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Eyewitness Testimony:
How to engage with people and accounts of extraordinary claims without evoking anger

Skeptics are well aware that there are issues with eyewitness testimony as evidence. These issues are popular topics of discussion at skeptical conferences and are the impetus for numerous skeptical articles. Human perception and memory are notoriously inaccurate, indeed malleable. Preconceptions and cognitive biases shape both our immediate perceptions of events and how we later recall, interpret, and relate them.

The testimony issue goes beyond simple eyewitness accounts, i.e., the descriptions people give of things they visually saw. Testimony can include any description or characterization of something that a person draws from the memory of their perceptions. Something they heard, felt, smelled, read, viewed indirectly, or sensed in any way.

In discussing contentious topics, the interpretation of testimony can become highly emotional and swiftly evolve into an overly polarized argument that misses the nuance of the situation. I routinely encounter this type of reaction to my examination of testimony, in particular with UFO witnesses. At first I found this rather surprising. After all, I was just trying to be logical, follow the facts, and cover all the bases — one of which being the possibility of false witness testimony. But I was often met with an unexpectedly angry response.

This is something we need to avoid. Anger, of course, is rarely helpful in scientific communication. While skeptics find it logically correct to point out these problems, it’s not going to do anyone any good if all that happens is you make people angry. In fact, if you are perceived (as I often have been) of attacking, disrespecting, or denigrating a witness, then this can affect your … credibility and destroy communication opportunities in other areas too.

Over the last couple of decades of encountering this problem, I’ve come across a few important concepts that have been helpful to keep in mind. Essentially, they are blind spots on the part of the supporters of the testimony, but if we don’t take them into account, they become our blind spots too.

Truth & Lies

When I explain that I don’t believe an individual’s testimony is true then their supporters will assume I’m accusing the witness of lying. This then drags the conversation either down the irrelevant path of “why would they lie” or the more perilous road of “how dare you suggest this wonderful person is lying!”

This is a false dichotomy. It’s not a simple matter of “truth” vs. “lies”. There are other options. Yet, even great minds fall into the trap. Here is Thomas Paine on miracles in his 1794 classic The Age of Reason:

If we are to suppose a miracle to be something so entirely out of the course of what is called Nature that she must go out of that course to accomplish it, and we see an account given of such miracle by the person who said he saw it, it raises a question in the mind very easily decided, which is: Is it more probable that Nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, Nature go out of her course, but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.

That paragraph gives me deeply mixed feelings each time I read it. Paine was examining the possibility of miracles from a rationalist perspective. He asked the reader to consider that people verifiably lie all the time, but miracles are both rare and lacking in scientific evidence. So which is more likely? In this dichotomy, the witness lying seems by far the most probable.

So this classic skeptical quote is fatally flawed, enough to make it useless because the opposite of truth is not lies. The opposite of truth is falseness. Truth means a statement is correct, in agreement with fact or reality. The opposite concept, falseness, means a statement is incorrect, and is contradicted by fact or reality, whether or not a person is lying. Paine’s contemporary, David Hume, in his analysis of miracles in his 1758 An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, acknowledged that in addition to deceiving (lying) people can also be deceived:

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.” When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

There are many more ways for people to be deceived than to deceive, yet it’s oh-so-easy to fall for the false dichotomy of true vs lie. As evidenced by the rather clumsy and unfamiliar set of antonyms we have for “truth” (“falseness,” “falsity,” “untruth”), the idea that if someone speaks falsely then they are lying is familiar, quite understandable and inevitable, and so we must take great pains to explicitly avoid that misperception and give other options their appropriate weight.

If someone is not telling the truth, then they might be lying, but they might also simply be wrong — perhaps they are misinterpreting something, or they made a mistake, or they succumbed to some perfectly ordinary illusion. Either way, the fact that they are saying something that is false does not mean they are lying. Giving people the benefit of the doubt, skeptics should focus on the possibilities other than lying. Before accusing people of lying, one might perhaps ask, “Perhaps they made a mistake?” “What if they misremembered?” “Could it have been an optical illusion?”

Of course, people lie, and we shouldn’t rule that out entirely, but my experience with believers in UFOs, conspiracy theories, and strange phenomena, the majority of witnesses are quite honest in their descriptions, and unless you are dealing with an obvious charlatan it’s best to avoid even mentioning the lie hypothesis because it will immediately become the focus of outrage and resistance. Focus instead on the possibilities of mistakes, misperceptions, faulty memory, illusions, and hallucinations, and assume lies will be revealed in the process of deeper investigation.

Trusting the Victim

When a witness to an event or situation is also a victim (i.e., they have been hurt, assaulted, become ill, or suffered other harm) then things become even more fraught with highly charged emotional obstacles to investigation and communication. The witness testimony of victims is simultaneously revered as sacrosanct, yet it is also known to be unreliable. The recent case of Jesse Smollett comes to mind.

Nevertheless, as a general principle the accounts of victims should not be automatically disbelieved. I think everyone deserves a fair hearing with the assumption that they are acting in good faith. Examining the accounts of people who were hurt, especially emotionally, is a tricky path to tread, and very easily leads to the perception of the skeptic being on the attack. In response, a blocking defense attenuates further discussion.

In recent years I’ve focused on the UFO community, and while skeptics don’t usually think of UFOlogists as being victims, many people who feel they had some kind of extraterrestrial encounter often feel they suffer from an associated emotional trauma. Sometimes this is from what they feel happened to them (which can be quite extreme, with perceived physical effects, even abductions and physical examinations) but can also be the result of years of being disbelieved.

It is even more of an issue when the harm a victim is experiencing is the main evidence, or the actual contended phenomenon. Here any examination of the validity of their testimony can readily be perceived or reframed as a personal attack on the individual, and that’s the end of the discussion.

This deference to victims crops up in many areas of interest to skeptics. In the curious case of Havana syndrome, discussed in depth in a previous issue of Skeptic (vol. 26 no. 4), several people have become very ill, and were then convinced that their symptoms were related to a loud noise they heard, or sensation they felt, which they now attribute to some kind of directed energy weapon attack. Since they are obviously suffering, it makes it difficult to critique their testimony without seeming callous.

My own experience with this issue dates back to 2006, when a condition known as “Morgellons disease” was getting some media attention. According to sufferers of the malady, their symptoms of itching and general malaise consistent with aging coincided with what they described as “fibers” that wormed their way out of their skin.

From their descriptions, their testimony, and the occasional images and video provided, it seemed quite apparent that they were simply finding normal hairs and clothing fibers. I blogged about this, describing how I could find similar fibers on my own skin (they are literally everywhere), and how the accounts of fibers emerging from skin were probably a mistake from not understanding the prevalence of microscopic fibers (a base rate error in Bayesian reasoning).

In response to my explanation, I was attacked, portrayed as someone who was accusing the victims of malingering or making up their symptoms, which I certainly was not. But because my initial skeptical approach was to point out what they had got wrong it came across as contradicting their entire testimony. While the fibers were almost certainly unrelated to their experiences, they were actually suffering from a variety of physical symptoms and conditions.

The Morgellons experience taught me that we need to first treat the victim testifier with respect. Their suffering is real, regardless of the cause. Acknowledge that and avoid describing their testimony in absolutes. Instead, as with the “truth vs. lies” issue, raise other possibilities as considerations for them, not assertions from you. Instead of leading an assessment of a traumatic alien abduction story with “that’s nonsense, obviously they dreamt the whole thing!” instead ask “is it possible that sleep paralysis might have played a part here?”

Highly Trained Observers

On a near daily basis I am accused of dismissing the eyewitness testimony of highly trained observers. For example, Commander David Fravor, a decorated U.S. Navy pilot, has testified that he saw a 40-foot Tic-Tac-shaped UFO engage his plane in a short dogfight, and then shoot off at incredible speed with no visible means of propulsion.

I don’t know what he saw, but from his description of how the object seemed to perfectly mirror him, I suspected he had mistaken the size of the object and hence fallen for a parallax illusion that made it seem to move much faster than it actually was (if it was moving at all.) So I proposed this idea and was met with a range of responses, mostly derisive and angry that I would have the temerity to insult the testimony of a highly trained observer like a U.S. Navy pilot.

These moving responses included the perception that I was accusing Fravor of lying, or being incompetent, stupid, or insane. But I was doing none of those things; rather, I was simply pointing out that he might have made an understandable mistake.

The notion of a “trained observer” is something of a myth. Of course military personnel are trained to observe things, but they are trained to observe specific known things, and not things that are highly unexpected (like a giant flying tic-tac) or out of the realm of human experience (like craft exhibiting non-Newtonian physics.)

Military pilots’ training in observation of airborne objects comes largely in the form of recognizing other known planes. Since the 1940s pilots have been issued Visual Aircraft Recognition study cards, which show a variety of known friendly and enemy aircraft, usually in silhouette from various angles. More sophisticated recognition training takes place in simulators. But fast-moving UFOs are not something that pilots are trained to observe.

In fact, this intensive training might make matters worse. Being highly trained to identify a particular set of things can mean you will shoehorn outliers into that set. When Fravor saw the Tic-Tac he had no way of judging how large it was, but he settled on 40-feet, because he felt it was about the same size as an F/A-18, the most common plane he saw in the air. Would he have picked the same size if he had been a commercial pilot of larger jets?

No matter how valid my hypothesis, and the potential for error on Fravor’s part, the “how dare you!” reaction prevents wider consideration of the hypothesis. Even though it seems annoying, I find it works better if I set the scene by explicitly explaining how I don’t think he’s lying, or incompetent, stupid, or crazy. I have to establish that I do think he’s a highly skilled pilot, with years of experience, and trained in observing other aircraft. Then when this is established, I can tentatively explore how an understandable mistake might have been made by such a highly trained observer.

This awareness of the emotional reactions to criticism of witness testimony, and the techniques for avoiding those reactions, feels annoying and even unnecessary, as if pandering to bad thinking. But the goal here is effective communication, so getting people to consider an alternative hypothesis is best done by understanding them in the hope that they, in turn, will understand you. END

About the Author

Mick West is the author of Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect and the host of the podcast: Tales From The Rabbit Hole. Both focus on developing tools for understanding and helping people who have been sucked into conspiracy theories. He’s a retired videogame programmer who helped make the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater Franchise. Mick also runs the website metabunk.org, where he investigates conspiracy theories, debunks pseudoscience, and analyzes UFO videos.

 
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