Standards relaxed

April 18, 1997

BERNICE ANDREWS, a member of the British Psychological Society's working party on recovered memories, writes (THES, April 11): "In over 40 per cent of the detailed cases some kind of corroboration was available..." It is evident from her article that the working party has not had direct access to the evidence for this claim, and that in most cases this evidence was third-hand.

In only 11 of the 236 cases did the therapists (hardly disinterested informants) state they had seen the evidence. In other words, the researchers have based their findings on the statements of interested parties. Elucidating the true facts in contested cases such as those under investigation is exceptionally difficult, but this problem is not solved by relaxing normal standards of research.

Dr Andrews raises the question of reliability of second or third-hand evidence, but gets no nearer to addressing it than the unexceptionable statement that the criteria for judging such evidence should be the same as that for judging any evidence put forward to justify the supposed perpetrators' claims of innocence, thereby side-stepping this crucial issue.

Following an appeal to the empirical tradition in the social sciences of keeping an open mind, Dr Andrews writes that "the argument as it stands dismisses the phenomenon of memory recovery on the grounds of lack of evidence" and that "recovering previously forgotten memories may be feasible". This misrepresents the question at issue. No one is saying that forgotten incidents cannot be recalled at a later date. The issue concerns the reliability of recovered memories, and the recognition that memories in general are essentially reconstructions, which may or may not be largely accurate.

Dr Andrews' words imply she presupposes that false memories can only arise as a result of direct "memory recovery techniques". The processes of memory retrieval in a therapeutic situation are rather more complex than this, especially in a climate where the notion that the recovery of repressed traumatic memories (particularly of childhood sexual abuse) is the first step to resolving all manner of emotional problems is widely disseminated.

ALLEN ESTERSON Cromwell Grove, Hammersmith London

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