#434 – Science and Pseudoscience in Psychology with Scott Lilienfeld PhD

0040501-11KH Scott Lilienfeld, Professor of Psychology


Scott Lilienfeld PhD received his B.A. in Psychology from Cornell University in 1982 and his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1990. He completed his clinical internship at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from 1986-1987. He was assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at SUNY Albany from 1990 to 1994, and has been a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Emory since 1994. He is author of the 2014 book, Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, Second Edition, along with a number of earlier books exploring related themes.

Dr. Lilienfeld’s research focuses on The causes and assessment of personality disorders (especially psychopathic personality) and personality traits; personality assessment (e.g., the validity of projective techniques); psychiatric classification and diagnosis; pseudoscience and clinical psychology; evidence-based clinical practice; scientific thinking and its application to psychology; philosophy of science and psychology.

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A psychology podcast by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

copyright 2014: David Van Nuys, Ph.D.



  1. John Knight
    Posted December 19, 2014 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    Wow, great episode – I’ve just started getting back into the swing of things now that I’m on holiday from university, and I saw the title of this one and it immediately grabbed my eye. Dr. Lilienfeld has summed up my own intuitive feelings that have been growing over the last few years about psychology and science/pseudoscience, and that has been particularly exciting. I think I’ll check out several of his books!

    Whether or not you’re inclined towards the more scientific, empirical side of psychology and/or counselling, I urge any therapist to get a basic understanding of differentiating between science and pseudoscience; a basic understanding of the components of critical thinking; as well as a working knowledge of how to read scientific papers. I say this to psychologists in particular, because I think on the already shaky ground our field sits on, I find psychotherapists can get far too easily seduced by the “wow factor” of something, whilst justifying it with very flimsy evidence.

    I say this as a very sick person who has been the victim of pseudoscience, having lost thousands upon thousands of dollars on various practitioners offering false hope. And although a remedy like homoeopathy may or may not be a placebo (I believe it is a sophisticated placebo), it is at least harmless if prepared correctly – unlike some of the things I’ve taken which I believe have probably made me worse. I’m guessing I’ll probably make a few enemies by targeting homoeopathy there, but I think homoeopathy in particular highlights very important elements that are key to a therapeutic relationship as well as the world of the placebo.

    I used to be a flag-waving, card-carrying supporter of “Alternative Therapies” after I experienced a moderate amount of initial improvement in my younger years, which I only realised in the years to follow was to do with the fact that I was being listened to for the first time – rather than being teased, accused, and so on by people who didn’t understand – as well as being placed on a restrictive diet, which a good GP *should* have tried to begin with.

    It was only when I actively researched how homoeopathy supposedly works that I realised I was looking at pseudoscience – something that sounds “sciency” but is really just a placebo at best. I was always interested to know what was going on with those diagnostic machines though (you know the ones where you hold the paddles and they measure your readings on a screen?), and after digging around I found a break-down circuit analysis that revealed that it’s essentially just measuring galvanic skin response, and if you jump between practitioners and machines, you won’t get the same readings. I figure galvanic skin response is of interest to anyone who knows their Jung, eh?

    Going back to the therapeutic relationship, Richard Dawkins (of whom I am not usually a fan at all), made the excellent observation that homoeopaths are just about always nice people who take extended periods of time to understand their patients. And if GPs and other doctors took the time to do the same thing, we might have much greater efficacy in conventional western medicine.

    For those that are interested in sorting science from pseudoscience in general, I highly recommend the book ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre, and I’m looking forward to reading his other book, ‘I think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That’ (something I thought might be poignant in the discussion of fields going way beyond the data).

    If I can give a few pieces of advice to anyone unsure about the validity of treatments, be wary of anyone using testimonials or anecdotal evidence (ie. “we had a guy get better on this who had cancer” …that kind of thing), as this is usually the first port-of-call for any scam artist; as well as the fact that anecdotal evidence is scientifically inadmissible, because you just can’t control for the variables.

    I also urge slight caution whenever you encounter someone who uses the nickname “big-pharma” (though Goldacre uses the term himself) or they speak of an “FDA conspiracy”. As Goldacre points out, there is a logic flaw that is behind much Alternative Medicine that reasons that “because drug companies are evil [which they are], therefore our stuff works”. I’ve seen a lot of tragedy occur, such as unvaccinated children dying of preventable disease, or lots of people get scammed based almost entirely on that fallacious argument.

    However, if you have been a victim of pseudoscience, or are smarting over your previous advocacy of a “hokum” technique, please don’t be too hard on yourself. Everyone is gullible and everyone gets conned – the smart people are the ones who acknowledge it and then can do something about it.

  2. Brian Kissell
    Posted December 22, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Wow! This was a fantastic episode. I am one who is often attempting help the public better understand what psychology is. I care a great deal about helping relieve some of the misconceptions that exist in the public understanding of psychology, and thus Dr. Lilienfeld’s perspective was extremely valuable. Great job.

  3. Steve Bar Yakov Gind
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I so enjoyed hearing Dr. Lilienfeld agree with everything you believe, and am pretty sure that you agree with him on stuff like it being un-just to throw dad’s into jail after a therapist coaxed a memory out of their daughter.

  4. Bruce Dickson
    Posted January 20, 2015 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    As an Energy Medicine practitioner, I wanted to hear Dr. Lilienfeld. I was delighted as the suggestion he and other skeptics of EnMed successes seems to have softened from the early 2000s.

    He makes clear in this talk his beef with EnMed is less so with the method–difficult to deny specific procedures occur. Rather making claims for cures way beyond evidential results is what upsets people.

    The lack of theoretical foundations in EnMed I’m addressing in Holistic. If curious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBAINkrsNiI

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