Logical Fallacies and Ethical Breaches


Lynn S. Crook, Richland, WA

Martha C. Dean, Sydney, Australia



Key words: research ethics, false memories, implanted memories, recovered memories


We address Loftus' reliance on the ad hominem technique to establish a clear distinction between her characterization of us and the legitimacy of our concerns regarding the ethics of her research.



The ad hominem argument is a logical fallacy in which one attempts to discredit in-formation, opinions, or questions by discrediting the person who is raising the issue (e.g., Halpern, 1996). Loftus (this issue) describes our article (Crook & Dean, this is-sue) as a "partisan essay" by "women like Crook" who "complain," "deliberate[ly] attempt to distort [her] work," and who "attack" her to "personally and publicly create trouble for [her]." She proceeds further to "cast doubt on the process that led to the acceptance of [this] manuscript." The ad hominem tone of Loftus' reply follows her established strategy of response to most writers who disagree with her.

For example, in responding to Dr. Ken Pope's review of one of her books, Loftus disparaged the reviewer's integrity, making a false accusation about his ethics. After a thorough investigation of the matter, the journal published a correction and an apology for Loftus' "false statement disparaging Dr. Pope's ethics" ("Correction Notice and Apology," 1997). In another example, Loftus (1998) responded to an article by Dr. Laura Brown (1997) with: "The extent to which my ideas were repeatedly and grossly misrepresented makes it difficult to conclude that some accident or misunderstanding occurred" (Loftus, 1998, p.484). However, there is no evidence to support Loftus' accusation. As Brown said: "Readers who carefully check the original published sources will find that in my article (Brown 1997). I quoted Loftus accurately and in context" (Brown, 1998, p.488; for similar ad hominem arguments against other noted experts in the field, see Loftus' deposition in Vickie Turner and Michael Turner V Linda Honker, MEd; Art C. Aarauzo, MD; Charter Behaviorial Health System of Dallas, Inc.; Maryanne Watson, PhD; and Lee Smith, PhD, 1996, pp.83-S4, 141-142, 152-154).

Loftus has used the derogatory concept of "True Believer" (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994, p.31) to characterize those who disagree with her as irrational fanatics and has characterized therapists who use approaches of which she disapproves as "executioners" (Loftus, Milo, & Paddock, 1995). When an attorney asked Loftus during a Wisconsin civil case if she thought both sides were reasonable, she testified:

"Well, it depends. When they are not doing nasty evil things trying to get even with you for speaking the truth, they sometimes have reasonable moments" (Nadean Cool, Michael Cool, Kimberly D. Cool, and Michael J. Cool V. Blue Cross and Blue Shield United of Wisconsin, 1997, p. 191).

Loftus stated that "resistance" to her ideas is based not on evidence, reason, and good faith, but rather on prejudice and fear-for example: "I know the prejudices and fears that lie behind the resistance to my life's work" (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994, p.4). She has compared herself to someone who risked his life to save Jews from the Nazis: "'I feel like Oskar Schindler,' Loftus muses, referring to the German financier who rescued doomed Jews from the Nazis" (Kahn, 1994, p.80). "'I keep thinking of Oskar Schindler circling the lake with thousands of people,' she says without a trace of irony... "(Niemark, 1996, p.50).' We suggest that, in comparing herself to Schindler, Loftus leaves little doubt as to how she characterizes those who disagree with her. It is clear that those who question Loftus' work risk being confronted with attacks on their integrity and credibility.




Loftus' (this issue) reference to a chapter in a book by Ofshe and Watters is parenthetical to our discussion of the mall study, and we suggest that her decision to mention it here is one more example of her ad hominem strategy. Loftus advises readers that this chapter provides a "description of Crook's recovered memory court case.


1. 'When asked under cross-examination in Donna Rodriguez et al. v. Robert Perez et al (l998) if she had "made public statements and referred to [herself] as the Oskar Schindler of [the] falsely accused?," Loftus replied: "That, that is absolutely false. It's been taken out context and distorted," and she offered to provide "the truth of exactly what [she] said." However, after reading tbe context of Lofus' other comments regarding Schindler, we conclude that the cross-examiner's assumption was reasonable ratber than "absolutely false."



Crook (1995) previously addressed the most egregious aspects of Ofshe's unscholarly account of Crook V. Murphy. For the record, the judge found in favor of Crook, and his official opinion (Crook V. Murphy, 1994b) of the testimonies of Loftus and Ofshe is available online at http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Taubman_Center/Recovmem/Archive.html

However, Loftus' testimony in Crook V. Murphy did play an initiating role in this discussion. In reading Loftus' testimony in this case, Crook noted that the study's new chief research assistant had told Loftus that "somewhere between 15 and 18 percent of the subjects were [sic], at this phase of the experiment, had come to develop this expanded memory of being lost in the mall" (Crook V. Murphy, 1994c, p. 1621). This testimony appeared to contradict Loftus' earlier statement to the media (Associated Press, 1992) that the first five participants had accepted the false "lost" memory. Further examination of the mall study revealed still more problems regarding methodology, reporting, and the ethics of human participants research.




In her reply to us, Loftus (this issue) does not address the fact that a reporter (Goleman, 1992) quoted her regarding the preliminary results of the mall study nearly 3 weeks prior to the time that the study received HSC approval. Considering her failure to address such a significant point, we are left to wonder if her silence on the subject is indicative of her having no rebuttal to offer, or if she deems this issue as so inconsequential that it requires no comment.

Loftus (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994, p.96) suggested to her students that they might experiment with injecting entire false memories into someone's mind. The fact that this extra-credit assignment was "not formal research" does not negate its impact on the human participants. Indeed, any "experiment" on human participants ethically requires certain steps for approval. The fact that Loftus apparently feels free to disregard the ethics of human experimentation when she interprets the rules about human participants as not applicable to a given situation does not make such experimentation less of an ethical violation.

Furthermore, Loftus (this issue) reveals a surprising lack of knowledge about the actual rules of human participants experimentation at her university. In her deposition in Turner V. Honker (1996, p. 143), Loftus' testimony that "class observations" do not require HSC approval does not coincide with HSC regulations. The University of Washington's HSC requires that class assignments that involve student experimentation on human participants be presented for approval. If HSC approval was not requested prior to making the assignment, then permission should be requested retroactively prior to publishing these results. However, we have found no evidence that Loftus actually obtained such approval. Finally, these results, when published, should not include identifiers that might reveal the identity of the participants (University of Washington HSC staff, personal communication, May 14, 1998). Clearly, by revealing the exact identities of Jim Coan's younger brother and Linda Binet's daughter, Loftus has failed to follow this rule.

While reviewing Jim Coan's (1993) honors thesis (which we discuss in the next section), we uncovered yet another ethical issue related to methodological discrepancies in the original mall study by Loftus and Pickrell (1995). Simply stated, Loftus and Pickrell added a second interview and questions for a second evaluation scale to there-search protocol after the study was well underway and long after its approval date on August 10, 1992. Because the university's HSC requires submission of a new Human Subjects Application (UW 13-11) when changes in or additions to interviews are pro-posed, we contacted the Public Records Office at the University of Washington to determine if Loftus applied for HSC approval for these modifications.

We requested copies of all status reports related to the mall study subsequent to the study's approval on August 10, 1992. The Public Records Office provided copies of the five status reports that had been filed annually since 1993 and that extended approval for the study on a continuous basis through July 16, 1998. Each report indicates that no change to the original mall study, other than changes in the number of participants, was ever submitted to the RSC. Each status report application form includes the following advisory. "Valid only as long as approved procedures are followed" (e.g., Status report on human subjects application, No. 23-332-C, 1993). As a result, when Loftus and Pickrell modified the study's methodology, they began experimenting on human participants without the required HSC approval.

These five status reports reveal further discrepancies regarding the number of participants enrolled in the mall study. For example, according to the status report filed in 1994 (Status report on human subjects application, No. 24-316-C, 1994), "24 subjects have been run. About 8-9% have formed false positive memories. Another 1-l5% formed partial false memories."2 According to the 1995 status report (Status report on human subjects application, No. 25-401-C, 1995), 48 participants were enrolled in the study to date. The 1996 status report (Status report on human subjects application, No. 26 -0349-C, 1996) stated that 24 participants were enrolled in the study to date, whereas the 1997 status report (Status report on human subjects application, No. 27-0411-C, 1997) stated that 30 participants were enrolled in the study to date.


2. Notably, this status report provides information that was not included in the published version of the mall study. By converting the percentages, we can determine that 2 participants met the experimenters' criteria for fully forming a false positive memory and that as few as 2, or as many as 4, met the criteria for "partially convinced." Therefore, according to Loftus' status report to the HSC, we can conclude that 4, 5. or 6 of the 24 participants were either fully or partially convinced. This ambiguity in the reported total creates further questions about the experimenters' definition of what constitutes a positive case.





It is our understanding that the HSC approved a lost in a mall study for which Jim Coan served as chief investigator and on which he based his honors thesis (Coan, 1993). Coan (1997) reported that he participated in the HSC approval process for the mall study. In his honors thesis, Coan (1993, pp. 14-16) provided a description of the procedure3 that was used to determine the level of acceptance of the false memory. Coan (1993, p.16) reported the results of the 10 participants who completed the booklet process and the 6 who completed the interview process.4 However, Loftus, in her deposition in Crook V. Murphy (1994a), testified that none of Coan's results were included in the formal study because the "chief investigator left the project and ... paperwork [was] in somewhat of a disrepair" (p.60).


3. Level 0:"... no memory of the event"; Level 1 "....... the subject accepts the possibility"; Level 2:"...a clear memory of only what was suggested"; Level 3: " ... the subject remembers details closely pertaining to the suggested event which were not actually suggested."


4. For the 10 participants who completed the booklet process, 6 were coded Level 0 and 4 were coded Level 1. For the 6 who completed the interview process. 4 were coded Level O and 2 were coded Level 3.


Given that Coan apparently obtained only a minimal level of acceptance during the booklet phase and that the 6 participants who completed the study clearly either accepted or did not accept the false memory, we have to wonder why Loftus discarded all of Coan's data. In the methodology text Tactics of Scientific Research, Sidman (1960) stated that eliminating participants from consideration is justified "only when the experimenter can identify the conditions responsible for the behavior of the deviant participants. Otherwise he [or she] is open to the charge that he [for she] has selected data on the basis of preconceptions about the experimental results" (pp.189-190).

The disagreement Loftus has with us regarding whether 20.8% or 25% of the participants accepted the false memory centers around the extra step in the second interview. Our point is that Loftus, in her conclusion, has overstated her results. Loftus' own data suggest that the implanted memories tend to be weaker than the real ones, and these implanted memories weaken rather than strengthen with repeated interviews. Over time, they get weaker still; especially when the possibility is raised that one of the memories could be false.

Much of the data in the mall study fails to support Loftus' position. Our view is that a responsible scientist must maintain an attitude of scientific conservatism in discussions with all audiences and certainly with the media, who tend to overstate any scientific finding that might grab headlines.




Loftus' (this issue) defense of her use of the term existence proof merits a response as well. Loftus quotes Luce's (personal communication, October 2, 1997) definition of existence proof to support Loftus and Pickerell's (1995) claim that the mall study provides existence proof that false memories can be implanted. However, Luce is referring to axiomatically defined systems, clearly limiting his definition to pure mathematics. Furthermore, many mathematicians require more rigor in their existence proofs than Loftus has used in her own reasoning. In The Nature and Growth of Modern Mathematics, Kramer (1970) stated that: "Another feature in the situation is the use of an 'existence proof.' Some modern logicians refuse to accept a proof that something exists or something can be done ... Such critics say that a valid proof not only must show that a thing can be done ... "(p. 597) but that it must contain the exact mathematical process as well. Mathematical existence proofs serve a function that is totally irrelevant to the objectives of science and psychology. They are facets of pure logic that demonstrate that a particular configuration exists, assuming a particular logic system.

Few would claim that psychology, as a whole is a closed coherent system in the manner of logic or mathematics, fields in which deductions from axioms are appropriate. Professor Joseph D. Allen, head of the psychology department at the University of Georgia, told us:

I can tell you that if mathematics does subscribe to a principle of existence proof, there are psychologists who will buy it hook, line, and sinker and happily misapply it to situations where it has no right to be used. (personal communication, April 22, 1998)

Indeed, the term existence proof, when used in psychological research, may well be a step backwards from the scientific practice in which researchers specify the precise criteria for demonstrating a phenomenon and then discuss whether the evidence meets those criteria. This seems to be the case in Loftus' mall study.

Even in the loosest sense of the term, Loftus' (this issue) claims of proof are unjustified because she failed to use basic experimental controls in the design of the mall study (e.g., Campbell & Stanley, 1966; Rosenthal, 1976; Winkler, Kanouse, & Ware, 1982). We suggest that Loftus' use of existence proof is simply a convenient rhetorical device employed to lend the appearance of scientific authority to her hypothesis in the absence of clear and convincing data. It cannot be over-looked, after all, that in her reply to us, Loftus associates her own use of the term existence proof to its inscription on a silver cigarette lighter. Although such a reference may be a charming anecdote, it hardly qualifies as a scholarly source.




We have demonstrated that the ethics, methods, data, and assumptions in the mall study have not been subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny, and yet, the purported results of the mall study have been entered into sworn testimony and reported by the media to support a claim that therapists can implant false memories of childhood trauma. Although we acknowledge that inaccurate and mistaken memories may occur, we must conclude that Loftus and Pickrell's mall study does not support in any manner the notion that false autobiographical memories of abuse in childhood can be implanted by therapists. Finally, we suggest that any legal decisions that have been based on claims that the mall study provides such evidence should be carefully reexamined. Appellate courts should be especially wary of relying on or citing the study as authoritative support for the proposition that false memories of sexual abuse can be implanted, because once a study is so cited in an appellate decision, it takes on value that it may not deserve and may unduly influence other judicial decisions.




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