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We Live in Perilous Times for Science


Elizabeth Loftus

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 35.3, May/June 2011

Acceptance speech for the American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility given to Elizabeth Loftus on February 19, 2011.

I feel grateful and privileged that the research I have done on memory in the past three decades has been honored for its contributions to science and human welfare. But of all of these awards, this one, in honor of scientific freedom and responsibility, has a special poignancy for me. I never set out to carry the banner for those glorious words freedom and responsibility; I was merely a scientist interested in the fallibility and malleability of memory—a subject that turned out to be central to the “repressed memory” moral panic that swept this nation in the 1980s and 1990s. If anyone had told me in advance that my scientific commitment to knowledge would make me the target of organized, relentless vitriol and harassment (not to mention expensive litigation), I might have laughed at them—“Memory? Who gets angry over different memories?”

Every now and then I’d find myself wondering: If I’d known this in advance, would I have made the same decisions? Would I have decided to do the same kind of research, to spend countless hours in courtrooms testifying for the falsely accused, to write endless articles in rejoinder to dubious but persistent clinical ideas?

I do know that once faced with the choice between yielding to the wave of hostility and criticism that my research provoked or standing as strong as I could for science and justice, it was a no-brainer for me. But it was a decision that took an enormous personal toll, which is why this award is so meaningful and gratifying to me.

We live today in perilous times for science: conflicts of interest that taint research; pressures on scientists to cut corners to get fast results; a public culture that alternates between hostility to science and irrational expectations of what science can provide. If we as scientists want to preserve our freedom (and the welfare of others), now more than ever we have a responsibility.

And that responsibility is to bring our science to the public arena and to speak out as forcefully as we can against even the most cherished beliefs that reflect unsubstantiated myths.

Elizabeth Loftus

Elizabeth F. Loftus is Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology, and Professor of Law, and Cognitive Science in the Psychology and Social Behavior and Criminology, Law and Society departments in the School of Social Ecology at University of California, Irvine.