Unpacking Skinner’s Box

It’s sad to see an interesting writer go off the rails, but last month that is what seemed to have happened to Lauren Slater. After publishing some genre-twisting memoirs, Slater, a psychologist, wanted to celebrate landmark psychological studies as ”stories — absorbed, reconfigured, rewritten.” The result, in her new book, ”Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century,” is a wayward and powerful blend of science, autobiography and imagination. Writing, for example, about Stanley Milgram‘s famous investigation at Yale, which revealed students’ willingness, under orders, to administer what they believed were painful electric shocks to other people, Slater uses the second person to convey the point of view of one of the obedient torturers, a literary choice that nails her point: we all think we wouldn’t turn up the voltage, but Milgram’s results showed that 65 percent of us will.

Slater’s maverick approach elicits unexpected emotions and invigorating transits of thought. It has also called forth the wrath of a battalion of psychiatrists and psychologists, and one irate daughter.

The professionals, spearheaded by Robert L. Spitzer of Columbia University, have sent letters of protest to Slater’s publisher, W. W. Norton, containing long lists of errors and ”outright fabrications,” and have posted some of those letters to the psychiatry-research newsgroup on Yahoo.com. Slater and her publisher contend in turn that she is the target of a campaign to discredit her, not because the mistakes in ”Opening Skinner’s Box” are substantive but because the participants dislike the way she has portrayed psychology and psychologists. Slater’s critics present themselves as crusaders for veracity, while she presents herself as a writer being slapped down for showing the messy, human side of the profession. None of the articles written about the controversy so far has quite located the complicated heart of the dispute. As is often the case with Slater, a gifted writer who casts herself as a trickster or provocateur, what’s really going on can be devilishly hard to nail down.

Both sides have cause to gripe. One of the psychologists, Jerome Kagan of Harvard, has said that a scene Slater wrote depicting him as ducking under his desk during their interview is inaccurate. He says he had too quickly scanned a fact-checking e-mail message she sent him to spot and challenge this detail. But during an interview with Slater at her publisher’s offices, she showed me the message; she lists among the items to be verified, ”3. that, in demonstrating to me that people do, indeed, have free will, you jumped under your desk. . . .” Kagan’s response — ”I was trying to demonstrate that when humans have a choice of actions, they can select an act that has never been rewarded in the past” — hardly suggests that he failed to notice the item.

In another example, Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist and prominent critic of recovered memory theory, writes in a letter to the publisher: ”Slater refers to ‘the woman who yelled ”whore” [at me] in the airport a few years back.’ No woman has ever yelled ‘whore’ at me in an airport.” Slater is indeed inaccurate here. She has garbled the first line of a 1996 Psychology Today article (linked from Loftus’s own Web page) that says, of Loftus, ”She has been called a whore by a prosecutor in a courthouse hallway, assaulted by a passenger on an airplane shouting, ‘You’re that woman!’ ” A sloppy mistake, no question, but this doesn’t mean Slater invented the incident out of whole cloth.

It doesn’t help Slater’s case that ”Opening Skinner’s Box” has more than its fair share of gaffes, typos, miscast technical terms and misspelled names. ”Each by itself wouldn’t necessarily rise to the level of complaint,” says Loftus, ”but the collection, and in combination with the things done to other people,” moved her to object and made Slater’s critics ”want to look through the book to find every error there is.” What most seems to have spurred Loftus to action is Slater’s attempts to depict her personality: ”I come across as a loon. She portrays me as someone I am not.” As for Spitzer, his gravest charge is that Slater falsely describes him making a spiteful comment about a scientist whose research he deplores. (Slater insists that Spitzer did make the remark, but she has agreed to remove it from future editions of the book.)

The heat here arises from how Slater handles not science but people, the ”characters” who star in the stories she tells. She is not above manipulating her readers, while technically avoiding inaccuracy, if it will make the tale more potent. This recklessness is both the kernel of her talent and her nemesis; she is forever threatening to cross the line. She steps over it in writing about B. F. Skinner’s daughter Deborah. Contrary to some earlier reports, Slater doesn’t endorse the urban legend that Deborah was raised in one of her father’s animal-conditioning boxes. But she does spin a bogus miasma of mystery around Deborah’s fate, implying that she is hard to find and possibly unstable, though Deborah herself denies it. Why, then, didn’t Slater approach her? Perhaps because, as Deborah’s sister told a reporter for The Times of London, it ”might have ruined a good story.”

Reality seldom conforms to the shapely contours of fiction, and Slater isn’t the first journalist (or the last) to want to give it a nudge now and then. Her memoir ”Lying” overtly toys with the line between memoir and fiction, but experimenting with your own story is a writer’s prerogative. The ”Opening Skinner’s Box” controversy looks like a quarrel about facts, but it’s really a duel of stories. Slater’s subjects are saying, in part, ”How dare you presume to tell the story of us? Now we’re going to tell the story of you!” And another Lauren Slater is conjured by their accounts — a compulsive liar, an incompetent scholar, ”a little loose inside,” to use a phrase she unkindly applies to Loftus. A few of the tactics used to create this figure (especially those employed by Slater’s critics on the book’s Amazon.com page) are as shabby as what Slater herself has been accused of. Others are merely distortions of memory or interpretation — perhaps, like her own, a bit too obedient to the needs of the story.

- More about books in the New York Times Books Section

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