|Elizabeth Loftus/Photo via Nature|
Nature, the British science giant, has a good profile on the good, and not-so-good, of Elizabeth Loftus.
I won't bother going into the good so much. But, I certainly don't dismiss it. We've seen a lot of follow-up on the fallibility of eyewitness memory. We have seen how false memories can be implanted. And we've seen how that can be tied to weird movements like claims of ritual satanic abuse, an explosion in multiple personality diagnoses and more.
The story's good in that it shows Loftus isn't always right, either. And she's not. And, in fact, Pat Fitzgerald eviscerated her in the Scooter Libby trial. She has shed light on the fallibility of memory, but she's overstated things, too.
Part of the problem is that she seems to overstate her claims, in essence, believing that however memories become "repressed," even if another word gets used, they aren't "recovered." Per the Nature piece:
Ross Cheit, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, started the Recovered Memory Project in 1995 to document and respond to what he says has been a one-sided debate. There are now more than 100 corroborated cases of recovered memory on his website (http://blogs.brown.edu/recoveredmemory), he says, including some on which Loftus had consulted.That said, part of the problem is linguistic: Just what does "repressed" mean in terms of memory. If I don't think about a traumatic memory for years, why? Isn't it at least possible, Ms. Loftus, that some "subpersonality," even if not a conscious decision, undertook a subconscious decision to bury that memory deeper?
“Loftus is often on the losing side, and she's sometimes wrong in a spectacular way,” Cheit says. Her testimonies, he adds, can be psychologically damaging for the victims. “If you're telling someone you think their memories are false, when they have corroborating evidence that they were abused, that's corrosive.”
Loftus does not believe that Cheit's site corroborates recovered memories. “He might have some cases of people who didn't think about their abuse for some time and were reminded of it, but as for actual repression, no,” she says. “I cringe at the idea of hurting genuine victims, but when an innocent person is accused, we have a whole new set of victims, and I'm more horrified by an innocent person getting convicted than by a guilty person being acquitted.”To be honest, I'm not sure how much she "cringes." In the courtroom, while making some notable contributions, she's also just pushed the ball a bit, just to further her ideas, whether or not they're on a totally realistic foundation or not.
And, she makes good money for doing what she does.
Considering that she's been an expert witness in more than 100 cases now, according to the Nature piece's author, it has to be "something" indeed. At $1,000 a pop (and, no that's not an outrageous estimate), that's $100,000. Indeed, there is this:
She is often compensated for her expert-witness work, earning up to US$500 per hour, she says.That would be $1,000 after two hours, and that's assuming her "billable hours" are only her actual court time. I'm probably underestimating by a factor of three, so, to be liberal, she might have made $300,000 off being an expert witness. That's not counting non-witness legal consulting. That's not counting speaking at conferences.
Now, I'm not saying that's her primary motivation, but a motivation? Sure.
Loftus hadn't always seemed so "ardent" on this issue, or quite so black and white, at least before she wrote "The Myth of Repressed Memory," with the title signifying her stance.
So, why? Well, as I've wondered, and others wonder too, coming back to that Scooter Libby trial, maybe it's in part "follow the money." And, Nature notes that she's not been shy about this.
Maybe it's also, in part, "follow the glory." Or, "follow the (alleged) martyrdom." All valid rhetorical thoughts.
That's why I wonder how much she "cringes." Stephen Ceci, a co-author with her of one report, says:
There are ways in which traumatic memories of real events can be recalled after being buried for years, he adds, but without hard evidence, it is impossible to distinguish false memories from real ones in court.So, again, it's a gray area that she treats as black-and-white. And, if she really did cringe that much, wouldn't she, at one of her conferences, tell what she knows, or believes she has discovered, about how to tell when memories are real before cases go to court?
Let's pick up the trail of Ceci, from a new Guardian piece that a friend on Facebook shared:
"Think of some embarrassing event when you were a teenager," he says. "You're not going to dwell on it, but you can recollect it if someone reminds you. Likewise, people can have horrible experiences and not think about them for decades, but are capable of retrieving them when questioned." Another is a rare and poorly understood psychological condition called dissociative amnesia.Loftus is quoted there as agreeing that this issue is "a little slippery." However, she goes on, as elsewhere, to indicate that the burden should only fall on the other side, and not at all o hers, in the "slippery" gray area at center. And she's not alone. See below.
It is therefore perfectly plausible that memories of childhood sexual abuse could be buried for years and then recalled, and that motivated forgetting, dissociative amnesia, or some other mechanism could account for some of the allegations in cases that Loftus has testified in. But because of the way in which the entire debate has been framed around the issue of "repression" and "recovery," these nuances have been largely ignored.
And, she's hardened her position with the passage of years. In 1997, per this Scientific American article, while she came down hard on therapists "leading on" clients, she even then didn't 100 percent reject the idea out of hand, and she addressed the same issue Ceci does. I note:
(A)lthough experimental work on the creation of false memories may raise doubt about the validity of long-buried memories, such as repeated trauma, it in no way disproves them. Without corroboration, there is little that can be done to help even the most experienced evaluator to differentiate true memories from ones that were suggestively planted.That said, she was a fair ways down the road then. After all, she had written "The Myth of Repressed Memory" before this. Some time between then and Scooter Libby trial, her position finished hardening. And, her paychecks got bigger.
(I add here that some of her expert witness tesetimony, and talks at both legal and psychological conferences, is about memory accuracy issues unrelated to recovered memories.)
She certainly doesn't seem like a "humanist hero," even if some skeptics want to make her one.
Fortunately, not all skeptics have bought the push to put her on an unskeptical pedestal. Skeptical friend David Gluck has a good piece here at Skeptic Friends Network. Also approaching the issue in part from a linguistic and semantic angle, he notes that "recovered" memories aren't necessarily "repressed," and by Loftus' somewhat circular reasoning, obviously can't be "repressed."
He sums up:
We were right to blow the whistle loudly when recovered memory therapy was doing its damage. We are still right in asking where memories of alien abduction and satanic abuse or memories recovered in some New Age quack therapy are coming from. We must be reasonably cautious when regarding memories recovered in or out of therapy sessions. But we may have lost our way when we assert that every claim to a recovered memory is necessarily false because some claims to a recovered memory are obviously false. We may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.Indeed.
And all of this gets at another issue with Loftus. Her thinking about consciousness is kind of black-and-white, as I noted above.. She seems to have little room for a "multiple drafts" theory of consciousness proposed by a Dan Dennett, or anything even close to it.
When I first wrote this blog post, I wasn't quite ready to say that she was strawmanning on some of her ideas, but, now I am. I'm also realizing, that, per a FB discussion, she's got plenty of pedestal-builders who are ardent supporters.
That includes assuming that only psychological research, and not readings in (non-pop) neuroscience, cognitive science, or philosophy of mind, even, are "original." Or implying, as I have inferred, that challenging her research on this issue (let along wanting to "toss out" some of it, is the same as wanting to do that to all research on malleability of memory issues done just by psychologists.
But, let me get back to the strawmanning issue.
As I read more of the Scientific American piece ... and her objections to people like Cheit, I think it's more than just semantics over the words "repressed" or "repression."
Rather, I think it's goalpost-shifting, strawmanning, or opening the old Overton Window, whichever you prefer. (That's in addition to her overly black-and-white stance on this issue.)
Having just read his article essentially denying the existence of "scientism," I'm suddenly, and strongly, reminded, of Steve Pinker.
Indeed, Ms. A., I've read original research on issues of memory by psychologists, notably Daniel Wegner, if we are going to trot out who's read what. And, from what I've read of Loftus' own writing, and about her, I'm not aware that she's tried to tie her research to issues of consciousness, free will or lack thereof, and related issues. Wegner, on the other hand, from his point of view, combining psychology and philosophy, without going specifically into issues of false memories or recovered memories, has addressed how his ideas on consciousness and lack of conscious free will relate to memory.
Also (and not to puff neuroscience too much) she's not a neuroscientist, nor is she a philosopher of mind, so she's not researching issues in theory of mind that would have bearing on issues like this.
So, just how strong a scientist is she?
All this is more reason yet to be skeptical of some of her stronger claims in this area. As is new research on "false" memories, showing that some are not "de novo false," but rather, a conflation of two true memories into one new one.
Indeed, as Pat Fitzgerald showed in grilling her as a potential expert witness during the Scooter Libby trial, she's not even that much of a scientist in general.
But when Fitzgerald got his chance to cross-examine Loftus about her findings, he had her stuttering to explain her own writings and backpedaling from her earlier assertions. Citing several of her publications, footnotes and the work of her peers, Fitzgerald got Loftus to acknowledge that the methodology she had used at times in her long academic career was not that scientific, that her conclusions about memory were conflicting, and that she had exaggerated a figure and a statement from her survey of D.C. jurors that favored the defense.I think the "exaggerated" is key. I think she's exaggerated other aspects of her work. And I think that, not political disagreements, is why she resigned from the American Psychological Association. And, in fact, under APA bylaws, she should not have been allowed to resign. Its bylaws specify that you can't do that while you're the subject of a formal complaint.
The new Scientific American piece has her saying that she didn't know of the complaints when she resigned. To put it charitably, I don't believe her.
And, that leads to a discussion of ...
Loftus' ethical problems
And, beyond that, skeptics should be very worried about this (as should civil libertarians and others). From the Nature piece:
Meanwhile, her research has shifted into new controversial waters. Taking on board the lesson that memories can be manufactured, she has been investigating the possibility of using those memories to modify behaviour. “We've shown that you can plant a memory of getting sick eating particular foods as a child,” she says, “and we can get people thinking they got sick drinking vodka, so they don't want to drink as much of it later on.”Well, skeptics, and especially atheists, whether self-identified as skeptics or not, would jump all over those last two sentences and rightfully so.
There is no evidence that any of this will successfully transfer from the lab to the real world. Even if it does, it would violate therapists' code of conduct, and could have unforeseen consequences.
“Lying to children is a slippery slope that makes me uncomfortable,” says Judy Illes, a neuroethicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. “Can't we alter their behaviour in a positive way, instead of using subterfuge?” But Loftus dismisses the concerns, suggesting that even if therapists cannot do it, parents might want to. “Parents lie to their kids all the time, about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. Would you rather have an unhealthy kid, or one with a few false memories?”
Beyond that, within parenting, this brings up issues of trust, breaking of trust, and possible trauma from that. Besides, re beliefs in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, or a god, for that matter, who defines what beliefs are healthy or not?
And, when parents get divorced and they have different ideas on child raising, this could be a nightmare. Think Michael Newdow and his daughter and the Pledge of Allegiance lawsuit.
What next? Loftus telling parents to read "Clockwork Orange"? I'm not saying that she's advocating parents use the Ludovico technique to implant false memories or otherwise modify memory, but she's not telling people, in papers linked off the Nature story, what techniques they should and shouldn't use.
I also find it weird that, given her crusade against therapists and counselors for often leading clients into exaggerating memories or worse, Loftus would still tout memory modification.
Also, Ms. A., per discussion on Facebook, I find it "interesting" that you never engaged the part of the Nature piece in my last pull quote, other than to call it "one comment."
That's "too bad," at least. Because, in a second Skeptic Friends Network piece, Loftus has other ethical problems.
Attempts have been made to show personality types that might lend themselves to false memory syndrome. Loftus thinks these women are “weak.”That's an emotional term, not a psychologically scientific one like "pliable."
But, it's actually worse. The "weak" comes from this passage in a study paper of hers:
“Today, the accused are often men of power and success… The witch accusations… were most often leveled by men, but today the accusations are predominantly leveled by women. Today’s phenomenon is more than anything a movement of the weak against the strong.”Well, now, we've gone from psychology to sociological presumptions.
Meanwhile, the use of the phrase "false memory" rather than "repressed memory," like Loftus' own use of the word "weak," could itself be seen as prejudicial and biased.
And per comment above about "who she reminded me of," beyond Pinker? Things like this sound Randian. And, noooo, that's not a reference to James Randi.
Psychologist Kenneth Pope, in a piece linked at the first SFN site, adds to these "presumptions" by Loftus:
Making clear her reference by quoting from Hoffer's (1951/1989) The True Believer, Loftus claims that there are two sides to the recovered memory controversy and those on the other side (i.e., those who disagree with her) are True Believers. Noting that she identifies herself as a skeptic, Loftus writes: "On one side are the 'True Believers,'. . . . On the other side are the 'Skeptics,'. . ." (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994, p. 31).Wow. Pope himself has no problem labeling this as an "ad hominem."
If a Gnu Atheist pulled one like that, the likes of a Barbara Drescher would surely be all over him or her. The idea that Loftus wouldn't entertain that people can recover some memories makes me think she's moved beyond "skepticism" on this one.
The above are larger ethical issues, ones in which any intelligent layperson, not a professional scientist, if given a blinded "Name X" and a description of actions, would likely raise some eyebrows.
That leads to the question of:
Does Loftus also have scientific ethics issues?
Meanwhile, Pope speculates various ways in which people can detach from memories, for want of a better word:
As noted earlier, such reported memories may be conceptualized as the result of repression, dissociation, implanting, motivated forgetting, directed forgetting, amnesia, betrayal trauma, retroactive inhibition, suggestibility, self-induced hypnotic trance states, personality disorder, thought suppression, retrieval inhibition, cognitive gating, biological protective processes, a clinical syndrome, and so on.That's not to say he claims he knows these mechanisms; note the use of the word "may." It is to say that he, like many others, sees the memory issue, and not just "repressed" memories, but memory formation, conflation and loss in general, as much more nuanced than Loftus does.
There's also this, which combines ethical issues with self-contradiction ones:
Loftus says, in The Myth of Repressed Memory (P. 141) “We are questioning the memories commonly referred to as ‘repressed’…” On the same page she makes clear which kind of memories “repressed” ones are. “Because the controversy over repression has become so heated and contentious, clinicians and child protection advocates often use synonyms such as ‘lost,’ ‘buried,’ or ‘dissociated’ to describe repressed memories.” OK, well let’s just take “repressed,” for now. In a study on “Remembering and Repressing” conducted at Lincoln Medical Health Center Substance Abuse Division, Loftus and colleagues, surveyed 105 women for sexual abuse. (It’s interesting that Loftus, an expert in memory, would purposefully chose a sample that might have memory problems due to substance abuse. But that aside…) Loftus and her colleagues found that 57 indicated some form of childhood sexual abuse. When surveying these women for “persistence of memory” 52 women participated in the survey. Of the 52 women that they surveyed they found that 12% claimed to remember parts of the childhood sexual abuse, but not all. And 19% claimed that they forgot the abuse for a time and then later recalled it. Loftus’ study seems to show 31% of the women that she surveyed had partially or totally forgotten their abuse and recalled memories (although, somewhat deteriorated) later (Loftus, Polonsky, Fullilove, 1994)Ahh, David's too polite to call this cherry-picking, but it is.
Also per the second SFN piece, there's this:
Jennifer Freyd is the author of Betrayal Abuse. She graduated from high school in three years, graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, got her doctorate at Stanford and was a research psychologist and tenured professor at University of Oregon when she was interviewed by The Oregonian regarding her accusations of childhood sexual abuse by her father. She said she always remembered things her father had done, “continual sexual talk, sitting in a robe so his genitals showed.” After a therapy session she remembered abuse. Jennifer Freyd does not believe her therapist planted her memories. “I’d try to retrieve more memories and asked her to help me. And we never got anywhere. I asked her to hypnotize me — and I couldn’t get hypnotized.” (Mitchell, 1993)If Loftus really were a skeptic, she'd recognize the Freyd parents had "good" reason to create the foundation. So would other psychologists who call themselves skeptics. Indeed, their daughter says that when they went to the press with their side of the story (even though she had taken no civil or criminal action), her parents distorted a lot of stuff.
Jennifer Freyd confronted her parents. She did not attempt to sue or press charges. Fourteen months later, Peter and Pamela Freyd formed the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
"Goes to motive, your honor," as to why the Freyds formed the group.
For more questions about her professional / research ethics, here's a decent starting point, though the web publisher appears to have some axes to grind. That's why I said "decent" and not "great." The key takeaways are that some Loftus research has itself uncovered forgotten memories; she fails to allow for dissociation; and, related to that, the biggie, that the "implanted" memory of being lost in a mall can in now way duplicate the trauma of rape or child abuse survivors.
From ethics and research quality issues, we go to another one.
What can we logically deduce from Loftus' findings?
Next, let's ask ... "Just what has Loftus actually 'proved,' or 'disproved'?"
Not a lot, necessarily, according to critics.
Just because the likes of Loftus have done studies about the implantation of false memories, that doesn't itself mean that true memories can't be "lost," "repressed," or whatever language one prefers. That's a logical non sequitur.
Also, Loftus has not at all proven that "lost" memories can never be recovered. She's not explicitly stated that that is exactly her current stance, but it seems close to that. And, it also seems the stance of her most ardent supporters, and the "movement" in general. Such folks seems to (conveniently?) overlook that issues of proof cut both ways in a field like this with a lot of gray area.
But, per the Nature story, admitting to shades of gray in this field would undercut her expert witness, consulting, and speaking fees.
Ms. A. accuses me of conflating stuff in discussion about this. The SFN posts aren't mine, first of all. That said, the intertwining of Loftus' own beliefs (yes, beliefs, not research, by this point) with the work of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation seems clear enough.
And, as for conflation? You... uh, "misled" when you accused me of conflating Loftus and her work with the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. In the past, at least, she was on the Scientific and Professional Advisory Board of the foundation. Oh, and I'm at the point now that I believe you knew that when you made your statement.
Meanwhile, consulting for a group like this run by someone without professional psychological training? Whoa.
Yes, I know that it has other psychologists on its advisory board, like Ulric Neisser. However, they're not the ones speaking at conferences, serving as legal consultants and expert witnesses, etc.
Hey, you don't like it? Blame Loftus or the foundation. It appears you recognize the problems the foundation has, Ms. A., and are trying to distance Loftus from it. Won't work.
I'll admit that I've not read a lot of Loftus, but I'd read a decent amount of her, as well as about her. That said, I've read enough more in the last day to make me even more skeptical than before.
And, to be honest, I've read enough that I wouldn't trust her.
Ms. A. invited a friend to comment, too.
That other person, while a Facebook friend of mine, isn't perfect. I'll stipulate that in one discussion, she misstated what a p-value is, when we were discussing p-value issues in "social" vs. "hard" sciences.
Speaking of all of that, I also note that Loftus has appeared in the past at The Amazing Meeting, a top skeptical convention hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Dots get connected.
That's OK. I've said what I wanted to, and needed to. If neither of you wants to be more skeptical of someone like this, duly noted. We'll see how nuanced some of the ongoing responses are. While not totally holding my breath, for a variety of reasons. I think I'm already being told, indirectly, that faults in not creating "clear communication" is all on the end of Gluck and me.
The defense of Loftus can be ardent, especially when professionals feel their particular approach to memory issues, or their connections within a community, are under purview. Tribalism happens even among social sciences who know what the phenomenon is, after all. (Both people mentioned above have been to at least one psychology conference where Loftus was a presenter.)
And, as I get involved with more discussion on this issue, it appears that, among a certain number of Professional Skeptics(TM) or wannabes that, despite Gluck's warning, that ardent defense, even pedestal-raising, is so ingrained that ... it can't even be rationally discussed.
That's why, in the most recent times I've dropped in a blog post my statement that "Atheism is no guarantor of morality, or of common sense," I've added "skepticism" in there too.
And, Professional Skeptics(TM) have a definite history on this. James Randi overstating what he accomplished when he and Carlos first became an act. Randi quite likely not being fully honest about what he knew about "Carlos's" identity theft and when. Paul Kurtz and others refusing to face reality on Al Seckel for a decade or more. Michael Shermer, Penn & Teller, Brian Dunning and others willfully conflating libertarianism and skepticism, and having many followers sign off on this. And, on this issue, Drescher, Ahironen and others representing what's surely just the tip of an iceberg.
Should we "follow the money" again?
Loftus is certainly in line to pick up even more legal consulting feeds, as well as expert witness fees, should all the further changes she wants to see in courtroom practice go into place. (I'm not saying these ideas are wrong, but that, presenting herself as the "go-to person," she stands to benefit financially. As well as on the walk of fame.)
There's also money to be made on her idea of getting parents to deliberately play around with their kids' memories.
"Child raising and discipline, scientifically proven by the World's No. 1 expert on memory!""
How would that sound in introducing her to a talk radio program or a TV gab show?
Or as a blurb on a new book? Or at a conference where she promised to teach people inside secret skills of memory manipulation?
Now, I'm not saying she would do any of that. I am, though, saying, she easily could.
And, not just to parents and other private individuals. Combine her ideas with the likes of a Cass Sunstein's "Push" ideas, and yikes.
Why is this important?
First, per Ceci's talk about motivated forgetting, we do have particular, if still primarily anecdotal, evidence, about a clear possible mechanism.
It wouldn't fall under "motivated forgetting" in a narrow sense, perhaps, but there's solid anecdotal evidence that drug or alcohol abuse is a tool in "dissociating" from strongly painful memories, and later ending of it can be a tool in regaining them. I'm not sure how much Loftus, or other deniers of recovered memories have looked at that one at all. Sociological surveys, after all, point out the much higher than average rate of substance abuse by "survivors."
Her defenders will dismiss this as anecdotal, but I know people who have recovered memories — traumatic memories — from well in their pasts, without therapeutic intervention that would be considered manipulative by any reasonable person. In fact, in some cases, it was without any initial therapeutic or counseling intervention at all.
And, one of those people was me.
I'm not providing details, but one of those people was me. That's why it's important, to me, as well as for issues of skepticism and ethics.
And, given the fact that Loftus' ardent defenders, not just the two above, but others, don't seem to want to engage the middle ground, there's reason I'm not providing details.
I don't trust them. And, yes, if they see this, that too is their problem, not mine.