In 1950, Skinner published an article titled “Are Theories of Learning Necessary?” which was widely misunderstood and misrepresented as arguing that theories in science were not necessary. In fact, he was arguing that explanations of behavior consisting of explanatory fictions were not only not necessary, but faulty. Skinner’s choice of the term “theory” in that context was unfortunate. Elsewhere (e.g., Skinner, 1957), Skinner has used the term “interpretation” to refer to his extrapolation of the basic principles of operant behavior from the experimental laboratory to the understanding of complex behavior, including behavior he called verbal. This was also an unfortunate choice because what he called interpretation was nothing less than a theoretical analysis. In this instance, the standard term “theory” would have been more appropriate. In the present talk, I offer one view of what theories in science are and how they originate, and then I discuss what a behavior-analytic theory is and how it has been, and continues to be, applied to understanding complex human behavior. As with theories in the natural sciences, behavior-analytic theory does not posit circular explanations, does not commit the nominal fallacy or the reification fallacy, and is parsimonious. In other words, the statements comprising the theory point to observable or potentially observable and testable events.
Henry D. (Hank) Schlinger Jr. received his Ph.D. in psychology (applied behavior analysis) from Western Michigan University (WMU) under the supervision of Jack Michael. He then completed a two-year National Institutes of Health-funded post-doctoral fellowship in behavioral pharmacology also at WMU with Alan Poling. Dr. Schlinger was a full tenured professor of psychology at Western New England University in Springfield, MA, before moving to Los Angeles in 1998. He is now professor of psychology and former director of the M. S. Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in the Department of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. Dr. Schlinger has published 80 scholarly articles, chapters, and commentaries in more than 30 different journals. He also has authored or co-authored three books, Psychology: A Behavioral Overview (1990), A Behavior-Analytic View of Child Development (1995) (which was translated into Japanese), and Introduction to Scientific Psychology (1998). He is past editor of The Analysis of Verbal Behavior and The Behavior Analyst and sits on the editorial boards of several other journals. He also serves on the Board of Trustees of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies and on the Advisory Board of The Venus Project (https://www.resourcebasedeconomy.org/advisory-board/). He received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Department of Psychology at Western Michigan University in 2012, and the Jack Michael Award for Outstanding Contributions in Verbal Behavior from the Verbal Behavior Special Interest Group of the Association for Behavior Analysis International in 2015.