September 17, 2009

Has ‘false memory syndrome’ been proven or not?

People like Elizabeth Loftus claim ‘repressed memories’ simply don’t exist.

Their existence is again being challenged in court.

But, Ms. Loftus isn’t totally credible on the subject.

She was knocked out of being an expert witness Scooter Libby’s trial over the Valerie Plame CIA leak.

Why? In part because Judge Reggie Walton ruled that jurors should be able to decide for themselves on the reliability of a particular person’s memory without Scooter using Loftus as an expert witness precisely to make himself look more fallible.

But, during a hearing before Walton’s ruling, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald gave Loftus a once, and twice over.

And? He “picked apart the psychologist's testimony until she acknowledged errors and misstatements in her findings.”

That included admitting that some of her own findings were unscientific. Specifically:
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.

Now, I don’t view this as a sudden victory for touters of repressed memories. I do see it as a caveat that EVERY expert in the social sciences may be whistling in the dark at times.

We might have a way to test the idea further, and scientifically. The brain shows similar activity patterns even when details of an event can’t be recalled.

At the same time, showing how malleable memory is, a false video can affect real memory.

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