This attracted quite a bit of controversy over at my own site. I’d like to start fresh here. In another spot the point was raised that Christine Blasey Ford should know about the research in cognitive science about the unreliability of memory and been more cautious. I was not surprised in the least, because it is psychologists who are the leaders in believing that memories can be “organised,” “associated,” and even “recovered” in therapy. It is a field in which the left hand usually does not know what the right hand, or the ears, or the chin, or the shinbone is doing.
There is some discussion of the notion of credibility in the comment section at AVI, if you are interested in that subcategory.
The reliability of memory came up a lot recently, and it is worth noting that we do not remember past events anywhere near as well as we think we do. Even flashbulb memories, which we feel very certain about, deteriorate and even change over time. If this puts you in mind of Dr. Ford’s testimony, remember that forgetting could apply equally to Justice Kavanaugh. I am noted for exceptional memory of past events, and am in my element at reunions, where people are gratified that I remember that they took a third on balance beam in 1969, or played the flute in 1963. Yet I have found many places where I was certainly wrong, because some photograph or document shows up that contradicts my memory. People of long memory are more likely to go to reunions, I would guess, and I also think I was likely to befriend those who had some similarity of mind. I thus have a store of memories rendered uncertain, because in comparing notes with these people, we don’t entirely agree. Sometimes I will realize in a flash that Ted Kontos’s or Gary Hicks’s memory of our first night at Manville dormitory includes an important detail I had entirely forgotten, and theirs is the better account. Other times I remain convinced the other person has it wrong, and is conflating two events.
There will be a terrible irony about all this going forward in the Kavanaugh confirmation controversy. This will be an event which people will claim to remember and will hold those memories as important parts of their political story in the future. Yet we are already getting it wrong, each of us laying down the memory according to our previously held beliefs, and this will get worse. Things that we read as theories about Ford’s motivations we will regard as something that someone somewhere proved. Ambiguous statements which Kavanaugh explained will come to be regarded as things he avoided answering. People who thought Ford’s delivery was calculated will believe it was all an act. People who thought Kavanaugh’s verbal defense of himself was partisan will remember it as louder and angrier than it was, and will ascribe to him statements he didn’t make.
It has already happened to me. I had associated Senator Murkowski’s statement with Senator Collins’ statement on the basis of a few sentences of each and was disparaging of the latter. A friend corrected me that I had misjudged Collins badly, and when I went back to look at it, that was abundantly so. I had associated them in mind before. I therefore assumed they would have similar takes. I had already started remembering that they had similar takes, even though this is not so.