Drs. Carol Tavris and Elizabeth Loftus are two female role models of skepticism and critical thinking that tower above any others for me. They have established an influential body of work that has informed, influenced and inspired many people. This work has nothing to do with their personas, their creation of drama for attention (the drama came as a result of their scholarship that was sometimes shocking and controversial, but scientific), or their gender. They are also friendly, kind and lovely people and I consider it a privilege to have met both of them and chatted for a while.
Feminism in skepticism is a messed-up, misguided issue right now. Any story about harassment or rape is loaded with emotion, not reason. Reason, if applied, is seen as a betrayal. That’s disgusting and I rarely talk about it. However, truth matters to me.
This brings me to two important stories that came out yesterday, one of which was written by Tavris and quotes Loftus. The second references the Tavris piece and has a foundation in the work of Dr. Loftus.
Memory. It is flawed.
This is one of the most important concepts that any human in modern society would do well to grasp. Imagine the problems it could alleviate if we could admit our memory might be wrong about something; if we could recheck facts instead of being so invested in a flawed system of memory.
Tavris wrote a feature for e-Skeptic called Believe the Survivors or the Science? What the science of memory can teach us about the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen case. If you are at all interested in the case, PLEASE READ IT. It captures exactly my concerns when I read the harrowing letter by Dylan Farrow and didn’t know what to think about it. Here’s a bit:
When an emotionally compelling story hits the news, it’s tempting for all of us to jump to conclusions. Many people are inclined to believe, as I first did in the McMartin [preschool Satanic abuse] case, that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Wrong: sometimes there’s just smoke—and mirrors. The problem, as studies of cognitive dissonance show, is that as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong.
Of all things skeptics should be aware of is how we can so easily be fooled. Yet, I see tripe about victim blaming and shame heaped on some for questioning claims. HOW CAN YOU FORGET the Satanic Panic, the Salem Witch trials, the false eyewitness testimony that put countless people in jail and possibly some to death? This is not trivial.
Ben Radford wrote this piece: The Anatomy of False Accusations: A Skeptical Case Study | Center for Inquiry. It outlines an accusation of sexual assault where the evidence clearly points to the conclusion that it didn’t happen. And then cites many more. Many, many more certainly exist that we don’t know about.
We need to accept that not everyone is speaking truth, whether they consciously know it or not. But… that does not necessarily make them a liar, a bad person, or worthy of scorn. People are complicated. Our brains, our culture, our relationships are complicated. Accept that things are not black and white. There is no justification for “for me or against me” statements. I am not against an alleged victim or for an alleged perpetrator. I am for the best solution which means the relevant facts should come out before judgement. We are people and we make mistakes, all the time.
Please, spend some time thinking about the judgements you have made against people who have not been in a position to defend themselves. Is it really worth it to condemn them based on one or a few outrageous allegations and a swell of public outrage? I have been appalled at the feminist-skeptic-niche’s (which is a false label) reaction to some allegations (ALLEGATIONS!) of assault and/or rape. You aren’t helping anyone by being closed-minded and automatically defaulting to the female victim. She needs your sympathy but she also needs more than just that, because things are very complicated.
What we should not do, as my coauthor Elliot Aronson has said, is “sacrifice our skepticism on the altar of outrage.” Outrage is good when it leads to constructive, mindful efforts to promote justice—for innocent children and for innocent adults. But outrage without skepticism and science is a recipe for hysteria and witch hunts.