The temptation to assume that there’s no smoke without fire

Chris French wrote a piece for the Guardian in 2009 saying that “recovered” memories are still a live issue.

One serious problem appears to be that many people mistakenly believe that the false memory controversy is “yesterday’s news”. They are aware that there was a huge increase in such allegations back in the 1980s and 1990s. They may even be aware that many professionals and academics have reacted against such claims, most notably Elizabeth Loftus, whose pioneering work in this area has done more to increase our understanding of the true nature of false memories than any other scientist. But it is simply not the case that this is a dead issue.

Although the incidence of new cases is much reduced from when the controversy was at its peak, new cases do still come to light with depressing frequency, as the files of the [British False Memory Society] can attest. Furthermore, the fallout from the peak period is still very much with us. There are still many families throughout the world being torn apart by these accusations, many of whom will sadly never achieve any kind of reconciliation.

Why did the media lose interest in such an emotive subject? Why did such families get so little news coverage?

I got some answers at the BFMS meeting. There are some cases where the accused are willing to go public but are prevented from doing so by legal gagging orders and are thus not free to present their side of the story. But much more common is the situation where the accused do not want to jeopardise their chances of obtaining the one thing they want more than anything else in the world: reconciliation with their estranged children. Furthermore, to go public with such stories inevitably will invite suspicion. Unless one is very familiar with the scientific research relating to false memories, there may well be the temptation to assume that there’s no smoke without fire.

Such a tempting assumption; so fatal.

…the perception that there may be a violent backlash against anyone even suspected of paedophilia is a strong factor in explaining the reluctance of many accused to go public.

What do you do? The accusation is false, but going public to say it’s false just makes the accusation more public, drawing down more violent backlash. What do you do?

Although it may be of little consolation to those who continue to suffer as a consequence of “recovered” memories, the controversy did trigger a huge amount of research into false memories. Since the mid-1990s, hundreds of papers have been published on the topic and it is probably fair to say that the results have come as something of a surprise even to the researchers themselves. Numerous experiments have shown that is much easier than anyone might have supposed to implant false memories in a large minority of the population.

I no longer even find that surprising, if I ever did. It can be so hard to remember even where you heard a particular story or phrase or joke – was it at that party the other week? Was it on Facebook? Was it at work? Was it on NPR? If memory is that feeble and sloppy, why wouldn’t it be easy to implant false ones?

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