Brett Kavanaugh & the Science of False Memories

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I know I’ve already made several videos about Brett Kavanaugh and the woman he attempted to rape, Christine Blasey Ford, but this whole shitshow is such a perfect example of how absolutely fucked up the United States is right now that I can’t help it. As a bonus, it really does hit on a lot of important skeptical topics.

Today’s topic is the problem of hyperskepticism. As a skeptical activist for more than a decade, I’ve seen this happen a lot. The word “skeptic” has been co-opted by people who are anything but — consider the 9/11 “skeptics,” who are overly “skeptical” of the government and not skeptical enough of claims that jet fuel can’t weaken steel beams. It’s good to be skeptical of governments, but not to the point that you invent completely ludicrous conspiracy theories to explain why one is so corrupt. And then there are the climate change “skeptics,” who are “skeptical” of actual science and not of the fossil fuel industry and Republican talking points. It’s good to be skeptical of new research, groundbreaking research, research that hasn’t been adequately vetted or replicated, but it’s not good to be skeptical in the face of the entire weight of evidence collected by nearly all scientists studying our changing climate.

The Kavanaugh case offers yet another example: people who are “skeptical” of Ford’s memory several decades later but not the memory of Kavanaugh, who drank to blackout on the regular in high school.

Skeptics are well-acquainted with the problem of memory as it touches on a lot of things that require our skepticism. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously bad, as evidenced in cases like Ronald Cotton’s. Cotton was sentenced to life in prison after Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was sexually assaulted by a stranger, and chose him out of a photo lineup and then again in a live lineup. She was 100% certain that it was him, and her testimony is what primarily led to his conviction. He was freed ten years later when DNA evidence matched another convict who had previously confessed to his cellmate. Cotton and Thompson-Cannino are now friends who help educate the public on the untrustworthiness of eyewitness testimony.

There are also myriad studies showing how easy it is to warp people’s own memories, like when psychologists are able to convince subjects that they rode in a hot air balloon when they never did, or that they got lost as a child when it never happened. The subjects are even able to tell the story of those fake memories as though they really happened to them, because they 100% believe them.

So there it is, right? Memory is infallible, eyewitnesses can’t be trusted, there’s no way we should believe an accusation of sexual assault several decades after it happened. Right?

Well, wrong. This is where a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing — skeptics who think they know that memory is fallible are likely to fall into the trap of assuming they know more than they do, when actual experts stand aside and look horrified.

Because it turns out, yeah, your memories can be molded if a psychologist spends a lot of time and energy mocking up fake photos for you to look at or says they talked to your mother and she told them this story. But that has nothing to do with a memory uncorrupted by professionals who are trying to fuck with you. In Blasey Ford’s case, this isn’t a memory that she had no idea about until undergoing hypnotic regression therapy or participating in a psych study in college — it’s something she has remembered every day of her life for several decades.

And yes, eyewitness testimony can be garbage when you’re trying to identify a total stranger. It turns out, a lot of people look the same, and you might screw up certain details! But it’s not garbage when you’re talking about someone you know. If a stranger mugs you on the street, you might not remember exactly what he looks like. If your brother mugs you, you’re probably gonna remember.

When I was in my 20s, a cab driver assaulted me while dropping me off at my apartment. He pulled me through the glass divider and tried to kiss me as I struggled to get out of the car. I did get out, and I ran into my building and up to my apartment where I didn’t turn the lights on because I knew he was still out there and I didn’t want him to know where I lived. It was a little scary. I guarantee that I wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a lineup today, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it that night either.

When I was in grade school, I was playing some playground equipment and a boy was standing on a grate above me. He stomped his feet so that sand fell through the gate and into my hair. It upset me. That boy was Jason LastNameWithheldBecauseImNotaJerk, he was tall and skinny and had dark hair and I absolutely could pick him out of a lineup today.

One of those events was very serious and I could never identify the culprit. The other is extremely trivial and for some reason 30 years later I remember exactly who did it. It wasn’t one of my other classmates — it wasn’t Josh or Mitchell or Jessie or even David, who was also tall and skinny and had dark hair, it was Jason. He stomped his feet and got sand in my hair.

I remember Jason, because I knew him. I don’t remember what we learned that day in school, I don’t remember if my mom drove me to school that day or if I rode my bike, and I don’t remember how I got home. Blasey Ford doesn’t remember the minor details of her attack, because we only remember the details that our brain decides are important in the moment — a hand over your mouth, the laughter of the boys, a scramble to get away.

Obviously none of it matters now — our senators decided that they either didn’t believe Blasey Ford, that they believed she thought she was telling the truth but misremembering, or that they believed her but figured this man deserves to decide the fate of women in the United States anyway. All of those options should terrify you. Make sure you’re registered to vote and vote them out in November.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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One Comment

  1. “So there it is, right? Memory is infallible, eyewitnesses can’t be trusted, there’s no way we should believe an accusation of sexual assault several decades after it happened. Right?”

    One edit: Should read “memory is fallible”. But this still doesn’t change this: Ford and the other alleged (covering my legal ass here) victims knew Kavanaugh, and they didn’t have a therapist with an agenda fucking with them like so many, e.g., “Satanic ritual abuse” cases do. And oh yeah, we have his yearbook, and the reference to “Devil’s Triangle”. Yeah, that’s a sex thing. It refers to a threesome between two men and one woman. Not necessarily rape, but in high school? Most likely.

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