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01Oct31d Loftus wins APS award; defends Lilienfeld

Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus wins American Psychological Society award; defends the Rind team and Lilienfeld, and criticizes the American Psychological Association

The FMS (False Memory Syndrome) Foundation Newsletter of July/August 2001, 10/4, at http://www.fmsfonline.org/fmsf01.702.html , gives the text of a speech by memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, who helped discredit recovered memories. Loftus received an award from the American Psychological Society.
In her speech, she mentions the Rind et al controversy and Lilienfeld. Below, first an introduction by a newsletter editor, then a news flash about Loftus winning the award, then Loftus's acceptance speech.

FMS Foundation Newsletter introduction

Dear Friends,

How attitudes about recovered memories have changed since the Foundation began! In the last newsletter, we mentioned that Elizabeth Loftus was to receive a prestigious award from the American Psychological Society. This month we reprint the text of the award and of Dr. Loftus's acceptance, not only because we are very proud of her and our Scientific Advisory Board, but also because these texts document how much attitudes have changed. (see below) The award to Dr. Loftus specifically mentions her work with recovered memories.

"As a result of her pioneering scientific work as well as her activity within the legal system, society is gradually coming to realize that such memories, compelling though they may seem when related by a witness, are often a product of recent reconstructive memory processes rather than of past objective reality."

Until recently, most professionals and organizations, however sympathetic they may have been to the FMS issue in private, kept a neutral stance in public.

It is significant that Loftus was honored in great part because of her work with recovered memories.

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin also exemplifies how attitudes are changing. In Johnson v Rogers Memorial Hospital, the Court took an important step in June in the direction of holding accountable those who have harmed families and destroyed reputations. In the past, if parents did not have access to therapy records, the case did not go forward. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, however, stated that lack of therapy records is not sufficient to dismiss a third-party case. The Court determined that in Wisconsin families may continue the legal process to gather more information.

Without doubt, many problems related to recovered memories remain. But to the extent that problems involve the scientific understanding of memory, the tools for correcting the problems are all around us, and public attitudes about recovered memory are now open to change. The FMS Foundation set out to educate the public and professionals about the nature of memory. The job isn't finished, obviously, but problems caused by misinformation about memory are diminishing rapidly.

To the extent that the problems affecting families are part of larger social problems, however, change is far more complex. To say, for example, that therapy should be safe and effective and grounded in science should hardly get an argument. But to implement that simple concept requires deep changes in professional and political attitudes and systems. The problems that result because there is no system in place to ensure safe and effective therapy involve many more people than those who are a part of FMSF. To think that the FMSF alone can bring about broader changes is not realistic. We can but play a part.

The fact that in June in Colorado, two therapists were held criminally responsible for bad conduct in a professional setting and were sentenced to sixteen years in jail, is highly significant in terms of the broader changes needed. The issue did not involve memory. It did involve untested, non-scientific, dangerous therapy. Cornell Watkins and Julie Ponder, about whom we wrote last month in connection with the death of Candace Newmaker, will spend sixteen years in prison. In Colorado, a bill has already been signed into law to prevent the use of the type of "Rebirthing/Attachment Therapy" used by Watkins and Ponder. But such a law is a bandage. As fast as one dangerous therapy is outlawed, another will probably appear. What is needed is a broader coalition of forces willing to work to make the changes needed so that all therapy is safe and effective.


[Loftus news flash]


William James award 2001 from American Psychological Society (APS)

"Elizabeth Loftus is an example of the rare scientist who is instrumental both in advancing a scientific discipline and in using that discipline to make critical contributions to society."

"Beginning in the mid-1970's, following acclaimed basic research on the workings of semantic memory, she waded into relatively uncharted waters, investigating the critical issues of how and under what circumstances complex memories change, often quite dramatically, over time. Her innovative yet highly rigorous research on this topic brought her renewed praise in the scientific community. At the same time however, she realized the fundamental applications of her and related findings to the legal system, particularly in understanding the circumstances under which a sincere eyewitness may have misidentified an innocent defendant. It is not hyperbole to say that in response to her ingenious laboratory work and her ubiquitous public presence, both the quality of basic memory research and the fairness of the criminal justice system have advanced substantially."

"Over the past 15 years, Dr. Loftus's attention has turned to a related but considerably more controversial issue, that of the validity of "recovered memories" of childhood abuse. As a result of her pioneering scientific work as well as her activity within the legal system, society is gradually coming to realize that such memories, compelling though they may seem when related by a witness, are often a product of recent reconstructive memory processes rather than of past objective reality. In bringing to light these facts of memory, Dr. Loftus has joined the ranks of other scientists, past and present, who have had the courage, inspiration, and inner strength to weather the widespread scorn and oppression that unfortunately but inevitably accompanies clear and compelling scientific data that have the effrontery to fly in the face of dearly held beliefs."

[Loftus speech]

Acceptance Speech APS William James Fellow Award


Receiving this honor, the William James Fellow Award for scientific achievement, could not have come at a more meaningful or ironic time in my life. It has made me think about the purpose of awards: what we give them for, what qualities of the recipient or of his or her work we admire. And it has made me think about the purpose of science, that ideally dispassionate, empirical investigation of a particular set of questions.

For more than a decade, as I'm sure many of you know, I have been pursued by the enemies I created by virtue of my research on memory and my efforts to discredit recovered-memory therapy, which has done so much harm to individuals and families. The public thinks this epidemic is over. But many families have never recovered, and many promulgators and victims of the recovered-memory movement remain angry and vengeful. For so many years, I have tried to understand their position, sympathize with the emotionally disturbed young women whom I regard as victims of misguided or misinformed therapists, and find common ground.

Now I realize that for these people, there may be little in the way of common ground. I am their enemy -- scientific evidence is their enemy -- and I will not be able to persuade them otherwise, not with all the good data and good intentions in the world. This was a terribly difficult realization for me. The research findings for which I am being honored now generated a level of hostility and opposition I could never have foreseen. People wrote threatening letters, warning me that my reputation and even my safety were in jeopardy if I continued along these lines. At some universities, armed guards were provided to accompany me during speeches. People misinterpreted my writings and put words in my mouth that I had never spoken. People filed ethical complaints and threatened lawsuits of organizations that invited me to speak. People spread defamatory falsehoods in writings, in newspapers, on the Internet.

As I stand here, the happy recipient of an award that honors me for my research, I continue to be the target of efforts to censor my ideas. I am gagged at the moment and may not give you any details.

But to me, that itself is the problem. Who, after all, benefits from my silence? Who benefits from keeping such investigations in the dark? My inquisitors. The only people who operate in the dark are thieves, assassins, and cowards. Those of us who value the first amendment and open scientific inquiry must bring these efforts to suppress freedom of speech into the light, and tonight I vow to you that when my own situation is resolved, that is precisely what I'm going to do.

In this we can learn from the recent experience of Scott Lilienfeld.

Scott wrote a paper on the collision between politics and science that followed in the wake of the Rind et al. affair. The article was accepted for publication, but, mysteriously, later rejected, unless Scott gutted it of all political relevance. Psychological scientists -- many of whom are members of APS -- launched a campaign to insure publication of Scott's article. They told the story to the Chronicle of Higher Education and to Science. They wrote letters, individually and collectively, arguing for the preservation of peer review and the importance of keeping politics out of the publication process. "Organizational officials" grumbled about how inappropriate it was to go public, to argue by e-mail, to air an internal conflict to the media. They wanted everyone to shut up and let the appeals process take its course. Was that so Scott's paper could have been quietly suppressed? The scientists did not shut up, and Scott's paper will be published this year, along with commentary and debate, just as it should be.

I am honored to receive this award. I accept it on behalf of the ideals and goals of science that we all hold so dear, and which we must now redouble our efforts to defend.


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