(Back to index)
Why eyewitness testimony is almost worthless
One very common feature of people who believe in UFOs, supernatural entities
(such as ghosts), psychic powers and so on, is their complete overreliance on
eyewitness testimony. Most of these people put significantly more weight on it
than they should, and there's probably not a single book or pseudodocumentary
on the subject that doesn't extensively present eyewitness testimony as evidence
of the phenomenon.
What most people (even including those who don't believe in such things)
don't realize is that eyewitness testimony is not only unreliable, it's
actually almost completely worthless. At most it can be used as a startup
for investigation of the described phenomenon, but not as any kind of evidence.
Also, it doesn't matter how reliable the eyewitness is. It's very common
to confuse these two things. In other words, the reliability of the person
(in other words, how honest he is, how educated, how experienced, and so on)
is equalled to how reliable his eyewitness testimony is. While experts on the
actual subjects being dealt with might be more credible than laymen,
their eyewitness testimony is still almost worthless and cannot be taken as
evidence of anything.
There are many reasons why eyewitness testimony is almost worthless when
determining the veracity of a claim or phenomenon.
- People very easily misinterpret what they see. Pareidolia often plays a
big role in it. Othertimes it's just something that the person has never
seen before and can't understand or figure it out. This has nothing to do
with honesty, intelligence or experience in other subjects. Even the smartest
and most honest people in the world can get confused and misinterpret what
- People very easily misremember things. This is much, much more common than
people want to believe, especially from themselves. Almost no human has a
photographic memory, and details get lost, confused or outright changed as
the brain processes them over time. The person might be completely and
absolutely sure to the highest degree of what he remembers, but it may
nevertheless not be completely accurate. (Most people have personal
experience of this very thing, yet they still don't want to believe it.
When it sometimes happens, they prefer to think of it as a one-time thing,
not a common trait in themselves.)
- People are very unreliable at repeating what they have seen or heard.
This is especially true when they are repeating what somebody else has
told them. The reason for this is simple: People do not repeat every word
they heard; instead, they describe the mental images they got when they
were told the story. When someone hears (or reads) a story, he forms a
mental image of what is being described, and that mental image is seldom
accurate, and there will always be wild differences to the original event.
When this mental image is later described, it may have surprisingly
big changes to the original story.
- People easily confuse second-hand testimony as personal experience,
especially after a long time has passed. This is a combination of the
previous two points: Somebody hears a story (possibly from a first-hand
eyewitness), forms a mental image from it, and then years later misremembers
and thinks that this mental image was actually what he personally witnessed.
In other words, he forgets that he was told the story, and instead remembers
only the mental image, and thinks that he witnessed the events himself. This
is also surprisingly common, and something people don't want to believe.
- People easily form false memories when "coached" by others. This "coaching"
may be (and often is) completely inadvertent and unintentional. People around
them talk about these things, he sees "documentaries" and reads books about
the subject, and he inadvertedly forms mental images that might vagely
resemble real experiences or not, and then later he, again, misremembers
them as actual events. These events might have never actually happened at
all, or it might have been something only very vaguely resembling them.
- People uncritically repeat as fact what their most trusted friends or
family members have told them as fact. People tend to be uncritical of
people they trust. As noted, that other person might not be lying and might
completely honestly believe that they are telling an accurate description
of the event. However, that doesn't mean the story is completely true. People
make mistakes all the time.
- Sometimes people suffer outright hallucinations. This is, in fact, much
more common than most people think, and it's not a sign of illness or mental
defects, but can be a completely normal brain process, completely akin to
dreaming. The only difference to dreaming is that it happens while being
awake (although in most cases when very tired, falling asleep or just
awoken). Most people recognize such hallucinations for what they are, but
others overinterpret them (in most cases as ghosts, angels or demons, in
some cases even as aliens).
- Many people hate admitting being wrong, even to themselves. For this
reason they will stick to their story even when it becomes clear that
they are misremembering or misinterpreting. They will thus keep repeating
the story to other people, ignoring the facts.
- And then there are, of course, the outright hoaxes. People like to
deliberately invent stories and even stage events just for the fun of it,
to get attention, or in some cases for personal gain. However,
deliberate deception is probably only a minority of the cases.
All of the above can actually be tested, and they have been tested countless
times, always with the same reasult: Humans are unreliable recorders of
actual events. Often the results surprise even the researchers by how wrong
people can get things. Yet people still don't want to believe this. They
still put way too much weight on eyewitness testimony.
It's very common for people to argue that they trust the person who told
them about the extraordinary event. "He is my best friend, I know him, and
he would never lie to me." However, in the majority of cases it's not a
question of honesty. That friend may be completely honest, but that doesn't
mean he is right. He may be honest, but he is human, and humans are
completely unrealiable eyewitnesses.
(Back to index)