Scott Lilienfeld – Real Self-Help

March 19, 2010

Dr. Scott Lilienfeld is Professor of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. Scott is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a Consulting Editor for Skeptical Inquirer and the Founder and Editor of the CSI journal Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. He’s a regular contributor to Scientific American Mind, and is Psychology Today’s Skeptical Psychologist, where he investigates questionable, controversial, and novel claims in psychology. His principal areas of research include evidence-based practices in psychology and the challenges posed by pseudoscience to clinical psychology.

In this conversation with Karen Stollznow, Scott discusses his latest book, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions About Human Behavior, co-written with Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio and the late Barry Beyerstein. The book treats a staggering 300 urban legends, myths and misconceptions; this is the “Mythbusters” of psychology.

Scott explains the difference between psychology and “pop psychology”, which is fraught with what he calls “psychomythology”. He discusses how myths develop and disseminate, and he reports that even the experts can be deceived by these commonly-held beliefs. These myths are unpredictable blends of fact and (mostly) fiction, but as we find out, fact is sometimes even stranger than fiction.

Scott busts some surprising myths, and argues for the importance of myth busting. When we believe in these myths there are often real-world consequences, but debunking itself carries risks. He discusses how to counter these myths and the “unsinkable ducks”, and how to critically evaluate future claims as we’re presented with them.

Aiming to “demystify psychology”, Scott is an advocate for the effective communication of psychology to the public, and also for science-based psychology. He considers the unreliability of our intuition, gut-feelings and our (not-so) common sense, and how science is “uncommon sense”.

Scott admits that human experience makes us all armchair psychologists, and we are all susceptible to Dr. Phil-psychology and self-help books. But self-help is more often hindrance than help. Backed up by science, this book is the real self-help.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 19th, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Karen Stollznow point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. My guest is Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. Scott has a consulting editor for Skeptical Inquirer and the founder and editor of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. He’s a regular contributor to Scientific American Mind and is the skeptical psychologist, blogger for Psychology Today, where he investigates questionable, controversial and novel claims in psychology. Scott is the author of many books, including Navigating the Fields A Guide to Separating Science from Pseudo Science and Mental Health. And he’s the editor of the textbook Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology. His most recent title is 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior. Scott, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

It’s great to be here. So your most recent book, which is co-written with Stephen Jaelynn, John Rescue and the late Barry Stein, is 50 great myths of popular psychology shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. I really enjoyed this book, Scott. It’s like a myth. Busters for psychology are set to begin with. And this question may seem to have an obvious, but I think an illuminating answer. What’s the difference between psychology and popular psychology or pop psychology? 

Well, I think our view is that there shouldn’t be a big difference between scientific psychology and bipolar psychology. But unfortunately, there is and there’s often a big gap. And we are concerned, actually, a growing gap between these two domains, especially with the growth of the Internet and cable TV and TV talk shows and what have you. There is often a big disparity between what the research evidence seems to show and what popular wisdom seems to show. If there is a key difference that demarcates, too, I think it’s probably that a lot of pop psychology is informed by personal experience, by what might be termed common sense intuitions, which we know from a lot of psychology, is a useful starting point when it comes to generating ideas, but can often be pretty limited when it comes to testing theories systematically. One thing we’ve learned the hard way of thinking psychology is that personal experience is often very salient. It’s very subjectively powerful, but sometimes it’s not that useful when it comes to telling us about the deep causal structure of the world, especially the causal structure of the human mind. 

Right. And so the myths in your book are labeled as psycho mythology. Would you say the pop psychology is invariably psycho mythology? 

No, I wouldn’t say that. And I’m glad you asked that, because one key point I think we want to make in the book is that there’s a vast world of pups like out there, and some of it is actually pretty good. And there’s certainly some useful stuff that’s promulgated by the pups like world. And certainly some self-help books actually provide good advice. And some self-help books provide advice that’s consistent with scientific evidence for depression and anxiety and so on. So we certainly wouldn’t want to dismiss all of pop psychology. And I think sometimes people tend to do that in one fell swoop. I think our point is more that it’s a vast world out there and there’s often not a lot of guidance for the general public. Even the educated layperson for distinguishing what scientifically supported and what’s Nadhum also maybe would fall a bit of a middle and a bit uncertain. 

Right. And you state in your introduction that we’re all armchair psychologists. I see a similar phenomenon with linguistics in that everyone speaks a language so they somehow feel qualified to speak with authority about language. So why is folk psychology or this armchair psychology so common? 

That’s an interesting observation about linguistics. I’m right about that. But that that’s the next sense, too. I suspect that’s probably for the same reason you encounter the linguists, which is that it’s something we deal with on an everyday basis. It’s very different from the chemistry of physics. Of course, we deal indirectly with chemistry, physics because we’re dealing with chemical and physical objects, but we don’t normally deal with things at that level of analysis. Instead, what what how, Kelly, the subtle so-called is called the masel level of analysis, kind of the middle level of analysis. The analysis of everyday social interaction is kind of the level at which most of us are used to operating. And I think because we have a lot of experience with it, we may think we know a lot about it. 

And at some level we know a lot about it. At some level we we’re actually often pretty good, not perfect, but we’re often pretty good at reading people at first impressions often are somewhat accurate, not always, but they’re often better than than chance. And oftentimes we’re reasonably good at figuring out and decoding social interaction. But that’s a very different breed of cat from understanding why we do things. Understanding the causes of behavior. But I think because we have so much experience, because we’re used to dealing with it on an everyday basis, whether it’s memory or or work or emotion or sleep or dreams or happiness, sadness, love, hate. These are all everyday experiences, things we deal with just about every day. 

We might think we understand it, but we may not understand it quite as well as we think we do. And that holds for all of us, not just everyday people, but even professional psychologists like myself. I think it’s very easy to be fooled into thinking we have a deeper understanding, a more accurate understanding, and we really do not agree with that. 

And I think with a folkloric understanding, we’re often very affected by our biases as well. 

Yeah, absolutely. And there’s a fascinating phenomenon, which I think is actually one of the more important psychological findings of the last decade. Emily Proner at Princeton has done some some very interesting work on what she terms bias Blindspot, which is that we’re often remarkably blind to our own biases, were really good at spotting other people we can detect when other people are bias. We can figure out when other people have confirmation bias. For example, other people are biased in their evaluation of political issues. For example, socialism’s. We can spotlit in other people, but we’re terrible and Republi all terrible spotting it in ourselves. 

That’s probably true. So in Scientific American mind, you note in a recent article of yours, you note that there are over 3500 self-help books which are published every year. So why is this sort of Dr. Phil style psychology such a popular area of self-help books? 

Well, I think some of it is. Some of it certainly relates to what we said already. I think the everyday psychology is is ubiquitous and we’re all fascinated with with people or fascinated with ourselves and trying to figure each other out. Also, maladies, whether they’re depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, sexual dysfunction, you name it. At least I’m in the mild realm are really quite, quite common. If you look at survey, lots and lots of people have experiences the least mild to moderate versions of these problems. And some of them don’t have any great clinical significance, of course, unless they become greatly impairing. Do we have to worry about them? But oftentimes they do begin to affect our everyday functioning. Even with the best of us. So understandably, a lot of people want to turn to self-help books as a way of figuring these things out. And I think understandably and again, this is not a criticism of the general public. I think we’re all prone to the lure of quick fixes. A lot of these difficulties, particularly when it comes to things like relationship problems, addictions. And if you look at in the self-help book section of any major bookstores, you’re going to see lots and lots of books dealing with relationships, love, addiction and so on. These are hard problems even for the best of us. There are things to fix. Even the most healthy of us have problems with with love and in relationships. So understandably, a lot of people want to have fairly quick, easy solutions to these problems. The best self-help books, I think, are those that provide constructive, scientifically supportive advice, but not quick fixes. I think any self-help book that provides quick promises, quick solutions is very unlikely to be helpful or accurate. 

Yeah, I’ve noticed that a lot of the myths you treat with the 250 many myths, a lot of those are a sort of sound bite myths like men think about sex every seven seconds, which made me think that really is every five seconds, isn’t it? 

I think that’s actually better supported. I think we’ve actually seen some research showing that. 

Yes, some of them, some of the little factoids or factoids, as we call them, a little urban legend that you can research and others, I think, are part and parcel of kind of broader myths and misconceptions about human nature. 

All right. So your book treats in depth 50 myths that are of interest to skeptics, including beliefs such as that positive attitude can cure cancer. The polygraph tests, sir, a lie detectors that opposites attract and that men and women communicate in completely different ways. How and why did you choose these particular myths? So they core in some way? 

You know, that was a hard decision. We went back and forth actually quite a bit on which myths to choose. And we we actually were informed in part by a survey. So there are publisher Wiley Blackwell was kind enough to do a survey of dozens of people who teach psychology courses, especially first for undergraduates and freshmen. 

So we wanted to find out which of these myths were most persistent, most common, and also the most important in terms of the way they interfered with students learning among beginning psychology students. So we certainly based this impart on our own experience, our own teaching. 

We’ve all taught undergraduates for a number of us still teach, myself included, a large introductory psychology classes. And we also looked at. These surveys to see which of these myths were most prevalent, most common, and some of them, including the ones you mentioned, kept coming up again and again and again. And the other criterion we used was to look at myths that really had become deeply embedded in popular culture and in popular consciousness, because some of these myths, polygraph tests of the great one. The idea that men are from Mars, women are from Venus, which you mentioned that men and women communicate in completely different ways. So different, they’re almost metaphorically from different planets. These are myths that really have become incredibly widespread in popular culture. And an RV sometimes can do harm. 

How would you say these myths arise? What are the sources of these myths? 

So in the first chapter of the book, we we actually examine 10 different sources of many of these myths. And there are number of them, certainly the most obvious. And I think the one that probably will come to mind most easily to people is is media coverage. And we’re bombarded on virtually every day basis with psychopathologies, information about psychology. That’s that’s not accurate. So a lot of it certainly comes from the media. But I think more interestingly, a number of these myths, I think, reflect deep seated tendencies in our mental apparatus to try to make sense of the world, but deep seeded tendency that sometimes can lead us astray. So one thing we talk about, for example, that many other people, Michael Shermer, other skeptics, Tom Gilovich, have talked about very eloquently, is the tendency of our mind to seek out patterns. I think Shermer call the pattern necessity. Other people have used it, used other terms. We all tend to see pattern seek out patterns. And that, again, is a basically adaptive tendency that helps us to simplify our world, make sense of the confusing mental world in which we live. But sometimes it can lead us to see things that are not there. A phenomenon often called illusory correlations, where we’re being fooled and seeing a correlation that is illusory, that does not actually exist. For example, the idea that there’s a very strong correlation association between the full moon and all kinds of odd behaviors, whether or not they’re homicides, suicides, psychiatric hospital admissions, hockey fights, dog bites, people, people look at all these things. Dozens and dozens of studies that no one has ever found any connection. And again, it might be tempting to think, well, we’re really dumb to think that. But, in fact, that we’re not we’re we’re making a mistake. But we’re overweighting one cell in a big fourfold table of life. There’s a big forkful table we can think of of occurrences and non occurrences. In this case, the that cell we’re talking about is the case when there’s a form of and something odd happens. We tend in many cases to overweight that cell because it’s more interesting. It catches our attention. We’re more likely to remember it, tell other people about it, and therefore more likely to see that pattern when it does not exist. So that’s another major source of psychopathology in our view. 

So with reference to that full moon myth, in reading a book, it becomes evident that even a specialist seem to believe these myths. So, for example, you state that many nurses believe that there are more psychiatric hospital admissions during a full moon and saw the other often repeated missed two that you examine is that we only use 10 percent of our brains or our brainpower. And you reference in regards to that particular myth that there are surveys reveal a third of psychology majors and six percent of neuroscientists believe in this, believe this to be fact. So when the experts believe these myths, what does this tell us? 

Yeah, I was I was floored by them. That letter statistic to that. It was a South American survey, actually. Whether it’s true in the U.S., I don’t know. But it was I was floored that six percent or so neuroscientists seem to believe that we only use 10 percent of our brains. I again, I suspect that what’s happening there is not not a function of ignorance or stupidity, but rather a function of of relying very much on the power of everyday experience when it comes to the full moon. It does not surprise me that many nurses believe it, because, after all, in a certain sense, they are see that they see that one cell of that table over and over again. They had so much experience, way more than you and I have had of cases. When there’s a full moon and something happens and they remember those cases, they talk about them undoubtedly again. They may, however, in most cases be forgetting to attend enough to the other cells, which are just not that memorable. Let’s face it, when there’s a full moon and nothing interesting happens, you’re not going to tell many people about it. It’s not going to be very attention grabbing. It’s not going to be very memorable. So I suspect in part what’s happening is this may be an interesting effect that in some cases, experts or at least people who have more experience with certain phenomena might in some cases actually be more prone to some of these myths unless they avail themselves of scientific methodology because they’ve had so much. More everyday experience. 

So it’s about hits and misses than innocence. 

I think a lot of it is we we tend again, there’s some interesting exceptions to this in psychology. There are almost every rule. But in the substantial majority of cases, we tend to remember the hits tend to forget them. And as a result, we’re going to overweight certain kinds of experiences in our heads. 

So it would be interesting to reproduce that study in the States then? 

I think yes, it would. 

So also in the book, you states that these myths are different combinations of pot facts and part or complete fallacy. How does the fiction get in there then to begin with? 

Right, though, on Ledger, is that because, as we point out, we have to be careful about using the word myth and we use it. But with a bit of trepidation, because some of these myths and in fact, many, many other kinds of myth and in other fields often have a small grain, a small kernel of truth in them. You mentioned the idea that men and women communicate in completely different ways. There’s a myth that has a bit of a grain of truth in it because in fact, there are data suggesting that men and women do communicate differently in some ways. Men are more likely to interrupt them than women. Women there are a bit more likely to talk about emotional things. Men are a bit less likely to talk about emotional things and so on. But the differences are often pretty, pretty modest in magnitude. I think probably what ends up happening in some of these cases is what’s often called a kind of sharpening and leveling. We tend to to level out all of the complexity of all of the areas of gray and then sharpen all the blacks and whites so that we end up with is a pretty darn good story. And after all, if you want to be successful, the pop fly called off. It’s a lot easier to say. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, men and women communicating completely different ways unless they get particular kinds of workshops and so on, they’re going to be virtually incapable of ever talking to each other and so on, rather than say, for example, oil, that men and women are slightly different in a few domains and a couple domains. They’re moderately different. Most domains are not all that different at all. And I suspect there’s almost a bit like a kind of natural selection process that happens in the pups like industry. The psychologists who do talk in those shades of gray, who do qualify to hem and haw, are not going to get the coverage. They’re not going to sell the books. They’re not going to end up on Oprah. The ones who do end up on Oprah and get the best selling books are the ones who do talk in blacks and whites who choose to level out all the shades of gray. I suspect that’s one very powerful mechanism for how the pop psych industry inadvertently spreads fiction. 

So your book contains a staggering amount of information overall and doesn’t really brilliant job of synthesizing the vast literature that’s out there. And she cover the existing research and the origins of each belief. So it seems to me in a sense, and I hope you don’t take offense to this, but I think that your book offers real self-help that’s backed up by science. So why does it seem that some people have a preference for the New Age kind of self-help and for the myths rather than the facts? 

You know, that’s a great question. Some of these myths probably are popular and probably preferred to the facts because hope springs eternal. Some of these myths, I think, are very promising and very hopeful. And I think it’s a very powerful motivational force. So, for example, you mentioned that the misconception that most people use only 10 percent of all of their brainpower, empathy, some mornings I feel that way. And boy, wouldn’t it be nice to think that there’s 90 percent of our brain that remains untouched. Unharnessed that if we could only use that 90 percent of our brain power, we think of how much smarter we’d be, how much more productive we’d be, a much more brilliant we’d be. So I think one reason is that these many of these myths do impart a kind of hope, a kind of sense of control over the otherwise uncontrollable. But I think what people have to understand, the general public, is that actually scientific evidence does impart some not quick fixes, but some reasonably good, scientifically based solutions to many of these problems, like how to deal with anger, for example, how to deal with anxiety, how to deal with grief. They’re not simple solutions, but in fact, they are reasonably good solutions and effective for a lot of people. And I think many people have to realize that, in fact, they don’t have to turn to pop psychology for answers. Science can often give them at least partial, sometimes better than partial answers to. And I think what skeptics have to understand, which I think sometimes we don’t. Is that when we dispel hope, when we debunk these myths, we have to realize that often times we’re pulling the rug out from under other people. We are oftentimes taking hope away and we have to be sure. I think I’m very careful. We try to do this in the book. We have to be sure that whenever we debunk a myth or take away hope, we have to put something back in return and give. People information not merely about what is false, what’s fictional, but also what’s true, and I think there’s a powerful lesson for skeptics. There is I think sometimes the skeptical movement has not always done that as consistently as it does of debunking is really important. I’m a big fan of it. I do it myself. I think there’s a real role for it. But we have to realize that we have to give something back in return. 

Absolutely. And your book stresses that myth busting is important. And I would agree with that. What are the real world consequences of people believing in these myths? 

That’s a good question. And in all fairness, I guess as a skeptic, I have to try to note that I don’t think we we know in all cases what the real consequences of some of these myths are here in the book. We do speculate a bit, but we do argue and I do think there’s certainly, at the very least, very powerful circumstantial evidence for this. That belief in some of these myths, not all of them, but belief in some of these myths can have some deleterious real world consequences. For example, one that comes to mind is the idea of the polygraph test. An infallible or close to infallible detector of lies. We know that’s not true. And why that myth is so difficult to debunk is beyond me. It’s a bit like Dracula. You keep sticking things into it keeps coming back. 

Yeah. What are those unsinkable ducks? 

It is like it is like unsinkable duck. I think of James Randi others to talk about. 

I don’t know how to think that one. I really don’t know. The polygraph test is almost certainly a bit better than chance at detecting lies. It probably does. Maybe about 70 percent, about 70 percent accuracy with a 50/50 chance of being right. But that’s a lot of errors. And it’s particularly likely, we know, to misclassify innocent individuals guilty. But, boy, is that a dangerous enough. 

Let’s hope that your book moves us towards a greater understanding of that one that is particularly dangerous. And you’ve said previously that we’re susceptible to these myths because these falsehoods stock tale with intuition, hunches and experiences. And quite recently, I saw your excellent talk link or think about intuition. So what is our intuition and is it reliable? 

That’s a tough one. That I think. 

And I do think that’s a really key, key point, which is that many of these myths make sense to us. They seem plausible. They seem to accord with our intuitions, with our gut hunches and so on. I think what I would say is that our intuition undoubtedly or helpful in many Real-Life situations, particularly when it comes to, again, that masel level of interaction, ever the level of interpersonal functioning, the level of social functioning, the level of reading people sizing people up their search shows or intuition or first impressions are often not that bad. Again, we can be fooled by first impressions. We have to be careful here because first impressions sometimes are dead wrong. But oftentimes pretty quick impressions. What would Malcolm Gladwell call blink? Impressions oftentimes are okay. They’re they’re better than chancel, often better than we might expect. We’re intuitions, I think, are often dangerous and misleading is when it comes to scientific theories. And that includes psychological theories. I think this is the problem. I think people often find their intuitions useful in certain everyday life domains, like reading people, like sizing people up. And then I think they jump from the conclusion that they’re good at intuitive judgments to the conclusion that they’re good at ascertaining the causes of behavior. And that’s a very different kind of judgment. So I think when it comes to trying to decide, for example, whether certain psychological theories, certain psychological principles are correct there, I think our intuitions probably are not particularly likely to be accurate. In some cases. 

They’re probably backwards in comparison to these gut feelings and hunches and common sense. He present science’s uncommon sense. So what do you mean by that? 

I think there’s a lot of truth to the idea that much of what we call Fyans is uncommon sense. I think our central point is that so much of what we call scientific methodology is really a set of safeguards against commonsense, in particular, set of safeguards against what so-called called us have termed confirmation bias, which I mentioned earlier, that deep seated tendency to which we’re all prone to seek out evidence consistent with our hypotheses or hunches, dismiss, deny, distort evidence. That’s not that is such a deeply embedded part of everyday life. And by a large, by the way, it’s not always a bad thing when it comes to everyday social interactions. Where confirmation bias again gets us in trouble is when it comes to seeking out evidence of the causes of the world, the causes of nature, which is what science is all about. Investigating. And when we think about what scientific methods are, I think of my own field of psychology, what are the methods that we use that we deemed to be scientific? Pretty much all of them, I would argue, are partial safeguards. They’re not perfect safeguards. And if people want perfect safeguards, they better get out of science because hardening. But they are partial safeguards against confirmation bias. Why do we use, for example, control groups in psychology and medicine and so on? We use control groups because without them, we can be fooled. We can see what we want to see if we’re not careful. Why do we use blinded control groups where, for example, neither the subjects nor the researchers know who’s in which group? Again, we are trying to compensate for control for at least partially the dangers of confirmation bias. All of these methods are in part ways of circumventing confirmation bias. And I would argue in many ways, circumventing what our intuitions are telling us. 

And two entire chapters of your book are dedicated to myths about psychiatric conditions and treatments. And as you’ve mentioned some previously, the belief that patients with schizophrenia have multiple personalities. And you also treats electroconvulsive therapy into a lot of people believe it’s a brutal and barbaric treatment, but that it’s a lifesaving treatment for some. So why is mental health so stigmatized? And do you think that conditions that are tabooed like this are more prone to myth creation? 

Well, I think a lot of it stems from misunderstanding. I think schizophrenia is a puzzling condition. It’s a mysterious condition. When I used to do clinical work, I don’t do clinical work anymore, but of the days I did, I worked with a lot of patients with schizophrenia. And there is often a kind of fear of these conditions. I think and intuitively a bit afraid, a little scared of something we don’t understand. And I think that’s part of it. I think some of it is also the media. The media tends to sensationalize many of these disorders, present them and are really inaccurate. Way out a wall. WHL has done some some really good work on a medium mis understanding of schizophrenia and mental illness has shown, I think, that about 75 percent of the time a mentally ill character is shown on television. 

Three fourths of the time that character is is portrayed as violent and that is wildly out of whack with what the data show. And it’s really quite irresponsible, I think, for the media to present the vast majority of people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and the like as violence. The rates are much, much lower than that. They’re probably well under 10 percent. But because people are exposed to models of people with mental illness who are violent, for example, it’s perhaps not surprising. It’s understandable many people would find people with these disorders to be scary, although in the substantial majority of cases, those fears are not warranted. 

And with groups like Scientology’s Citizens Commission on Human Rights and their psychiatry, an industry of death museum, and people like Thomas Size and his mental health is a myth myth, these seem to further stigmatize mental illness to me. And I’m wondering what you think about these groups and these people. 

Well, I think Thomas zazz. Although I should have some respect for some things he’s written. I think he is is off base in some other other respect. That’s for for listeners who don’t know, argued famously in 1960 that mental illness is a myth. And in all fairness to that, he was arguing something a bit more nuanced, I think, than people give him credit for. He was not saying that mental illness is not accompanied by a serious problem. I think his argument is that people with mental illness have severe problems of living, problems of adjustment, and that I think his objection was denoting a separate category of illness, apart from physical illness, for fear that their diseases of the brain and their problems in living. But there’s a separate category of mental illness, he argued, is dubious. I think, though, that’s a bit of a simplification. I don’t really buy that his position there. There are undoubtedly conditions that have genetic predisposition that are in part rooted in brain functioning. But it’s not simply the case that certain things are brain diseases or not. Instead, these are disorders that are marked by genetic disposition that probably affect more the software than the hardware of the brain, that probably affect, for example, neurotransmitter functioning, and that in combination and interaction with social learning factors, environmental factors and so on, then later give rise to what we call mental illness. So the the notion, I think, is a lot more nuanced than. I think believe me, I think is distinction is very, very overdrawn. I think Scientology, to the extent to which some Scientologists argue that they entered mental health treatment should be avoided. I think. He was not helpful. I think even though there is some controversy and I think healthy debate, by the way, I think long overdue about how effective antidepressants are, how much more effective they are than placebo. I think that debate is being reignited recently. I think it’s a great debate. I’m glad to see it even there. The evidence clearly shows that antidepressants are more effective than placebo dummy pills for severe depression. The debate continues about whether they’re more effective for mild to moderate depression. I think the jury is still out there. But to claim in one broad brush that these treatments are not effective or dangerous, I think it is not responsible and it’s not helpful. 

I was very curious to read your column in Scientific American Mind Facts and Fictions and Mental Health. And you had mentioned in there that an early treatment for schizophrenia was to perform vasectomies upon these patients. 

Yes, there were all kinds of wild treatments out there and we can laugh about them. But there is it’s amazing what people try. And again, we can look back at some of these treatments and say, gee, how barbaric and how foolish. But we have to also realize that people were in most cases, tried to be helpful differently. 

That would’ve been very desperate. But I was wondering, with a lot of these practices, which are condemned and criticized today, do you think the buy and launch them will fringe than mainstream anyway? 

It’s a hard call. It really is. I think, again, it really depends on on the domain. I think one is working. And I think in the field of psychotherapy, the area that I know best, I think things are looking up a little bit, perhaps in some domains. I think that the push toward evidence based practice, whether people like it or not, is coming. 

And again, they’re healthy debates. They’re about what to call evidence based, what not what kind of evidence one needs, how much evidence they saw. Those are debates that are healthy and will continue. But whether practitioners like it or not, the movement toward evidence based practice, the insistence on scientific evidence for one’s practices, I think is coming. I think it’s going to, if anything, only intensify over the next couple of decades. I do think, though, in my field of psychotherapy, I do think in some domains it’s still sobering how little evidence based practice is out there. Give you one example for a number of conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder. We know that the treatment of choice is exposure. That is exposing people to what they are afraid of, exposing them to their fears. In the case of obsessive compulsive disorder, the treatment of choices often called ERP exposure and response, prevention or exposure, ritual prevention, those are clearly treatments of choice from what the scientific literature shows. Yet surveys show that large percentages, probably majorities of clinicians out there, are not using exposure based treatments for those kinds of anxiety disorders. That’s a very disturbing, very sobering. And I think one sees some of the same problems in other domains. There’s surveys showing that about a third, I think this might actually be an underestimate, but about a third of individuals with autism and so-called autism spectrum disorders are receiving unsupported interventions, things like sensory motor integration therapies and facilitated communication, colation therapy, which probably is dangerous in some cases and so on. So unfortunately, even though the evidence based movement, I think is upon us, I think there’s reason for optimism. Things I think probably will improve. We could still be doing a heck of a lot better across a wide range of diagnoses. 

So going back to your book in Thomas Gilovich, his review. He says these myths won’t disappear with the publication of this book. So since these myths also deeply ingrained in the public consciousness, aside from reading your book, how can we counter these myths? 

Yeah, I’m afraid Tom’s right. And I’ve got respect for Tom Gilovich. And I think we realize that I read in this book our hope was to maybe make a one percent dent. I think if we can make a one percent along of the others, I think we’ll be we’ll be delighted as skeptics. I think what we can do more actively is to become even more outspoken than we have been in combating myths and misconceptions in the media. And I think sometimes there is a sense and then I have to say it’s something I fight against a lot of the time, a kind of sense of learned helplessness out there, because there’s so much myth out there, not just in psychology, but in medicine. Obviously, skeptics deal with us all the time in other domains, whether it’s your area of linguistics or cryptozoology or UFOs or E.S.P or what have you. There’s a lot of myths and misconception out there. And I think it’s perhaps understandable that when we see something in the media, when we see something in newspaper, just to ignore it, because I think there’s a sense we’re just one voice. What kind of impact are we going to have? And I think it’s probably truths very much like the voter paradox that political scientists study. It’s certainly true that one vote is really going to make a difference in electing a candidate. But we also have to realize, I think we have more power than we often give ourselves credit for. And I think if we as skeptics became more outspoken, if each of us in our own areas of knowledge or on areas of expertize consistently wrote, for example, to newspapers, consistently wrote to television producers every time, Chris, we can’t do it all the time. But every time we saw something particularly egregious, I think we actually could have something of an impact. It’s hard to do that. It takes time. It takes effort. Sometimes people will not respond or e-mail some people, those people or not take our phone calls. But I do think we have a responsibility to do that. I think magazines like Skeptical Inquirer, for example, play a absolutely invaluable function. I think skeptic’s groups play an absolutely valuable function. But I also think they might take us so far. I think skeptic’s should talk to each other. I think we should communicate to each other. I think we we need that level of support. Cynics extent. I see some of these skeptics groups almost as maybe it’s my psychological training, almost as a bit like support groups. I think where we we’ve got to support each other and we do learn things from each other and get new information that’s invaluable. But we have to go beyond that. We have to break through to the other side and spend more time communicating to the general public. I can tell you that as an academic, that is hard. It’s not something that is typically rewarded in academia and some departments. Not my own, I’m very pleased to say, but in some departments I think it’s actively looked down upon and maybe even actively punished. So this is difficult, but I also think it’s something we have to do if we want to have an impact. 

Absolutely. And finally, in the postscript of your book, you cite Htin psychological findings that are difficult to believe, but true. So some of these are fascinating. For example, people with the condition synesthesia can hear colors or they can smell sounds. And you also mentioned the contagious condition called corer, where people believe the genitals have disappeared. These are just so incredible. They seem like myths and they seem to illustrate that fact is often stranger than fiction. So once we’ve read your book and we can tackle these 300 myths in particular with confidence, how can we evaluate future claims and information as we’re presented with them? 

We were actually inspired a bit by one of my heroes, Carl Sagan, who in his book broke his brain at a kind of similar list of absolutely fascinating scientific findings. And Sagan made the point so eloquently that the best antidote to pseudoscience is genuine science. And when we believe the same thing is true in psychology, I do think that a lot of these psychological myths are powerful because they do push our wonder buttons. They do push our desire for understanding, our desire for control. And frankly, our desire to be fascinated. And because we are, as we’ve said, all kind of everyday so-called, as we all try to understand ourselves, understand other people. And I do think that presenting people with accurate information, which, as you point out, is often just as interesting, just as fascinating, is about more than than the mythology. I think it is very, very important, very powerful. How can we evaluate these claims in the future? I think Skeptical Inquirer and the skeptics love it has it right. I think coming at new claims, all new claims with a skeptical attitude, meaning an attitude that is always asking for evidence, always insisting on evidence, but always keeping an open mind to the possibility that beliefs that are new, unusual, maybe even bizarre, could be right. I think bringing that attitude to bear, that’s easier said than done. I know that on every new belief we encounter, I think can really bring us a long way toward better evaluating psychological claims to the extent that the skeptical movement can inculcate that attitude of an insistence on evidence while remaining open minded. And I think the skeptical movement has done a really good job of the former. I think it can improve in the latter in terms of modeling, open mindedness, modeling humility in the face of new claims to the extent that the skeptical movement can continue to do that. My hope is that a book like ours won’t be needed in a hundred years, at least like a hope. 

Oh, Scott, thank you so much for joining me. It was a pleasure speaking with you today. I enjoyed it a lot. Karen. 

I’d like to take this opportunity to invite you to skip to call the inaugural Northern California Science and Skepticism Conference organized by the Bay Area skeptics in Sacramento area skeptics. This one day event is to be held on April 24, 2010, at the David Brown Center in Berkeley, California. The speaker list includes a number of Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellows and skeptical Inquirer contributors such as Eugenie Scott Smith Show Stack, David Morrison, Wallace Sampson and me. Join us for a series of stimulating talks and discussions covering a broad range of topics, including climate change, skepticism in the media, psychics and alternative medicine. 

For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit w w w DOT skipped a Kalkadoon dot org to participate in the online conversation about this show. Please join our discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Karen Stollznow. 

Karen Stollznow