. explained. But of course that applies
Note that inferences about private to inferences about large-scale, tem-
events are not free. As Baum rightly porally extended behavior as well, if
remarks, we cannot explain ob- such behavior has chanced to pass
served behavior by simply making unobserved.
stuff up, even if the stuff we are Because private behavior simply
making up is just like the stuff we means unobserved behavior and can
observe (p. 191). Private behavioral be of any magnitude and of any
events are not explanatory wild temporal duration, it appears to me
cards, nor are they equivalent to the that Baums argument does not
representations of normative cog- apply to private behavior but rather
nitive science. Private behavior can- to small-magnitude behavior, public
not be invoked ad hoc, whenever or private, whose commerce with the
one runs out of public explanations environment under normal condi-
(p. 191). It is simply not the case that tions is brief, light, or even unde-
private events produce no less spe- tectable. As a general rule, the
cious explanations and have no less smaller the magnitude of the re-
mysterious an ontological status than sponse, the more restricted will be its
inferred mental events (p. 191). The effects on the environment. But this
distinguishing difference between the rule is weak, not least because it is
behaviorists appeal to covert behav- subject to so many exceptions. Many
ior and the cognitivists appeal to the great events are set in motion by
wild card of mental representations is small beginnings. In particular, ver-
that covert behavior must conform to bal behavior is distinctive in that the
behavioral principles, whereas mental magnitude of its effects is often
representations are unconstrained. disproportionate to the magnitude

of the response: A whispered com- unique activity ends and another

mand can set an army in motion. It unique activity begins? For many
is true that verbal behavior has no practical purposes, we can neglect
such effects unless heard by a small-scale events, but to exalt that
listener, but as Skinner (1957) has neglect to a universal principle is
noted, the speaker can be his own unjustified. We cannot account for
listener. One can engage in covert variance in behavior without consid-
problem-solving behavior and act on ering all relevant controlling vari-
the solution to the problem, possibly ables. Events play exactly the same
with great effects. If the problem- role in causal chains whether they are
solving behavior were overt, we observed or not, whether they are
would not hesitate to identify it as private or public. Nothing is to be
an important variable, and it is no gained by ignoring them, and much
less important if is recedes to a level may be lost.
that it is only effective to an In summary, I believe that for any
audience of one. In short, as long monist, there is no such thing as
as circumstantially private events privacy in principle; rather, all pri-
that is, real, physical eventsplay a vate events are circumstantially pri-
role in determining other physical vate. However, Baums arguments
events, they are a worthy object of apply to privacy in principle, not to
scientific inquiry. circumstantial privacy. His argument
As for the relative importance of can be rescued by applying it, not to
behavior, I concede that one cannot circumstantially private events in
kill a mastodon with small-magni- general, but only to those of low
tude behavior, but small-magnitude amplitude, but it is easy to think of
behavior may play a role in the exceptions to the proposed rule that
invention of a spear with which the such behavior is unimportant. It is
kill is effected. In such cases, Baum inconvenient for a science when its
seems to endorse the claim of Rachlin subject matter is difficult to observe,
(1994, 2003) that mental events may but that subject matter cannot be
be identified with the public activities made to go away by ignoring it.
from which they are inferred Practice in normative science, when
(p. 195). Toms cogitations as he digs faced with phenomena that are not
his ditch are part of the extended amenable to experimental analysis, is
activity of ditch digging and can be to engage in scientific interpretation,
subsumed by it. If I am extending this that is, to offer plausible accounts
argument correctly, I gather that that appeal only to principles or
Baum would say that all of the observations established in the labo-
small-scale local events that went into ratory. That is its principal use in
the invention of the spear can be behavior analysis, and it is an hon-
considered part of the extended orable one.
spear-invention activity. Deciding on
units of analysis is a pragmatic
exercise, and if Baum can formulate REFERENCES
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