Positives, negatives and empirical reasoning

A response to our recent article on the false memory debate.

In their clear review of the false memory debate, Chris Brewin and Bernice Andrews (July 2017) draw an important and valid conclusion, viz: ‘Recovered memories lie on a spectrum from being plainly false, being plausible but lacking in corroboration, to being independently corroborated.’ Two intersecting implications arise from this statement that might be useful to consider. The first relates to false positives and false negatives in criminal prosecutions. The second relates to generalist and particularist empirical reasoning.

Those emphasising widespread therapist-inspired false memories dwell on the risk of false positives in alleged cases of child sexual abuse (CSA). However, the complementary risk, of false negatives, is certainly widespread for a number of reasons. The NSPCC reports that only around a third of cases of CSA are reported to the police and not all of these lead to prosecutions. Despite the high prevalence of survivors of CSA in mental health services, staff do not typically ask about its possible occurrence in assessments (Hepworth & McGowan, 2013; Jonas, et al., 2011). The inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham found that investigations into organised child sexual exploitation have been constrained by the inefficiency and complicity of both professional and lay people, who could indeed have corroborated actual sexual crimes against children. Leaving the proper investigation of historical cases until the alleged perpetrators are dead or too infirm to stand trial, also leaves them all on record as being technically ‘innocent’ of crimes they may well have actually committed. This lesson is emerging from cases, such as Sir Cyril Smith, Sir Jimmy Savile and Lord Greville Janner.

In combination, these social processes of complicity and inefficiency create an increased risk of false negatives, with serial offenders being defended posthumously by libertarian lawyers on the grounds of the presumption of innocence. But those presumed to be innocent, who are un-tried, may have actually committed offences. What is empirically recorded as sexual crimes against children is not the same thing as its rate of actual occurrence. According to a recent report of the UK Children’s Commissioner on improving the response to child sexual abuse, up to a nine-fold underestimation of that gap between the actual and the empirical has been calculated, and the police are now fully aware that they can only deal with a tip of the iceberg of online offending.

The second implication, and one usefully teased out by Brewin and Andrews, is that this is not a crass binary question, but one in which case-by-case empirical proof should be properly demonstrated, in the interest of full justice. This means adopting a particularist, not generalist, approach to complexity (Pidgen, 2007). This need has been demonstrated in relation to the closely related debate, of relevance to CSA, about ‘conspiracy theories’. Actually, some crimes (including but not only CSA) require criminals to conspire. Therefore, it is quite legitimate and sensible to develop theories about conspiracies (Bale, 2007). Those who only ever see conspiracies and not uncertainty are as deluded as those who say there are never conspiracies. They both have false and rigid views, held without reference to empirical reality testing case-by-case. Not only can this point about the wisdom of careful empirical checking be applied to claims of criminal conspiracies; as Brewin and Andrews note, it should also be applied to cases of possible false (or true) memories, when someone is accused of CSA.

David Pilgrim
Visiting Professor of Clinical Psychology
University of Southampton

Bale, J.M. (2007). Political paranoia v. political realism: On distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice, 41(1), 45–60.
Hepworth, I. & McGowan, L. (2013). Do mental health professionals enquire about childhood sexual abuse during routine mental health assessment in mental health settings? Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 20(6), 473–483.
Jonas, S., Bebbington, S., McManus, S. et al. (2011). Sexual abuse and psychiatric disorder in England: Results from the 2007 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. Psychological Medicine, 41(4), 709–719.
Pigden, C. (2007). Conspiracy theories and the conventional wisdom. Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, 4(2), 219–232.

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