Mixing Memory

A Note and a Link

First, the link. This probably won’t be of interest to most of you, but some might like this: the published version of Habermas’ lecture titled “Religion in the Public Sphere“. Here’s Habermas’ outline of the lecture (from p. 3-4):

I would like first of all to bring to mind the liberal premises of the constitutional state and the consequences which John Rawls’s conception of the public use of reason has on the ethics of citizenship (2). I shall then go on to treat the most important objections to this rather restrictive idea of the political role of religion (3). Through a critical discussion of revisionist proposals that do touch on the foundations of the liberal self-understanding I shall develop a conception of my own (4). However, secular and religious citizens can only fulfill the normative expectations of the liberal role of citizens if they likewise fulfill certain cognitive conditions and ascribe to the respective opposite the corresponding epistemic attitudes. I shall explain what this means by discussing the change in the form of religious consciousness which was a response to the challenges of Modernity(5). By contrast, the secular awareness that one is living in a postsecular society takes the shape of post-metaphysical thought at the philosophical level (6). In both regards, the liberal state faces the problem that religious and secular citizens can only acquire these attitudes through complementary learning processes, while it remains a moot point whether these are ‘learning processes’ at all, and ones which the state cannot influence by its own means of law and politics anyway (7).

It’s an interesting lecture, though it will probably leave you with more questions than answers.

Now the note. About a year and a half ago, I wrote a few posts outlining the case for and the case against recovered memories. I sided with the skeptical camp. To this day, I get emails from people who suffer from recovered memories (I will call them recovered memories, even if I’m not convinced that’s what they are) in response to those posts, and anytime I mention recovered or false memory research in a post, I get more emails. This serves to make me feel very guilty for openly expressing skepticism. The people who write me are suffering from very real pain, and they often feel that my skepticism, which is shared by most memory researchers, minimizes their suffering. I’ve seen the suffering up close, and the last thing I want to do is minimize it. It’s for this reason that I haven’t written a post that focuses on the debate in such a long time, despite the fact that there have been recent developments. For example, this excellent review by Elizabeth Loftus and Deborah Davis.

On the other hand, I feel strongly enough about this to want to do my part to educate the public. So I’m torn. Inevitably, if you write about repressed memories, trauma victims will find it through the internet. If you don’t write about it, many people will continue to believe that there is hard scientific evidence for the existence of repressed and later recovered memories for traumatic events, when there isn’t.

What do you think the best way to approach this is? If I write about repressed memories, should I begin with a warning? Should I just leave the subject alone, and write about other stuff?


  1. #1 Dale Emery
    June 20, 2006

    Do as you’ve done here: Speak your truth with empathy for the people may feel pain in response.

  2. #2 Matt McIntosh
    June 20, 2006

    The fact that you’re even considering avoiding writing about an important topic because it might hurt a few people’s feelings is enough to make me look at you like you’ve grown a third head. I can understand avoiding the subject in your personal life if you know someone who’s affected, but in your role as a scientist (and a scienceblogger!), this should be a no-brainer. Reality comes first.

  3. #3 Steve
    June 20, 2006

    I agree with Matt, science is not about liking the outcome, its about the truth, which is many times painful for people to understand.

  4. #4 Chris
    June 20, 2006

    I have avoided this one in part because of people in my personal life (at least one of whom reads the blog), but also because memories of abuse (recovered or not) are easily triggered, and I simply don’t like being the one to trigger them.

  5. #5 Brandon
    June 20, 2006

    Contrary to what some might suggest, neither you nor anyone else has an obligation to ‘reality’. We do have obligations to people, though, and I think you’ve probably framed the problem right: there are obligations to people insofar as they deserve the truth, and there are obligations to people insofar as they deserve sympathy and good will. Again, contrary to what some might suggest, I see no serious reason for thinking the one obligation is made any less by your being a scientist (any more than the other is any less for nonscientists). So the question is, how to go about treating people as they deserve in both directions.

    I don’t have any definite answers for you, although the warning idea seems quite reasonable. It seems to me that one thing you might need to do in discussing the matter would be to make sure that you always distinguish carefully between what’s strictly proven and what you think is probably true based on what is proven, so that recovered-memory readers can tell where you’re coming from at all times. (It might also be worth remembering that recovered memories often put strains on families and friendships, so that, although people who have these recovered memories are generally first concern, they’re not the only ones who need to be thought about.)

    I would suggest, however, that in the end you should decide as your conscience leans, regardless of what anyone else thinks; because I think we also have an obligation (to ourselves and everyone else) to treat our informed conscience as binding — that is, if after seriously considering the matter there’s anything we feel we can’t in good conscience (whether we can give a clear reason for this feeling or not), and we have no excellent obligation-based reason for doing it, we shouldn’t do it. Likewise, if after serious consideration we feel that there’s something we can’t avoid in good conscience, we shouldn’t avoid it (again, unless we have an excellent obligation-based reason for avoiding it).

    Although it may be a difficult decision, I think whatever solution you come up with will probably be a good one for you to make; you’re level-headed, and you’re considering the matter carefully, which are two things you already have in your favor as you look for the solution.

  6. #6 Clark
    June 20, 2006

    I think that Truth always ought win out, even though I’m very sympathetic to how we present the truth. But people coming to your website are seeking out the topic. It isn’t as if you are going into their homes to tell them unwantedly about the science. That’s a huge difference from the standard example of telling an unattractive person they are ugly. (True, but perhaps not appropriate to say)

    The second issue is that while there is undeniable pain in recovered memory victims of trauma there are also victims due to the claims of recovered memories. Especially those who due to the excesses of some psychologists and therapists in the 90’s were falsely accused of crimes they did not commit.

    Both groups are victims and the best way to sort all this out is to provide society with a general sense of the truth.

  7. #7 Clark
    June 20, 2006

    Just to add, one other thing that is of grave concern to me in our justice system is the problem of witness testimony. It’s related to the issue of false memories. (Or perhaps better described as a subset). Witnesses in criminal cases are notoriously unreliable. But do Juries act as if they are? I recall one article in New Scientist from a few weeks ago noting that even the angle in which video taped confessions can affect the reporting in the confession as well as how Juries react.

    There are some huge implication for our criminal justice system that I just don’t think the legal community has come to grips with. (And to be frank, from what I can see the justice system just doesn’t deal well with science at all)

  8. #8 Brandon
    June 20, 2006

    You’re right that people who find you online are seeking out the topic; so they really can’t complain if you provide the best evidence and facts you can. It sounds like the best approach available is just to be frank and straightforward about the matter, being especially careful to present what has been proven as proven, what is probable as probable, and what is merely suggestive as merely suggestive.

    I’ve often thought that the problem with witness testimony in the justice system has less to do with the justice system itself and more to do with our civic education. We make a (somewhat clumsy and unimpressive) effort to teach people how to be good voters, but we make virtually no effort to teach people how to be good jurors. And the one is not really less important than the other. (I just finished a post summarizing the common argument in favor of jury trials; and part of that argument is that in a democratic society, jury participation is at least approximately to the judiciary as voting is to the legislature. But if we treated voting as we do jury participation, we’d be in even worse shape than we are.) I agree entirely that it’s something society needs to come to grips with.

  9. #9 Clark Goble
    June 20, 2006

    I think, Brandon, that a big part of the problem isn’t just with the jury system but structural issues regarding directives and explanations by judges along with how certain kind of testimonies are contextualized.

  10. #10 Chris
    June 20, 2006

    Clark, there’s an entire area of cognitive psychology that focuses on jury memory, jury perception, etc. When I was an undergrad, I worked in a lab that did work on jury perception of testimony on child molestation cases. So, I know a bit about it, and still follow along with the literature a little, though it’s mostly published in applied journals, and I have a habit of forgetting to read those unless I hear about something interesting.

    I could probably work up a post or two on the basics in the field of jury psychology. I’ve also got a few papers on induced confessions somewhere in my file, that might be interesting to talk about.

  11. #11 CA
    June 20, 2006

    Chris,your points are both laudable. The truth should be made avaialble so that there is not unnecessary suffering. And sensitivity should be shown to respect those people whose past experiences, or perceptions of past experiences, cause pain – regardless of their origin. If you have access to something new, or something that needs to have fresh refutal, then discuss it with a sensitive warning and expressed undertstanding. Science without feelings can be “coldly scientific.” Science reported with sensitivity is science that will be not only read, but understood. Thanks

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