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Oliver Sacks’ Myopia

February 19th, 2013

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.

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