Monday, 11 February 2013

Can witness testimony be scientific?

There are those who dismiss all witness testimony as 'anecdotal' and consequently of no scientific value. If this is true then we are all wasting our time studying anomalous phenomena as most of our evidence comes from witnesses. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some people who accept almost any paranormal anecdote they hear at face value. This last course is likely to lead to a confusing and inaccurate picture of anomalous phenomena. So is there a case for accepting at least SOME anecdotal evidence concerning the paranormal?

Firstly, a high proportion of reports of anomalous phenomena are found, on close examination, to be most likely caused by misperception or hallucination. The latter is almost entirely subjective and former largely so. In such cases, our only realistic form of access to such material is through witness testimony. Even when considering such subjective factors, we are dealing with a real experience, with specific causes, rather than an 'overactive imagination' or delusion.

Secondly, the witness testimony we have for various anomalous phenomena is consistent across locations and through history. Ghost reports, for instance, are reasonably consistent across huge numbers of independent witnesses over many centuries, countries and cultures. Even more interesting, ghost reports consistently differ significantly from their well-known fictional and cultural representation. In the case of hauntings, for instance, the same phenomena may be reported at the same location by independent witnesses over a long period of time, indicating that there must be factors involved independent of the witnesses themselves. This gives rise to 'haunting hot spots', a remarkably consistent feature of real hauntings, though not of their well-known fictional and cultural counterpart.

So, I believe there IS a case for accepting anecdotal evidence but only if it is rigorously collected. I would NOT consider the following as useful sources of such evidence:

Legends - it is said that legends are usually based on some germ of truth. This may well be so but it means that most of the tale is essentially invented. Even worse, we don't know which bits of the story are real and which are not!

Media reports - anyone reading a media report of a ghost sighting, for instance, will immediately be struck by the fact that it invariably raises more questions than it answers. Such reports tend to be brief and often contain irrelevant background information. For instance, a report of a ghost sighting may include speculation about the historical identity of the apparition. This is despite that fact that there is frequently little or no relevant information pointing to any particular individual.

Personal anecdotes - most people have a real life 'ghost story' to tell from their personal experience. Unless these incidents were investigated by competent researchers reasonably soon after the incident, however, such testimony is unlikely to be sufficiently accurate or detailed to be of scientific interest. As well as the universal problems of misperception and unreliable recall, many witnesses tend to 'form a view' on their experience, especially with the passage of time, which can bias their retelling of the incident. It is interesting to note that such anecdotes typically differ markedly in their content from carefully investigated cases. This suggests that memory drift and witness interpretation may often affect such accounts.

FOAF - friend of a friend (FOAF) stories are like personal anecdotes but even less reliable. This is because the person relating the story is not the original witness. This inevitably introduces 'Chinese whisper' effects making the material highly likely to be changed, albeit unintentionally, from its original form. Furthermore, you cannot question the original witness for further details.

Most vigil reports - a great many 'ghost vigils' these days use 'assumption-led' techniques. Since such techniques cannot ever question their own assumptions, and since they are perfectly capable of producing 'positive' results anywhere, whether at a haunted location or not, they have little or no value in producing useful evidence.

So what kind of anecdotal WOULD I consider scientifically useful?

The most useful witness testimony comes through a formal investigation by competent paranormal researchers. Such researchers will use cognitive interviewing techniques to gain the highest proportion of reliable information from original witnesses. They will also interview any other witnesses who were either present at the time or saw the same phenomena at a different time or place. They will examine the site of the experience to check if it corresponds with witness testimony and if any obvious xenonormal causes for the report are apparent. They will also look for other, less obvious, possible xenonormal causes as well as trying to reproduce the events described by the witnesses. They may well consult with experts in relevant fields who may suggest further xenonormal causes to consider. They may hold a vigil but only if it is considered relevant or likely to be useful and never using assumption-led techniques.

So, when I say that there is little compelling evidence that ghosts are spirits or that they cause hauntings, that's the kind of evidence I'm thinking of. There is an expanded version of this post here.

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