Saturday, March 8, 2008

B. F. Skinner's Monumental Crime & Its Consequences For You

Date: April 28, 2006

From: Satish Chandra, P.O. Box 381629, Cambridge, MA 02238, USA

Telephone: 617-282-4996 FAX: 617-825-4973

Web Page:

Dear Editor:

Regarding the case of a novel by an Indian sophomore at Harvard: a graduate student from the Indian subcontinent at Boston's Northeastern University was accused of plagiarism because the quality of English in assigned work she turned in for a course was incomparably superior to anything she was capable of writing and, to prove this, she was required to answer the same questions in the presence of a faculty member. She wrote about thirty pages in perhaps two hours which exactly reproduced what she had earlier turned in. The faculty member alleged she had copied from papers she had with her. In her rebuttal, the student wrote this faculty member was watching her like the proverbial "hawk" throughout this session and her charge of copying was a "damnable lie". She explained, in her rebuttal and to her faculty adviser, that she had "memorized" what she reproduced in the presence of the faculty member. The lying faculty member was obliged to leave the university.

The Harvard sophomore, an Indian-American, says (New York Times, April 27 '06, Internet) she had read the books from which she is alleged to have plagiarized three or four times, that she has a "photographic memory" and had last read the books some time before she wrote her own book. Psychologist B. F. Skinner, whose plagiarism I exposed (see letter dated February 26 '05 below), upon which he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Harvard and I was mugged in a Harvard seminar (see letter dated May 11 '05 below), wrote in his 'Notebooks' that the practice, several thousands of years old and still continuing, of Brahmin priests memorizing entire books (such as the Vedas) may have had a (genetically) "selective effect" endowing them with superior memory (and other cognitive abilities). Memorization of very long texts is still the standard way students learn, at all levels, in the Indian subcontinent and the practice is not limited to Brahmin priests (the Northeastern University student was Muslim). Such ability, commonplace to Indians, is astonishing to Americans. The Harvard sophomore, of Indian origin with near perfect SAT scores, can be expected to have genetically superior memory and her explanation of how she came to reproduce portions of books she had read is believable. This does not mean that she did not intentionally plagiarize, just that her explanation is credible.

Skinner, author of 'Verbal Behavior', describes playing the "sedulous ape" to established authors as a way budding authors learn. Examples of similarities between the Harvard sophomore's novel and the novels she read (Boston Globe, April 25 '06, Internet) would have fit this description if the similarities were intentional. The similarities could be unconscious yet intentional (there are unconscious intentions). But they could have been both unconscious and unintentional, because of the way a person's verbal repertoire is formed. Skinner's own plagiarism was infinitely more serious (see my paper in BEHAVIORISM, Spring, 1976). Skinner was voted by American psychology department chairpersons as the most influential living psychologist and, along with Sigmund Freud, one of the two most influential psychologists of all time. A survey showed that his world-wide reputation exceeded the combined reputation of the thirty or so Nobel prize winners in the Boston area. It was based on his position of 'radical behaviorism' which he defined in terms of his opposition to what he called 'mentalism' and Freud, of course, is the great mentalist. For his position to be viable, he had to provide an account of the so-called 'higher mental processes' such as language, which he did in 'Verbal Behavior'. By showing that his account of language was simply a refinement of the work of Freud, my paper in BEHAVIORISM eliminated any basic distinction between his position and Freud's and the basis for his claim to being a great and original thinker. In a question and answer session with thousands of his followers who packed the grand ballroom of the Hilton hotel in Chicago in May, 1977, he was very angrily denounced by his own followers, such as by one who stood up, livid with rage, shouting, referring to my paper and its implications ("SATISH CHANDRA HAS SHOWN..."), for the fraud he had perpetrated on them and the world; his world-wide reputation and appearance on TIME magazine's cover, etc., were due to the fundamental importance of the basic nature of human beings, for prescriptions on how they should live and be educated and governed, issues of freedom, etc., of whether they are machines or have a mind or soul and how they function. Skinner acknowledged "similarities" between him and Freud shown by "Chandra" in "BEHAVIORISM", but had no response beyond first emphatically and aggressively saying "Or Jesus Christ! Or B. F. Skinner!" in the same breath, then minimizing the importance of such matters by appealing to the general state of ethics and what is acceptable in academia with a light-hearted "what--Miller wrote it, Gallanter takes credit for it, Pribram believes it!" (these were co-authors of a book in cognitive psychology). Upto then, Skinner had had his critics such as Chomsky of M.I.T. but had, correctly, maintained that Chomsky's review of 'Verbal Behavior' was based on very poor scholarship and a misunderstanding of his position. He could not say that about my paper in BEHAVIORISM, the principal vehicle for theoretical work in radical behaviorism, whose editor called me with profound emotion about a day after he received it and wrote to me "Heartiest congratulations on what I regard to be a major contribution to work in the field". From Germany alone, more than two dozen psychologists wrote me requesting reprints, besides every behaviorist in the United States. That paper was effective in a way that Chomsky's was not and killed behaviorism ( the journal's name has been changed to 'Behavior and Philosophy'). Skinner himself wrote to me (see excerpts from his letter on my web page: ) about that paper, before the above session with his followers, "...want to tell you, while the spell is on me, how much I admire what you have done. You have made a much more courageous use of the autoclitic and the atomic operant than I did, with breath-taking results. Seldom have I read a paper that seemed to me to contain so much that was new and forward-moving...", etc. But after the above session with his followers, his behavior was very different (see the letter sequence below).

Verbal behavior is a far more complicated matter than either Skinner or Freud (or cognitive psychology) provide for. For example, person A can show induction from person B's verbal behavior without ever coming into contact (as conventionally understood) with person B's verbal behavior. The Harvard sophomore, though, had repeated, extended contact with the other author's books. In an example (Boston Globe, April 24 '06, Internet) both authors refer to "170 specialty stores". This puts a question mark on intentional plagiarizing, because an intentional plagiarizer would have changed the number to something other than 170.

Satish Chandra