Waging Ghostly War on a National Level: A Study in Dissociation
Experimental psychology has much to offer the current debate about childhood abuse. However, laboratory scientists, with their enormous cognitive authority to define reality for the rest of the population, must be especially conservative when arguing that laboratory results generalize to contested memories of abuse. Researchers must make an effort to untangle the appropriate from inappropriate application of research results to this debate.--Dr. Jennifer Freyd, “Science in the Memory Debate” (Ethics and Behavior, vol. 8, no. 2, 1998).In the above paper, Dr. Freyd indicated that one of the main problems in “The Memory Debate” is the dismissal of scientific methodology and logic in favor of passion, bias, and Scientificism.
‘Scientificism’ is a word I made up many years ago, and have never used it until now. It came to me when, after listening to a pro-atheist show on my favorite radio station, but as a, by now, veteran blogger I kept noticing the same thing. Often people invoke science as the reason for why they believe some things are true, but not others (e.g., evolution vs. intelligent design). But in conversing with them, or reading what they write, you will find that their understanding of scientific knowledge, principles, methods and even ethics are shockingly limited.
In other words, their belief in science does not come about because of a knowledge of scientific protocols or methodology, or because of what it can actually tell us (or what it can’t, for that matter). Their beliefs tend to be substantially paralogical, or extrarational; or in short, articles of faith. Thus, it’s not very different in that regards to any other religion: hence, Scientificism.
Dr. Freyd contended that the research carried out by the likes of Drs. Charles Brainerd, Valerie Reyna, and Elizabeth Loftus are important, and can have some bearing on the discussion. At the same time, she cautioned that this work is hardly definitive when discussing the role trauma plays in memory encoding, memory retention and memory availability. Because of their extensive PR efforts, the FMS has managed to position such research as Lost in a Shopping Mall at the center of the contested memory debate. It should occupy a space more to the periphery.
Worse, public perception of False Memory Syndrome has often depended more upon the reputation of the scientists supporting it than on the actual science necessary to establish it. If people are unaware of scientific methodology, or if they’re not confident of their scientific knowledge, they could very well put their faith in the scientist that seems more authoritative. The public decision is thus not subject to logic or reason as it is a belief, or an expectation of what scientists should do or be.
This, in turn, has the possibility of misleading the public. As Dr. Freyd wrote:
Because the stakes in a contested memory dispute are so great at the individual and societal level, there is often a tremendous struggle for the authority to define reality....To argue a position about the scientific status of memory (or to claim a scientist or science supports one’s own viewpoint) may give a kind of authority and legitimacy that is then used to attempt to win the underlying dispute about a particular abuse allegation....As with faith, many of the findings about FMS become prone to generalization, and then over-generalization. As Dr. Freyd pointed out, one has to question what forgetting or interjecting words in a list–something that constitutes a brief, passing moment in the subject’s life with little if any consequence–has to do with the delayed recall of a memory of something that affected them greatly, most likely over far longer periods of time.
The state of the science is often not presented clearly or accurately. Currently, known facts about memory are often misrepresented, results are often generalized inappropriately, and conceptual issues are often tangled. For instance, there is no research to date documenting a ‘false memory syndrome’ (FMS) despite the widespread promulgation of this term. [emphasis original].
Dr. Freyd then goes on to cite a number of studies that clarify issues of memory accuracy and memory “persistence.” From our “War of the Ghosts” example, we can clearly see that memory normally includes accurate and inaccurate information. On a commonsense level, we often find that when reviewing a shared experience, the parties involved often disagree about the minor points of the event; and sometimes they disagree on a major point.
What really throws us a curve is the thought that memories might not be available. It’s not that we have forgotten (or if you’re into psychobabble, ‘repressed') the event. It’s just that we don’t have access to the memory on a continuous basis. Dr Freyd calls the degree to which we have access to these memories ‘persistence.’ Other researchers refer to this phenomenon as ‘implicit memory.’
In an earlier post, I quoted Drs. Kenneth Pope and Laura Brown, saying:
It continues to be unclear if the protocol of any research purporting to validate the FMS diagnosis in large numbers of persons used any criterion other than the decision-rule that all recovered memories of abuse are inherently false. Statements by some FMSF proponents have seemed to characterize recovered memories of trauma as objectively false per se. FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board member Harrison Pope and his colleague James Hudson….emphasized that ’[t]raumatic experiences are memorable’…; asserted that there has never been a confirmed case of ’noncontrived amnesia among neurologically intact individuals over the age of 6 who experienced events sufficiently traumatic that no one would be expected to simply forget them’…; and asserted that trauma survivors in scientifically valid studies unanimously remembered the events….’: Founding FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board members Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager…wrote, 'People who undergo severe trauma remember it….' Martin Gardner…asserted that ’[b]etter-trained, older psychiatrists do not believe that childhood memories of trauma can be repressed for any length of time, except in rare cases of actual brain damage….And there is abundant evidence that totally false memories are easily aroused in the mind of a suggestible patient….’ FMSF…itself published the claim: ‘Psychiatrists advising the Foundation members seem to be unanimous in the belief that memories of such atrocities cannot be repressed. Horrible incidents of childhood are remembered…..’”The experts cited in this passage hammered home the notion that we cannot forget traumatic events, unless there is some appreciable neurological damage. Taken extremely literally, that seems to be true. I cannot deny these sentiments, anymore than I can deny being a practicing homo sapiens, matriculating in college, or participating in thespian events in wicked New York City.
So, despite their accuracy, these statements are quite misleading.
The term ‘recovered memory’ is also misleading, and this often has led the public to confuse what’s involved. The memory was never lost, according to the mainstream researchers in this field. Rather, they’re implicit. Or in other words, they're not available for substantial periods of one’s life. In terms of accuracy, they are as true or false as any other type of memory. What causes us to become aware of the implicit memory (i.e., when implicit memory becomes explicit, or at the forefront of our conscious thinking) might be events, situations or stimuli that we might not expect to encounter.
Yet a number of studies compellingly show that people do have latent memory awareness of traumatic events. Dr. Freyd mentions a number here, and I will too in a future post. For now, I’ll state that it does happen. Later, I’ll review a number of studies that show us, to some degree, why it happens.