Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Does 'witness credibility' actually matter?

Misperceived womanBack in the early days of ASSAP, one of the key things we looked for when investigating a report of an anomaly was the credibility of the witness. This 'credibility' equated roughly to how likely So members of certain professions, for instance, would generally be considered highly likely to be honest and, if trained observers, particularly reliable witnesses. That was before we realised that most reports are actually the result of misperception, which happens to everyone without exception. So does the concept of a 'credible' witness carry much weight any more in anomaly research?

Obviously, the likelihood of someone telling the truth is still important. However, traditional ideas that people in certain professions are more likely to be honest are not so widespread these days.  So, the idea of believing everything someone says automatically, simply because of their job, can no longer be seen as a reliable method of gathering scientific data! Luckily, in my experience, the problem of dishonesty is a surprisingly rare one in anomaly research. And it is generally picked up quite easily in a well-conducted investigation.

Much more of a problem is misperception. Given good investigation methods, like cognitive interviewing techniques, you can get a reasonably full and accurate recall from a witness of what they experienced. However, that doesn't mean that what they report equates objectively with events that took place at the time. I have, in this blog, frequently reported seeing human figures in some detail. However, most turned out to be misperceptions. So, though I was reporting honestly and accurately, there was still no actual human or ghostly figure present!

So, what makes a credible witness when misperception is such a problem? Firstly, in my experience, it is generally the case that most witnesses will report accurately, to the best of their abilities. To that extent, the vast majority are perfectly credible. It is in deciding how likely is that what they experienced equated to objective reality that we have the problem. Luckily we DO have a rough and ready way of gauging how likely someone is to misperceive any particular object.

The way we perceive depends on our visual experience - all the things we've ever seen. So, a plane spotter, for instance, with their extensive visual experience is unlikely to misperceive a jet as a UFO. And an astronomer will usually have enough experience of meteors and satellites to not misperceive those as UFOs either. Where does this leave 'trained observers'? Though likely to be more methodical, they are probably no better than 'casual' observers when outside their area of experience. So a police officer may be good at describing people or vehicles but may be no better than anyone else at deciding whether a orange UFO is actually a Chinese lantern.

It is visual experience that counts for most when it comes to being a truly credible witness. But even visually experienced witnesses can sometimes still misperceive in their own area of expertise. As I've mentioned before, I've seen experienced birders get species identification wrong on occasion. It is rare but it DOES happen. And there is still the problem of accidental patterns of light caused by things like vegetation that can fool anyone (like the picture above)! There is no such thing as the perfect witness!

It is important when interviewing a witness to find out what their relevant visual experiemnce is like. Has someone reporting an orange UFO, for instance, ever actually seen a Chinese lantern? If they haven't it doesn't destroy their credibility as a witness but it certainly makes misperception harder to rule out.

So, overall, if we are to retain the idea of any witness being more credible than others, it cannot reasonably be based on their profession or training. Instead, it should be based, at least in part, on any relevant visual experience. And knowing what something looks like, from a picture or movie, is nowhere near as useful as seeing it in real life. If you want to say for certain that a UFO was definitely not a Chinese lantern, you are a much more credible witness if you have extensive experience actually watching them!

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