‘False Memories’ Are More Common Than You Think

Too bad too few Americans will learn this fact about false memories. Here is

Cognitive scientists have learned that people can be 100 percent certain of their memories . . . and 100 percent wrong.

‘Beyond a reasonable doubt” is not a phrase found in the Constitution. Yet these four words, which begin appearing in United States jurisdiction around 1798, have become legal cliché. In 1970, the Supreme Court cited them as the evidentiary gold standard (though in 1990 the Court distinguished it from “moral certainty”). Now we tend to think of “reasonable doubt” as a safety net for the accused. But it did not begin this way. In fact, legal scholars say that the need for proof beyond “reasonable doubt” comes from Christian theology and was originally enshrined in law to prevent jurors from damning themselves by bearing false witness.

. . . to prevent jurors from damning themselves by bearing false witness.

“False witness” is either lying outright or knowingly playing fast and loose with facts. Which makes it a particularly jarring phrase this week, given that Christine Blasey Ford is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow. A possible counter-explanation of Ford’s story would be to say that she has a “false memory,” not that she is bearing “false witness.”

What if we were to leave this national political circus for a moment and step inside a well-established branch of neuropsychology? A science that, over the past few decades, has revealed just how easily our memories become distorted.

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive scientist and law professor who has studied memory for more than 40 years, with a particular focus on how it unfolds in the courtroom, has advanced a number of illuminating studies over the years. One gathered information on 300 people in the United States who had gone to prison for crimes they did not commit, as proved by later DNA evidence. Of those 300 (some of whom were imprisoned as long as 30 years), three-quarters of the convictions were the result of the false memories of the accuser.

Read more: National Review

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