Fooling Ourselves: Cargo Cult Law and Medicine

Robert Sheridan*

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool (Feynman, 1985).

ABSTRACT: A fundamental cause of false accusations is the tendency of adults to fool themselves.  Adult investigators who are biased towards believing an accusation is true will be unable to conduct an appropriate investigation and therefore will find what supports their prior beliefs.

So many child sex accusations turn out false that I have wondered why presumably intelligent and well-meaning authorities believed them in the first place.  False accusation fiascos have included McMartin Preschool, Morgan-Foretich, the Jordan, Minnesota case, and the Cleveland, England affair.  In my practice, a six count case (worth 23 years in prison) was dismissed before trial last April after the client spent three months in jail and a 61 count case was dismissed after a hung jury a few years ago; both were false allegation cases.

I wondered why the falsity couldn't have been caught before the devastating charges were brought.  Why were the authorities being fooled by kids?

I studied why and described important false influences on the children and the adult who is often behind them in a previous article in this journal (Sheridan, 1990).  Since then, I've come up with an even more fundamental cause of false accusations.

Children do not fool adults; adults fool themselves.  The smarter they think they are, and the more dedicated, the more likely adults are to fool themselves.  Humility, that is, awareness of one's own bias, and acknowledging that there may be more to the story, turns out to be protective and productive, as well as scarce.

Cargo Cult Law and Medicine

Richard P. Feynman, the late Nobel laureate in physics, stressed the importance that scientists not fool themselves by referring to the cargo cult people of the South Pacific after the war (Feynman, 1985).  These aboriginal islanders wanted to make U.S. cargo planes return with all kinds of goods, so they erected towers and wooden antennas near the airstrip, acted like controllers, and waited for the planes to come in.  Their form was correct but no planes came in.  He calls this "cargo cult science," where you do all the right things, you think, but you are wrong, nevertheless.  You either leave something out or draw the wrong conclusion.  What is missing, Feynman says, is "utter scientific integrity," meaning "a kind of utter honesty, a kind of leaning over backwards," the duty "to report everything you think might make your conclusion invalid," and "giving details that could throw doubt on your interpretation."  It's this type of integrity, this care not to fool yourself, that he says is missing in much of the research in cargo cult science.  He gives examples of investigators fudging data not fitting the theory they wanted to prove.  "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool," he says.

Feynman's first principle applies to any type of important investigation.  In child abuse cases the absence of investigative integrity reduces the process to cargo cult medicine and law.  Law and medicine rely on each other to such a degree that each suffers from the investigative flaws of the other in these cases.  These flaws include improper belief systems or biases, institutional pressures, carelessness, and lack of proper training.  Doctors and social workers in the medical system claim they are not investigators.  However, the legal system often takes action based on what they said and did with the child before the police entered the picture, and on the conclusions they draw.

Both systems have a problem with the secret talks the accusing parent or other person had with the child before calling the police or the child protective service (CPS) worker.  If it is difficult for scientists, much less legal and medical investigators to think straight, how much reliance can we place on the private talks that a motivated and emotional parent had with a child before contacting the authorities?

The suspect is often severely prejudiced because (1) no one in authority deals effectively with whether the child has been influenced by the questioner's questions, or is fantasizing, parroting, misinterpreting, or whether the first official interviewer has become a believer and then persuaded those that came next; and (2) that first person often too readily becomes a believer without having conducted a competent investigation into the context out of which the accusation arises.  Context is everything.  The suspect's protests of innocence are then routinely discounted on the theory that men always lie about molesting, which is false.

Investigative integrity requires that the investigator be aware of his or her own biases, and take them into account.  It also requires access to evidence.  Yet the opportunity for defense counsel to discover evidence is curtailed more in child abuse than in other cases.  Under new Proposition 115, at preliminary hearings in California hearsay is allowed.  The child cannot be called for cross-examination (statements allegedly made by the child are testified to by an officer), and psychiatric evaluations of the child and the adult backer are prohibited.  Magistrates have had their power to weed out groundless cases curtailed and the review process is geared towards upholding convictions regardless of earlier infirmities.  Investigative integrity is thus impaired by law, which is why I call it cargo cult law and medicine.


I Owe You A Lunch

A college boy was accused of raping his 13-year-old stepsister.  I telephoned the sergeant assigned to the case after the girl was interviewed by a CPS worker and a rape detective, each of whom believed her story.  I asked the sergeant if he had personally spoken to the girl, and he said he had not because she'd already convinced the other two.  I told him that my client maintained innocence, I had no idea why the girl would make up such a story, and that in my experience children didn't fool adults, but that adults fooled themselves.  I suggested that he interview the girl himself because he might be a better investigator.

A week later the sergeant called, saying, "l owe you a lunch."  The girl admitted she'd made up the story.  She was unhappy that her father recently married the boy's mother because she was no longer first in her father's eyes and the stepmother made her come in early and do homework, so she wanted to break up the marriage, which she did.  The sergeant, who was a better investigator, uncovered the lie by telling the girl she would have to undergo a medical exam which would tell whether she'd ever had intercourse.  She knew she hadn't so she copped out.

I asked about the other two investigators, how had she fooled them?  "She didn't fool them," he said, "they fooled themselves."  In my opinion they wanted to believe the girl but didn't realize it. They were unaware of their biases.  They were in the child sex abuse business.  They wanted to believe the alleged victim and substituted faith for investigation.  Afterwards the CPS worker wanted to have the girl put in jail for lying (or perhaps for giving the lie to the belief that children never lie about these things).  When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Mommy Pushed Me

I was walking along a rough path to the beach.  Two steps ahead of me was a little girl of about three.  Her father was up ahead and her mother and grandmother were a few steps behind me.  The child suddenly tripped and fell.  Her father walked back, picked her up and asked what happened.  Crying, she said, "Mommy pushed me."  "No, she tripped on this rock," I said.

Why did the little girl blame her mother?  She was responding to a demand by her father for an explanation.  She had to come up with something.  She was upset, crying, and the focus of attention.  She wanted sympathy.  She was confused.  She didn't want to get blamed.  She misinterpreted the situation.  She didn't realize she tripped.

What if the child were seriously hurt, the parents had been fighting, and there were no witness to the tripping?  The father could have shown a bruised child to a CPS worker, had the child repeat that the mother pushed her, and a child abuse proceeding could follow in which the mother could lose her child.

We Are Quick to Suspect the Worst

A neighbor called the police on seeing a body stuffed into the trunk of a car by a woman down the block, according to a recent news report.  The police stopped the car and had the woman open the trunk.

Inside was a human form, only it was a hairdresser's dummy, as the woman was leaving her cosmetology class with her homework.

The misinterpretation of an innocent situation.  This has been described as one of the most common causes of false reports of child molestation.  What do people attracted to this work, protecting children, essentially, believe?


Children Never Lie

They call themselves child advocates.  They tend to believe children.  It is as though anyone who questions the report of a child is doing the child a disservice and being disloyal to children.  With reports in the millions it is unimaginable that there would be no false accusations.  Yet people who work in the field profess "Always believe the child who discloses sexual abuse.  Children NEVER lie about this problem."  This quote appears in the brochure of CASARC (Child and Adolescent Sexual Abuse Resource Center) which is San Francisco's official intake unit for child abuse cases, at San Francisco General Hospital.  "Children deserve to be believed" taught an attorney at a child abuse convention.  She is now a juvenile court judge deciding child abuse cases.  I suggest that only the truth deserves to be believed and children have no monopoly on it.

Lie Catching

Who is good at catching lies?  The police?  According to a recent study the police are no better than random at lie-catching (Ekman & Sullivan, 1991).  Secret Service agents who protect high officials were better at it.  Researchers surmised it was because they don't pay attention as much to what the suspect says when he says he didn't mean it when he threaten a government official, as to how he says it — body language, facial gestures, and the like.  Also, Secret Service agents are accustomed to accepting recantations, i.e. that the suspect was not telling the truth earlier.  Perhaps the agents feel relieved, and want to believe it was just big talk.  Just the reverse happens in children's accusations, because when the child later says she was just imagining, for example, or making up a story, that daddy touched her, not only is the recantation disbelieved, but it is taken as proof of molestation on the theory that denial is a defense against the trauma that the believer assumes happened.

Investigative integrity?  First CPS investigators want to believe the worst, then they beg the question, and then they poison the well.  If children can't lie when they accuse, how can they lie when they recant?  They've been "reached," believers argue.  But if children are so trusting or fearful that they can be reached to recant, why can't they be reached to accuse?


Wanting to believe causes belief, especially if someone is helping you along.  The reverse is that you cannot see what you cannot accept.  Self-deception is the highest form.

Here are some pearls on the subject of belief.  One of the oldest is by the Greek dramatist, Euripides, 412 B.C.:

Man's most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.

More recently, attributed to that profound observer of the human condition, Archie Bunker:

Faith is believing in something that nobody in his right mind would believe (Quote passed along by Daniel Hager of the California bar).

My favorite, is by Baldassare Conticello, Superintendent of Archaeology of Pompeii, when he was opposing the municipal authorities who wanted to build a road over his dig.  Someone told him he would win because the arguments were all on his side, and he replied:

The period of maximum danger is when all of the rational arguments are on your side (New York Times. 1987).

Finally, by Albert Einstein:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and believing that the results will be different.

My own view?

Believe anything you want, but don't kid yourself.


Ekman, P., & O'Sullivan, M. (1991). "Who can catch a liar?" American Psychologist. 49, 913-920.

Feynman, R. P. (1985). Cargo cult science. Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman (Library Binding)(Paperback Reprint edition)(Audio Cassette) (pp. 308-317). New York: Bantam Books.

Sheridan, R. (1990). The False Child Molestation Outbreak of the 1980s: An Explanation of the Cases Arising in the Divorce Context. Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 2(3), 146-151.

* Robert Sheridan is an attorney at 2171 Junipero Serra Boulevard, Daly City, California, 94014.  [Back]

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