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Oliver Sacks’ Myopia

February 19th, 2013 Comments off

In an article about memory in the current New York Review of Books, Oliver Sacks displays a surprising myopia for someone who is generally sensitive to complexity and appreciative of case-based evidence. Dr. Sacks repeats the same fallacies about recovered memory that advocates for the False Memory Syndrome Foundation have long promoted. Sacks, who refers to “so-called” recovered memories, seems to think that because some recovered memories are false, none are true. The archive of over 100 corroborated cases of recovered memory at this site was created to counter that misconception.

Dr. Sacks also describes some of the well-known research that demonstrates that eyewitness testimony can be inaccurate. No doubt that is true. But no reasonable person takes that evidence to mean that eyewitness testimony can never be true! Nor would any reasonable person argue that eyewitness testimony should not be admitted in court unless it is corroborated by other sources. But that is precisely the position that false-memory partisans take about recovered memories. Dr. Sacks apparently has a similar view. One wonders why. (If Dr. Sacks disagrees with these extremists, we hope that he will clarify his position in the future.)

What is most disappointing about Sacks’ article is his credulous acceptance of the claims that there were “thousands” of cases of false memory in the 1990s. Remarkably, Dr. Sacks employs the phrase “almost epidemic” without substantiation of any sort. As it turns out, the evidence for that claim is beyond flimsy. It generally stems from surveys of those who claim that other people have experienced false memory. There are obvious reasons why the people answering such surveys might be dishonest. Evidence from the person supposedly afflicted with this “syndrome” is never included, violating the principles that created the Goldwater Rule. Would Sacks accept an estimate of the number of false convictions in criminal court that was based entirely on a survey of prisoners? Would he diagnose someone as having a neurological disorder (his field of expertise) without ever examining the patient? Assertions about “thousands” of cases of false memory suffer from both of these problems. For further elaboration, see this critique.

Of course memory is fallible. Who has ever claimed otherwise? Indeed, those claiming to be victims of false memory might be the ones who are misremembering the past, although curiously that possibility is never raised by false-memory partisans. (Their memories are apparently the ones that they consider infallible.) But one would hope that a doctor like Oliver Sacks would not extend the simple idea that memory is fallible to reach one-sided conclusions that ignore the case evidence and peer-reviewed studies about recovered memory. One would also hope that a doctor would never invoke the word “epidemic” without actual scientific evidence.

NCRJ Reveals Itself

February 9th, 2013 Comments off

There was a powerful article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine on January 27 about the devastating effects of child pornography on victims whose images have been spread around the world on the Internet.  It is the kind of article that would seem to generate only sympathy and concern for victims. But the “National Center for Reason and Justice” proved otherwise. This Orwellian-named organization used the occasion to question whether real harms occurred and to smear Dr. Joyanna Silberg, one of the therapists named in the article. In a letter to the New York Times, published on the NCRJ website, the president of the organization, defense lawyer Michael Snedeker, claimed that “Joyanna Silberg, the therapist of one young woman in the story, is notorious for advocating the debunked myth of satanic ritual child abuse.” Snedeker also asserted that “obsessive attention paid to victims can paradoxically make their feelings of trauma worse, or even cause them in the first place.” He closed by expressing concern about giving “pseudoscientific, dangerous therapists another gravy train.”

These statements are wrong in every particular. Dr. Silberg is not even the therapist for the woman she mentions in the story! That woman lives in another city. Dr. Silberg merely conducted assesments for the purpose of litigation. Dr. Silberg did not receive a percentage of any legal judgments, nor has she received any payment other than the set fees for conducting an evaluation. The insinuation that she may have engaged in therapy that made the woman worse is beyond false, it is defamatory. It is also a claim that defies common sense. It is clear from the article that what Snedeker calls “feelings of trauma” were hardly caused by the therapists in this case. They were caused by the appalling actions of those who took these images and disseminated them. Moreover, Dr. Silberg has never advocated or endorsed anything pertaining to satanic ritual abuse. Instead, she is apparently a target for these smears because she has spoken up for victims of sexual abuse through the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence.

There is real irony in the fact that an organization that claims to worry about false accusations would levy several of their own. One can only speculate why the NCRJ is so threatened by an article about victims of child pornography that it would make such baseless claims. Whatever the reason, their response reveals a great deal about their true values.

Note: we will be engaging the NCRJ’s extremist position on recovered memory in a future post.

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