On October 7, a day before Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as our 114th Supreme Court Justice, Jeff Bezos’ propaganda machine The Washington Post published a characteristically atrocious article.
Written by Avi Selik, “The junk science Republicans used to undermine Ford and help save Kavanaugh” rails against what he sees as “the politically convenient, scientifically baseless theory that sexual assault so traumatized Christine Blasey Ford she mixed up her attacker.”
Selik quotes President Trump and several senators who believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that Ford was aggressively groped at a party in the early ‘80s, only not by Brett Kavanaugh.
The main interest of the piece, however, is the scientists whom Selik quotes and paraphrases, persons who show themselves to be partisan hacks, like Selik himself and his dreadful editors. Says our author:
“The person lying on top of you — who [sic] she’d previously met — you’re not going to forget that,” said Richard Huganir, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “There’s a total consensus in the field of memory ... If anything, fear and trauma enhances the encoding of the memory at a molecular level."
As he and several other researchers told The Washington Post, being attacked floods the brain with chemicals, including norepinephrine, which helps people remember whatever they are focused on. (Ford, a psychologist herself, even mentioned it in her testimony.)
…“I watched all the hearings that took place last week and was just floored at the number of people who offered…[mistaken identity] as an explanation,” said Ira Hyman, a cognitive psychologist who specializes in traumatic memories at Western Washington University. “That’s just not consistent with memory research on misidentification.”
…Lila Davachi, a cognitive neuroscientist at Columbia University, analogized the traumatic memory formation process to cranking up the contrast on a photo — central details get heightened, while those in the background get washed out.
“If someone has a gun on you you’ll remember the gun. There’s a snapshot of critical features,” she said. “In this case it was a party with friends and she knew him. It is ridiculous to say she wouldn’t remember who it was."
...Mara Mather, a professor at the University of Southern California, has performed laboratory studies in which volunteers are given electric shocks or subjected to loud noises while they look at a set of symbols — to find out which ones they remember while their brains are flooded with the same chemicals released during trauma.
“I guess the Republicans have been debating why does she forget getting home, but that sounds very plausible," she said. “It focuses the brain on whatever stands out at that moment. The things that are not standing out are even more ignored.”
Like other researchers, she could not recall a single case of a sexual assault victim misremembering a known attacker — save for rare instances in which people, often children, were coached into falsely accusing friends and family members.
“According to her account, she never forgot about this,” Mather noted. “She tried to.”
There are a lot of problems here. To begin with, concerning “total consensus in the field of memory,” it is well known that memory, like the perception it reflects, is intrinsically unreliable and malleable. Whether it’s in regard to sexual assault or whatever, memories are no more certain to be accurate than present perceptions and beliefs. Simply put, life is a temporal process, and whether they are of the past or the present, we have no necessarily accurate representations of reality.
Elizabeth Loftus, author of The Myth of Repressed Memory (1994) and other books, is the world’s leading authority on problems of memory. A distinguished psychologist, well regarded for her work on “memories that did not exist until someone went looking for them,” Loftus has consulted or provided expert witness testimony for hundreds of legal cases. “As time goes by,” she writes, “weakened memories are increasingly vulnerable to post-event information.” That determinative “post-event information” includes what we read, what we watch, what we hear about, conversations we have—quite literally, everything.
Miscarriage of Memory, published in 2015 by the British False Memory Society, documents the tragic cases of the many people who were wrongly convicted of crimes thanks to memories of sexual abuse “recovered” during therapy. There was no actual evidence in these cases, but human nature is credulous, so that absence made no difference.
In a 2010 article for The Guardian, Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, usefully summed up the intractable problems with “repressed memory” and therapy:
A vulnerable individual seeks help from a psychotherapist for a commonly occurring psychological problem such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and so on. At this stage, the client has no conscious memories of ever being the victim of childhood sexual abuse and is likely to firmly reject any suggestion of such abuse. To a particular sort of well-meaning psychotherapist, however, such denial is itself evidence that the abuse really did occur.
…Many hundreds of people have been wrongfully convicted in the UK because juries and those involved in the legal system relied upon…issues relating to memory.
…On the evidence of a huge amount of well-controlled research, we can now be confident that these memory recovery techniques are highly likely to give rise to false memories – apparent memories for events that never took place.
In short, “repressed memories” are a lot of trouble. So it is that, in the words of Alan Gold, former president of the Canadian Criminal Lawyers Association, they “are joining electroshock, lobotomies and other psychiatric malpractice in the historical dustbin.”
According to Ford, it was during a 2012 “couple’s therapy session” that she remembered being aggressively groped by Kavanaugh, an act which, if it did occur, hardly constitutes a rape attempt. The incident returned to her in the form of “a repressed memory.” The trouble with this notion, as with so much of psychology, is that it’s altogether speculative: admitting of no justification, it can’t be disproved either. We must allow that it could be true, but still, why believe it?
Although there may be no rational or logical reason to do so, a woman’s allegation of an attempted sexual assault will prompt many people to believe her no matter what. The reason is that there is a deep, unconscious paternalism in favor of women, the more valuable sex, as it were.
With her background in psychology, Ford surely knows that very well, and indeed, as I show in my October 9 essay for this magazine, “Christine Ford: A Singular Fraud,” she and her attorneys went out of their way to exploit that paternalism. (In that essay I also document Ford’s academic background in memory manipulation, how she tried to use her “psychological expertise” to dupe the Senate Judiciary committee—including via a polygraph test, which is more junk science—and other aspects of her fishy, ever-changing story, which reeks of Deep State deception.)
That memory is, in an epistemic sense, intrinsically difficult and rather limited is tellingly unmentioned by Selik’s “experts.” Indeed, they make the workings of the memory seem much simpler and more straightforward than is actually the case. It’s a safe bet that each of these persons is a liberal.
Their profound irresponsibility is, of course, welcomed by Selik. Thus, about Mara Mather Selik writes: “Like other researchers, she could not recall a single case of a sexual assault victim misremembering a known attacker.” This is delightfully ironic, as if scholarship were a matter of recollection, even though it’s the extraordinary difficulty of recollection itself that is at issue here!
Mather may be the most ridiculous figure of this whole “expert” bunch. Selik again:
“According to her account, she never forgot about this,” Mather noted. “She tried to.”
But how does Mather know what Ford “tried” to do? She doesn’t. She’s a typical academic with an unavowed agenda.
I am often struck by the philosophical shallowness of scientists, and that common trait is manifest in Selik’s quotations. His “experts” speak of “the encoding of the memory at a molecular level” and such-like, but indicate no awareness of the formidable philosophical problem with memory. Like logical positivism, behaviorism, and other modern secular superstitions, theirs is a kind of physicalist idolatry, “experts” using external description to weigh in on what, with respect to understanding, is an internal subject. This is nothing but motivated confusion—confusion that betrays an a priori will to evaluate.
Let us imagine that these scientists, using the most sophisticated technology available, were to accurately represent and describe the workings of my brain while I am remembering something: How would it follow that my memory itself is true? Just because you can accurately represent and describe brain function in regard to memory, it does not follow that you can know, let alone prove, that a particular memory is true. (Of course, this limitation of reason is not a good reason to doubt the particular memory, which may or may not be true.)
An intellectual featherweight, desperately in need of a competent editor, Selik tells us that “the politically convenient, scientifically baseless theory that sexual assault so traumatized Christine Blasey Ford she mixed up her attacker is now something like common wisdom for many Republicans.” Looking at his smug, sneering visage, one imagines that Selik was quite pleased with himself for writing that indignant, self-righteous sentence. And yet, this is not even a question of science but of epistemology. Again, setting aside memory’s intrinsic unreliability and malleability—an insuperable problem in itself—exactly how, in general, do you get from 1. accurate description of a physical process (as in, “being attacked floods the brain with chemicals, including norepinephrine, which helps people remember whatever they are focused on”) to 2. indisputable truth concerning a particular memory?
There is a difference in kind here—that is, between phenomenological-first-person experience and the external-third-person description thereof—that Selik and his “experts” do not see fit to mention, and which they perhaps do not perceive.
This overlooked distinction recalls Ford’s absurd statement: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.” Now you could describe memory function with complete accuracy, but such description is merely physical, that is, external to memory itself. Ford’s statement about her hippocampus does not connect, conceptually speaking, to the truth about her memory, which is subjective, or phenomenological. If I remember something correctly, it's not because I know how memory works! A typical science idolater, who does not know what she thinks she does, Ford in her confusion is like someone who should say: “Indelible in my lungs is my need to quit smoking.”
Memory is a type of belief, and belief in general is determined by prior experiences, values, and interests. Said F.H. Bradley: “We see what we perceive; and the object of our perceptions is qualified by the premises of our knowledge, by our previous experiences.” Thus, the countless partisans who insist that we “believe her” regardless of the facts and the need for due process, are doing so because for them such belief is a value independent of Ford and the facts in question: it derives from what the people themselves are; and however unconsciously, the internal value is the perspective whereby the external phenomenon is perceived, evaluated, and judged.
To say it a different way: a priori paternalism toward women is the premise from which people unconsciously reached the conclusion that, because Ford must be protected, Kavanaugh must be guilty.
It this same value-laden perspectivism that has allowed so many people to make the Kavanaugh-Ford controversy a matter of race, or rather, of “white supremacy.” For while very few people can think well, everyone can evaluate, and it is quite natural for people to treat events as occasions for expressing what they already value and believe.
And so they repose, wise in their own conceit. Ah, if only we were all scientists! Then she’d have justice, poor Ford.
The underlying bias of these mole-eyed experts—their whole value-driven epistemic perspective—is suggested by the fact that the glaring holes and inconsistencies in Ford’s ever-changing story merit no mention, nor pose any problem for them. In short, they want to “believe her,” being that sort of person, and so, with “scientific authority,” they do.
To anyone who doubts that there are problems with Ford’s story, I would recommend reading the devastating report by prosecutor Rachel Mitchell. With supreme cunning, Mitchell—a distinctly maternal figure—put Ford at ease in order to catch out her lies and general implausibility. It was a brilliant performance by an excellent woman for whom the president should find an important position.
Christopher DeGroot is a columnist at Taki's Magazine and senior contributing editor of New English Review. His writing has appeared in The American Spectator, The Daily Caller, American Thinker, The Imaginative Conservative, Frontpage Magazine, Jacobite Magazine, The Unz Review, Ygdrasil, A Journal of the Poetic Arts, and elsewhere. Follow him at @CEGrotius.