2001 William James Fellow Award

Elizabeth Loftus

University of California, Irvine

Elizabeth Loftus is an example of the rare scientist who is instrumental both in advancing a scientific discipline and in using that discipline to make critical contributions to society.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, following acclaimed basic research on the workings of semantic memory, she waded into relatively uncharted waters, investigating the critical issues of how and under what circumstances complex memories change, often quite dramatically, over time. Her innovative yet highly rigorous research on this topic brought her renewed praise in the scientific community. At the same time however, she realized the fundamental applications of her and related findings to the legal system, particularly in understanding the circumstances under which a sincere eyewitness may have misidentified an innocent defendant. It is not hyperbole to say that in response to her ingenious laboratory work and her ubiquitous public presence, both the quality of basic memory research and the fairness of the criminal justice system have advanced substantially.

Over the past 15 years, Dr. Loftus’ attention has turned to a related but considerably more controversial issue, that of the validity of recovered memories of childhood abuse. As a result of her pioneering scientific work as well as her activity within the legal system, society is gradually coming to realize that such memories, compelling thought they may seem when related by a witness, are often a product of recent reconstructive memory processes rather than of past objective reality.

In bringing to light these facts of memory, Dr. Loftus has joined the ranks of other scientists, past and present, who have had the courage, inspiration, and inner strength to weather the widespread scorn and oppression that unfortunately but inevitably accompanies clear and compelling scientific data that have the effrontery to fly in the face of dearly held beliefs.