Scott Lilienfeld, 59, debunker of junk-beliefs

Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University worked to correct popular, but often false beliefs, in academic fields and popular culture.
Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University worked to correct popular, but often false beliefs, in academic fields and popular culture.

Scott Lilienfeld tried to bridge the sometimes-seismic gulf between science and pop-cultural beliefs with facts.

From taking on ghost chasers to beliefs that swimming with dolphins provides psychological therapy, Lilienfeld, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology at Emory University, spent much of his career extricating research- and data-driven facts from junk thought.

He was a meticulous master debunker, publishing more than 350 journal articles while also writing and editing textbooks and books — many aimed at broad audiences. Like his idol, the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University where Lilienfeld studied, Lilienfeld worked to bring together academic and lay communities.

“Scott didn’t suffer fools gladly,” said Lori Marino, his first wife and a neuroscientist living in southern Utah. “But he didn’t demean people. He was challenging long-held beliefs and he was sensitive to the fact this could frighten people, and when they get scared it weakens their intellectual defenses.”

Scott Owen Lilienfeld, 59, died of complications of pancreatic cancer Sept. 30.

He was born Dec. 23, 1960, in Queens, N.Y., the youngest of three children to radiologist Ralph and Thelma Lilienfeld.

At Cornell, Lilienfeld planned on being an astronomer like his hero Sagan, but switched to psychology, eventually earning a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Minnesota.

He came to Emory in the early 1990s and built a reputation as a clinical researcher in psychopathy and personality disorders while becoming an authority on pseudoscience in psychology.

In 2003, he and two partners took on an iconic practice in his own field, the Rorschach inkblot tests, where a subject’s perception of inkblots are recorded and analyzed to assess personality and mental illness. It had long been a standard practice in both clinical psychology and popular culture, and was even presented as evidence in courtroom cases.

The scholars reviewed over a half century of research and concluded the Rorschach was something of a dandified Ouija Board.

Like Sagan, Lilienfeld wanted the whole world to know what he knew. Both were often condemned in the scientific community for his popularizing science.

“It’s expected in academic circles that you specialize in an area,” said Marino, who remained a good friend and collaborator with her former husband. "People in our world look down on popularizers, but it takes real talent. You have to apply the same rigorous scientific standards to everything, and then have the talent to communicate it with a wide audience.”

Lilienfeld’s best known and probably most entertaining book is 2009′s “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions About Human Behavior.” It’s took on subjects from the questionable power of memory to hypnosis and ghost sightings.

Lilienfeld concluded that “recall is often a blurry mix of accurate and inaccurate recollections, along with what jells with our beliefs and hunches.”

The volume also proves, sometimes with a sly wit, that opposites don’t attract, that full moons don’t cause crimes and madness, and that ghosts don’t haunt houses, cemeteries and Civil War battlefields. Or as Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Bill Hendrick wrote in 1998, “Scott Lilienfeld who teaches a course on pseudoscience, says many ghost sightings are real — real hallucinations.”

He met Candice Basterfield in 2016 while lecturing in Australia, where she was a graduate student. They married in August 2018. Fourteen months later he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He kept working at a furious pace, even later when he was so weak would lie on the couch a dictate while Basterfield typed.

On Sept. 28, just two days before his death, a New York Times article reported on Lilienfeld’s and an Emory grad student’s work on a timely subject in this political season: it showed that 40% of 2,000 adults tested ranged above average or higher in being susceptible to conspiracy theories.

In the past year, he and Marino collaborated on a study of so-called dolphin therapy, including claims that dolphins can cure autism and even cancer. The two found it mostly a “scam industry” that accomplishes little other than stressing the dolphins.

“Scott, of course, won’t see it (published),” Marino said. “And that’s the thing that gets to me. He was absolutely not at the end of anything. He was in the beginning of the next phase. I had hoped to visit him and collaborate him when he was in his 90s.”

Lilienfeld is survived by his wife, Candice Basterfield, and his sister, Laura Lilienfeld, who lives in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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