Appeals to Popularity & the Consequences

Appeals to popularity can seem harmless, but they pose a major danger, especially when it comes to socially significant behaviors up to and including medical decisions, voting, beliefs, and much, much more.

Too often I hear this logical fallacy and it is frustrating. At one point, I thought (falsely) that autistics were less prone to falling for it, but evidence now speaks clearly to the contrary. The reality is that regardless of the area of life, the neurotype, or the developmental level of the human (barring early infancy etc), appeals to popularity is perhaps one of the most prevalent (dare I say it, popular) arguments used to sway an individual to the speaker’s view. And while seemingly harmless when it involves movie, books, and sports, it is dangerous when it comes to socially significant behaviors.

It is ultimately an argument of the tyrannical majority or a minority. It ignores evidence in in lieu of opinion. More dangerous still is it’s application alongside other logical fallacies. The Texas Shooter fallacy, for example, is based on the idea that someone “shoots” at a target, then only points out the holes closest to the bull’s eye. A similar fallacy, called cherry picking”, has the speaker only presenting data that fits their argument.

So why is this important in the context of behaviorism, let alone important in any other way?

Radical behaviorism is a science of observation and description of that observation, is why. Behavior analysts do not diagnose. We collect data and make decisions off of that data. The research behind our decisions is peer reviewed and is typically based off of hundreds, thousands, and even millions of data points. B. F. Skinner’s initial work and his follow up work especially had millions of data points. And before you assume that this is a appeal to popularity of data, the science also changes based off of new data. If it didn’t then Applied Behavior Analysis would not be a science. Which isn’t to say that individual’s within the science are not susceptible to this or any other logical fallacy. We are. BUT, the purpose of the scientific approach is to strive to overcome fallacious reasoning. This is why understanding that radical behaviorism is a science of description and observation. Without that essential piece the science is more prone to being diagnostic in its nature.

Being a diagnostic science is neither good nor bad. The medical sciences are a perfect example of an effective diagnostic science. A medical doctor would not be very effective if they could not diagnose, for example. Behavior analysis, however, is founded on being a descriptive science. In effect, we observe and describe what we see, then we take data on what we see and analyze that data. We then describe what we see from the data.

Some sciences come up with a theory then seek to find data to prove that theory. This is problematic

The Truth About Lemmings

American Bison Stampede Hunting

Appeals to Popularity

Socially Significant (and Non-significant)

This glorious meme’s credit is owed to Jason Stauffer. He made the observation about a shared meme that pointing out a new behavior (Bx) without behavior is less of an issue than taking data on non-socially significant behaviors.

Some examples of this is taking data on stimming behaviors for our autistic clients or not making eye contact. If there is self injury behaviors (SIB) or harming of others, then it is socially significant, but if it is none of those than we should not be worrying about the Bx. Age appropriate would be another example. Expecting a 3 to 5 year old to ask for something in a highly articulate sentence, especially when dealing with big emotions, is unreasonable. Being age appropriate in our teaching and programming is extremely important because developing is a process, AND it is important to let children be children.

This post touches on the ethics and ethical code of Applied Behavior Analysis, program design principles, and trauma-informed care. They are interrelated, and it is important to discuss them regularly. Without these guidelines we see power abused. We see trauma created. And most insignificant, but still important to consider, we see time and resources wasted on behaviors that are not socially significant.

P.S. To the point about eye contact not being socially significant. It isn’t in almost all cases. There are times it is, but it’s up to the individual to judge. A social significance behavior with similar topography is orienting ones body away from the person one is speaking to. The replacement behavior is orienting ones body towards the person one is speaking to (and maybe looking in that person’s direction). Eye contact is a social norm in some communities, but it is not a default behavior norm, but using one’s body to indicate listening IS a default behavior norm.