The above history is one of which we can be proud, but never satisfied, because every change has the potential to be both praised and lamented. But even changes that are lamented might be welcomed because they serve as the stimulus for further development. Petroski (1992) likens the critical role of failure in the evolutionary process to a dentist fitting a crown, where carbon paper is used to identify points where there is not a good fit of form to context, and where change is therefore needed. It is these incongruities or irritants that occasion variations until the variations produce the desired outcomes. This is similar to a selectionist perspective (Skinner, 1953) in which variations are selected by their beneficial consequences. The risk, then, is when there is adaptation to failure, which allows problematic features or practices to persist. The process applies both to thematic research as well as to the broader practices within the cultures of behavior analysis and developmental disabilities.
As the above history suggests, behavior analysis has not been marked by complacency. Ironically, even its very success with respect to developmental disabilities has been tempered with criticisms that behavior analysis has become too focused in that area. Numerous articles, and even journal issues, have been devoted to concerns with the field (e.g., Hayes, 2001; Michael, 1980; Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1991). There have always been tensions and resultant shifts in which a body of literature that is described by some as too irrelevant to or remote from common and pressing problems spurs “real world application” that in turn is described by others as too irrelevant or remote from basic principles. Indeed, dissatisfaction is inevitable because all developments imply a degree of failure along some dimension that cannot be satisfied without sacrificing another dimension (e.g., in terms of cost, resources, scope, precision, practicality, utility, accessibility, control, relevance, acceptability, etc.). Because it is a logical impossibility for all requirements to be met when those requirements are in conflict, it is a matter of determining to what extent and along which dimensions failure will be manifest. An example is functional assessment in the schools, where alternatives to extended experimental analyses in analog situations necessarily sacrifice some degree of precision for practicality. The balance is a delicate one because precision without practicality (i.e., methods that yield accurate information but which are not widely adopted because of the resources required for implementation) is as useless as practicality without precision (i.e., convenient assessment methods that yield inaccurate information or conclusions). Failures along either dimension, however, may serve as establishing operations, and promote investigations that will produce closer approximations to the desired state of affairs.
Failure that results in setbacks has occurred when faulty application or bad practice is mistaken for inadequate principles or bad science. Because the public does not always discriminate technological from theoretical failures, there is the risk that it will throw out the baby with the bath water and reject behavior analytic approaches. Within developmental disabilities, dissatisfaction sometimes has been expressed in movements that are ideological in nature (e.g., self-determination, person-centered planning, positive behavioral support). Behavior analysts, too, must guard against throwing out the baby with the bath water and instead treat these movements as a useful source of data for advancing the field. Examination of changes from that perspective can suggest areas of compatibility on which we might capitalize (e.g., tying research involving choice-making under concurrent schedules to promote effective choices of persons with developmental disabilities consistent with “self-determination”). They also suggest areas in which we might devote more attention (e.g., classes of dependent variables, system-wide interventions, examination of contextual influences). Just as Baer, Wolf, and Risley (1987) suggested that, in addition to measuring changes in target behaviors, we measure problem displays and explanations that have stopped or diminished as a result, we might view changes reflecting counter-control (problem displays and explanations that have increased) as a form of social invalidity. To reject them outright is as dangerous as accepting them outright; both represent a form of complacency and adaptation to failure and therefore a threat to the vitality of behavior analysis and developmental disabilities. We can afford neither rigid adherence to our technology nor abandonment of our scientific principles.
In summary, there is cause for both celebration and contemplation. We can celebrate how far behavior analysis and developmental disabilities have come while also contemplating where it needs to go. Further development can be promoted by recognition that the good news of our success was and is made possible by the careful contemplation of our failures. In that sense, both our successes and the failures that stimulate further development are good news worthy of celebration. Party on.