Friday, March 12, 2004

Lauren Slater, Liar

Man, I actually had reservations about whether I was being too hard on Lauren Slater the last time I posted about her new book, Opening Skinner's Box.

I wasn't nearly hard enough.

I still haven't read the book - just excerpts. But according to this piece by B.F. Skinner's daughter Deborah, Slater's book perpetuates the nasty, and completely untrue, rumor that Skinner kept his baby in a "Skinner Box," or operant chamber, just as if she were one of his rats or pigeons.
Slater's sensationalist book rehashes some of the old stuff, but offers some rumours that are entirely new to me. For my first two years, she reports, my father kept me in a cramped square cage that was equipped with bells and food trays, and arranged for experiments that delivered rewards and punishments. Then there's the story that after my father "let me out", I became psychotic. Well, I didn't. That I sued him in a court of law is also untrue. And, contrary to hearsay, I didn't shoot myself in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana. I have never even been to Billings, Montana.
I heard those rumors myself in college; perhaps you have as well. A quick Google search for "skinner daughter conditioned" found several perpetuations of the myth in the first twenty results, although it also found several debunkings, including one from Snopes. Any serious book about Skinner's lfe and theories includes a debunking of the rumors. I myself took the radical step of asking someone who knew the Skinners personally, who explained the truth to me. What I mean to say is, although the rumors are in fact widespread, so are the facts. They're readily available to anyone who really wants to learn them.
The design of the crib was not at all like that of a traditional crib. Instead of the wooden slats that run along the side of the crib, Skinner's "air crib" had sound-absorbing walls and a large picture window made of safety glass. The crib was designed so that air entered through filters on the bottom of the crib and circulated clean air into the enclosed living space. Instead of having a mattress for the child to sleep on, the child was placed on a tightly-stretched canvas with ten yards of sheeting that protected it. This strip of sheeting could be cranked in a matter of seconds, leaving a clean section for the child to sleep on. [...] The filtered and humidified air reduced the danger of airborne infection and kept the baby clean. Because the crib was filtered with warm, moist air, the baby wore only a diaper to bed. Because of this, Deborah's skin was never "water-logged with sweat or urine" (Skinner, 1979). The baby could enjoy a sound sleep because noise was muffled by the sound-proofed walls. There was also a shade that could be drawn to keep the light out of the crib while the baby was sleeping.
The "air crib" was simply supposed to be an improved version of traditional cribs and playpens. Skinner intended the "controlled environment" to free babies from being swaddled in tons of clothes and blankets; he thought infants were more comfortable and moved more easily when they were naked. He also wanted to reduce the laundry burden. Deborah was taken out of the crib to be held, fed, played with, bathed, et cetera. The story still sounds isolating to modern parents, I think, because people today don't use playpens and cribs as much as they used to - but in the 1940s, when Skinner designed the aircrib, most babies spent most of their day in some kind of restricted space. If Skinner was inhumane, so were my grandparents - and probably yours.

Slater apparently claims she searched for Skinner's daughter Deborah and couldn't find her. That's funny, because entering her married name into Google instantly pulls up her e-mail address. Entering her maiden name pulls up this site from a gallery that represents her art. Okay, so possibly the gallery didn't want to put Slater in contact with Skinner, but I bet they could've confirmed that Skinner didn't shoot herself in a bowling alley in Billings. Slater did interview Skinner's other daughter, Julie Vargas, but Vargas now complains that she was extensively and egregiously misquoted. So do several other notable psychologists quoted in Slater's book.

Lauren Slater is a liar, plain and simple. And a malicious one, at that. The shame of it is that more people will read her book than will ever read serious accounts of Skinner, Milgram, Rosenhan, Spitzer, and the other psychologists she slanders. I hope Deborah Skinner Buzan is planning to sue.

(via Oursin.)