I want to share just how tricky this falsification stuff can be. In the last few weeks I’ve received two comments from readers that pushed me to rethink some things I’ve written. They were both presented very constructively, offering some ideas in the spirit of good dialogue and the search for truth. They included fascinating questions that were a bit technical and they got my attention. This post may be overly nerdy for some readers. But it has given me great pleasure to learn from my generous commenters and write about I’ve figured out so far.
Both of the comments were about falsifiability, and related to these two posts:
- Do You Dogs REALLY Want to Come In? In this post, I pointed out that my dog Zani was more likely to stay in the yard when I cued her to come in using a questioning tone. I stated that the reason was that the reinforcer involved was lower value, not because she intrinsically understood that I was offering a choice.
- Falsifiability or Falsehood in Dog Training? (Part 1). In this post I explained the concept of falsifiability. I claimed that if we are truly following the science, then we should be able to explain what would falsify the tenets of learning theory that we study and use to train. In other words, we should understand the science behind what we do so well that we could state what it would take to prove it wrong.
Both of the comments are in the comment sections for the falsifiability blog.
That Damn Diagram
The first comment was about a diagram I had created. In the falsifiability blog, I showed a diagram of different responses one might get if one asked dog trainers how their methods could be falsified or disproved. I had a good time creating it, especially when including all the evasive or incoherent answers one might get. But the joke was on me. As commenter “A” pointed out, the one answer I gave as “correct” was incorrect. And it was supposed to be the crux of the diagram. Here’s how it went.
The question was,
As a science-based trainer, how would you falsify your methods?
The answer I offered as “correct” was,
For learning theory in general, there would need to be multiple replicated studies that were deemed by experts to be robust enough to be considered strong evidence and included in learning theory and cognition textbooks.
The same would be true on a smaller scale for individual techniques.
Do you see the problem? I didn’t falsify anything. I didn’t even put forth anything to falsify. I just described where one might look and described the nature of evidence that could add evidence for or against…some stuff…involving learning theory.
I have updated the answer on the graphic on the original post. Now it reads:
Some findings that could falsify important aspects of learning theory would be multiple, well controlled, replicated studies that found things such as the following:
Behaviors followed contingently by an appetitive stimulus do not increase or maintain (given no other consequences or factors attributable to antecedents).
Behaviors that are followed contingently by the removal of an appetitive stimulus do not tend to decrease (same disclaimer).
Painful aversive stimuli that are used to punish or negatively reinforce behaviors have no fallout, and have the result of influencing an animal to be more confident, enthusiastic about training, and less fearful.
This is a better response because it explains how to falsify specific tenets of learning theory upon which we rely for our training.
Falsifying the Hidden Assumption
The next reader’s comment is more complex, but incredibly instructive. In the falsifiability blog, I offered some rough evidence of what could falsify my previous claim that my dog responded more frequently to the cue that was tied to a higher magnitude reinforcer. I didn’t go into detail, but I offered some names in the scholarship world where a person could find research on the topic, then I wrote:
The hypothesis could be falsified if this body of research was overturned with the results of new, replicated studies that showed no correlation between the animal’s response and the quality of the reinforcer, or an inverse correlation.
I think I did OK with this. But my commenter detected an assumption that was buried deeper in my thought processes. I had also written the following major point in the post:
When we want a dog to respond reliably to a cue, we use high value reinforcers on a dense schedule. We also limit access to reinforcers for the behaviors we don’t want. So what would we do if we want the animal to have a more of a choice? The opposite! We would use a weak-ish reinforcer ourselves so as not to stack the deck in our direction.
My commenter wrote the following, which includes a great question:
Skinner would not, of course, agree that you have given your dog any more of an option by using a lower-value reinforcer on a CR [Ed: continuous reinforcement] schedule, but I suspect you have good reasons to use and hold on to the term. I guess the succinct way of asking this is—Why do you think your dog is “choosing” to come in or stay out, rather than just exhibiting a weaker but no less determined behavior? What sort of evidence would you need to falsify this part of the hypothesis? And, if you do think she is choosing in the low value recall case, why would you say your dog is NOT choosing, or has less choice in, responding to her RRR [Ed: highly reinforced recall] cue, rather than just saying she chooses the high value reinforcer more often, but just as freely?
Bingo. She got me. I can’t amass evidence for my claim that offering lower value reinforcers gave my dog more choice, nor can I falsify it. The act of making a choice is an unobservable process. We see only the behaviors that result from the choice (if there is one).
When we discuss “choice”:
- We need to say what we mean by the term;
- We need to know a lot about the cognitive abilities of dogs (do they think of it as “choice”?); and
- We even need to consider freedom of the will. As in, do any of us—of any species—have “choice”? The neuroscientists are saying “not likely” to that question these days. (Which I think is funny because it’s the radical behaviorists who always get accused of thinking of organisms as robots.)
To put it another way, if I have a cue to which a dog responds 95% of the time and a cue to which a dog responds 50% of the time, she is “making a choice” in both situations—or in neither. I don’t know which it is. But my commenter pointed very succinctly that I can’t claim that I am giving my dog more of a choice by offering one type of reinforcer instead of another. I can say only that the odds of her performing the behavior are probably changing. To repeat what my commenter said, “she chooses the high value reinforcer more often, but just as freely.”
Ironically, I wrote that post partly as a gripe against making unfalsifiable claims about dogs’ understanding of language. But I jumped right into the unfalsifiability trap myself.
Am I Going To Quit Offering the Lower Value Treat for Going in the House?
Hell, no! I can’t say what’s going on in my dog’s head. I can’t claim that I am “giving her more choices.” But I can operationalize what I am doing when I offer that reinforcer. I am putting more opportunities for reinforcement in her environment. I am offering enrichment. And I think we can agree that that’s a good thing without bringing the mysteries of choice into the discussion.
Text and diagram graphic copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson