Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Are reports of anomalous events often innaccurate?

Reed WarblerCould some witness testimony about anomalous incidents be intrinsically less accurate than it is for mundane events? To investigate this disturbing possibility, here is a brief dip into the world of birding.

Birders, like me, look forward to long distance trips because they bring the possibility of seeing species we don't see at home. We might even see some we've never seen before (a 'lifer'). This birding nirvana is not without its dark side, however.

Birders prepare for such trips by studying the appearance, habits and habitats of the species they are likely, and unlikely, to see so they know what to look out for. Seeing a lifer is a great experience for any birder but not without its concerns. Consider the following scenario, for instance.

A birder arrives at their distant destination, where they stay for a week of intensive birding, and almost immediately sees a coveted lifer! The lifer is never seen again for the rest of the week, despite intensive searching. This is a problem! Though it is entirely possible that one might see a particular lifer just once on a trip there is another, rather worrying, alternative possibility!

Though it is easy to tell a wren from a blackbird, there are many bird species which look very similar to others. An example of such 'confusion species' are Marsh Warblers and Reed Warblers (photo above - probably). In our hypothetical (!) example, if the lifer was seen just once, early in the trip, and then a similar species seen commonly thereafter, there is a high likelihood that the lifer was never seen in the first place.

To see why, consider this. Suppose I've seen a Reed Warbler before but never its rarer confusion species, the Marsh Warbler.
On the first day of my trip I get a fleeting view of the rare Marsh Warbler but see only Reed Warblers, in some numbers, afterwards. Statistically, there is a high chance that the first bird I saw was actually a Reed Warbler too, given that they are commoner. There ARE ways to distinguish Reed and Marsh Warblers by appearance (though song is a much better guide) but they are subtle. Seeing all those Reed Warblers would make me wonder if the first one real was a Marsh, though. The fact that the Marsh was the first bird I saw is particularly troubling. How can I be sure, given that I've seen no more examples?

UFO light in the skySo what has this to do with anomalous phenomena? Well, a high proportion of reports of the anomalous are of things that the witness has never seen before. Suppose someone sees a UFO, for instance. Careful investigation shows that it is highly likely to be a poorly seen low flying aircraft. Though the witness has seen many aircraft before, never one that looked like this one. It might be like the one in the photo (right), a real example discussed here.

If an unfamiliar object is poorly seen it is likely to be misperceived. That means the witness's brain will substitute it with an object from their own visual memory. But, because the witness has never seen such an object before, the visual substitution cannot be accurate. In this situation, any details the witness remembers are likely to be inaccurate, based on something from their own memory rather than the actual object.

Furthermore, the visual substitute could be something from a book, movie or photo. So, for instance, I might see a Reed Warbler in poor viewing conditions and visually substitute it with a Marsh Warbler that I remember from a book. And the hypothetical UFO witness might see a flying saucer from a movie or video game rather than the plane they are actually looking at. So, I remain convinced I've seen a Marsh Warbler while the UFO witness firmly believes they've seen an alien spacecraft. In both cases, it might be a once in a lifetime experience, not to be surrendered lightly. But in both cases, we would be quite wrong!

Though Reed and Marsh Warblers are very similar in appearance, misperception can produce visual substitutions that are far more radical. This might explain how Venus sometimes gets reported as a classic flying saucer! It is the combination of poor viewing conditions and the unfamiliarity with the object being viewed that leads to such inaccurate misperception. Both conditions are likely with reports of anomalous phenomena.

And there's one particularly interesting consequence of all this. Investigators will often say that a particular report could not possibly be a misperception of a particular object because the witness description differs markedly from it in shape. But if the object was poorly seen and the object unfamiliar to the witness, this is not necessarily so! Misperception cannot be ruled out so easily in such cares.

So, yes!

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