Eyewitness Testimony

An excellent TED talk hit my reader today.

The implications for religious testimony are obvious.

The bit about 9/11 really confused me. I don’t have the memory he described: on 9/11 I got to a TV later that night. But just by logic: how come it was 24 hours later when footage of the second tower collapsing aired? I thought the news networks were all showing live footage, at least from key vantage points, even if the helicopters had been grounded by then. Can anyone shed light on that?


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9 responses to “Eyewitness Testimony

  1. Many years ago, I was attending an introductory psychology class. There was a disturbance, some people running in, gunshots fired.

    The class were asked to write reports of what happened.

    It was all staged, of course. The instructor was using that as a way if teaching us about the unreliability of eye witness testimony. It was a very effective lesson. (I don’t think they could do that today).

    The implications for religious testimony are obvious.

    What’s even worse, is that many fundamentalists believe that their Bible contains eye witness reports of historical events.

    On the WTC, I saw it on the second night. In my case, that’s easy to remember, because I am not a TV watcher. I get my news from NPR radio. I turned on the TV to watch the video (or maybe my wife had the TV on, and told me that it was about to be shown). And, of course, that “or maybe” is already an illustration of the imperfection of memory.

    The eye witness reports of crime, and the line-ups to identify suspects, are very troubling. Someone with a malformed face or someone of the “wrong” race is statistically more likely to be fingered.

  2. Great stuff. I have no idea why the second tower coverage stuff was not out till the next day — or if even to believe him. I have no evidence but my memory and his anecdotal story — both suck for what counts as real evidence, eh?

  3. Grizel

    Being in America, I watched live coverage that morning. I remember the 2nd plane impact and then both towers collapsing. Checking YouTube, you can find the live broadcasts of these events happening in real-time that morning. The wiki timeline mentions the live coverage of the collapses as well. Every network in the US (and CNN) had live coverage for the whole day. As he doesn’t offer any more detail I don’t know what to say except he is mistaken.

  4. Mike Gantt

    Help me with “the obvious implications for religious testimony.” What you think they are?

  5. Ian

    @Mike, just that testimony about religious events shouldn’t be treated exempt from the same cognitive biases as testimony of any other event. For example, if a person were healed in a church service, one would expect systemic biases in the testimony of the congregation, based on the models of healing taught in that church. To the extent that religious claims are based on eyewitness testimony, we must be careful to account for the fact that the testimony will include information external to the event being reported. There have been several scholars recently who’ve been applying cognitive memory theory to both Historical Jesus questions and the resurrection. Though on the general side, Dale Allison’s Historical Jesus book “Constructing Jesus” is a good start (Allison, Dale C. Jr. Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. Baker Academic, 2010.)

  6. Ian

    Just did a bit of homework, and it seems his 9/11 statements are false. As Grizel says, above, there are multiple recordings of the live feed of that morning showing the collapse of both towers, 30 mins apart.

    I suspect what he is thinking is that people falsely remember seeing the two *impacts* on that day. And his source for that was probably:

    Pezdek, Kathy. “Event Memory and Autobiographical Memory for the Events of September 11, 2001.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 17, no. 9 (2003): 1033–1045.

    Interesting – he misremembered what he’d read about a study of misremembering – how very recursive.

  7. Mike Gantt

    Interesting post and interesting comment thread.

    It’s also ironic that the video is titled “The problem with eyewitness testimony.” It would have been more aptly titled “The problem with memory” or “The problem with cognitive bias.” The irony comes in when you consider that it was apparently Scott’s pressuring the judge to become an eyewitness of the points in dispute that ultimately convinced the judge and won the day.

    As for not giving religious testimonies a pass on the potential for cognitive or memory corruption, I agree.

    There are those, however, who want to take findings like these and use them to discredit eyewitness testimony wholesale. But I think even they would admit that three or four good witnesses to what happened to Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman that fateful night would have brought us a whole lot farther than the forensic evidence did.

  8. Ian

    One of the interesting things about this research, is that it challenges our intuition that multiple people remembering the same thing means that thing is much more likely. By intuition we’d probably say that, if one person could be wrong 50% of the time, then two people agreeing would mean there’s only 25% chance that they’re both wrong. And ten people agreeing would give you 0.1% of error. The research alluded to here shows that isn’t the case. Sure ten people agreeing makes something more likely to be true, but not much more likely. Errors, therefore, are not independent.

    I’ve look at claims of mass visions, for example. Claims that hundreds of people saw a statue move or saw a figure of the virgin manifest. Research on memory shows how so many people can be wrong. Which in turn does mean, I think, that we should be wary of eyewitness testimony without physical evidence.

    Your OJ example: I think you’re right, but I think you’re right because people (and therefore juries) put too much faith in eyewitness statements and not enough in physical evidence. If someone had seen OJ coming out of the house on the night, he’d more than likely have been convicted, I agree, but as the video shows, that isn’t because that testimony would be reliable, but because a jury would think it is. I suspect if it had been a jury rather than a judge reassessing the evidence in this video, they might have thought “okay, all this high faluting science is all well and good, but five people saw the guy and identified him separately, he must be guilty.” I personally think (from my memory of following the trial at the time) there was plenty of physical evidence to convict OJ. Theatrics pretending not to fit his hand in the glove notwithstanding.

  9. Just a note to this old post, the speaker mis-spoke on this this specific example. The TED talk has been edited to remove the error and the TED people have annotated the talk.

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