New York Magazine Describes False Memory as “A Defense for Sex Offenders”

A bad-faith headline from New York Magazine:

The Memory War Jennifer Freyd accused her father of sexual abuse. Her parents’ attempt to discredit her created a defense for countless sex offenders.

Peter Freyd was accused by his daughter after she apparently remembered childhood sex abuse as an adult during a therapeutic encounter. Peter and his wife Pamela Freyd then famously created the False Memory Syndrome Foundation to advocate for memory research, focusing on the phenomenon of supposed “recovered memory”. Advocates for the veracity of recovered memories have celebrated the closure of the FMSF, as I discussed a year ago here in relation to the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation.

Since the 1970s, memory research has given us a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the uncertainties of human memory, and some of this knowledge has relevance to legal proceedings. Of course, evidence that memory is malleable may be useful for guilty defendants looking to explain away victim or witness testimony (a point so banal it is barely worth stating), but it can be vital in preventing miscarriages of justice. Although focusing mostly on the Freyds, the article, by Katie Heaney, also discusses the work of Elizabeth Loftus:

Perhaps no one alive has been harder on memory’s reputation than Loftus. In 1974, the Department of Transportation awarded Loftus — then a newly minted Ph.D. in psychology — a grant to study memory distortion among eyewitnesses of car accidents. That same year, she used her findings to assist a public defender in a murder trial; the defendant got off, and Loftus has had no shortage of work as an expert witness ever since.

“Got off” obviously implies that a guilty defendant got away with it, but here’s the actual context of the case, as described by Loftus herself in 1975:

Last year I worked with the Seattle Public Defender’s office on a case involving a young woman who had killed her boy friend. The prosecutor called it first-degree murder, but her lawyer claimed she had acted in self-defense. What was clear was that during an argument, the defendant ran to the bedroom, grabbed a gun, and shot her boy friend six times. At the trial, a dispute arose about the time that had elapsed between the grabbing of the gun and the first shot. The defendant and her sister said two seconds, while another witness said five minutes. The exact amount of elapsed time made all the difference in the world to the defense, which insisted the killing had occurred suddenly, in fear, and without a moment’s hesitation. In the end the jury must have believed the defendant; it acquitted her. [1]

It’s not clear from this whether Loftus’s testimony was decisive, and that last sentence is slightly infelicitous in that it overstates the jury’s need for belief – perhaps the defendant was compelling, and perhaps there was other evidence in her favour, but if the case hinged on the “five minute” witness then all that was needed was that the jury should be unsure. The anecdote is a coda at the end of an article that discusses various instances of mistaken identity and misremembered details.

Heaney goes on to discuss the limitations of the famous “Lost in the Mall” false memory experiment that Loftus devised with the neuroscientist Jimmy Coan, who at that time was an undergraduate:

Coan, Loftus’s former student and now a neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Virginia, has decidedly mixed feelings about the experiment he inadvertently spearheaded. “I’m slow enough on the uptake that it took me a while to realize that the study I was doing was making people who had been sexually abused feel like I was their enemy,” he tells me. “That was completely devastating to me.” Although he has been asked to testify about false memory in countless court cases, Coan has always refused. He just doesn’t think the mall study is sufficiently relevant. In her excitement, he thinks, Loftus may have “mischaracterized” what started out as an undergraduate assignment for extra credit.

“I got five points,” Coan says. “Five points and decades of grief.”

Coan has responded to this characterisation on Facebook, in two comments:

[deep exhale]… OK. Time to clarify a couple of things about this article, and its accompanying podcast episode. First, Katie Heaney (its author) appears to have done some creative editing of our phone conversation to make it appear that I’m saying that Elizabeth Loftus’s work is unconvincing and misunderstood, when what I’m ACTUALLY talking about is my five point extra credit assignment in Beth’s class nearly 30 years ago. And things like being misquoted in the service of a shoehorned agenda is what I was referring to when I made my “decades of grief” quip. And the reason I don’t testify about all of this when asked to is that I’m not qualified to do so, not that I think the research is bad or irrelevant. [frustrated face here]

I’ve contacted Heaney seeking an explanation. Would love to get the complete recording of our conversation released.

More thoroughgoing critiques of the article have been published by Carrie Poppy on Medium, and by Julian Greaves of the Grey Faction, mentioned in passing by Heaney as the FMSF’s “online, cult-obsessed sons”. As discussed by Poppy:

Heaney also waves her hand at Grey Faction, an activist group that exposes psychological pseudoscience, because they (in her mind) are obsessive teens who are still enthralled by the Satanic Panic caused by repressed memory theory in the ’80s and ’90s. Never mind that that history is intrinsically tied to Qanon, “deep state” conspiracy theories, and the other madness the U.S. is still grappling with today.

Much of Poppy’s critique takes the form of a letter to the editor that was never published. She has also posted letters to the magazine from Loftus, from the Center for Inquiry, from Greaves and his Grey Faction associate Evan Anderson, and from Pamela Freyd herself. A response from the editor, Ted Hart, is also included, although for some reason he didn’t want it made public.

Pamela Freyd’s response includes some forensic observations about Heaney’s rhetoric:

Peter is described as “prideful” rather than “stoic.” A defendant “got off” rather than “was found innocent.” Peter and Pam were “intimate” rather than “were married.” Multiple items associated with Pam and Peter are referred to as “elite,” “wealthy” or “affluent.” Victims of therapeutic suggestion are “gullible” [according to the FMSF] rather than “vulnerable.”

I discussed an earlier attack on the concept of false memory here.


1. Elizabeth F. Loftus, 1975. “Reconstructing Memory: The Incredible Eyewitness”, Jurimetrics Journal 15 (3): 188-193, p. 193. Available here.

Pastoral Couple in Devon Claim “Many” British Christians “Embraced” QAnon and Trump Prophecies

From a post by American neo-Pentecostal commentator Michael L. Brown, following a conversation with two British Christians:

They told me that many U.K. Christians were terribly disappointed with the defeat of Donald Trump. They shared that, to their knowledge, there were hundreds of thousands of British Christians who were looking to Trump as a kind of savior-figure. This was absolutely astounding to them, as they said to me, “Donald Trump is not even our president.”

…They also told me that the failed Trump prophecies had impacted many churches in England, specifically the charismatic and Pentecostal churches. They said that in every church they knew of, people had been negatively affected.

…This pastoral couple also told me that many Christians had embraced the QAnon conspiracy theories, even within their own church. They spoke of well-educated people, committed Christian people, who had dropped out of their congregations because of the conspiracy theories.

These conspiracy theorists believed that they had uncovered the real truth of the matter, causing them to scorn the pastor and his wife whom, they claimed, did not have sufficient spiritual discernment to recognize what was actually taking place.

An accompanying video clarifies that Brown was speaking with Jon and Louise Sibley, a pastoral couple associated with the Crossroad Christian Fellowship in Seaton, Devon. Of course, one should be wary of relying too heavily on an anecdotal impression, but their perspective is worth noting.

Brown has recently promoted a Christian book called The QAnon Deception: Everything You Need to Know about the World’s Most Dangerous Conspiracy Theory, and he is scathing of attempts by co-religionists to rationalise failed Trump re-election prophecies by claiming that Trump is president in heaven or may yet return. Incongruously, he has expressed these views on Charisma News, a neo-Pentecostal news site notable for spreading conspiracy theories and Trump “prophets”.

Maajid Nawaz Denounces Observer Coverage of His Conspiracy Theory Tweets

From the Observer:

The prominent radio presenter and activist Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of a respected British anti-extremist thinktank and a one-time government adviser, has alarmed former admirers and academics with his interest in conspiracy theories about the lockdown and voter fraud in the US election on his Twitter account.

…Nawaz, who broadcasts on LBC in a lineup of other opinionated presenters from across the political spectrum…, denies that he has been drawn into conspiracy theory rhetoric and has threatened the Observer with legal action.

I previously noted Nawaz’s recourse to legal threats here. As is customary these days, he is also claiming to be the victim of “targeted harassment” at the hands of the Sunday newspaper, which he conflates with its sister paper, the daily Guardian. The article was by the Observer‘s arts and media correspondent and published in the TV and Radio section.

Nawaz has responded with a stream of aggrieved Tweets, and he has posted a screed on Facebook and on the website of the Quilliam think-tank’s journal, Perspectives. He has also accepted an interview request from the right-wing Turning Point UK group, stating that the Guardian is “fascist” and that “I’ll do interviews across the political spectrum”.

His argument is that as regards the US election,

I was predicting what Trump would do next and then commenting on his decisions without prejudice… I’ve not done anything but explain the constitutional procedures team Trump will take ahead of time (and been proven right) without openly taking sides on the merits of the fraud claims

This is blatant revisionism. For example, on 8 November he Tweeted “Look up what a SCIF is. Thank me later”. The plain meaning here can only be “Trump has been monitoring the election from a secure location and will soon reveal decisive evidence of fraud, after which everyone will thank me for my predictive insight”. Nawaz enthused over allegations put forward by the likes of Sidney Powell without ever referring to the many legal failures and debunkings that followed, and he even came up with a conspiracy theory of his own, involving a driver for Diane Feinstein who had been exposed as a Chinese spy (presented as a new story that was being suppressed, rather than old story from 2013), which he claimed was relevant because Feinstein’s husband was supposedly an “investor” in Dominion.

The Observer article also quotes Sunder Katwala, whose Tweets on Nawaz provide an exhaustive chronicle of Nawaz’s social media output. Nawaz has blocked him (as he has anyone who has ventured even mild criticism), but it is telling that he avoids making any reference to his forensic analysis.

Katwala has posted a comment on Facebook in response to Nawaz’s supposed “rebuttal”; given the ephemeral nature of the medium, I reproduce it below. It addresses Nawaz’s promotion of a Covid conspiracy theorist; his apparent enthusiasm for the idea that Mike Pompeo was timing his Tweets as some kind of “countdown”; and his suggestion that the Observer article was published because the Guardian wishes to discredit an ethnic-minority man of Muslim heritage who is critical of Islamic extremism:

The long account of lockdown verifies that The Observer account of the open letter to MI5 and the FBI is accurate. Its just that Mr Nawaz is proud of the work.

The account of the Covid tweets ignores The Observer’s (accurate) report of Mr Nawaz’s tweet about how he found Dr Thomas Binder’s claim that “almost everybody fell for the myth of a pandemic of a new corona killer virus”. Dr Binder is an anti-semite, a 9/11 truther, a Pearl Harbour truther, an Assad chemical weapons truther, and a believer that Bill Gates has a plot to make everybody take vaccines. While Mr Nawaz says that it was not his field to understand the Covid denial article he shared, it should be his field (as the founder of a counter-extremism think-tank) to spot if his source promotes every conspiracy theory under the sun. The account given of the Pompeo Countdown tweets is inaccurate and not credible. 2 of Mr Nawaz 3 tweets on this topic were not about China. Another says “right on cue, 30 minutes” tweet is clearly understood by followers to the about the QAnon-inspired countdown, as the replies to each of the three tweets show. On this, The Observer report is accurate and the response is inaccurate. The claim that the challenges to Nawaz spreading conspiracies are racially motivated are really a sad pile of nonsense of the kind that Mr Nawaz would decry as identity politics if anyone else pulled this OJ Simple style stunt of seeking impunity based on ethnicity.

See also Zelo Street here.

Katwala also notes that Qulliam’s Director of Policy David Toube has left the think-tank over Nawaz’s promotion of conspiracy websites.