Scott Lilienfeld died last week after an eight-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Some knew him as a professor of clinical psychology; others as a general psychologist or a critic of pseudoscience. His work in each area was so remarkable that you might think there were three of him. People affiliated with Heterodox Academy may know him from this early episode of our podcast, Half Hour of Heterodoxy.
At the time I recorded this interview, I had known Scott for a few years, first meeting him at a presentation I did on the accuracy and inaccuracy of stereotypes, when I was a second-year PhD student. Scott happened to be in attendance. His question to me was incisive; some audience members likely got the impression that stereotyping was his area of expertise. In fact, he had never written a paper on stereotypes (you can listen to his question here, around the 58:30 mark here, although the audio is low quality). I spoke with Scott after my presentation and learned that he– unlike some other heterodox thinkers– was acquainted with both the research for and against the claim that some stereotypes were accurate. Had there been a debate on the motion, he could have easily argued on each side.
Scott later served on my dissertation committee, and we kept in touch through our involvement with Heterodox Academy. People who knew Scott from having him on their dissertation committees likely remember the help that Scott gave them. There was a compendium of knowledge that somehow fit into his mind. He could point to an obscure but important article from 1975 as pertinent to one topic and then bring up unpublished data from his own lab to address another issue. He didn’t limit his help to local students. As many people recollected in this thread, he was generous with his time and advice, responding to people who emailed him out of the blue from thousands of miles away. Doubtless, there are many scientific publications that are better for the advice Scott gave the author. Much of this feedback took the form of references to other people’s work, not his own. I remember him as speaking about his own findings tentatively and with humility.
Scott didn’t just influence scientific literature. He modeled for us a way of being. Many would describe him as kind, but I think of him as ethical—he took his duties to others seriously and expected others to do the same. The only time I saw him angry was when another senior professor—my advisor—was derelict. This ethos became a model for me and possibly many other graduate students who met Scott at the University of Melbourne, SUNY Albany, or Emory University, where he worked for the last 26 years of his life.
Having already published decades of skeptical research, Scott was one of the first people to join Heterodox Academy. He was not cynical, but he believed that pursuing normal science was more sensible than aiming for revolutions and breakthroughs. This belief inspired much of his skepticism. He once wrote, “In my experience as an instructor of graduate students in clinical psychology and allied fields for three decades, one of the most widespread thinking errors that I have encountered, among even the best and brightest of students, is what I term ‘breakthrough-ism:’ the tendency to regard novel interventions as breakthroughs rather than merely as potentially promising techniques that may be worthy of investigation.”
Even though he wasn’t a cynic, some people may know him for his critiques alone. His article “Psychological treatments that cause harm” has been cited over 1,000 times. His two major books were also critiques: 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology co-authored with Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, Barry Beyerstein, and Brainwashed: The Seductive appeal of Mindless Neuroscience with Sally Satel.
This skepticism extended to his editorial work. He edited a special section of the Archives of Scientific Psychology on heterodox issues in psychology. His introduction to that issue, Embracing Unpopular Ideas: Introduction to the Special Section on Heterodox Issues in Psychology, is available without subscription, and should be read by all psychology students. The 16 articles in that issue are also worthwhile. If you hold the idea that heterodox scholarship is Eurocentric or reactionary, these articles will disabuse you of that notion.
Like many heterodox scholars Scott took some interest in politics. You can hear him speaking about his work on narcissism and the presidency at this public conversation with Alan Abramowitz recorded just before the first 2016 U.S. presidential debate. (Parodying Donald Trump, Scott shouts “Wrong!” at the 53-second mark). Despite being somewhat conservative, he had little regard for Trump and other narcissists in politics. However, he was also unhappy with the way many psychologists treated liberalism as a normality and conservatism as an abnormality deserving investigation. As in his scholarly life, he appreciated people with a modest stance and intellectually humble approach. In the final years of his life, he pursued research on intellectual humility.
I did not see Scott often after I finished my doctorate, but I occasionally ran into him at various places around Atlanta. The last time I saw him in person was at an all-Sibelius program at the Atlanta Symphony, where he talked about his love for Sibelius’s music, especially the cryptic fourth symphony. That program concluded with Sibelius’s seventh symphony, a one-movement piece that ends with a C major chord evoking burnished sadness. It seems appropriate to listen to that coda again as we mourn our collective loss.