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Rachel Aviv Relies on Discredited Study

June 21st, 2017

Roger K. Coleman was once a cause celeb of the false-conviction movement. Convicted in 1981 for the rape and murder of his wife’s 19-year-old sister, Coleman claimed his innocence—despite blood evidence that tied him to the crime. (Coleman also claimed to have been falsely convicted of an earlier sexual assault.) Coleman’s adamant denials convinced Centurion Ministries to advocate for him for years. Coleman also claimed his innocence on national television programs, and the New York Times eventually wrote that there were “deep doubts” about his conviction. Coleman appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with the headline “This Man Might Be Innocent” and the inflammatory claim that “courts refused to hear evidence that could save him.”

Coleman implored the state to administer a lie detector test before his death sentence was carried out, and the governor permitted this unusual request. Coleman failed the test. His advocates, unwilling to accept the results of the test they had requested, remained so positive he was innocent that they worked for years after his death to have DNA testing of key evidence. That unusual request was also granted and the tests proved there was a one in 19 million chance that the semen found on the victim’s body belonged to someone other than Coleman.

Confronted with overwhelming DNA evidence of guilt, Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project said “Today we got just one answer, and one man cannot speak for the correctness of the verdicts in a thousand other cases.” The same logic applies, of course, to the unusual case that Rachel Aviv just wrote about in The New Yorker. But Aviv wants her readers to generalize broadly from one case, and to that end she relies entirely on a single study that has been widely discredited.

Aviv cites, without skepticism, a highly-publicized study by Shaw and Porter that claimed in 2015 that “seventy per cent of people, when subjected to highly suggestive and repetitive interviews, would come to believe that they had committed a crime.” What Aviv did not tell her readers is that this study is well known to academic psychologists as an outlier; it is also known for its incoherence. Brewin and Andrews’ 2016 meta-study demonstrates that the study is an extreme outlier. Pezdek and Blandon-Gitlin’s 2016 analysis concluded that the same study was essentially incoherent, employing “an unorthodox rating system” that rendered it “impossible to know what the high prevalence rate actually refers to.”

There are two possible explanations for Ms. Aviv’s over-reliance on this discredited study: (1) her research was so limited she was unaware of these critiques, even though they were published online nine months before her article was published, or (2) she was aware of these critiques and decided not to trouble her readers with complications that contradict her position. Either way, once again, The New Yorker blew it on a story about false memory, as they also did here (with the same study), and here (without the benefit of any study at all).

 

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