April 12, 2004
Book's Critique of Psychology Ignites a Torrent of
By FELICIA R. LEE
he has been called "the closest thing we have to a doyenne of psychiatric disorder" by
The Village Voice, because of her quirky memoirs and her offbeat takes on subjects like
self-esteem. Peter D. Kramer, author of "Listening to Prozac," calls her "smart, charming,
iconoclastic and inquisitive."
Now Lauren Slater, a 39-year-old psychologist, is being called a liar. The charges, which
Dr. Slater denies, are being circulated mostly among academics in psychology and
psychiatry. Some say that she put invented quotations in her new book, "Opening
Skinner's Box," her reflections on 10 major psychological experiments, which was
published in the United States by Norton last month. Others question her methods and
data in her own experiment in faking mental illness or challenge the accuracy of her
description of some famous past experiments.
Critics have been publicizing their accusations in book reviews on Amazon.com and
other Internet sites, while professors at several schools, including Harvard, Columbia and
Emory universities, have been exchanging information on their views of the book's
In London, Deborah Skinner, whose father, the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, is
referred to in the book's title, criticized Dr. Slater in The Guardian for reviving old
rumors that she was a subject of her father's experiments, had sued him and had killed
herself. The Daily Telegraph published an apology on March 27 for a review repeating
some of those false rumors. On April 2 The Times of London came out with an article
with the headline "Great Tale but Is It the Truth?" detailing the controversy over the
"It is one of the first major books to bridge the gap between academic and popular
psychology," said Scott O. Lilienfeld, an associate professor in the department of
psychology at Emory and the editor of The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice.
For that reason, he said, people are adamant that Dr. Slater get things right. But he added
that the sheer number of things Dr. Slater does get wrong — from what words pseudo-
patients used in faking mental illness to misspelled names of well-known figures like
Thomas Szasz and R. D. Laing — makes the book suspect for many.
"People have combed through it looking for as many errors as they can find," said Dr.