Saturday, December 13, 2003

Via Crooked Timber, I found a blog decrying the "hounding" of Elizabeth Loftus. Loftus was a primary figure in the "memory wars" that swept the mental health field in the 80s and early 90s.

The memory wars were an ugly, ugly time. What I can only call a therapeutic cult had grown up around the idea that depression and other psychological problems in adulthood were the result of repressed memories of childhood abuse, which could be retrieved through what we now know are unreliable memory-recovery techniques such as hypnosis. The battle over "repressed memories" - which typically had disastrous consequences for individuals and families - coincided with a growing understanding that witnesses' memories in criminal cases could be swayed by leading questions. (The McMartin preschool case is the most notorious example, but there were many similar cases.)

Loftus conducted excellent research about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony - that's how she made her professional reputation. But in their justified crusade against recovered-memory hysteria, she and her colleagues had a tendency to overstate their data and ellide important differences between cases. For example, they made no distinction between spontaneous recovery of abuse memories (triggered, for example, by revisiting a childhood home or seeing the abuser again) and recovery of abuse memories under coercive questioning. Cases in which always-remembered abuse was disclosed in adulthood also tended to be treated like cases in which abuse memories were recovered in therapy. In general, Loftus's "False Memory Foundation" tended to uncritically accept the stories of parents who claimed their children were making false accusations of abuse, without independent investigation. So: really ugly.

So what's Loftus being "hounded" about now? The details of the case, taken from an article sympathetic to Loftus, astound and repel me. Apparently, there was a case study published in 1997 which appeared to document a genuine case of a repressed and recovered memory. Loftus, skeptical, hired a private investigator to dig up information about the case, including the client's real name and location. Loftus and the private investigator then interviewed various members of the young woman's friends and family, decided that the abuse had never occurred, and wrote an article about it for a popular magazine. The article refers to the young woman as "Jane Doe," but includes a lot of information about her, some of it potentially identifying. Loftus has also apparently made speeches to professional organizations in which private details of Jane Doe's life were discussed.

Understandably, "Jane Doe" complained to the Loftus's employer, the University of Washington, about this appalling violation of her privacy. There was a long academic battle about whether Jane Doe was covered under statutes protecting the rights of research subjects, at the end of which the university decided that what Loftus did was not, technically, research. She was reprimanded and told to take an ethics class and not to contact Doe's family anymore. Instead of accepting this decision, she quit. Now she's complaining about the evil university establishment violating her academic freedom.

I'm not going to get into the question of whether or not Jane Doe was abused. What's clear to me is that Loftus's behavior was grossly unprofessional. Regardless of whether it violated research subject protection laws (and the case probably doesn't qualify as "research," given that it's neither systematic nor generalizable), it certainly violated the ethical code of the American Psychological Association, which applies to all contexts of professional behavior. It doesn't matter that Jane Doe was not Loftus's client or research subject. Loftus had a responsibility, as a psychologist, to preserve her confidentiality - and not to go beyond what's justified by the data to use this real person as her pawn in the memory wars. It's obvious to me who's being hounded here - and it's not Elizabeth Loftus.