Sunday, February 9, 2014

On Absurdly Poor Criticism And Advocate Misconduct, Part One

On September 14, 2013, exactly a month before I started writing this post, I was contacted by a colleague who expressed an interest in changes in behavioral practice since Lovaas's original methods and models of clinical treatment.

During the resulting exchange, I attempted to explain a variety of things related to behavior analysis, ranging from how ABA is not a treatment method to the relationship between ABA and PBS (the short version is that PBS is a brand-named philosophy regarding how to go about conducting and using ABA research). I also provided her with a number of assorted articles and writings on the subject, including a piece of my own work which acted as an overview.

I ended the exchange on something of a positive note, hoping that the information would help. The positive note, however, did not last.

This is what she wrote... or, at least, the currently-published version. There has been a rather spectacularly intellectually dishonest edit in the interim. It's, to put it mildly, an extraordinarily poor critique. The arguments are, by and large, spectacularly off-base, and her abuse of my writing is glaringly obvious (if not as much so as before the edits).

That said, I should probably discuss what this means and why it's a problem before I get into a detailed critique of the piece itself.

Contrary to what some people apparently believe, saying that a critique is poor does not mean that one disagrees with its conclusions or that the critique does not deal with real problems. It is saying that the critique misidentifies the issues involved and/or argues from a position of misunderstanding or prejudice.

In this case, the author is attempting to argue that all forms of applied behavior analysis are inherently unethical -- a very, very strong conclusion, one that simply does not follow from the evidence (such as it is) and arguments (such as they are) that she presents. Saying so isn't defending ABA, and certainly isn't excusing, justifying, or apologizing for the assorted abuses with which people have valid complaints.

This is important for several reasons -- not the least of which is that poor criticism serves to distract from real issues, detracts from good criticism, and confuses issues in ways that impair efforts to reform things.

To illustrate this, let's take a very different example, one that most of us can rapidly identify, easily understand, and generally make easy sense of: one of the more disgusting things which occurs whenever news story publishes a story about a black man raping a white woman.

Rape is obviously wrong: it's a gross violation of  a woman's bodily autonomy, a dehumanizing act which can easily (and often does) destroy her life. It is very difficult to think of a worse violation of someone's personhood... and the ethnicity and skin color of perpetrator and/or victim is utterly irrelevant to this.

Unfortunately, however, some people insist on making the moral issue here about race in a variety of ways. One of the simpler (and more vile) of these is to simply state that the act was wrong because a man like that (a black man, not a rapist) has no business sexually touching a White woman.

This is an absurdly poor (and racist) criticism of rape. It is one that needs -- urgently -- to be shouted down and combated whenever it pops up.

Referring to this sort of thing as poor discussion or off-base criticism is very much not excusing the heinous criminal act to which the alleged criticism was directed. It is simple truth.

The race thing serves to distract from the real problem. To the extent to which it gets attention, it's distracting people from paying that same attention to other, more relevant, criticisms.

But... let's say that some people actually took it seriously. Let's further say that they then tried to use it as the basis for political reform efforts.

These efforts would be useless at best and harmful at worst. In fact, that particular criticism can pretty much be considered a form of rape apology in and of itself: if the rape of a white woman by a black man is only heinous because of the race difference, what's wrong about a white man raping a white woman?

More, such "reform" efforts would likely target and harm completely innocent interracial couples. In fact, such prejudices and acts have historically caused very substantial harm in the form of blatantly racist legislation and various racial prejudices for just this reason.

Obviously, this has little directly to do with the ABA article which started this discussion, but does serve to illustrate a few very important points: 1) poor criticism is rarely helpful; 2) poor criticism is often harmful, even when its conclusions may be correct... and 3) stating that an argument is poor is not the same thing as stating that its conclusion is wrong.

In Part Two of this series, I will hopefully get to precisely why the specific critique that started this is poor and unlikely to be helpful. In Part Three, I will discuss just why I'm taking such pains to lay out these problems, why a simple blog post like that has lead to me starting an extended blog-rant, just what followed from the situation, and why it's taken me so long to post all of this.

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