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“False memory syndrome” is politics, not jargon


Dr. Julie Shaw has a blog post at Scientific American called “Stop Calling It False Memory ‘Syndrome.’” Shaw is frustrated because “lawyers, police, medical practitioners, and journalists” continue to use the phrase “false memory syndrome” as if it has scientific meaning. She’s right that it doesn’t. But she is wrong that the phrase is some relic from the 1990s.

Shaw claims “the ill-conceived term … may have been uttered once or twice in the 1990s, but science is totally over it.” What a colossal misstatement. The phrase originated with Peter and Pamela Freyd, who created the “False Memory Syndrome Foundation,” an advocacy organization for parents accused of sexual abuse. The origins of the term were deliberate and they were political. Sixteen prominent psychologists saw the problem in 1993 when they signed a letter to the APS Observer urging others to spurn the phrase “false memory syndrome” for “the sake of intellectual honesty.”

Since then, the term has hardly disappeared from the world of science. A quick search in PsycINFO reveals 169 hits for the phrase in quotes, many in recent years. There are 20 dissertations with the phrase in the abstract, most in recent years. And defense-based psychologists frequently bring the phrase into court.

Elizabeth Loftus, a memory researcher often cited in Shaw’s work, remains on the “Scientific Advisory Board” of the so-called False Memory Syndrome Foundation. She is joined by a number of other scientists, none of whom have rejected this unscientific phrase. Professor Shaw, it is no accident that this phrase persists. It is the work of advocates who have been empowered by scientists. We look forward to you calling out the Foundation that created this problematic phrase and the scientists who remain affiliated with it. 

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