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Education Bookcast

Jan 25, 2016

Last week's episode served as an introduction to behaviourism. This week, in the name of balance, we are looking at another theory of animal training, the so-called dominance approach.

Cesar Millan is a Mexican dog trainer who emigrated to the US in his youth. He now has a TV show called The Dog Whisperer. Unlike Karen Pryor, he taught himself his approach to dogs through experience and exposure from an early age. He is said to have "a magical way with dogs", which is something that comes across, at least to the layman, in his show.

Millan's approach to dogs concerns thinking about the dog's needs. Perhaps that should read the Dog's needs, as he believes that all dogs have the same psychology, "dog psychology", which is different to human psychology and necessary to understand in order to solve "dog problems". His famous motto, "I rehabilitate dogs, I train people", is a reflection of the philosophy that the reason that dogs have problems is that humans aren't meeting their needs.

If it seems presumptuous to you that Millan claims to have a theory of psychology for all dogs, bear in mind what we heard last week: that behaviourists claim to have a theory of psychology for all animals. Everything! Dogs, cats, moles, crabs, bears, whales, elephants, prawns, beetles, fish ... and humans. Millan's theories are infinitely more modest in breadth than those of behaviourists.

However, Millan is more ambitious in terms of depth. What I call "fundamentalist" behaviourists - those who adhere to the original philosophy of behaviourism, that internal states either don't exist or don't matter - score a 0 in terms of depth (unless you agree with their assumptions, in which case they score 100%). Cesar Millan making the kinds of claims about what a dog is, and what a dog is like, that fundamentalist behaviourists would never care - or dare - to talk about.

This gives us a new dimension for looking at theories of psychology and elsewhere: depth. A "deep" theory is one that relies strongly on internal structures and systems; a "shallow" theory focuses on only those things that can be directly observed or measured. For example, the explanation "the bus came late because the 1pm bus always comes late" is a relatively shallow theory, whereas "the bus came late because promptness isn't very highly valued in our culture" is a relatively deep theory.

A deep theory has the disadvantage that it is hard to test. How do you check whether your culture values promptness or not? And how do you check the connection between this and the tardiness of the bus? This is relatively hard to do. On the other hand, a shallow theory, although easier to test, may be missing something. Although it may be true that the 1pm bus is always late, and it is relatively easy to test this, it doesn't tell us very much about buses, and there may be more to the story than that.

So this most recent pair of books also serves as a case study in epistemology, prompting us to ask that most important of scientific questions, "how do we know if something is true?". I studied chemical engineering at university, took up linguistics as a hobby, and now spend my time on education, and I can tell you that this question gets only more important the more "fuzzy" the subject matter is. And boy oh boy, education can be real fuzzy.

From dogs to philosophy of science. Funny where The Dog Whisperer can take you.

Enjoy the episode.



Links to some articles that I refer to in the episode which criticise Millan are here and here.

You may also enjoy South Park episode 7 season 10 entitled Tsst, in which Cesar Millan "rehabilitates" Cartman. It's one of my favourite episodes. Apparently Millan himself thought that the episode was "fantastic".