Scott Lilienfeld, Psychologist Who Questioned Psychology, Dies at 59


Undeterred, Dr. Lilienfeld founded The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, a journal “devoted exclusively to distinguishing scientifically supported claims from scientifically unsupported claims in clinical psychology, psychiatry and social work.”

Dr. Lilienfeld became a self-appointed public ombudsman, an impish scientific conscience, at once easygoing, formidable and precise in his critiques. He made himself eminently accessible to students, reporters and even rivals. He would pick up his phone on the first ring, as if expecting the call.

“He just believed that was all part of his job,” Ms. Basterfield said.

He also received blowback when he touched a nerve. In 2017, he published a critique of the scientific basis for microaggressions, described as subtle and often unwitting snubs of marginalized groups. (For instance, a white teacher might say to a student of color, “My, this essay is so articulate!”) Dr. Lilienfeld argued that the concept of microaggressions was subjective by nature, difficult to define precisely, and did not take into account the motives of the presumed offender, or the perceptions of the purported victim. What one recipient of the feedback might consider injustice, another might regard as a compliment.

The nasty mail rolled in, from many corners of academia, Dr. Lilienfeld told colleagues.

“There was no one like him in this field,” said Steven Jay Lynn, a psychology professor at Binghamton and a longtime collaborator. “He just had this abiding faith that science could better us, better humankind; he saw his championing as an opportunity to make a difference in the world. He enjoyed stepping into controversial areas, it’s true, but the motives were positive.”

Scott Owen Lilienfeld was born on Dec. 23, 1960, in Queens, the third child of Ralph and Thelma (Farber) Lilienfeld. His father was a radiologist, his mother a homemaker.

He attended Cornell University, earning a degree in psychology in 1982, and completed a Ph.D. in 1990 at the University of Minnesota. He taught at the State University of New York at Albany before joining the faculty at Emory in 1994.

He married Lori Marino in 1992; they divorced in 2004. He married Ms. Basterfield in 2016. In addition to her, he is survived by a sister, Laura.


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