Friday, October 09, 2009

A Challenge to Fans of Repressed Memory

Some time ago Dr. Harrison G. Pope, Jr, and the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at McLean Hospital issued the following challenge:
Our research suggests that the concept of “repressed memory” or “dissociative amnesia” might be simply a romantic notion dating from the 1800s, rather than a scientifically valid phenomenon. To test this hypothesis, we are offering a reward of $1000 to the first person who can find a description of “repressed memory” in any written work, either nonfiction or fiction (novels, poems, dramas, epics, the Bible, essays, medical treatises, or any other sources), in English or in any work that has been translated into English, prior to 1800. We would argue that if “repressed memory” were a genuine natural phenomenon that has always affected people, then someone, somewhere, in the thousands of years prior to 1800, would have witnessed it and portrayed it in a non-fictional work or in a fictional character.
Dr. Pope was in the news quite recently because he reportedly played a role in the preparation of the amicus brief submitted by the International Committee of Social, Psychiatric, Psychological Science, Neuroscience, and Neurological Scientists to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in the appeal of Paul Shanley, a priest who was convicted in 2005 on the strength (I use the word "strength" advisedly) of the testimony of a man in his 20s who claimed that he had "recovered" his "suppressed" memory of having been abused by Shanley when he, this man, was a child. It is entirely possible that Shanley did indeed sexually molest minors. But I believe that the evidence that led to Shanley's conviction was scientific malarkey -- and against common sense. The courts of Massachusetts have not distinguished themselves in cases such as these. Let's hope that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court now does something to redeem the standing of the court system it heads.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper The Boston Globe also did not distinguish itself in the Shanley case. Its reportage on the case was awful. Perhaps that's because the Globe was too busy pursuing a Pulitzer Prize. Now that august paper is fighting for its life. The mighty have fallen a fair distance.
P.S. A controversy later ensued about whether someone had met Dr. Pope's challenge See this and this.


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