If Professor Burrhus Frederick Skinner ever got tired of teaching and writing about psychology, he would have no trouble at all finding a job as an animal trainer. And there are those who believe that Skinner probably would be better suited to the circus than to the psychological laboratories. His critics, however, ignore the fact that Skinner's experiments with pigeons, rats and dogs are providing a concrete basis for the eventual understanding of human behavior.
Skinner is a dedicated man: "I place my faith entirely in the experimental and scientific method. I believe firmly that psychology can be an exact science some day. After all, three hundred years ago our knowledge of chemistry was no greater than our knowledge now concerning the causes of human behavior."
Right now, according to Skinner, "there is a potent weapon--to be found--a way to control man's behavior." We can see the effects of propaganda in the press and radio. In the not too distant future, someone will find out how to control man's actions completely. It had better be us here in the U.S."
It is also important, Skinner believes, for those who are going to hold high positions in government and industry to understand why human beings act as they do. "You-can't find a group of people anywhere that will some day be as influential as the students at Harvard." This is one of the reasons why Skinner left his chairmanship of the University of Indiana psychology department to come here. His undergraduate course, Natural Sciences 114, is designed to put these ideas into the hands of students from all departments.
"I have designed this course to represent a point of view which I believe must be stated." Skinner feels that "many people today believe that this type of science is just interested in measuring opinions. This is false." Skinner is interested in understanding behavior and putting that understanding to work for him.
Most of the jibes at Skinner result from his experimentation with animals. He is trying to find out what shapes human behavior by observing similar behavior in his animals. As a by-product of this experimentation he has found new and better ways to train animals. Regrettably, these by-products are enlarged out of proportion to their importance. "The press," Skinner complains "is always looking for the sensational. As a result they get the piddling instead of the important." Magazines are continually looking for features showing Skinner training pigeons to play ping-pong or count or bang out tunes on the piano. A movie company is now angling for a short showing him training a dog to do tricks. This completely distorts Skinner's work. Actually, every student in Nat. Sci. 114 soon learns Skinner's method of training animals.
It is too bad that Skinner is unable to experiment directly on human beings, because this would be the easiest way to silence his critics. But society would frown on anyone who stuck babies in a cage and moulded their behavior in set patterns, or observed their actions when deprived of food and water. Skinner believes, however, that he can perform less damaging experiments with the feeble-minded. "They wouldn't be hurt at all. They would probably benefit from the studies."
Skinner didn't intend to be a psychologist. At Hamilton College he majored in English literature, "But I had a letdown when I discovered that a novelist doesn't really understand behavior, even though he can duplicate it. A biology professor got me interested in Pavlov." Skinner did graduate work in psychology at Harvard in 1928. In 1947 he was back as the William James Lecturer, and the next year he received his appointment.
The years spent on English Literature were not wasted. Skinner has published many magazine articles and books. The most popular was his science-fiction type novel called Walden II, which describes a utopia run by science. "I have done a lot of research on American utopias, and I have found that they can be very valuable in testing theories."
Skinner isn't interested in getting a utopia through political methods. "Some people have the idea that everything must be related to politics. I believe the political method is a poor way to get anything done. In fact, I am so uninterested in politics that you might call me a one man non-political action committee."
Right now all of Skinner's energy is focused on proving that his animals can be used as a basis for understanding the human organism. He fully realizes that making psychology into an exact science is no easy task, but even more firmly, he believes it can be done.