Is a false memory a true memory?

Fans of crime fiction and keen observers of the law courts will be familiar with the idea of False Memory Syndrome (FMS). Witnesses and crime victims make statements that turn out to be untrue — not, it seems, because they were lying, but because they genuinely seemed to remember something that hadn’t happened.  In quite a few cases, these false memories appear to have been suggested by psychotherapists, counsellors, police interviewers and other professionals seeking to help troubled individuals remember difficult circumstances.  So serious have the resulting miscarriages of justice been that victims of FMS have set up the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and the British False Memory Society.  Examples of false memories of sexual abuse are discussed in this article.

As this is a blog devoted to competing truths, one might think false memories need not concern us.  They are, surely, by definition not true.  Yet in a fascinating Radio 4 documentary, Past Imperfect, FMS expert Professor Elizabeth Loftus challenged this basic conception of false memories: “Memory does not work like a video-recording device, where you just record the event and play it back later.  It’s a little bit more like a Wikipedia page, where you can go in there and change it… but so can other people.”  All memories are “reconstructive”, because our brains aren’t designed to capture every detail of an event, but rather to recall the broad brushstrokes and then fill in the detail in a plausible manner.  Do you really remember what your daughter was wearing and which way she was looking when she spoke her first word? Even if you can picture it, you may not be right.  Inevitably, most memories will include some distortions, which means false memory is not black and white: some memories will be more accurate than others, but a false memory is as real as any other memory you hold.  It is a fragment of your mind and therefore a kind of truth.

Certainly, false memories have real consequences.  Several researchers have shown they can reliably implant false memories in the lab, making their guinea pigs believe they have seen or done things — even in the very recent past – which they have not.  This can lead to significant behaviour modification.  For example, a subject implanted with a false memory of getting sick from eating turkey became significantly less keen on the meat.  Some researchers suggest this kind of false memory could be deployed to steer us away from poor nutritional choices: if you can be convinced you were once made ill by fatty, sugary foods, you may be more likely to choose fresh vegetables in the future.  Would you rather your child had obesity or a few benign false memories, asks one advocate.  Needless to say, this is a very slippery slope.

False memories, like other competing truths, can fundamentally shape our realities — and could be used to manipulate our beliefs and actions.  Whether or not you view false memories as “true”, they are manifestly real enough to take seriously.


The cost of a pint of milk

British dairy farmers are having a tough year. The global oversupply of milk has pushed down prices to the point where many farmers, their representatives and their political champions are coming out with this statement:

Supermarkets are paying farmers less for a pint of milk than it costs to produce

While not wishing to downplay the commercial difficulties many farmers face, we have to challenge such oversimplification.  Every farm has different costs of production, depending on their size, level of automation, location, staffing, debt etc.  For each farm, a dedicated accountant might be able to work out the full cost of that pint of milk (factoring in a percentage of all fixed costs and interest payments), but they would also be interested in the marginal cost (the cost to produce one extra pint) which would be much lower.

For some large, automated farms, milk production will still be fully profitable, even with the low prices currently on offer.  For others, it may be loss-making if one factors in all sunk costs, yet it is still worth producing milk and selling it to stingy supermarkets because the marginal cost of production is low.  Meanwhile a few unfortunate farmers may actually be losing money with every pint they sell, if their marginal cost is above the offered price.

Supply and Demand

P is Price and Q is Quantity. The intersection of the Supply and Demand curves determines the market price and quantity of products that will be sold.

The idea that different producers have different costs of production (just as different purchasers are willing to pay different prices for their product) is fundamental to microeconomics.  These different producers with their different costs form the supply curve which, where it intersects with the purchasers’ demand curve, determines the price a product ought to command. The reason milk is cheap is that enough producers, globally, have achieved a sufficiently low cost of production to shift the supply curve down relative to the demand curve.  If that is hard to understand, look at it this way: the price of milk is what it is because enough farmers are able to produce it for less than that price.  In other words, the quote at the top is nonsense.

One of the consequences of the supply curve in free markets is that those producers who are consistently lodged at the upper end — above the point of intersection with the demand curve — go out of business.  It happens in all other industries, so it would be surprising if it did not happen in farming.  It is this process which is playing itself out in protests at supermarkets and in the headlines of our newspapers.  It’s not pleasant, but it’s the essence of capitalism and it has useful outcomes such as greater efficiency and lower prices for consumers.

Of course, we may not like the way in which farmers achieve lower costs and stay at the profitable end of the supply curve: factory farming, poor treatment of animals, growth hormones and so on.  In which case we should be willing to pay extra for premium brands or categories of milk that avoid these practices.  Equally, if we want to keep cows on the pastures of British farms, we will need to buy British milk, even if it costs more.  In other words, we need to buy from a different supply curve, representing a different product.

But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that there is a single cost of production for milk.

A matter of life or death in the Congo

US Embassy in Leopoldville/Kinshasa

US Embassy in Leopoldville/Kinshasa

In his book, Chief of Station, Congo, Larry Devlin — the CIA’s man in Leopoldville (Kinshasa) during the early years of Congolese independence, and an operative who knew a thing or two about shaping reality — recounts a remarkable diplomatic incident. The United States had established an embassy in the brand new country, but had not yet provided a troop of Marines to guard it.  With mutinous Congolese soldiers rampaging about the streets, many of them — following years of Belgian misrule — intent on humiliating or harming any white man they encountered, it was a very dangerous time.  Expecting trouble, the ambassador and Devlin armed themselves with grenades and firearms, but they knew they were hopelessly vulnerable in the glass-fronted embassy.

So when a jeep full of soldiers turned into the embassy driveway one morning and aimed a fifty-calibre machine gun at the front door, they were understandably alarmed.  The gunner tried to fire, but the machine gun jammed.  Devlin was about to throw a grenade at the jeep, but the ambassador stopped him.  He went out into the driveway, ignoring the rifles pointed at him, and said, “Thank God, you’ve come to protect us from the Belgians.  We’ve been waiting for hours for the Congolese army to defend us.  The Belgians could be here at any minute.”

Remarkably, the soldiers put down their weapons and, in Devlin’s words, “agreed they had indeed come to protect us”.  They even followed the ambassador’s suggestion and set up a defensive post at the end of the street.

With a few well-chosen words, the ambassador reshaped reality for those riotous soldiers in what was probably a matter of life and death.