Elizabeth Loftus, Warrior Scientist

A tribute to Beth Loftus on the occasion of her first Festschrift, January 4, 2005

Beth Loftus, you are many things to me.  Warrior scientist.  Intellectual adventurer.  Co-traveller extraordinaire. Socratic mentor. Happiness maker. Big sister.  You taught me to take my earliest steps into the universe we call the mind.  You gave me confidence in myself at a time when I was deeply doubtful.  How fast were you going when I smashed into you?   Very fast. You whisked me away on your concert tours (to Annenberg, to Wales, to Washington) where I saw a rock star in action. You shoved me into the limelight wherever there was even a crack of it.  “This is Marzu Banaji” you would say, “and you should hire her”.

You taught me to put my thoughts on paper without fear, and what a gift that has been.  You revealed to me that naming things matters – retroactive interference is the principle at work but the misinformation effect – now that's what the funding public will understand and remember, and that's important, beyond the science.  You made me realize just what William James meant when he said that thinking is for doing – that the deepest abstract questions about the nature of the mind are exactly the ones that also contain the deepest solutions to the troubles of our day.

You never pulled punches.  You showed me the blunt choices that confront every intellectual, should she choose to accept the mission. To a 20-something year old, you exuded a confidence that firmly said: We don't have to tow the line.  We do have to change the world.  Remarkably, you did this without an iota of arrogance. Instead, you told your stories, you giggled, you always had fun, and you made me want to be like you.  But most important, you produced a body of work that shines like a beacon for those who seek what is right and true and scares the hell out of those who don't.  For this, generations of scientists will offer you their gratitude as yours will be a shoulder to stand on to gaze past to the next horizon. 

To my amazement, you also became my friend.  You gave me your old sweaters, and you cared that I was healthy and well.  In Seattle, you tried to introduce me to men and when I reminded you that I was married, you said:  “But he's in New York!” You taught me to enjoy white wine.  I thought it was your sophisticated taste that led you to white instead of red until I realized that you wouldn't allow red wine into your house because of that damn white rug.  You once asked me to cook at your home and too late did I realize that the only spices you owned were salt, pepper, and paprika.  Thank god for the paprika I thought, but alas prematurely, as I discovered that it had grown rock solid in the jar.  “I guess I've had that since I was in graduate school at Stanford.” you said. We laughed and ordered Chinese food.  From this, you taught me that girls who are scientists are just like boys who are scientists.  They don't cook and they don't clean.

I call you a warrior scientist.  The war you wage is a good war. Raised as a Zoroastrian, I was taught that my daily task was to identify what was right and wrong and to fight on the side of the good. The trouble is that most often one doesn't know which side is the good side, and the more one learns and understands, the more blurry that line can get.  That's why you were so important.  You represented the obvious, unadulterated good. My ancestors, the kings of ancient Persia -- Darius, Cyrus, Jamshed -- all smile when I hang out with you.

I do wonder how you did it.  Did you always know that what you were unearthing was so fundamental that you would be the leader of a movement, that you would have groupies, that you would make enemies? You know, Martin Luther King Jr. said to an audience of psychologists, only weeks before his assassination, that the job of us scientists was quite simple: it was to “tell it like it is”. That's all.  But more than anybody else, he knew that there was more to it.  The truth could be told, but the truth need not be accepted.  You have, in my broad experience “told it like it is” as no other.  Whether they listened or not, whether they liked what they heard or not.  You just told it and told it and told it.

Nothing delights me more than to see you be recognized as you have been.  The cowardly national organization that did not lend its support when you needed it eventually gave you its highest honor.  The National Academy of Science bestowed on you and your career the highest recognition a scientist can receive.  I puff up with pride when news of these honors travel to me because it is not always that good is rewarded.  And I know that you will put each of these recognitions to good use -- you will ratchet it up another step, and push on with even greater force.  

For everything you have done and who you are, dear Beth, I'd go to the ends of the earth for you.  So here I am, in fact, in New Zealand!  I've likened you to Zena the warrior, said you taught like Socrates, showed that you put MLK Jr.'s words into practice, and that you are blessed by the kings of ancient worlds.  But these comparisons don't do you justice.  For you are unique, more unique than all the other unique and amazing ones.  For this and more, you have my love and admiration, Elizabeth Fishman Loftus, warrior scientist.