Fool’s Gold – A Tale of Two Treasures

When I was in college I met a young woman who was going to school to be a hair stylist. I let her cut my hair to give her practice and pick up a few bucks. Her name was Terri and she had a remarkable history at age 20. She was one of two children of a man and woman who had a very rocky marriage. Her father was the ultimate dreamer and ne’er-do-well. He was always chasing a rainbow and investing money in schemes that perpetuated their poverty. The wife worked diligently at low-paying jobs to support them, only to see any savings squandered on another hair-brained, get-rich swindle. After years of this, the wife was at her last straw. One day the husband came home with wild excitement and announced that he had just bought them a gold mine in Southern Nevada – about an hour away from their home in Kingman, Arizona. The wife looked him in the eyes and started packing. Realizing that he had finally blown it, he grabbed then ten-year-old Terri, jumped in his truck and headed to the mine. He knew his wife wouldn’t leave without her daughter.

After a bone-jarring ride on roads that barely deserved the name they found the mine. It was a steep walk up a heap of busted rock and debris from what had once been a working gold mine – a played out gold mine. He told Terri to stay outside as he took a flashlight and explored his new red herring. He became more and more frantic as he poked around but saw nothing to indicate that this mine was worth anything. From outside, Terri called, “Daddy, can I have this rock?” Her father barely heard her but distractedly went to see what she was talking about. In her hand was a lovely piece of quartz containing a large imbedded piece of turquoise. A coincidence of geology is that both turquoise and gold are often found in quartz bearing rock. He looked beneath their feet and realized that the debris from the mining of gold contained something far more valuable than the tiny amount of gold in the mine. The gold miners had inadvertently left a huge pile of high-grade turquoise behind. The final gambit paid off. The family started a very successful lapidary business in Kingman – selling turquoise on the international market. Terri’s job throughout her teen years was cutting and shaping stones to be sold as far away as China.

Same Tale, Different place:

Once Upon a time, B.F. Skinner and his research colleague, Ogden R. Lindsley set up a Skinner-style experiment to see if Beagles could determine pregnancy by sniffing the urine of women. Always on a shoe-string budget, the used an old refrigerator turned on its back as their “operant chamber”. Inside the box was a single lever and a small niche. The cup of urine would be placed in front of the dog’s nose and if the urine came from someone pregnant the dog was supposed to press the lever. That’s not what happened. When the dogs figured out the game, they would, to quote Og Lindsley, ‘Bang the heck out of the lever with both paws and teeth.” Anyone who has ever seen an Airedale go after gophers has seen this behavior. Both front feet and the mouth are used to rip huge hunks of sod away to expose the crafty but elusive gopher. Skinner didn’t know dogs. He never considered instinct important enough to study because it complicated his one-dimensional assumption that all behavior is based on “antecedent events.” In his world all is a matter of repeating single behaviors, over and over and over because they paid off in the past. Why would a beagle get all excited about simply making the right choice in a simple experiment, right? The short answer is because that is what beagles do.

To stop this beagle nonsense Skinner had Lindsley make a sleeve that forced the dog to use a single leg to press the lever. According to Lindsley, the dogs almost dislocated their shoulders trying to get one leg, the other leg and both legs into the sleeve, while biting at the edges of the metal tube. All in all, it didn’t go well. Two things were painfully obvious – Skinner didn’t really understand situations where more than a single behavior was possible and he didn’t know anything about beagles. Beagles are highly variable. Skinner picked them for the same reason he picked rats and pigeons for his research – they were plentiful, small and cheap. The story now goes back to my friend Terri – Skinner tried to limit the information so that he could shove beagle behavior into his tiny little world. He considered their behavior an affront to his data. That caused him to throw out huge hunks of knowledge that might have allowed him to know something of real behavior. The beagle’s turquoise was left in a heap in front of a played out fool’s-gold-mine. That is the legacy of behavior analysis – a played out gold mine that only has value if you look for the pretty rocks in the debris field of their myopic obsession.

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