My Love Letter to Punk Rock Science

Author: Shane Spiker, MS, BCBA  & PhD Candidate 

Author: Shane Spiker, MS, BCBA  & PhD Candidate 

Punk rock always held a special place in my life. During my formative years, I spent countless hours at local punk shows, meeting touring bands, and goofing around in incredibly sketchy practice spaces all for the sake of a small community in our town. We played music, sang loud, and had the kind of fun that you would have had to been there to truly understand.

But what was great about this community is that it was part of a larger, underground movement. Sure, it was loud and sometimes obnoxious. Hell, parts of it could even be laughable to the general public. We’re talking about a group of people who are generally considered outsiders. And many people within this group were loud about things that mattered. Political protests were common. Food not Bombs was an amazing part of our central Florida scene for a bit, working to feed those in need and reduce unnecessary food waste. There is meaning in this raucous community.

As I grew older, some of the punk rock staples drifted off. I don’t go to as many punk shows, and my finger isn’t entirely on the pulse of the general punk rock community anymore. What I found, though, was that I maintained this punk rock ethos that has carried into my professional practice. I was surprised to learn that much of what I was doing and much of my personal and professional perspective aligned with the punk community. Furthermore, I began to see quite a few parallels within the behaviorism and punk communities, to a point where I couldn’t help but comment on it.

Historical Underpinnings

One of the great things about both communities is that they have close ties to important social events. For example, Ivan Pavlov’s lab assistant Sergei Tschachotin designed the Iron Front logo, a symbol used to deface Nazi propaganda during WWII. This logo is widely used by punk/hardcore band Strike Anywhere, a political punk band who has inspired many young show-goers to take up political involvement and social change movements.

The Sex Pistols formed in London in the mid-seventies and were outwardly vocal about political dissent within the UK during this time period. The Clash took clear political stances during this time, with songs like “I Fought the Law” serving as social responses to problematic official behavior.

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Humble Beginnings and Social Disapproval

Another parallel I found interesting were how both movements started as small, simple movements. In both circumstances, these small movements had continued impact, but were largely scoffed at in the beginning. Consider the great debates between Skinner and Chomsky. Psychology had already been fairly established during this time, and we’ve got a small movement of behaviorists saying “there’s a simpler way.” To this end, the movement of behaviorism was an underground movement that, despite social approval from scientific peers, began to gain momentum.

Freddy Mercury of Queen, one of the most successful rock bands of their era, would consistently demean punk communities during interviews. A consistent target of his would be the Sex Pistols, calling Sid Vicious “Simon Ferocious” and generally downplaying their influence. A current example of this in the punk rock community would be Green Day. While they aren’t entirely a punk band at this point in their career, they started small in a local community and quickly gained momentum using simple songs with simple messages.

Simplicity

One of the greatest elements of both communities is this concept of parsimony. We can take moments to look at how simple each community can be. This is one of the points of ridicule for both, but in each circumstance, they are incredibly effective.

For instance, some of the greatest punk songs ever written are three or four chords. Take a moment to listen to The Ramones “Blitzkreig Bop.” The entire song is literally three chords played in different arrangements, but it is one of the most recognizable and influential punk songs ever written. If you haven’t ever heard the song, check it out below.

Functions of behavior parallel 4 chords easily. Since we were able to identify functions of behavior, we figured out the “formula.” We were able to see the foundational elements that make up a major portion of our practice. Obviously, this is not the only part of our practice, but it rings with similarity.

Comparable Figureheads

As I began to think about the people in our field, I started to think about how they are similar to punk rock influencers. I quickly found that there were quite a few people who could be mirror images of our field and the punk rock community.

Behavior analytic influencers like Dr. Patrick McGreevy relate closely to Dr. Greg Graffin, singer of Bad Religion. Incredibly knowledgably, passionate about social change, and perhaps a little blunt about their perspective.

B.F. Skinner could be our Joe Strummer. Calm and collected, vocal about what needs to change, and taking on pioneering roles for both communities.

Patrick Friman may be our very own Joey Ramone, while Julie Vargas might be our Debbie Harry. And how can we forget people like Jose Martinez-Diaz, our very own Milo Aukerman. Where we parallel is that we have influencers with varying personality characteristics, but influential within our communities to such a degree that they are synonymous with the community labels.

 
"...the movement of behaviorism was an underground movement that, despite social approval from scientific peers, began to gain momentum."- Shane Spiker. MS, BCBA
 

Influential Practice from Small Communities

Ultimately, the biggest parallel here is in regard to our impact. Since arriving on the scene, both communities have had influences within social, political, and scientific arenas despite humble beginnings. I mentioned Green Day earlier, but bands like Fall Out Boy started in punk scenes. Bands like No Doubt, Against Me!, and AFI are bands that are regularly played on the radio and continuously share a message of social change on some level. These bands have also served as influences for bands who are just starting out or coming into the punk scene.

In 2014, Florida was able to introduce a bill to allow for licensure of behavior analysts within the state. There was a clear differential between active behavior analysts and active psychology board members involved at the time. It appeared to be a David and Goliath type of discussion, and while we didn’t get licensure at the time, we sparked a discussion that, ultimately, began to change the landscape of practice in Florida. There aren’t many of us, but we’re loud as hell.

Here We Go, Here We Go, Here We Go

So, what does this even mean or why does it matter? Maybe it doesn’t matter at all. But I think it’s interesting that a small community like ours can grow and influence the world. It’s not impossible, and it’s noble to strengthen our communities with common goals and work toward a greater vision. The punk rock ethos was never truly about being obnoxious and loud. It was about being that catalyst for change. It was a community of likeminded individuals aiming to make the world a better place in any way they knew how. It wasn’t always pretty, and sometimes it got bloody. But I think it’s worth looking at these parallels and exemplars and knowing that our small communities are making bigger impacts for longer periods of time. We can make the difference we think we can.

“I pledge allegiance to the world. Nothing more, nothing less than my humanity.”

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